In the recap of the Midwest League clincher, someone asked why the Kane County Cougars were so good this year. Not to sound like one of those ubiquitous middle-managers, politicos, or human resource people, but that's a really good question. As I listened to as many innings of the Cougars this year as most people, and took in more than a few games in person, I decided to take a shot at answering it. However, as I took it on as a a serious writing project, I realized that answering the question of why the Cougars were so good this year required a deeper look than I initially thought. Thus, this retrospective on the 2014 Cubs minor league system will be a three-part project.
It wasn't supposed to be Kane County. They were a rather shaky team in 2013, in part on lack of pitching depth, and in part due very shaky defense. The incoming class wasn't perceived as that much of a standout for the Cougars. This year was supposed to be about Iowa. Javier Baez was supposed to club the Pacific Coast League into submission, and get Cubs fans really upset that he wasn't getting called up until mid-to-late July. Alas, he struggled mightily at his fifth of six minor league stops. (Only in the Midwest League did he hit well from the start.) Baez' hitting struggles were apparently caught by the other hitters, as Iowa was among the league's worst hitting teams. Nonetheless, they hung tight in a very mediocre division on generally strong pitching. Between Kyle Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada, Dallas Beeler and others, the I-Cubs offense was enough to keep them over .500 almost the whole season, which was enough to keep them playoff eligible until late in the schedule.
Eventually, they were done in by their top pitchers getting called up to the parent club, which is as good of a reason as any for a Triple-A squad to fall out of the hunt. The offense eventually caught some life in July when Manny Ramirez, Kris Bryant, and Jorge Soler showed up. While Ramirez didn't hit much, he helped the others in Des Moines to do so. Bryant and Soler were solid in Triple-A, but the team had just enough weaknesses and slumps to miss the post-season.
It was really nice to see generally good pitching for the Iowa Cubs. That hasn't been a consistent happening since I've been following. Any time I see good pitching in the system, it's good thing. Hopefully this continues. Bryant deserves the accolades he's receiving as MiLB Player of the Year.
It was supposed to be about Tennessee. Bryant and a solid starting pitcher every day was supposed to turn the Smokies into a juggernaut. Two things prevented a playoff appearance. One was injuries. Soler couldn't survive opening night healthy. The pitching staff was throttled by injuries. The injuries were apparent, early and late. The injuries didn't do the Smokies in though. That was saved for the bullpen.
In a couple of key late-season tilts, the Smokies had a healthy divisional lead, and a lead late in the game. Alas, the win wasn't reeled in. In too many situations, the bullpen came up lacking. Coughing up big leads late in a pennant race can do damage that mushrooms into the next night. Needing to win a series at the end of the season, pitchers were one injury away from playing in the field. The hitting disappeared as well, with too many guys called up late to replace guys in Iowa. The season wasn't a total botch, as the Smokies finished second (of five teams) in both halves. That wasn't enough for a post-season shot, however.
It was supposed to be about Daytona, as the defending champs were supposed to be a serious threat again. For three months, that wasn't the case. The pitching was too often dinged or sub-standard early on. Piecing together a rotation was a chore through the first half. Aided by the trade for Billy McKinney, the D-Cubs rode a lefty-hitting dominant starting line-up that sometimes rolled with nine lefty swingers. Kyle Schwarber had a late-season hot streak that bordered on uncanny, and the offense carried through to the post-season.
But only so far.
Rob Zastryzny's statistics for the season will never look pretty. Through the first half of the year, he displayed the difference between control (pitching in the zone) and command (pitching where you want to in the zone). Early in the season, his first pitch strikes were getting pounded, a trend that was rectified later in the season. The pitching was rarely right for too many nights in a row, but Zack Godley did a nice job closing games out.
Most of the usual suspects figure to advance to Tennessee next year, hopefully limiting some of the depth problem from 2014.
Short-season Boise started off with a bang, as Schwarber pounded four homers in the team's first five-game series before heading to Kane County. Sometimes, they were much better than the opposing pitcher. Sometimes, the pitcher was better. However, the Hawks always battled. The first few times they gave up bunches of runs in the first inning, they fought back to win. As the Cubs plan is to slowly develop pitching draft picks, other teams often benefited more from the June draft than the Hawks.
Eventually, the new pitchers provided enough support for the Hawks to make a late post-season run and qualify for the post-season. It was a short stay in the playoffs, but there are names for the future. And in short-season ball, it's mostly about names. Many of the players debuting at the Northwest League level, I haven't heard the player's name pronounced. The knowledge I have for many of them could as well be housed on a blank index card. Listening to Boise games tells me more that I don't know at any level. Alas, some of what I've learned through the years on many is that they won't advance much more.
One factoid that explains the Hawks better than any other is that Charlie White was credited with two wins in two relief appearances. White is an outfielder. Even when the team ran out of pitchers, using a position player out of emergency, the Hawks kept giving a full-effort. This is a good sign for the future.
In Part 2: How the Cougars hit their way to a title.