After a disappointing 2018 season, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans will feature a dozen returning players, but that group being asked to repeat the High-A level still includes a few top prospects such as Aramis Ademan and Alex Lange. They will also be bolstered by a strong contingent coming up from South Bend led by Miguel Amaya, who many observers feel is the top prospect in the Cubs system. Two starting pitchers originally projected to help anchor the Pelicans staff will begin the year on the injured list (Brendon Little and Erich Uelmen) but can hopefully still contribute this season.
That isn't all though. Since last June I've stated many times how impressive the Cubs 2018 draft haul appears, and how important it could be for restocking the system. Well, three members of that class (Paul Richan, Luke Reynolds, Jimmy Herron) will begin their first full year of professional ball with the Pelicans. You could even include a fourth guy in that list as undrafted free agent Grant Fennell is a late addition to the Pelicans squad. Another few players, Andy Weber and Tyler Durna among them, nearly made the squad and could be among the first wave of promotions from South Bend during the course of the season. These numbers are particularly impressive given the Cubs top pick (Nico Hoerner) will be skipping High-A entirely, and the club's next two picks were a pair of prep outfielders.
Top prospects to watch: Two years ago Aramis Ademan and Miguel Amaya were a pair of exciting 18-year olds expected to make waves with the Eugene Emeralds as high profile signings from the Cubs 2015 IFA class. Ademan jumped out of the gates to earn NWL All-Star honors that season before a late promotion to South Bend. His performance was enough for Baseball America and other outlets to rank him as the top prospect in the Cubs system at that time. Amaya, on the other hand, struggled at the plate with Eugene (.228/.266/.338). While he impressed me with his advanced skills for his age behind the dish, and the above average raw strength and approach he flashed offensively, most outlets took a lukewarm view of him as a prospect last offseason. I considered the two neck and neck however in terms of their ultimate ceiling and long-term potential.
Flash forward to last spring and the Cubs decided to aggressively push the still teenaged Ademan all the way to Myrtle Beach last season, making him one of the youngest players in the Carolina League. Although he showed off improved plate discipline, his lack of physical maturity showed, and the youngster struggled to produce on offense throughout the season. Meanwhile, Amaya was given the less aggressive, but still advanced-for-his-age posting to South Bend. Low and behold, Amaya would break out with nine home runs and a .288/.365/.500 first half line to garner not just MWL All-Star honors but an invitation to the Futures Game. He also leapfrogged Ademan on all Cubs prospect lists.
Now, the two will be teammates once again. Amaya carries all the momentum despite a second half offensive swoon, while some have soured on Ademan. It is important to keep in mind though, that only one was put into a situation to succeed last year. They will be on equal footing once again and fans shouldn't be surprised if it is Ademan that shows greater progress in 2019 while Amaya stalls a bit. Regardless of their head-to-head production this year, both remain in the team's long term plans.
Joining them as a fixture in the lineup will be 2018 3rd round pick Jimmy Herron. The young outfielder showed impressive pitch recognition and bat control as he made his way up to South Bend last season. An elbow injury kept him from seeing much time in centerfield with Duke before and in the Cubs system after the draft, but I would expect to see his playing time increase their this season. Herron has nice blend of contact ability and plate discipline that makes him an intriguing top of the order hitter, that can also surprise with a bit of pop on occasion. It will be important for his development to build a defensive profile beyond leftfield.
Others: Competing with Herron for time in centerfield will be D.J. Wilson. The athletic outfielder has been plagued by nagging injury and near constant adjustments to his swing and approach. They'll be joined in the outfield by speedster Zach Davis as well as Kevonte Mitchell. Davis is probably the second fastest runner in the system behind Fernando Kelli. Mitchell has long been a sleeper prospect as a former two-sport prep star like D.J. Wilson but as he has continued to grow and add weight Mitchell has lost some of his speed without adding much in terms of power. This year will likely be make or break for him. If he does not turn some of his potential into production his time with the organization could be short.
Expect plenty of shuffling around Ademan in the infield for the Pelicans this season. After missing all of 2018 and much of 2017 due to various injuries Carlos Sepulveda returns to Myrtle Beach where he will attempt to restart his development. The undersized infielder showed off impressive bat-to-ball skills as a teenager with South Bend in 2016 before his career was sidetracked. He figures to share second base with Johnny Bethencourt. He too has flashed a solid hit tool while also seeing his 2018 season cut short due to injury. Former MWL All-Star Yeiler Peguero will likely bounce around to all three infield spots.
There also figures to be a playing time split at the corners between 2018 draftee Luke Reynolds and incumbent third baseman Wladimir Galindo. Both are more suited to first, but the club will keep their options open with them at the hot corner. Each will need to hit their way to the Majors however. The lefty swinging Reynolds combines good plate discipline with a gap-to-gap approach that bodes well for his chances to translate his 2018 collegiate success to the professional ranks. Galindo will need to make major strides with both his approach and ability to lift the ball if he wants to tap into his above average raw power on a consistent basis.
LF Jimmy Herron
SS Aramis Ademan (L)
C Miguel Amaya
3B Luke Reynolds (L)
1B Wladimir Galindo
2B Carlos Sepulveda (L)/Johnny Bethencourt
RF Kevonte Mitchell/Zach Davis (S)
CF D.J. Wilson (L)
Bench: IF Yeiler Peguero (S), C/IF Cam Balego, OF/1B Grant Fennell, C Tyler Payne
Top prospects to watch: In a bit of a surprise, former 1st round pick Alex Lange will return to the Pelicans rotation to begin 2019. His first year with the squad featured some ups-and-downs but overall was a solid showing. He retains his good curveball and made great strides with his changeup, however he failed to regain any of the lost velocity on his fastball, which remains a big concern moving forward. It would provide a big boost of confidence to see him sit more consistently in the low-90s and touch higher as he did with LSU.
Few recent Cubs draftees put together a post-draft performance on the mound quite like 2018 2nd round pick Paul Richan did with Eugene. Using advanced glove side command and a solid four pitch mix he absolutely ate up hitters at that level over the final two months. It is not a surprise to see him skipping A-ball and moving directly into the Pelicans rotation to open 2019. There were reports Richan failed to maintain his velocity over the course of his collegiate campaign last year so I am curious to see how that plays out for him in his first full professional season.
The Pelicans rotation took a couple of hits late in Spring Training as both Erich Uelmen and Brendon Little will begin 2019 on the shelf. They are two of the higher upside arms the Cubs drafted in their college pitching heavy 2017 class. I do not have information on their injuries or a timetable for their returns at this juncture. We just need to hope for this best at this point that both injuries are minor.
Others: For years I've warned fans to expect a roller coaster experience if they pay close attention to the results from former 3rd round pick Bryan Hudson. It is typical for pitchers of his size (6'8") to take a long time to work through their mechanics and discover any consistency. Those expectation change this season. Not only will he be repeating the High-A level, but the soon-to-be 22-year old is now entering his fourth full professional season. It is reasonable to expect more consistent results and stuff out of the big left-hander in 2019.
Rounding out the Myrtle Beach rotation will be Erling Moreno and his power sinker, as well as Javier Assad and his solid but unspectacular four pitch mix. Both likely end up as relievers down the road, but will continue to receive starting opportunities for the foreseeable future, although with Moreno becoming Rule 5 eligible again this offseason, the Cubs may start speeding up his timetable and a move to pen at some point this season could be in the cards.
Bryan Hudson (L)
Potential Piggybacks: Brendan King, Jesus Camargo, Luis Lugo (L)
Ryan Kellogg (L)
It will be an interesting mix of arms in the Pelicans bullpen this season. Manuel Rodriguez and Garrett Kelly possess mid-90s fastballs while flashing good spin on their breaking pitches but both suffered from poor control last season. If one or both throw strikes they'll become arms of greater interest moving forward. Tyler Peyton has a solid two seamer and experience in a variety of roles. Ben Hecht relies heavily on a wipeout slider but his command and middling fastball held him back in 2018. I received some encouraging reports on him this spring, however. If all else fails, Brian Glowicki can be relied upon as a rock for the club. His stuff is average but he knows how to use it while also keeping it on the edges.