By Todd Johnson
Back-to-back-to-back has a nice ring to it. I am sure manager Buddy Bailey would enjoy doing the honors and earning his second consecutive ring and the third in a row for the Cubs’ high class A affiliate.
2016 Review – 82-57 second straight Mills Cup Championship
The 2016 Pelicans was a tale of two teams. The first half saw a team struggle to get to .500 even with the Cubs top two prospects, Gleyber Torres and Ian Happ. Near the break, Torres, along with Rashad Crawford, were traded to the Yankees in the Aroldis Chapman trade. Happ was promoted to Tennessee along with Zach Hedges, the Pelicans’ best first half starting pitcher. It appeared as though the affiliate was left for dead. What happened next was a team pulling together.
On offense, the promotions of Donnie Dewees and Ian Rice from South Bend helped solidify the lineup along with the emergence of Charcer Burks, David Bote, and Yasiel Balaguert made the offense a run-scoring machine. On the mound, Trevor Clifton got his groove going and became the Cubs minor-league pitcher of the Year. Righties Eric Leal and Preston Morrison had great seasons as starters while the bullpen, anchored by Ryan McNeil, shut down the opposition on their way to their second Mills cup championship.
Most of the this year’s roster will be filtering in from last year’s South Bend team. Although it looks like top prospect Eloy Jimenez will miss the first month of the season, there is still plenty of optimism and plenty of prospects to watch.
Three Hitters to Watch
Second baseman Carlos Sepulveda will only be 19 when the season starts. But the young left-handed hitter might be one of the best pure hitters in the Cubs’ system. He has a short, quick stroke to the ball and is developing some gap power walk away.
I think Eddy Martinez will have a rejuvenating year after missing two years to become a free agent. I think now that he is accustomed to playing full season ball, he will be much better off in 2017. He’s already a plus defender and easily has the best outfield arm in the minors for the Cubs. The fact that he will be in centerfield this year will only make his bat better.
Catcher PJ Higgins has no equal as a defender in the system. He also has an excellent eye at the plate. I would like to see him hit for a little more power this year to go with his normal on-base percentage of almost .400.
Three Pitchers to Focus On
Oscar de la Cruz will be the top rated pitcher when he arrives from extended spring training in May. The Cubs are just being cautious with the big right-hander who can throw in the mid-90s with his fastball and also has a plus curve. Oscar’s goal for the year is to work on his changeup and turn it into at least an average offering to go along with excellent command he has with his other two pitches.
Last year, I loved to watch Kyle Miller pitch. He is very efficient in how he works quickly to control the tempo and rhythm of the game. It also helps that he has a wicked cutter. One of the few Cubs pitchers to throw one, Miller stands out for his command of the pitch already.
Ryan Kellogg had a sub 2.00 ERA in the second half of last year. His curveball might still be giving some batters nightmares just from the thought of seeing it. While it Acts more like a slow slider, it gets the results that Kellogg wants.
There are many other Pelicans to keep an eye on this year who could help lead them to a championship. Matt Rose is a player who I think could be a breakout prospect this year in Myrtle Beach. He finished 2016 strong as he hit seven home runs in August for South Bend. When it comes to pitching, I think Casey Bloomquist will surprise many, even in a relief role. He is beginning to throw a cutter in games. He began working on the pitch last summer with help from Cubs minor league pitching coordinator Jim Brower.
The Second Half
I think just like last year’s team, the 2017 version of the Pelicans should be pretty similar. I think a second-half infusion of talent could be just what propels them to their third straight Mills Cup championship.
LF – Eloy
CF – Martinez
RF -Daniel Spingola
3B – Jesse Hodges
SS – Andruw Monasterio
2B – Sepulveda
1B – Rose
C – Higgins
DH – Connor Myers
SP – de la Cruz, Kellogg, Alzolay, Kyle Miller, Bloomquist, Justin Steele
First to Be Promoted – Eloy Jimenez
I think he’s going to be a man among boys for a short time in the Carolina League. I could espouse for days on here about Eloy’s talent. Even with the spring training that he had this year, there is no doubt in my mind he is not that far away from Chicago. I expect him to spend most of the summer in Tennessee, but first, he needs to do a little damage in Myrtle Beach to get there. He just turned 20 years old. I think Chicago can wait one more year.