With only one week (!) of games remaining, the minor league regular season is suddenly winding down. For the Cubs, it’s been a season of mixed results in the upper minors. Iowa has struggled record-wise, but has continually produced productive players at the major league level. Players like Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, Rob Zastryzny, Carl Edwards Jr., and Felix Pena have come up and made meaningful (and in some cases, vital) contributions towards the Cubs’ success this year. Tennessee, too, has struggled, but it has passed players like the aforementioned Zastryzny and Jeimer Candelario onto higher levels. Now, we’ll see which players remaining on these rosters are deemed to be useful to the Cubs in September, and maybe into October.
Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) (63-75)
So who could still be called up as rosters expand? Albert Almora Jr. is the surest. He returned from a nagging thumb injury last week and has since posted six hits in five games back. His .730 OPS on the season is solid if not spectacular, but he certainly can and will provide defensive value down the stretch.
We briefly saw switch-hitting third baseman Jeimer Candelario in Chicago this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him rejoin the big league Cubs at some point in September. Since joining Iowa midseason, Candelario has been I-Cubs’ undisputed best hitter. He’s OPSed .941 and shown his trademark approach (34 walks to only 49 Ks) and some nice power (nine homers in just 241 at-bats). He’s knocking on the door of the majors, and he is still only 22. The only question now is how he’ll fit into the Cubs future plans.
Zastryzny (spelled it right on the first try, this time) and Pena are already up, but we might also see the return of Spencer Patton in September. As shaky as Patton has been in the MLB this year, there is no question that he has been utterly dominant at the Triple-A level. On the year, he has a 0.77 ERA, with 57 strikeouts in only 35 innings, the sort of stats that we only see out of the best of the best at the next level. He, along with Armando Rivero (2.22 ERA, 105 Ks in 65 innings) could conceivably get other bullpen arms some rest in September without much of a drop-off.
Tennessee Smokies (Double-A) (56-77)
It’s been a long season for the Smokies in general, but some recent pitching promotees have performed well. Zach Hedges, in particular, acquitted himself well at High-A, and so far has a 2.23 ERA/1.09 WHIP, with a sterling 3.58 ground out/air out ratio through 40 1/3 innings. This groundball-heavy pitching has been consistent for Hedges through the minors, and is a skill that keeps the 23-year-old on our radar going forward.
2015 first-rounder Ian Happ has hit a few speedbumps at Double-A, where his OPS is now down to .717 overall. This isn’t terrible, but the last several college first rounders selected by the Cubs set a particularly high bar. He’s homered twice over the past week, however, and there is still plenty of time to figure out minor league pitching. Happ has the luxury of not being in a rush, but his development is still very much something Cubs fans should keep an eye on.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (78-55)
While teams in the upper minors have struggled record-wise, all three of the Cubs’ A-ball teams have clinched playoff berths, with Myrtle Beach being the most recent to do so. This is great news for at least four reasons: 1) It extends the development time for young players, 2) it exposes them to higher-pressure playoff baseball, 3) it suggests that the Cubs’ system is still brimming with talent in the lower minors, and 4) playoff baseball is fun and a good in itself.
There’s other good news in Myrtle Beach, too—the Cubs have signed a four-year extension with the Pelicans, which will keep them in the system through at least 2020. The team draws extremely well for an A-ball team, has excellent facilities, and now has clinched a sixth consecutive playoff berth. Continuity is something to strive for in an organization, and the Cubs have locked up a little piece of it here.
The Pelicans’ pitching rotation has served as the backbone of the team’s success all year, and, fittingly, starting pitcher Trevor Clifton was rewarded last week with the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year award. Clifton, 21, was a twelfth-round pick in 2013, and seems to really be putting it together in his third full year in the system. This year, he’s pitched to a 2.72 ERA, with 129 strikeouts in 119 innings. Considering his age and success at a relatively high level, you could see him towards the back end of organizational top-10 lists next year.
David Bote and Bryant Flete are both reasonably recent additions to the Myrtle Beach roster, each having started the season in South Bend, but they are both making an impact. The two middle infielders lead all current Pelicans in OPS with a .921 and .869 respectively, and have shown consistent offensive improvement throughout the year. Each player is 23 and therefore has limited upside, but for late-round draft picks, they have each acquitted themselves well in the organization. And on Tuesday, Flete singled in Bote for an 11th-inning 1-0 walk-off win. Keep an eye on their placement next year, because even guys with utility upside in the MLB can be valuable assets.
South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (80-54)
South Bend has played great baseball all year, and clinched a playoff berth in the first half. But Eloy Jimenez just kept on hitting, which this week resulted in his being named the Midwest League MVP. With a week to go, Jimenez is slashing .331/.371/.536 on the year with 14 homers. His potential is quickly being realized, and the Cubs (and prospect lists) are sure to move him along next year. He might, at this point and at age 19, be the most exciting hitter in the minor league system.
Ryan Kellogg has been stellar all year for South Bend, leading their staff with 101 strikeouts in 124 and 2/3 innings. He has also strongly limited walks (only 26) and home runs (only eight). Casey Bloomquist began starting in June and has maintained a 2.95 ERA in 11 starts since then, with an excellent 1.05 WHIP. These are two more “volume” arms from recent drafts who have done nothing but pitch well since entering the system—now we just wait for one of them to take the next step.
Eugene Emeralds (Short Season A) (51-19)
Since I last wrote, the Emeralds wrapped up a 15-game winning streak, and have currently started another five-gamer, and this is all after they won the first half title going away. So their absurdly good record shouldn’t surprise you, and neither should the fact that they long ago clinched a playoff berth. With only a week left in the year, let’s take a look at who has driven this success.
I’ll forgive you if you haven’t heard of Trent Giambrone, a second baseman who was drafted in 25th-round this year, but he’s led the Emeralds with a .854 OPS since joining them midseason. At his age, this isn’t quite as exciting, but it’s always good to see draft picks succeed quickly in the system. Behind him is a cadre of players who hit solidly at year, including 19-year-old Wladimir Galindo (eight homers) and 2015 fourth-round pick D.J. Wilson, who had 19 steals.
But the pitching in Eugene is really what has launched them. Dylan Cease, the 20-year-old who can throw 100, has eleven starts and a 2.50 ERA, with 56 strikeouts in 39 and 2/3 innings. On Tuesday, he had maybe his best start of the season, going five scoreless innings with eight strikeouts total. But he’s been eclipsed by 21-year-old lefty Manuel Rondon, who has a 1.20 ERA over 52 and 1/3 innings and 11 starts. Rondon only has 42 Ks, and he has a good but not spectacular ground ball rate, but he hasn’t allowed more than two runs in any start, so presumably soft contact and a good BABIP are boosting his numbers.
Some other high-performing Emeralds like Andruw Monasterio and Oscar de la Cruz have already moved on, so it is great to see the lower levels of the Cubs’ system still churning out talent. One might even say that this talent is coming in ‘waves.’
BP Top 10 Updates (season-to-date performance at current level)
Gleyber Torres (traded)
2. Willson Contreras, C, MLB – 200 AB, .270 AVG, .808 OPS, 21 BB, 51 K, 9 HR
3. Ian Happ, 2B, AA – 220 AB, .259 AVG, .717 OPS, 20 BB, 53 K, 6 HR
Billy McKinney (traded)
5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, Low-A – 445 AB, .258 AVG, .723 OPS, 48 BB, 110 K, 10 HR
6. Dylan Cease, P, Short Season A – 39.2 IP, 2.50 ERA, .190 AVG, 1.29 WHIP, 25 BB, 56 K
7. Albert Almora, OF, AAA – 304 AB, .309 AVG, .744 OPS, 8 BB, 41 K, 4 HR
8. Duane Underwood Jr., P, AA – 58.2 IP, 4.91 ERA, .280 AVG, 1.65 WHIP, 31 BB, 46 K
Underwood has made three recent rehab appearance with South Bend, and has pitched to a 2.08 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 8 and 2/3 innings.
9. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Low-A – 429 AB, .331 AVG, .907 OPS, 25 BB, 894 K, 14 HR
10. Carl Edwards, Jr., P, MLB – 25.2 IP, 3.16 ERA, .118 AVG, 0.78 WHIP, 10 BB, 35 K