One of the best parts of last summer was listening to Mike Safford’s call of the Boise Hawks on the Internet. He is an exciting announcer! He made the games come alive twelve hundred miles away. I was saddened to hear that the Cubs were moving from Boise to Eugene because I would not be able to hear Safford’s enthusiasm for the games and his knowledge of the prospects on a daily basis. Then the killer stab through the heart came that same week when the Cubs announced they would be moving from Kane County to South Bend. I was devastated. My one hour trips through the corn to Geneva would end. I got over it after a while. This week helped a lot especially when I heard that South Bend could be joining the MiLB.TV network! That’s another 70 home games to see!
When looking at 2015 South Bend roster, the 2014 Boise Hawks made the playoffs because of a strong collection of pitchers and an influx of pitchers from the 2014 draft. In assembling who I think will be on the team, I am torn between players who will be, who should be, and who could be on the roster. Likely, I will be wrong on about 5 names. However, this year’s low A affiliate will be built around pitching just like last year’s Midwest League Champion. When it comes to hitting and defense, they might be putting that side of the roster together with very young players.
The Starting Pitching Approximation
I counted ten arms that have a shot at starting for South Bend in April. Likely six will be in the rotation, one will not be around long and two could be in the bullpen or in extended Spring Training waiting for Eugene to start up. They all have the potential to do well, and they all pitch very differently.
Won’t Be ‘Round for Long
1. Jake Stinnett – Last year’s second round pick won’t be around South Bend long if he even starts there. With an upper 90s fastball and a plus-plus slider, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him skip South Bend and go straight to Daytona.
2. Josh Conway – He finally got off the injury bug after two years to put in 13 starts with a 1.96 ERA. He was limited to 3 innings a start and he did wonderfully commanding his fastball. He struck 24 for a K/9 rate of 5.9 while allowing only 1 HR all season and walking 2.2/9 innings. This year, I expect him to extend his starts to 5 innings during the cold months and then they can unleash him when it gets warm. In end, the righty has earned the right to start at South Bend. At 23, he could move quickly to Daytona. Problem is, I don’t think there will be a spot there.
3. Trevor Clifton – I have chronicled Clifton’s strengths and weaknesses often the past year. He can let his fastball rip between 93-95 and it peaks around 97. Last year, he really began to command it better and he will work on that again this year. Also, the Cubs have rebuilt his motion since he signed in the summer of 2013. There is still one lingering issue – his curveball. When he commands it, he is almost unhittable. When he can’t, he gets pummeled. He has learned to work with men on base. His ERA of 3.69 was due in large part to excellent pitching by stranding runners the last four starts. His WHIP of 1.46 is extremely high due in large part to his lack of curveball command. I cannot wait to see his fastball in Burlington, Peoria, and/or Beloit this summer! His curve should be an interesting visual, too.
4. Erick Leal – Leal is the more successful of the two pitchers who came from Arizona in the Tony Campana trade. He might have been the most improved pitcher at Boise last summer. The 6’3” righty had a 1.53 ERA after the all star break and a total 2.36 ERA in the second half. He doesn’t miss a lot of bats (4.5/9) but he gets a lot of outs. His fastball, which he commands very well, is between 88 and 90 most days.
Who I would like to see Start
5A. Jeremy Null – The Nulldozer might be the best nickname in all of the organization. At 6’7+”, he throws a heavy slider on a downhill plane. He fell down in the draft because of some early season injuries, but the VCU prospect had no trouble disposing of some big name schools like North Carolina. As a pro in 2014, Null saw limited action due to a full college season, but he did strike out 11 in 15 innings and made 1 start in the Northwest League playoffs
Who Might Start
5B. James Norwood – The SLU product has been known to throw in the mid to upper 90s. Injury concerns last spring caused his stock to fall. He did get some time in at Arizona and Boise, but it was clear after a season of college ball that he was trying to make adjustments as his stats were not very good. However, stats are misleading at short season and rookie ball levels as most pitching prospects are working on something in their repertoire. When spring comes this year, Norwood might be in line to start at South Bend, if not, Eugene for sure.
5C. James Farris – The Arizona righty was the ace of his college team. He doesn’t knock you out with any one pitch, but he can control and command them all. That will play well in South Bend. However, it may not play much beyond South Bend as he needs a little zippity in his do-da. To show you how well he commands the ball, in 14 innings of relief at Boise, he struck out 21!!!!!!!!! That is 14.5/9 innings!!! Then again, he was playing against 19-20 years old kids. He won’t do that at South Bend, but he will put the ball where he wants it. He reminds me of Kyle Hendricks in how they approach pitching. He is not as physically big as Hendricks, but mentally and command wise, Farris is a miniature version of the big leaguer.
Who Could Start
5D. Carson Sands – Sands will be 20 in less than a month. In rookie ball, last year’s fourth round pick was deadly in his 19 innings of work at Arizona where pitchers are on strict counts and often piggyback with other starters (Each goes three innings back to back). Sands showed great control with a 1.89 ERA and striking out 20. He is pretty polished and likely could start at South Bend. Spring Training will tell but the odds are in his favor.
5E. Justin Steele – Picked one round behind Sands, the lefty might be better than Sands in the long run. Steele struck out 25 in 18 innings at Arizona last summer and still has to work on his command a lot more than Sands does. A 2.89 ERA is nothing to sneeze at but he did walk 8 in only 18 innings or 4 BB per 9 innings. I would like to see what he can do in South Bend by improving his command to lower that walk rate.
5F. Dillon Maples – I usually make excuses for Dillon Maples, but last year he was terrible. A rib injury derailed what was to be a promising season and he just got shelled at Boise when he came back. I think he came back too quickly (there is that excuse). The 2011 draft pick might be in his last year in a Cub uniform if the ship is not righted. But then again, he is still only 22 and he has yet to make it to a full season of low A ball. In 2013, he was flat out brilliant at Boise along with Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood. I thought he was really going to break out last year before the rib injury. Hopefully, he has made adjustments and is healthy and ready to go this year. It is hard to watch a kid with a fastball that gets up into the mid 90s and a plus curve just crash and burn in the organization.
I’d say that the first four pitchers listed above are shoe-ins and that Null, Farris, Sands, Maples, and Steele will duke it out for the final two spots. Once Stinnett is gone to Daytona, another spot opens up. If I was a betting man, I’d go with Sands and Steele. I think that would be the most exciting to see. But, here’s the thing; I am not a betting man. Therefore, I am going with Null and Sands. Steele will likely start out in Eugene and Farris and Norwood will go to the pen. Once Stinnett leaves, up comes Steele.
The Relief Recombination
South Bend will not be short of relievers; both lefties and righties. Brad Markey, Jordan Brink, Sam Wilson, Tommy Thorpe Tanner Griggs, Michael Knighton, and Zach Hedges headline a list of about 15 relievers who could be at South Bend but there are six who need elaboration.
1. Ryan Williams benefited a lot from scouts coming to see East Carolina starter Jeff Hoffman, a top pick in last year’s draft. Williams and his 6’4” and 235 lb. frame did well in relief last year at Boise. A 1.35 ERA in 26 innings is not a full measurement of his talent. Some bloggers do not like him, but I do. Here’s why: He’s a bulldog. He is just fierce on the mound. You want that big kind of imposition staring down a hitter in the last three innings. Just turned 23, he should do fine in the Midwest League as a setup man and a closer. Because of his age, he might move to Daytona a little faster than other players.
2. Daniel Lewis’s life story is like a Disney movie. The man from the Air Force via Pensacola JC who throws 100 mph came out of nowhere. Yes, I would like to see what he can do all year long. Surprisingly, last year, the undrafted free agent made it to Boise where he struck out 13 in 10 innings of relief with a 0.87 ERA. With that arm, he might not be long for South Bend.
3. There was no way I thought Jordan Minch would sign with Cubs last summer. He was drafted in the 35th round and I figured he would return to Purdue for his junior season. The 6’3” lefty signed and he gives the Cubs something they don’t have in the organization – a power left handed arm coming out of the bullpen. I think he will be at South Bend all season.
4. Trey Masek – Like Josh Conway, the 2013 draftee has spent most of his time in a Cubs uniform injured. This year he is healthy. This year the former Red Raider starter shifts to the bullpen to show off that toughness he epitomized on the mound at Texas Tech. Gone is the funky delivery and awkward landing and in its place is a more refined delivery. I look forward to seeing what he can do.
5. Brad Renner is another injury recluse like Trey Masek. Drafted in the 28th round in 2013, the 6’6” righty could make another imposing presence coming out of the pen. He just has to stay healthy.
6. Anthony Prieto – Still only 21, the lefty has had the injury bug like Renner and Masek. This year will be interesting to see if he can regain the mid 90s fastball he had coming out of high school in 2012. At only 5’11, he just may be a pitcher who might just be injury prone. 2015 will tell.
Now I don’t know if any of these six are going to light South Bend on fire but they are all interesting story lines to watch due to missed time.
There is one thing most talent evaluators have been missing when looking at the Cubs system is this: The Cubs are loading up on arms on the mound. In fact, they are overflowing with arms at short season A, low A, and high A. I expect McLeod and Epstein to draft another 15-20 arms this summer. The fact that I had 10 arms to select just for starters from at South Bend in 2015 is an indication of the depth now inherent in this organization.
The Hitting Transmogrification
After losing Schwarber, Zagunis, Chesny Young, and Jeffrey Baez, it sure seemed as if Boise was done for on offense. Yet, they found a way to make the playoffs in 2014. A big reason for that came from the leadership of Manager Gary Van Tol. In August, OF Charcer Burks and then 17 year old phenom SS Gleyber Torres lead the parade of hitters from Boise into the playoffs last year and now into South Bend for this year. Along with super sub Alex Tomasovich, 1B Danny Canela, C Justin Marra, and 3B Jesse Hodges, Boise came from back in the standings and their development was a key to that turnaround.
To me, there are two keys to this infield. One is shortstop Gleyber Torres, who just turned 18. He only played only 7 games plus the playoffs at Boise, but he showed Scouting Director Jason McLeod enough to declare that Torres will be in South Bend. Keith Law ranked him #4 on Cubs Top Prospect List. He has great skills with the bat and solid defensive skills. As he gets older, I think his skills might be better suited for second base. However, his bat plays either position.
The other player I like a lot is Alex Tomasovich. He was the Ben Zobrist of Idaho last summer while hitting .311. The 6’3” 2014 draftee out of Charleston Southern was a nice find by Cubs scouts. He is not going to wow you with his athleticism. However, he does a little bit of everything well, but nothing that stands out…except hitting. He still has some room to physically fill out. He did not hit any home runs, but the body is there to do so. He is a grinder and just a nice player to have on your team. Tomasovich is a sure handed defender who has moved off of shortstop and did not stop producing. He played 10 games at 2B, 18 at 1B, 3 at 3B, and 1 at SS. He will likely continue this trend in 2015.
3B Jesse Hodges comes to the Cubs via Canada and he showed last summer he has some pop in that bat. He hit 7 HRs, second on the team to Marra’s 9, and drove in 47 runs second to Canela’s 48. While Hodges only hit .265, he does take his walks, but his average needs to come up. However, if he hits HRs and drives in runs, I don’t think it really matters. Hodges is just going to grind it out. He is not a typical 5 tool athlete, but he has a great attitude and that sought after power.
At 24, 1B Danny Canela is an organizational guy who provides some leadership and a steady force in the lineup. He hit .295 and should provide a nice depth and some veteran presence for the young team. However, I don’t know if there is much of a future for him. He and Jacob Rodgers of Myrtle Beach are in the same organizational boat.
When it comes to catcher, this is where things start to get ugly. Justin Marra can hit extremely well as seen by his .279 avg. with 9 HRs and 38 RBIs in short season A ball. However, the 5’10” 190 lb. dynamo is not the best defensive catcher. He spent the better part of three seasons trying to escape Boise and he finally figured it out. Only 21, he really needs to improve his battery skills or his only option would be as an undersized 1B/DH.
I think when it comes down to it, Will Remillard will be back in South Bend in order to play a full season of low A ball. Last year, he was a stud for the first half at Kane County hitting almost .320 and driving in 25 runs in 35 games. Then the back injury limited him to 14 games where he hit a weak .204. Putting Remillard here makes sense as it makes room for Caratini at Myrtle Beach and it gives this pitching staff a guy who I like a lot for his leadership behind the plate.
The player who will likely play second base is Andrew Ely. Ely played all over the organization after being drafted out of the University of Washington last year. Look for him to bring his exciting glove work and steady bat to be an outstanding double play man with Gleyber Torres. I think people are going to like how he goes about his business of being a ballplayer.
When it comes to the outfield of South Bend, I could be dead wrong or I could magically be right. Taken in the 9th round of the 2013 Draft, Charcer Burks was an athletic pick who struggled his first summer in 2013 at Arizona hitting only .269. Last year was a different story. He started out in Arizona where hit .309 and swiped 9 bases in 20 games. He then went to hit .313 at Boise with an outstanding OBP of .416! He should be in left field every day at South Bend.
Now comes the tricky part. Looking at depth charts and experience, Kevin Brown and Jeffery Baez should really be at Myrtle Beach. Rashad Crawford and Charlie White are not quite ready for the 140+ game seasons of low A ball. However, I do know two players who I think might be ready to play every day in the sun of northern Indiana. My boldest prediction of all the previews is that Kevonte Mitchell and Eloy Jimenez will begin the year at South Bend. I want to see it, I hope they do it, the odds are slim, but in the end, it is best for their development, and best for the team. There, I said it!
What Jimenez lacks is game experience. The former #1 International Free Agent of 2013 is physically ready. The 6’4” 205 lb. right handed hitter should play in South Bend all year. If Jimenez’s weakness is game experience, he could waste a year in Boise playing only 76 games. He can almost double that experience in the Midwest League playing for South Bend. I do get the argument that he is not baseball ready. After all, he only hit .227 with 3 HRs in 42 games in Arizona, but he also drove in 27 which is a 104 RBI pace for a 162 games. But stats can be misleading for a minor leaguer. For me, he simply needs to play games. He needs to improve his 6% walk rate, that .227 avg, and an abysmal .268 OBP have to change. I get that he should play in Eugene, but the competition at South Bend is a year older and he gets an additional 70 games, which is another season of short season ball. Plus, he is such a physical specimen, his body should hold up to the rigors of that long of a season.
For Kevonte Mitchell, it is a giant leap, too. A sensational athlete, Mitchell was outstanding moving from his 2014 drafted position of 3B to CF. The 6’4” 18 year old hit .294 in 42 games while stealing 19 bases. I heard great things all July and August about Mitchell. I cannot wait to see him play in South Bend. Mitchell would also provide some comfort for Jimenez having played beside him all last year.
Now, I could be dead wrong about these two kids skipping short season A. There is no rush for them to get to the big leagues, they are both just 18/19 year kids. But if I am correct, South Bend will be a great place to be this summer with the pitching and the young, athletic position players. And most importantly, the players will develop and play winning baseball.
If I am wrong, Kevin Brown and Rashad Crawford will likely man those spots this summer. Crawford brings some serious speed while Brown is more a disciplined hitter who saw time as high as Tennessee last summer filling in for a week here and there. I guess we will find out the second week of April who will be in the outfield.
CF – Mitchell
SS – Torres
1B – Canela
DH – Marra
LF – Burks
RF – Jimenez
3B – Hodges
C – Remillard
2B – Ely
This is not bad lineup. There is some speed at the top with Mitchell and Torres, some quality hitters in Canela and Marra, another leadoff hitter in Burks, more power, and two quality guys that can grind out at bats in Remillard and Ely. Throw in Tomasovich, who can play all over the field, and there is some length to this lineup. Sure, you have two big prospects in Torres and Jimenez, but you also have guys that take quality at bats. If there is one thing I have learned in the past two drafts is that the Cubs look for highly athletic players and players who can grind out at bats. This team is filled with both. I think that could be a mixture for even more success in 2015. It’s a big leap.
Coming Sunday: The Iowa Cubs Preview