Good morning to everyone! Today is the next installment previewing the 2017 minor league season. Please note that the previews are based on current roster assignments and anticipated spring training success. All assignments, both as to position and level, are subject to change pending the completion of spring training.
Advanced-A – Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Can they do it for a third year in a row? In 2016, the defending Mills Cup champion had a very good team, but ran into a buzz-saw in the first half named the Salem Red Sox. Salem had two of the best prospects in all of baseball, but veteran minor league manager Buddy Bailey guided the Pelicans a second place finish in the first half. Then Myrtle Beach had the rug pulled out from under them, as three starting position players were gone (two traded, one promoted). But the Pelicans banded together behind the league’s best pitching staff, a couple of veteran minor leaguer’s stepping up as leaders, some key new additions, and the steady piloting of Bailey to win the second half, defeat Salem in the semi’s, and beat the team with the league’s second best record for the championship.
Bailey will be inheriting a core that went to the Midwest League playoffs and, more importantly, another very talented pitching staff. The question for the Cubs fans on the Atlantic shores will be, “is the third time still a charm?”
Outfield – With a minor shoulder injury shelving him for the last weeks of spring training, it is almost certain that last year’s Minor League Player of the Year Eloy Jimenez will start the year in Myrtle Beach. At the onset, the 20 year old Jimenez may be limited to DH duties, but he can be expected back out in left field as soon as his shoulder is ready. Joining the outfield in late July after being drafted in the twenty-seventh round, 23 year old Connor Myers seems to be a good fit both offensively and defensively. A speedy ball hawk in the outfield, Myers can also press for the lead-off spot in the batting order. One of the most talked about prospect this past offseason, 22 year old Eddy Julio Martinez is looking to expand on his first season stateside. The Cuban national played well in stretches in 2016 after not playing for nearly two years. Martinez has a great blend of speed and power, with the range of a centerfielder and a howitzer arm in right field. Backing all three spots looks to be 23 year old lefty Daniel Spingola. Spingola struggled a little after a June promotion to Myrtle Beach, but has impressed coaches with his no-nonsense approach. Also available will be speedy Roberto Caro. The 23 year old switch-hitter had some trouble in the Midwest League last season, but Caro also brings 80 career stolen bases in 276 career games over five years with the organization.
First Base – Unlike at other levels, Myrtle Beach will not go into the 2017 season with a regular first baseman. The player likely to get the most reps at the position will be Tyler Alamo. The 21 year old Alamo has been a slow developing prospect, but seems to have turned the corner offensively. Alamo has pretty evenly split his career between first base and catcher, so expect to see him behind the dish on occasion. As many as three other players appear to be in line for playing time at first base.
Second Base – One of the most under the radar players in the system, Carlos Sepulveda could be the biggest breakthrough prospect of 2017. With an overabundance of middle infielders, the 20 year old had to bide his time with Low-A South Bend last season. Patience paid off for Sepulveda as he not only seized the second base position, but the lead-off spot in the line-up. While the left-handed hitter put up great numbers, coaches still consider him a diamond in the rough that is capable of a lot more. These same coaches could not stop raving about Sepulveda’s ability on defense. Another lefty, 23 year old Vimael Machin is no longer considered a high level prospect, but contributes as a multi-position back-up. Machin played at three levels last season and is capable of lining up at second, short, third and left field.
Shortstop – Currently, there is no clear front runner for this position, which means it more likely will fall to, at least initially, Bryant Flete. At 24 years old, considering Flete a prospect at this point may be stretching it. Flete did see time with the Pelicans last year, has played as high as Double-A, and is coming off a decent performance in the Venezuelan Winter League. Machin is capable of backing up Flete and a decision about some of the other shortstops in the system will be most likely be made by the end of camp.
Third Base – Two players that will bring a lot of raw power to this position are a pair of 22 year olds, Jesse Hodges and Matt Rose. Signed as an undrafted free agent, Hodges has made slow but steady progress through the system. Last season, Hodges learned to cut down on his swing and improved his contact rate. An eleventh round draft pick in 2015, Rose also has a long swing that he is learning to get better control of. Both Hodges and Rose are average to above average at third base, and have experience at first base, so expect them to be in that rotation across the diamond.
Catcher – Continuing the trend from the parent club on down, the Cubs have a very athletic catching prospect in PJ Higgins. A former infielder, the 23 year old Higgins had caught only a few games in college but looked like a natural at the position last season. Higgins also makes great contact at the plate with an advanced knowledge of the strike zone. Higgins will also take a few turns at first base to give his legs a rest. There are a bevy of system catchers that play good in short stretches to back-up. Twenty-four years old Erik Castillo and Tyler Pearson, along with 22 year old lefty Alberto Mineo are available.
Starting Pitching – What looked to be a strong part of the Pelican’s squad at the start of the off-season has recently turned into a bit of a concern, as there are reports from training that some of the projected starter may not be ready for the beginning of the season. However, that problem could possibly be eased by some of the overflow from the pitching staff of Double-A Tennessee. Currently heading the rotation is 2016 top pick Thomas Hatch. The Cubs wisely kept the 22 year old off the field after signing last year due to the heavy amount of inning he picked up in the College World Series. Hatch is a control pitcher that needs to keep the ball down in order to be successful. After a trying first full season, the Cubs hope that lefty Justin Steele learned some valuable lessons and picked up some maturity. The 21 year old former fifth round pick has a great fastball, slider, change combination but command has been an issue. Flying a bit under the radar, 22 year old Adbert Alzolay was second in innings pitched for Low-A South Bend last season. Adzolay has seen an uptick in his velocity this spring, which can help him improve on an already solid WHIP of 1.222. Swinging between the rotation and the bullpen last year, it seems as if player development will be moving 23 year old Kyle Miller to the rotation on a more permanent basis. Miller put up some impressive numbers and has deceptive mid-90’s speed on his fastball.
Two of the rotation’s big guns, Oscar De La Cruz and lefty Ryan Kellogg, are currently getting stretched out and may not be ready for the opener. Although a top five Cubs prospect, there has to be some concern over the 22 year old De La Cruz after missing time with a forearm injury last season. When De La Cruz pitched, the results were pretty impressive. There may be some hesitation to push the 23 year old Kellogg following 130.2 innings in his first professional season last year. Their lack of availability may open the door for 23 year old Casey Bloomquist and 23 year old left-hander Kyle Twomey. Bloomquist was a true utility pitcher last year, starting 12 games, finishing nine, and ending up with the third most innings on the squad. Twomey began in the rotation but moved to the pen in the second half and had a 75:28 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Relief Pitching – The big news out of camp has been that prize lefty Jose Paulino has been moved from the rotation to the bullpen. The angular 21 year old was devastating for Short Season-A Eugene last year, and very good in a promotion to Low-A South Bend. But while Paulino has the stamina to start, the lack of development of an off-speed pitch warranted the move. Leading South Bend with nine saves last season, it appears that 24 year old Dillon Maples has finally gotten his career out of neutral. Drafted in 2011, Maples had always been considered one of the system’s most talented pitchers, but injuries, among other things, seemed to get in the way. South Bend had a “closer by committee” system last year, with Pedro Araujo, Craig Brooks, Jared Cheek, Greyfer Eregua, and Scott Effross racking up 17 saves between them. A big pitcher with a heavy fastball, 23 year old Araujo is looking to improve his performance after being promoted to the Pelicans last season. Twenty-four year old Brooks will have to show that he has more than age and experience to get players out in the Carolina League. Like Brooks, the 24 year old Cheek beat up some younger players to collect 11 saves between Eugene and South Bend. Able to close or pitch middle relief, 23 year old Eregua gained some valuable experience in the Venezuelan Winter League. Twenty-three year old Effross went 7-0 in 41 appearances between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. Also available will be 25 year old Daniel Lewis and 24 year old left-handed specialist John Williamson. Now in his fourth year after spending his younger days in the Air Force, Lewis is beginning to gain control of his upper 90’s fastball. Williamson gets by more on guile than pure stuff, and keeps the locker room loose with his free-styling skills.
Tags: Adbert Alzolay, Alberto Mineo, Bryant Flete, Buddy Bailey, Carlos Sepulveda, Casey Bloomquist, Connor Myers, Craig Brooks, Daniel Lewis, Daniel Spingola, Dillon Maples, Eddie Julio Martinez, Eloy Jimenez, Erick Castillo, Greyfer Eregua, Jared Cheek, Jesse Hodges, John Williamson, Jose Paulino, Justin Steele, Kyle Miller, Kyle Twomey, Matt Rose, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Oscar De La Cruz, Pedro Araujo, PJ Higgins, Roberto Caro, Ryan Kellogg, Scott Effross, Thomas Hatch, Tom U, Tyler Alamo, Tyler Pearson, Vimael Machin