When Myrtle Beach, the Cubs new high class A affiliate, gets their first look at the ballclub on April 9 against Wilmington, they are going to be pleased with team – very pleased, indeed! In 2014, the Kane County Cougars went 98-49 and were the minor league team of the year. Most of those players will be in Myrtle Beach for the summer. And, it should be an amazing summer by the beach!
Where the Tennessee Smokies will rely on hitting most of the summer, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans will rely on the easily the best collection of starting pitchers in the Cubs organization. Along with 21 year olds Daury Torrez and Paul Blackburn, 20 year olds Duane Underwood, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Jonathan Martinez are a collection of arms, who after dominating the Midwest League, now take aim at the Carolina League – a well known pitcher’s league.
As for the hitters, the pitcher’s league might play to the strengths of the hitters that will be at Myrtle Beach. They do have some players with some pop, but they are more line drive hitters. They also have the best speed in the organization. For me, these hitters are truly a collection of baseball rats. These are the type of players that Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod covet – players who grind out at bats and grind out a season. They are tough minded and athletic and a couple could be on the brink of a breakout season.
This team possibly has four catchers in Will Remillard, Cael Brockmeyer, Mark Zagunis, and Victor Caratini. There is no way all four are going to get playing time behind the plate and there is no way any of the four should stay behind at South Bend. Remillard, to me, is the best of the four behind the plate. However, he spent most of the second half of 2014 injured. Brockmeyer, at 6’5”, showed a lot of growth last year and began to tap into his power potential. I saw him hit two screaming line drive home runs last year that never got more than fifteen feet off the grove. He also saw some time at first base and DH last year.
Zagunis is an on base machine and also plays all three outfield positions. He is one of my favorite prospects to watch in the entire system. A wild option might be to have Zagunis play some infield. If he can already catch and play all three outfield positions, he should be able to play 1B, 2B, or 3B. He could be a Zobrist in development. This could clear up some room all over the field.
Victor Caratini might be the breakout star on this team. He is a switch hitting catcher converted from 3B by the Braves. He his a solid approach at the plate but his stats have yet to reveal it. When you watch him hit, though, it is clear he has a plan at the plate. Unlike most ballplayers, Caratini stands in the middle of the box with his front foot even with the plate. I wonder if he just likes it there, or it makes him react quicker? Whatever the case, I am anxious to see what a full of season in the system will produce for him.
I think when it comes down to it, Remillard might stay at South Bend to get a full season in healthy. This would allow Caratini to get the majority of time behind the plate and Zagunis to move to a utility type role but to have his bat in the lineup every day. Brockmeyer would then catch once or twice in a rotation and get some time at 1B and DH where his burgeoning power might be better suited.
The Rest of the Field
At 1B, 25 years old Jacob Rodgers will man the corner and continue to develop his power stroke. The left handed hitting Rodgers hit 16 home runs to go with a .268 average and OBP of .361. He does strike out close to 25% of the time, but he is also a timely hitter in innings 7-9. He lead the team in the Midwest League Playoffs and was named MVP of the post season. In addition, Rodgers spent some time at DH. Brockmeyer spells Rodgers from time to time against lefties.
The shortstops for this team are not quite interchangeable. David Bote and Danny Lockhart did outstanding jobs last summer controlling the middle of the field. Lockhart did well at the plate hitting .284. Bote spent most of the year playing a utility role while struggling at the plate. However, the best fielder on the team last year was Carlos Penalvar. His smooth reactions and cat like reflexes made hard plays look easy and sometimes he made the easy plays look hard. But when you hit .210 and strike out over 100 times, you are not likely to earn a promotion to high A ball. Look for Lockhart to be the opening day shortstop for Myrtle Beach.
After the MLB Draft, 2014 draftee Chesny Young rocketed up the system and took control of 2B at Kane County when Ben Carhart went to Daytona. Young is one of the grinders I spoke of earlier. Like Zagunis, he also has a high contact rate hitting .324 in 27 games in August. I look for him to pick up where left off last summer.
Third base will be manned by Jeimer Candelario. Still only 21 (November), Candelario had a rough start at high A Daytona last spring and was reassigned to Kane County. After a .193 first half, Candelario rebounded some at Kane County where hit .250 in 62 games with 6 HRs and a very solid 37 runs batted in the second half. The switch hitting corner man still has a lot of potential. Best of all, he has a solid attitude and used the reassignment to improve his approach at the plate.
Watching Trey Martin and Shawon Dunston, Jr., play last summer was like watching children being born. Dunston had defensive miscue after defensive miscue the first half of the season. Martin could not hit his way out of a wet paper bag. But something in them clicked the second half. For Dunston, maybe it was the old hidden ball trick where he got caught off first, but something changed in him. Dunston began taking more efficient routes in the outfield; he began hitting, even showed some power to go with his speed. He hit .241 the first half, .288 the second and was the sparkplug leadoff man for the team. Add in 27 SBs and Dunston gives the Pelicans a legitimate leadoff hitter. I think he could work his way into the top 20 of Cubs prospect lists if he has a first half in 2015 like his second half in 2014.
Trey Martin was already a great fielder, but after a year off in 2013 due to injury, the rust showed at the plate. The second half was like watching a new player. He went from a .222 hitter in the first half to a .269 hitter in the second half with 4 second half dingers. I expect his progression to continue in 2015.
When it comes to the third outfield spot, Mark Zagunis and his ridiculous .428 OBP will likely be in left field most days. Kevin Brown and Jeffrey Baez will spell Zagunis, Dunston, and Martin. Brown was up and down the system last year from Boise to Tennessee filling in where needed. This year, the .261 hitter will likely stay in one place (maybe South Bend). Baez, could start out at South Bend to play every day, but he really does belong at Myrtle Beach. He hit 13 HRs in 69 games at Boise and Kane County. Jake Hannemann might start at Myrtle Beach, but the 6’1” speedster, I think, should start at Tennessee.
Cuban Yasiel Balaguert will likely fill the DH role. He had an up and down year, but the 6’2” 215 pounder has a lot of potential – mainly power. He needs to much more selective at the plate. He had a great April (.317), a horrible May (.163), a so-so June (.259), a poor July (.217), and an amazing August (.333). He only walked 20 times in 369 plate appearances. He has got to change his approach at the plate and not to try and hit every pitch as hard as he can.
Overall, these hitters rely more on squaring up the ball and hitting it hard. They string together runs and most importantly, they are always in the game. I can’t begin to count how many come from behind wins they had last year. They can with the speed of Zagunis, Dunston, and Martin; they can cause terror on the basepaths. Rodgers, Candelario, and Brockmeyer will supply some power but they are more of a station to station team – they keep the line moving.
Oh, my!!! Wait until Myrtle Beach gets a load of these starting arms!
At the Cubs Convention three weeks ago, Jason McLeod tempered expectations, and rightly so, that the management is hoping for only 1-2 of these arms to make it to the majors. Although Kane County did have an epic season, the pitchers played a major role but they were not perfect. They have only pitched 110-130 innings a season. Their arms are a long way from being ready. But if they continue along their current paths, I think 3-4 of them could help the Cubs pitching staff in 3-4 years as starters and/or relievers.
One thing you will see this staff do is throw mostly fastballs in the first inning to work on their fastball command. Other teams knew that in the Midwest League. Yet, the team still had an ERA under 3 in the first half. I sometimes find it hard to fathom what would happen if some of the following pitchers came out with an occasional curve ball, changeup, or slider in the first inning.
Duane Underwood is only 20 and right now he had the best starting power arm in the Cubs’ system until Stinnett arrived last summer. Underwood came into 2014 spring training healthy and in shape. By the end of the year, he was throwing his fastball according to Cubs twitter at an easy 95 mph. He can reach 97. His curveball is close to a plus pitch but his changeup is a work in progress. If he can get the changeup smoothed out, he could have three plus pitches. He is a number two starter in development.
Jen-Ho Tseng is another 20 year old who ,according to Baseball America, has the best changeup in the organization. It was laughable the swings I saw against it last year in two starts. The ball comes in like a fastball but has a falling action like a ball rolling off a table. His curveball is almost as good. What Tseng needs to work on is developing some strength and getting his fastball up from 86-90 to 90-92. If he can do that, he could move quickly. With his uncanny command (he only walked 15 in 19 starts), he might be more ready than Underwood to move up the system. However, there is no rush.
Daury Torrez pretty much got by on two pitches last year – a 91-94 mph fastball and an 84-86 mph slider. I don’t think he can do that this year. His 2.74 ERA was out of this world for basically a two pitch pitcher. If he can develop that third pitch (changeup) consistently, the 21 year old could double his worth.
Paul Blackburn does do a lot of things well as a pitcher. The problem is doesn’t do one outstanding thing. He has great command, but he lacks that one knockout or plus pitch. He has a solid fastball with a natural sink and a nice 12-6 curve. He gets a lot of groundouts. In 117 innings, he only walked 31 in 24 starts. On the other hand, he only struck out 75. I don’t know if he ever will light up a stat sheet in those categories. And, he may not have to. He just turned 21 in December, and like Underwood and Tseng, there is no rush to move him up in the system.
Jonathan Martinez came over to the Cubs system in the Darwin Barney trade. I think he is going to be a breakout prospect for the Cubs this year. In his 23 innings at Kane County, Martinez had a 2.31 ERA while striking out 15. For the year, he threw 129 innings and struck out 106. At only 20, Martinez already has 4 years of professional experience. I think that experience will pay off this year as he works a solid change and slider off his low to mid 90s fastball.
I think Tyler Skulina, the fourth round pick out of Kent State in 2013, will be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year. He got a mid-year promotion last year from Kane County to Daytona. Tendonitis in his left knee limited him to three starts at high A. Skulina went from throwing 93-95 in 2013 to 88-90 in 2014 when I saw him. His curveball looked very forced and the arm slot changed from attempt to attempt. It was not pleasant to watch. However, something was still right. In 71 innings at Kane County, Skulina still struck out 68. He has the prototypical starting pitcher’s body at 6’5” and 255 pounds. Some consider him better suited as a power reliever while I think the Cubs are going to see if they can the tendonitis under control in his plant knee and see what he can do as a starter. Manager Mark Johnson and Pitching coach David Rosario, who were at Kane County last year, will be moving up with the team and might be able to get Skulina back on track.
Come early June, last year’s second round pick Jake Stinnett is likely to arrive in what may be a short stay. Scouts marvel at his mid to upper 90s fastball and plus-plus slider. Like Jeff Samardjiza, Stinnett’s arm is young as he has only been pitching for two years. After pitching over 100 innings at Maryland, Stinnett was used sparingly and even suffered a severe injury in taking one of the team – he almost lost a testicle in the incident.
Here is what Fan Graphs said of the young talent:
Stinnett pitched for the first time mid-way through his junior year at Maryland and was good enough to get drafted, but took off in his senior year, flashing three above average pitches and hitting 96 mph from an athletic delivery, which prompted the Cubs to take him near the top of the 2nd round. The stuff varied in the spring as Stinnett’s arm wasn’t used to the workload, but he was at his best in instructs, has mid-rotation upside and a very fresh arm for a 22-year-old.
Stinnett likely will follow the same pitching path as Pierce Johnson, without the injuries. Out of all the pitchers in the Cubs system, I look forward to seeing what he can do this spring. I don’t know if I will make it over to South Bend (it’s a three hour drive for me) while he is there, but Myrtle Beach does have MiLB.TV for when he gets promoted. If he is still in South Bend in early June, I will catch him over at Burlington or Peoria. Stinnett’s fastball and slider will likely be too much for the Midwest League, and maybe even the Carolina League. It would not shock me to see him arrive at Tennessee in early to mid August.
When it comes to the bullpen, the collection of arms to be at Myrtle Beach will be solid, but not as spectacular as the bullpen arms at Tennessee. Led by James Pugliese, who is turning into a potent pitching prospect and setup man, his 1.68 ERA was aided by a revamped delivery. Add in Jasvir Rakkar, who finally figured it in the second half, the two formed an excellent back end of the bullpen down the stretch.
Lefties Michael Heesch and Tyler Ihrig, along with righties Tyler Bremer and Francisco Carrillo, round out a very solid bullpen. At 23 years old, Francisco Carillo was solid as a closer down the stretch following the trade of Jose Arias by posting a 1.35 ERA in 12 games and collecting 6 saves. Michael Wagner likely will round out the bullpen along with newcomer Lars Huijer who came over in the Mike Kickham trade. Huijer was a starter at low A Clinton last year before struggling in the high A California League for Seattle. He has good size at 6’4” and could spot start if needed, but he will likely be used in long relief until he gets familiar with Cubs routines and procedures. He throws a sinking fastball in the upper 80s and mid to upper seventies curves and changeups.
This team is not going to sneak up on anyone. Their reputation as team of the year in 2014 has already announced their arrival. However, this team is up for the challenge. While the team has high end prospects, leaning heavy to the pitching side, they also have three to four position players who could break out in addition to one or two pitching prospects. To me, Mark Zagunis might not stay long at Myrtle Beach. His plate discipline is that advanced and his versatility allows a manager to pencil him at 5 positions (right now) on the lineup card daily. If he leaves, that will be a tough spot to fill in across the lineup.
I look for Martin and Dunston to continue to improve, and for either one, if not both, to breakout this season. I think Cub newcomer Victor Caratini will get to show his true value in a full season. The switch hitting catcher needs to see some extended time behind the plate and increase his power skills. Chesny Young could have a big first full year in the system, too. He is not going to dazzle you with power, but every ball he hits, he hits hard. I saw him twice last fall and he squares up the ball as well as anyone, it just doesn’t go as far or as loud as the others. While lacking power, this team has the hitting ability to get runs across in volume.
But, let’s get real. This team will be all about the pitching in a pitching league. I really hope Underwood stays at the Beach all summer, but it would not surprise me if one of the starters goes to Tennessee. I think Martinez can show his stuff and it will be interesting to see how Tseng develops in his second full year. I think if Tseng is going to make it as a starter in the MLB, he needs to add a couple clicks, otherwise, he becomes a deadly off speed option out of the pen. Maybe Blackburn develops that one pitch, or Skulina gets his release point down or changes to a slider from his raunchy curve. For pitchers, rapid development can change quickly with one pitch. These six or seven starters at Myrtle Beach already have a strong foundation.
But the thing to remember about five of these starting pitchers is that three of them are twenty, and the other two just turned twenty-one, and they are playing in a league where the average age is 22-23. There should be no rush. If there is not, then playing at the Beach this summer will take on a whole new dimension this summer.
Next Weekend’s Previews: The Iowa Cubs and South Bend Cubs