This is the final of a series of articles naming minor league players and pitchers of the year. For consideration for Minor League Pitcher of the Year , a pitcher would have to be assigned to one of the four full season minor league teams (Low-A South Bend, Advanced-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Tennessee, and Triple-A Iowa) at the beginning of the season, and not assigned to any short season teams during the playing year. Our panel includes minor league writers Michael Ernst, Stephanie Lynn, and Tom U along with Cubs Den writers Myles Phelps, Dan Travis, and Jared Wyllys.
The Minor League Co-Pitchers of the Year – Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP and Dakota Mekkes, RHP
In 2014, the future of Cubs pitching looked very bright when the staff of Low-A Kane County led the Midwest League in every major category while sweeping their way to a league championship crown. But of a starting rotation that included Paul Blackburn, Daury Torrez, Duane Underwood, Tyler Skulina, and Jonathan Martinez, a then 19 year old Jen-Ho Tseng was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. That season, Tseng went 6-1in 19 games (17 starts) and had a 2.40 ERA, 0.876 WHIP, and 85 strikeouts in 105 innings. Tseng also started and won the Cougars first playoff game, as well as the first game of the championship round. That 2014 from the right-hander from Taipei, Taiwan was also his professional debut, and made that season look even more promising.
But two rather lackluster seasons filled with trips to the disabled list snipped the bloom off Tseng’s rose, and relegated him to somewhat of an afterthought when discussing the system’s top pitching prospects. The 2015 season saw a noticeable lack of both velocity and control, as Tseng went only 7-7 with a jump to a 3.55 ERA, 1.218 WHIP, and a paltry 87 strikeouts 119 innings for Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. The downward spiral continued in 2016, as Tseng was promoted to Double-A Tennessee but went 6-8 as his ERA climbed to 4.29 and WHIP to 1.500. Tseng’s strikeouts also slipped to 69 in 113.1 innings.
So it was no surprise that the now 22 year old was given a return trip to Tennessee this season. However, Tseng made the most of the situation. In 15 starts for the Smokies, Tseng was 7-3 with a 2.99 ERA and a 1.127 WHIP. That earned Tseng a move up to Triple-A Iowa where he improved to 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA. For the year, Tseng is 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA, 1.135 WHIP and 122 strikeouts in 145.1 innings. With a low-90’s fastball, a curve he can throw for strikes, and what some have said to be the best change-up in the cubs’ system, Tseng has positioned himself well for a run at the major league rotation in 2018.
As unlikely as Tseng’s rise to the top this season, the success of Dakota Mekkes has seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Selected in the tenth round of the 2106 draft, he 22 year old had one of the most impressive runs of any player selected by the current Cubs’ front office. The 6-foot-7, 252-pound right-hander gave observers a glimpse of what was to come after signing, going 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA, 0.800 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts in 20 innings between rookie ball and Short Season-A Eugene last year.
Assigned to Low-A South Bend to start the 2017 season, Mekkes was impressive right out of the gate. In 31 innings, Mekkes was 3-0 with a microscopic 0.58 ERA, 0.903 WHIP with 47 strikeouts and four saves. Insiders were also encourage to see Mekkes and fellow 2016 draftee Wyatt Short take on leadership roles for the South Bend pitching staff.
Promoted to Myrtle Beach in early June, Mekkes did not miss a beat as he improved to 5-1 with three saves, a 1.09 ERA, 0.992 WHIP, and 44 strikeouts in 41.1 innings. While his numbers remained somewhat constant, Mekkes acknowledged the challenge of being promoted to the next level. “I think the biggest difference I've noticed is that hitters don't miss mistake pitches” explained Mekkes in a July interview. “In South Bend, I might have been able to get away with missing a spot or two. But in Myrtle Beach, missed spots are hits!”
Overall, Mekkes is 8-1 with seven saves, an ERA of 0.87, 0.954 WHIP, and 91 strikeouts in 72.1 innings as of last Saturday. What makes Mekkes’ low-90’s fastball, slider, and change effective is a throwing motion that has a long stride and crouch to go with his 6-foot-7 frame. “He doesn't throw hard”, noted Pelicans’ broadcaster Scott Kornberg. “But at the same time, he's so big and he has such a big stride that he's just really difficult to pick up. So at 90-92 MPH, Mekkes actually is perceived to be 94-96 MPH probably, minimum, to a hitter.”
Given the amount of pitching prospects posting good seasons, it was a spirited debate among the Cubs Den panel in whom to award. High profile prospect Adbert Adzolay was a combined 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 114.1 between Tennessee and Myrtle Beach before ending the season on the disabled list. Once a lost 2011 draft choice, Dillon Maples finally put his immense talent to good use and went 6-3 with 13 saves and 2.27 ERA over three levels to earn a call-up to the major league roster for September. Also considered were starting pitchers Duncan Robinson (9-9, 2.21 ERA, 1.087 WHIP, 96 K’s in 126 IP for South Bend and Myrtle Beach) and Michael Rucker (5-5, 2.38 ERA, 1.038 WHIP, 92 K in 93.1 IP for South Bend and Myrtle Beach).
Tags: Adbert Alzolay, Dakota Mekkes, Dan Travis, Daury Torrez, Dillon Maples, Duane Underwood, Duncan Robinson, Jared Wyllys, Jen-Ho Tseng, Michael Ernst, Michael Rucker, Myles Phelps, Scott Kornberg, Stephanie Lynn, Tom U, Wyatt Short