Good morning, and welcome to Cubs Den's final coverage of Cubs in the off-season leagues. In today's report, the Mexican Pacific and Australian Baseball Leagues crown champions while Cubs Den names their Player and Pitcher of the Winter.
Cubs Den Player of the Winter
Nico Hoerner, INF
Almost as soon as his name was announced as their first selection in the 2018 draft, Nico Hoerner became one of the Cubs’ best prospects. Upon signing with the Cubs, the 21-year old infielder moved quickly through the Cubs minor league system. After three games in the rookie league and seven with Short Season-A Eugene, it was on to Low-A South Bend. In a combined 14 games, Hoerner hit .327/.450/.571/1.021 with two doubles, two triples, two home runs, six RBI, and six stolen bases.
But when Hoerner suffered a minor injury to his non-throwing shoulder, the Cubs shut him down for the regular season. The Cubs then made the rare move of assigning him to the Arizona Fall League, where Hoerner continued to dominate. As a member of the Mesa Solar Sox, Hoerner showed no ill-effects of the injury by going .337/.362/.506/.867 with 4 doubles, 4 triples, a home run, and 11 RBI in 21 games.
Observers in Arizona were also impressed with Hoerner's attitude, approach, and work ethic. Reports felt that Hoerner is capable of remaining at shortstop defensively, but he also has the athleticism to project to other positions.
The Cubs have a history of moving first round picks quickly through the system, especially when they perform like Hoerner has to date. Expect for Hoerner to open the year with Double-A Tennessee. After that, the sky could be the limit.
Cubs Den Pitcher of the Winter
Zach Hedges, RHP
A twenty-sixth round selection by the Cubs in 2014 draft, Zach Hedges has often had to take a back seat to more high profile pitching prospects. That draft had an exciting high school trio in Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Dylan Cease along with other top ten selections such as Jake Stinnett, James Norwood, Tommy Thorpe, James Farris, and Ryan Williams.
But it was Hedges who broke out as the class moved into the 2015 season, only overshadowed by Williams. Leading Low-A South Bend in starts, Hedges used his low-90's two-seam fastball and slider to get teams to pound the ball into the ground and ring up a 1.280 WHIP to go along with a 4.16 ERA and 8-8 record in 23 starts.
However it was the 2016 season in which Hedges truly blossomed, as he split time between Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee, tossing 144 innings and going 10-11 with a 2.75 ERA, 1.139 WHIP, and 95 strikeouts.
As the 2017 season began, Hedges was back at Tennessee, but was moved up to Triple-A Iowa in mid-June. There, Hedges experienced some rough times and it was back at Tennessee in early July. For the year, Hedges went 9-12 with a 4.49 ERA, 1.497 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 146.1 innings.
The 2018 season saw a change in roles for Hedges, as he saw most of his 36 appearances out of the bullpen. Once again, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder began at Tennessee, but was quickly promoted to Iowa. In late June, it was back to Tennessee as Hedges was 5-2 with 2 saves, a 3.40 ERA, 1.179 WHIP, and 58 strikeouts in 87.1 innings between the two. Hedges closed out the year by joining Caguas of the Roberto Clemente League. Back in his role as a starter, Hedges went 2-0 with 20 strikeouts in 28.1 innings to go along with a 1.59 ERA and 1.306 WHIP.
Since signing with the Cubs, the 26-year old has added some muscle to his frame and added a few miles an hour to his fastball while also bringing a four-seam fastball to his repertoire. Expect Hedges to once again challenge for a bullpen/swingman slot for Iowa this coming season.
Cubs Den Comeback Player of the Winter
Two years ago, Carlos Sepulveda was a promising infielder that seemed to struggle in his promotion Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. What was behind the struggles was a shoulder injury that the left-handed hitter suffered in spring training that he tried to play through. After 28 games, Sepulveda was placed on the disabled list and tried to come back in late August in the Arizona Rookie League. But the damage was too severe, so Sepulveda had offseason surgery and ended up losing the entire 2018 season.
Sepulveda contracted to play with Obregon of the Mexican Pacific League for the 2018-19 winter, and saw sparse duty during the regular season. With only 20 at bats in 19 games, Sepulveda had three hits and drew three walks while driving in a run. However, Sepulveda was rounding into form by the last week of the regular season and soon became a force.
With a hot second half propelling the Yaquis into the LMP playoffs, Obregon turned to Sepulveda more as their starting second baseman, and he was up to the task. As the games became tighter, Sepulveda excelled as he hit .294 with four walks, a double, 5 RBI, and two runs scored.
The early profile of Sepulveda on offense was a high contact line drive hitter whose game may translate to the upper levels. That may have to be re-evaluated as the concentration the Cubs made in the 2018 draft on contact hitters such as Nico Hoerner, Jimmy Herron, and Andy Weber, may have shifted the narrative. Coaches have consistently praised Sepulveda as an outstanding defensive second baseman, and he has shown the capability of shifting to his left and playing shortstop on occasion.
Mexican Pacific League
Yaquis de Obregon
In a win or go home game on Monday, Obregon folded under the pressure and lost 11-1 to Jalisco and with it, the Mexican Pacific League championship. The Yaquis turned to Carlos Sepulveda off the bench to lead off the ninth, and he responded with a single in his only at bat. Jalisco 11 - Obregon 1
Australian Baseball League
On Sunday, both Brisbane and Canberra decided to swing from the heels as the two combined for 9 home runs as the Bandits prevailed 9-5. Left fielder Wynton Bernard got into the fun as he was 2-for-4 with a solo home run in the second inning. Brisbane 9 - Canberra 5
In the battle for the Claxton Shield, visiting Brisbane came out on top over Perth 3-2, taking the lead in the ABL championship. Wynton Bernard doubled in the first run of the game as he was 1-for-3 with a run scored, while former Cubs prospect Ryan Searle picked up the save. Brisbane 3 - Perth 2
As the best-of-three series for the Claxton Shield moved to Game 2 on Saturday, it was win or go home for Perth. But the Heat were no match for Brisbane as the Bandits won their fourth straight ABL title with a 9-4 victory. Left fielder Wynton Bernard to the win by going 1-for-3 with a walk, a double, and a run scored. Tim Atherton struck out ten while giving up four earned runs in eight innings, with Ryan Searle nailing down the win in the ninth. Brisbane 9 - Perth 4