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(Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics)
Pitching guru Derek Johnson has spent years working with talented pitchers at various levels of the collegiate game. This offseason, the 41-year-old signed on to be the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator, which means he is ultimately in charge of all the arms in the organization from Triple-A on down. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked to Johnson about coaching the college game, adapting to the professional ranks and cutting through communication issues with international prospects.
It’s no secret there has been some serious turnover in the Cubs organization since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer left the Red Sox and Padres, respectively. A year into the Chicago job, one of their most important—though unheralded—new hires is minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson.
Johnson’s experience working with young pitching talent stretches back almost 20 years to the end of his career on the mound as a college pitcher. Johnson, 41, won All-Mid-Continent Conference honors at Eastern Illinois University before moving into coaching at the school in 1994. He followed that up with three seasons at Southern Illinois and four at Stetson before taking over the pitching program at Vanderbilt in 2002. There, he won pitching coach of the year in 2004 and national assistant coach of the year in 2010.
After a long, introductory spring with the Cubs in Arizona, Johnson took a little time off before diving back in with the minor league affiliates.
“The first week after Spring Training, I got to go home and recover,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun now [that the season has started], because I’m going to see some things I didn’t get to see in Spring Training and interact with players some more—and coaches too. That’s probably more my style, and more what I was hoping to do when I took the job.”
His role with the organization is a marked departure from his coaching career at Vanderbilt, where he oversaw the development of Rays ace David Price, Braves lefty Mike Minor and four other eventual first-round picks. As a coach, it was easy to be hands-on, working directly with every pitcher in his care. As the farm system’s pitching coordinator, numbers and geography dictate he doesn’t get to see every hurler every day. Plus, he’s not just working with the players, but also with the coaches at every level.
“I spend a lot of time with video. I’m not used to it yet,” Johnson said. “I spent a really long time having my hands on everything [as a coach], and now I have to adjust to that—trust the pitching coaches that are at the different affiliates, trust their judgment and get an idea of what they’re seeing to put that together with my thoughts to come up with some sort of a plan. It’s a very different kind of challenge.”
He’s also working with a more diverse collection of talent than in college, including pitchers from Asia and Latin America, and communication can be difficult. But Johnson is excited about the challenge.
“There can be a communication gap, so it can be a challenge to get your point across,” he said. “At the same time, it’s easy, because you get great young men from all different walks of life, backgrounds, speaking different languages, with different maturity levels. … I challenge myself to communicate better, to put things more simply to help communicate to players the direction we want to go.”
With so many pitchers under his care, Johnson has to deal with an inevitable bottom-line question: Who is he most excited about in the system? A week into the minor league season, Johnson refused to pick favorites.
“I saw them all in Spring Training, and I saw them all on video before that,” he said. “I like our nucleus. We have some guys who are a little bit under the radar, where things could really happen for them. At the same time, it’s a little bit hard to tell that without first being at the affiliate, watching them play, watching how they go through the season, how they fight through adversity. So it’s early to say, but I think we’ve got a lot of guys in the system who can turn the corner.”
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Chicago Cubs today activated right-handed pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa from the 15-day disabled list. In a corresponding move, right-handed pitcher Rafael Dolis was optioned to Triple-A Iowa.
Fujikawa, 32, landed on the disabled list on April 13 with a muscular strain of his right forearm. In two rehabilitation games between Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee, he tossed three scoreless innings of relief, allowing one hit, walking one and striking out two. He needed just 16 pitches to throw two scoreless innings in his final outing on May 8 against Double-A Birmingham.
In his first major league season with the Cubs, Fujikawa is 1-0 with two saves and a 12.46 ERA (6 ER/4.1 IP) in five relief appearances. He has held opponents scoreless in three outings, but allowed three runs apiece in his other two games.
Fujikawa pitched 12 seasons (2000, 2002-12) for the Hanshin Tigers of the Nippon Professional Baseball League, compiling a 42-25 record with 219 saves and a 1.77 ERA (136 ER/692.1 IP) in 562 appearances, all but 14 in relief. He signed a two-year deal with the Cubs this offseason, including a vesting/club option for a third season.
As manager Dale Sveum recently named Kevin Gregg the team’s closer, Fujikawa will likely assume eighth inning duties.
Dolis, 25, has not allowed an earned run in two relief appearances (1.2 IP) spanning two stints with the Cubs this season. He has posted no record, one save and a 3.52 ERA (3 ER/7.2 IP) in eight relief appearances with Iowa.
Zach Putnam pitched his fourth straight scoreless game Thursday. (Photo by Stephen Green)
Iowa and Tennessee were both defeated Thursday despite offensive success, while Daytona snapped a four-game losing streak. Kane County’s game was postponed due to rain, but will be made up as part of a doubleheader tonight. The rescheduled game marks the Cougars’ 10th postponement this season. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s action:
Iowa Cubs (12-19)
Iowa fell 5-1 at Colorado Springs in the third game of a four-game set.
- RF Darnell McDonald (1-for-1, HR, R, RBI) hit a solo home run in the seventh inning, his second of the season.
- LF Brett Jackson (.235) went 2-for-4 in his first game since April 30.
- 1B Brad Nelson (.270) went 2-for-4 with a double (6). He’s 5-for-9 with three doubles in his last two games.
- RHP Zach Putnam (2 IP, H, K) extended his scoreless streak to four games (5 IP).
Tennessee Smokies (15-17)
Birmingham scored two runs in the ninth inning, defeating Tennessee, 9-7. The Smokies have lost six consecutive games.
- C Rafael Lopez (.257) extended his hitting streak to seven games with a first-inning, two-run homer. He finished 1-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored.
- 1B Tim Torres (.368) recorded his first three-hit game of the season, going 3-for-4 with a double (1) and two runs.
- CF Rubi Silva (.288) went 1-for-5 with two stolen bases (6), a triple (4), a run scored and a RBI (17).
- Tennessee has allowed 51 runs in the past five games, all losses.
Daytona Cubs (17-16)
Daytona snapped a four-game skid with a 4-3 win over first place Dunedin.
- SS Javier Baez (.244) extended his hitting streak to three games (.308/4-for-13), going 2-for-4 with a double (8), a triple (3), a run scored, a RBI (22) and a stolen base (3).
- 1B Dustin Geiger (.296) went 2-for-3, recording his team-leading 29th RBI.
- LF John Andreoli (.333) collected his fourth multi-hit effort in the last six games, going 2-for-4 with a triple (5), a run scored and a RBI (14).
- DH Taiwan Easterling (.243) notched two singles in three at-bats.
- LHP Jeffrey Lorick (IP) picked up the win in his first relief appearance of the season with Daytona.
Rafael Lopez continued a six-game hitting streak Wednesday. (Photo by Stephen Green)
Tennessee, Daytona and Kane County all fell short Wednesday while offensive outbursts led to Iowa’s victory. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s action:
Iowa Cubs (12-18)
Iowa collected 16 hits, defeating host Colorado Spring, 8-6.
- SS Alberto Gonzalez (.267) reached base five times, going 4-for-5 with a walk, a double (1), a run and a RBI (3).
- 1B Brad Nelson (.260) went 3-for-5 with two doubles (5), two runs scored and a RBI (20).
- C J.C. Boscan (.344) reached base four times, going 3-for-4 with a walk and a run scored.
- RF Brian Bogusevic (2-for-5, BB, 2B, HR, 2 R, RBI) and LF Darnell McDonald (2-for-4, BB, R, 2 RBI, SB) added two hits apiece.
- RHP Esmailin Caridad (3-1, 6.59) earned the win in relief, walking one and fanning one in two scoreless innings.
- RHP Blake Parker (2.19) converted his fourth save, walking one and fanning one in 1.1 scoreless innings of relief.
Tennessee Smokies (15-16)
Tennessee dropped a 12-11, 14-inning slugfest to visiting Birmingham. The teams combined for 23 runs and 30 hits.
- C Rafael Lopez (.257) extended his hitting streak to six games, going 3-for-5 with two walks, a double (6), two runs scored and a RBI (8).
- CF Matt Szczur (.256) went 2-for-7 with a run scored.
- 2B Arismendy Alcantara (.239) reached base four times, going 2-for-5 with two walks, a double (4), two runs scored and a RBI (15).
- RF Rubi Silva (.292) was 2-for-7 with a homer, a run scored and three RBI (16).
- 1B Tim Torres (.267) was 2-for-7 with a homer, two runs scored and two RBI (2).
- RHP Kyuji Fujikawa (0.00) allowed one hit in two scoreless innings of relief (16 pitches, 10 strikes, 6 batters faced).
Daytona Cubs (16-16)
Daytona lost its fourth game in a row, falling at St. Lucie 6-5 in 10 innings.
- RF Jorge Soler (.289) reached base four times, going 3-for-4 with a walk, two doubles (7), a homer, two runs scored and two RBI (13).
- 3B Tim Saunders (.185) went 2-for-5 with a triple (2) and two runs scored.
- 1B Dustin Geiger (.286) reached base twice, going 1-for-4 with a walk, two RBI (28) and a stolen base (2).
- RHP Eduardo Figueroa (2.16) fanned three in 2.0 scoreless innings of relief.
Kane County Cougars (14-15)
Kane County was blanked 4-0 at Burlington.
- RF Bijan Rademacher (.371) recorded his fifth straight, multi-hit game, going 2-for-2 with a walk. He has hit safely in six-straight games overall (.565/13-for-23).
- 1B Dan Vogelbach (.297) extended his hitting streak to three games, going 1-for-4 with a double (4).
- RHP Justin Amlung (3.86) and LHP Matt Iannazzo (3.68) combined for four scoreless innings of relief (1 H, 2 BB).
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Mark Grace is widely thought of as the best first baseman in Cubs history. His play is so well regarded, when Vine Line polled fans looking for the best Cubs player at each position for last July’s All-Star issue, Gracie received 64 percent of the votes at first base.
The three-time All-Star and hits leader of the 1990s enjoyed a solid 1993 campaign, batting .325/.393/.475 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 39 doubles and 98 driven in. He also earned a Gold Glove at first. But May 9, 1993, went down in history as one of Grace’s best days, as he went 4-for-5 and became the last Cubs player to hit for the cycle.
With the Cubs hosting the Padres on a warm Sunday, he took an 0-1 pitch in the bottom of the first to left-center field for a double. In the third inning, he stepped up again with a man on first and ripped a single back up the middle. After a lineout to right in the fifth inning, the 29-year-old tripled to left in the seventh. And with the Cubs trailing 5-1 in the bottom on the ninth and two on, he wrapped up his day with a three-run blast to right center, though the comeback bid would ultimately fall short.
The last few weeks have seen a dramatic increase in slugger Anthony Rizzo’s offensive statistics. Already the NL leader in extra-base hits with 19, including 10 doubles (tied for eighth in NL) and nine homers (tied for third), the first baseman’s batting average has soared from .173 on April 25 to .266 midway through Wednesday’s game. In his first at-bat against the Cardinals he doubled and added a single in his next plate appearance. The Cubs and their fans hope he continues on his recent run of success.
Above is a photo of him with a fan prior to Monday night’s contest with the Rangers.
Dave Sappelt singled in his first game with Iowa Tuesday. (Photo by Stephen Green)
Iowa, Tennessee and Daytona all struggled to get the bats going Tuesday night, all resulting in losses while Kane County had the night off. Despite the defeats, here are some highlights from yesterday’s action:
Iowa Cubs (11-18)
Iowa mustered only four singles in a 5-0 setback at Colorado Springs in the first game of a four-game series.
- RF Dave Sappelt (1-for-3) singled in his first game with Iowa.
- 2B-LF Edwin Maysonet (.254) went 1-for-1, extending his hitting streak to four games (.500/5-for-10).
- C Luis Flores (.200) singled, snapping a five-game hitless skid.
- RHP Zach Putnam tossed 1.1 shutout innings of relief, allowing no hits and striking out one.
Tennessee Smokies (15-15)
Tennessee allowed back-to-back, six-run frames (third and fourth innings), falling 16-0 to Birmingham in a rain-shortened, five-inning game.
- LF Ty Wright (.257) recorded a hit for the fourth time in five games, going 1-for-2 with a single.
- DH Ronald Torreyes (.317) walked twice in two plate appearances. He has reached base in five-consecutive games.
- C Rafael Lopez (.231) extended his hitting streak to five games with a fifth-inning single.
- Tennessee has been shut out in three-consecutive games and five times in the last eight outings.
Daytona Cubs (16-15)
- SS Javier Baez (.238) went 1-for-4 with a solo home run, his sixth of the season.
- LF Taiwan Easterling (.224) recorded his first multi-RBI game since April 12, knocking in two runs as part of a 1-for-3 outing.
- 3B Ben Carhart (.310) extended his hitting streak to a season-high 12 games (.422/19-for-45) with a fifth-inning single.
- LHP Sheldon McDonald (IP) tossed his third-consecutive scoreless outing (4.0 IP).
Matt Carpenter has been solid since splitting duties between his regular third base and the keystone. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
The Cardinals certainly had their share of early-season setbacks, but that only made it clearer the broad collection of talent GM John Mozeliak has assembled can carry the team through just about anything. Having to scratch veteran ace Chris Carpenter for the season made it easy to make room in the rotation for potential Rookie of the Year candidate Shelby Miller, and losing shortstop Rafael Furcal opened up an opportunity for last year’s stretch-drive hero, Pete Kozma. The team is so strong and deep that outfielder Oscar Taveras, arguably the best hitting prospect in baseball, may spend the season in the minors waiting for an opportunity. And most pundits believe the Cards have the best farm system in baseball. In the after-Pujols era, this team isn’t just ready, it’s fully loaded to contend for years to come.
4.8 runs scored/game, 4th in the NL
The Cardinals have shifted a few players around to maximize the team’s offensive potential. They asked third baseman Matt Carpenter to split time between the hot corner and second to get his lefty power stroke into the lineup while also making room for first baseman Matt Adams, who could be off the DL by the time the Cards head to Wrigley Field. Carpenter, four-corners asset Allen Craig and utilityman Daniel Descalso give manager Mike Matheny more than enough moving parts to rotate around stars Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. This hitting talent has also made it much easier for the team to endure a slow start from third baseman David Freese. If there’s one weakness in the St. Louis attack, it’s that the loss of Furcal has almost eliminated the running game. As a result, the Cards have become very much a station-to-station, big-inning offense.
3.5 runs allowed/game, 2nd in the NL
Perhaps no rotation in the league has been as strong as the Cardinals’ quintet in the early going. Adam Wainwright put up a 2.03 ERA in six April starts, striking out 43 and walking just three on his way to a 4-2 record. Lefty Jaime Garcia would front many big league rotations, and Miller’s mid-90s, moving fastball made him the top pitching prospect in the league coming into the year. Add in Jake Westbrook’s league-leading 1.07 ERA and Lance Lynn’s power-curve assortment, and there’s no such thing as a day off for opposing lineups. The problem is the ’pen, where Mitchell Boggs struggled to fill in for injured closer Jason Motte and was recently demoted. If there’s another source of worry, it might be the team’s interior defense. Experimenting with Carpenter at the keystone is much like the risk the Cards ran when they converted outfielder Scott Schumaker to second base. The move has worked out so far, as Carpenter’s defensive stats indicate there’s not much of a dropoff, but it remains to be seen how well it will work in the long run.
LHP Chris Rusin earned a win Monday after five scoreless innings of relief for Iowa. (Photo by Stephen Green)
Iowa collected a win Monday while Kane County had its six-game win streak snapped and Daytona picked up its second-straight loss. Tennessee had the day off and will host Birmingham tonight. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s action:
Iowa Cubs (11-17)
Iowa recorded six extra-base hits in a 6-2 victory against visiting Oklahoma City.
- 3B Josh Vitters (.353 AVG.) clubbed his second home run in three games, going 1-for-2 with the homer and two RBI (4).
- 1B Edwin Maysonet (.242) went 2-for-4 with a double (2), a home run and a team-high three RBI (11).
- RF Brian Bogusevic (.419) reached base three times, going 1-for-2 with two runs scored, two walks, a triple (2) and one RBI (12). He’s hit safely in 14 of his last 15 contests.
- RHP Matt Garza (2.70 ERA) allowed one run on three hits in 3.1 innings in his second rehabilitation start (first with Iowa); 37 of Garza’s 54 pitches were strikes.
- LHP Chris Rusin (2-3, 3.79) scattered three hits in five scoreless innings of relief to pick up his second win of the campaign. The southpaw is holding right-handed hitters to a .230 batting average (26-for-113).
Daytona Cubs (16-14)
Daytona dropped its second-straight contest, falling at St. Lucie, 6-2.
- RF Jorge Soler (.268) went 2-for-4 with two runs scored, a triple (1), a home run and one RBI (11).
- LF John Andreoli (.343) extended his hitting streak to eight games, going 2-for-4 with a double (3) and a stolen base (10). He’s hitting .394 (13-for-33) during the streak.
- LHP Frank Del Valle (2.08) and RHP Austin Reed (8.31) each tossed two scoreless innings of relief. Left-handed hitters are just 3-for-15 (.200) against Del Valle this season.
Kane County Cougars (14-14)
Kane County had its six-game winning streak snapped in an 11-8 loss to visiting Dayton. The Cougars scored the final seven runs of the game after falling behind, 11-1.
- RF-P Bijan Rademacher (.353) recorded his fourth straight multi-hit game, going 3-for-5 with a run scored, a RBI (11) and a stolen base (3). He made his second appearance of the season on the mound, tossing a perfect ninth inning.
- LF-RF Pin-Chieh Chen (.259) went 2-for-3 with two runs scored, two walks and two RBI (8).
- 1B Daniel Vogelbach (.299) went 1-for-4 with a walk, a double (3) and two RBI (20). He has drawn a free pass in three straight games.
- RHP Eddie Orozco (4.82) tossed a season-high, two scoreless innings of relief.
The Cubs hosted Texas Monday night to make up a game that was rained out in mid-April, and fans in attendance saw the North Sider’s largest offensive output of the season. The Cubs downed the Rangers 9-2 behind another excellent start from right-hander Scott Feldman, who gave up only two hits and no runs in seven innings of work. Anthony Rizzo went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBI to extend his seven-game hitting streak. Click through the above photos for an enlarged view of the game’s highlights.