Expectations Run High for the South Bend Cubs

Upon entering manager Jimmy Gonzalez’s office on South Bend media day, two familiar sights greeted the media: his Bible perched atop his desk and a set up chess board. “I’m always looking for a match” exclaimed the third year manager, not clarifying whether that was theologically or strategically. But the challenges Gonzalez will face this season are beyond the typical tactical and developmental issues that confront a manager at the first full season level of professional baseball. Gonzalez will also have to contend with high expectations.

The Cubs’ player development department bestowed the South Bend roster with three players ranked in the teams’ Top Twenty prospects, including Top Ten player in RHP Dylan Cease and OF DJ Wilson. In addition, three other players ranked in the organization’s top thirty are currently in extended spring training, biding their time and waiting for an opportunity to play in Northwest Indiana. With all that talent for the Cubs’ faithful to witness just about ninety miles away, the anticipation factor is ratcheted up a notch.

Dylan Cease with the media/photo Tom U

Dylan Cease with the media/photo Tom U

On top of all that, twenty members of the roster were a part of the 2016 Eugene Emeralds, a team that easily claimed the Northwest League title. The Emeralds finished with the league’s best pitching staff in an organization thirsty for a home grown pitching prospect, including Northwest League Pitcher of the Year Manuel Rondon. However, Rondon was already looking forward when the subject was brought up on the eve of his first start. “That is already behind me” said Rondon through interpreter Jonathan Mota, “I now have to come through and work on improving my game”.

Tom U (L) interviews Manuel Rondon (R) with coach Jonathan Mota (center)/photo Lauren Usiak

Tom U (L) interviews Manuel Rondon (R) with coach Jonathan Mota (center)/photo Lauren Usiak

Cease was likewise humble when addressing last season’s successes. “It is about process above results” said Cease. “I just expect to stay in the process and do as good as I can.”

One of the things having such a carryover from one roster to the next was the camaraderie that appears to have been built between the players. That was evident as Wilson came up in front of the media. Teammate Cease lurked behind the reporters, peering over their shoulders in an attempt to “stare down” Wilson as he tried to concentrate on his answers. For his part, Wilson seemed unperturbed, stating “we have great chemistry last year and it has gotten stronger throughout the spring”. Outfielder Kevonte Mitchell echoed Wilson’s sentiments, “it creates a great level of trust”.

Outfielder DJ Wilson attempts to concentrate during questions/photo Tom U

Outfielder DJ Wilson attempts to concentrate during questions/photo Tom U

In commenting on his group, Gonzalez focused on how the organization’s mental skills program will be a big plus in his players’ development. “It’s important to know that adversity is going to come…how are they going to handle it? You have to stay in the moment.” Pitching Coach Brian Lawrence also feels the same, noting that his pitchers “have never pitched meaningful innings in April before”.

As far as the nuts and bolts of how the team is going to be run, Lawrence reported that player development has scrapped the six man rotations that they have been running at the lower levels for a number of years in favor of a five man rotation with “piggyback” starters. “We found that our starters were having a difficult transition when going from Advanced-A to Double-A” said Lawrence, who also stated that pitchers would be on an eighty pitch limit and throw no more than thirty pitches in one inning.

South Bend Pitching Coach Brian Lawrence give his views/photo Tom U

South Bend Pitching Coach Brian Lawrence give his views/photo Tom U

On offense, Gonzalez likes the speed and athleticism the team brings. “They’re an exciting bunch of guys” said Gonzalez, “those speed guys create a spark and excitement”. The players also recognize their abilities, as Wilson exclaimed “I have good first step quickness” while Mitchell claimed “I bring energy to the team”.

Defensively, Gonzalez enjoys the versatility that the roster has. “I love having that as an option” said an animated Gonzalez, “it’s great for their development and gives them a rest”. The members of the South Bend outfield can all line up and any outfield position, while first baseman Chris Pieters can also play outfield.  It the infield, Wladimir Galindo will line up at third and first base, with Isaac Paredes playing shortstop and third base while Yeiler Peguero and Zack Short will see time at third, short, and second base. Through coach Mota, Galindo said his goal was “to improve defensively” as Short felt his ability would “give me an opportunity to play a lot”.

With a long season on the horizon, South Bend stumbled a little out of the gate thanks, in part, to some fickle April weather that had them begin the year with a doubleheader on the road.  Although they failed to score a run in their first three games, confidence seemed to be high as they S-Cubs went on the score twelve runs in the next two games, both wins. But it appears, at least for the time being, that the team is taking their lessons to heart, and staying in the moment.

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  • The Cubs need to hit on some home grown pitching. It would be nice to see a couple front line pitching prospects push their way to Myrtle Beach this year. That puts them in TN, or maybe even Iowa, in 2018 and ready to help the Big Club by 2019.

  • If Ian Haps continues to show as well as he did in spring training, would the Cubs bring him up before August? Would they move Szczur or La Stella? Maybe they could improve their pitching prospects.

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    In reply to hawk1943:

    Its going to be near impossible for Happ to get to the show before September call ups.

    I don't think he's even on the 40 man. This is his first taste of AAA. I think if the Cubs need another player, its going to be Jeimer. Yes, I know Happ plays 2nd, but since the Cubs are so deep and versatile, his position flexibility won't jump him over Candy. The cubs are already having a hard time finding playing time for everyone, and to add Happ to that stunt his growth as he needs to play everyday.

    Honestly, I don't think he even has a chance to break w the Cubs come 2018 opening day. His path to the majors is clearest outside of Chicago.

    In all honesty, Candy would be playing everyday at the majors if the Cubs were not loaded and a WS contender. If he was a Cincinnati Red, he would be playing 3B everyday and would give the Reds a nice middle of the order w Votto and Duvall !

  • In reply to hawk1943:

    They're not gping to bring up Ian Happ to be the 25th man on the roster. He'll only come up in the event of an injury that gives him a chance to get regular ABs.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    He could be 25th in September if the want him on the playoff roster. But otherwise, I agree. Needs to play as starter all season.

  • In reply to hawk1943:

    I think they are probably still planning on bringing up LHP Duensing whEn he is ready. Looking good right now. At that point one of Szczur or TLS will be waived/sent down. My bet is we lose Szczur then. If they want Happ later it will be at the expense of losing TLS.

  • I believe there is an open spot on the 40 man roster now.

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    In reply to Hagsag:

    There is. But I think the Cubs will want to sit on that until the know who they want to put in that spot. Will they need to put a veteran catcher there because of an injury to one of the current guys? Or will they want to be able to pull up Ian Happ without making a roster move? Things like that. No reason to have to expose someone to waivers in the event you have to make a move on the 40-man simply to fill out the 40-man roster.

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