The Cubs minor league season starts on Thursday. Interest in the Cubs minor leagues have skyrocketed since I first started doing this in 2007, and this year is likely to be the biggest ever. So today we'll start our previews of the four full-season minor league teams with a look at the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
Who? If you haven't been paying attention over the offseason, after 22 years, the Cubs moved their High-A affiliate out of Daytona and the Florida State League and in to Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League. The main reason for this was weather, as the late-summer rains in Florida played havoc on the schedule and thus, on player development. It will rain in the Carolina League, but the hope is that there will be fewer rainouts and fewer doubleheaders in the new league.
An added bonus around here is that the new league will force me to come up with new puns for all the teams. Plus, the Carolina League has affiliates with the Red Sox, Orioles and Nationals, which are organizations the Cubs otherwise never got a chance to face. Also, video of the games will be available on milb.tv.
The new affiliate isn't completely unknown to the Cubs players, however. They were previously a Rangers affiliate, which means players like Mike Olt, Kyle Hendricks and Neil Ramirez were all Pelicans on their way up the minors.
Who's running the team then? The team is made up mostly of last season's Kane County Cougars. You may have heard that they were pretty good. The Cougars won both halves of the Midwest League West Division season last year, finished with a 91-49 record and swept the postseason with a 7-0 record to win the Midwest League title.
The Pelicans are managed by Mark Johnson, who was the manager of that Cougars team last season. Pitching coach David Rosario moves up from Kane County along with Johnson. The hitting coach, Mariano Duncan, served in the same capacity for the Daytona Cubs last season. Chris Gutierrez is the assistant coach.
Are there top prospects to watch? There are a lot of them. While none of the Cubs very top prospects are on the Pelicans this season, they have no fewer than nine of the Cubs top 30 prospects according to Baseball America on their Opening Day roster. There are a lot of players to watch in Myrtle Beach this season.
Who will be pitching for the Pelicans? Last year's Cougars were known for their pitching, and the Pelicans are no different. Their starting rotation is headlined by the Cubs number 10 prospect, Duane Underwood and their 11th ranked prospect, Jen-Ho Tseng. Underwood is a hard-throwing right-hander with a big curve who finally lived up to expectations last season. Tseng doesn't throw as hard, but gets batters out with a changeup and plus command and control.
Right behind Underwood and Tseng is Paul Blackburn, the Cubs' 18th ranked prospect, and Daury Torrez, who checks in at number 30. Both could end up as #3 or #4 starters in the majors, although Torrez's skimpy frame may make him more suited to bullpen work.
There are a lot of choices for the final member of this rotation. Jonathan Martinez, who was very good after coming over from the Dodgers in the midseason Darwin Barney trade. He'd be a Top 30 prospect in a lot of different organizations. If not Martinez, then Tayler Scott could be starting. The South African Scott is repeating High-A after making 26 starts for Daytona last year and posting a 4.35 ERA. He's still only 22. Or maybe the final starter will be Tyler Skulina, who was promoted to Daytona last season after 18 starts for Kane County and a 3.21 ERA. He got knocked around a bit in three starts in the Florida State League, but should do better with that experience behind him.
All in all, if you go to see the Pelicans this summer and you're wondering who is pitching, the correct answer is "Doesn't matter. They're all worth seeing."
The bullpen will be solid as well. James Pugliese moved from the rotation to the bullpen in Kane County last season and took off, posting a 1.66 ERA in 54.1 innings. Starling Peralta has been in the Cubs system for what seems like forever, but he's still only 24 and he throws hard. Michael Heesch was very successful as a left-hander out of the Cougars bullpen last year.
Then there are the two big names, or rather big contracts. Both Cuban Gerardo Concepcion and Dominican Juan Paniagua signed with the Cubs for big money and both have disappointed. They'll try to live up to their potential in the Pelicans bullpen this summer.
Who will catch? Obviously catching is a sore spot in the Cubs system, but the Pelicans may have the best collection of any team in the system. Victor Caratini is a switch-hitter with good plate discipline and likely the best defensive catcher in the Cubs system, but that's mostly by default. He's still learning the position, but he's shown more aptitude for it than some of the other converted catchers in the system. He came over from the Braves last season for James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio and is ranked 13th in the Cubs system by Baseball America.
Alberto Mineo, 20, is from Italy and is making the big jump from rookie ball, where he's played the last three seasons. It's time for him to sink or swim. Ben Carhart is another converted infielder learning to catch. He hit .277 with 5 home runs between Kane County and Daytona last year in his first season as a catcher.
Who are the infielders? The biggest name here is the Cubs 24th ranked prospect, switch-hitting third baseman Jeimer Candelario. Candelario has a nice line drive stroke from both sides of the plate and he makes hard contact. Or at least he did in 2013. He started 2014 in Daytona and struggled, getting sent back down to Kane County. He's back in High-A and he'll try to return to the form that made him a top ten prospect in the Cubs system in 2012 and 2013.
Danny Lockhart is the son of Cubs scout and longtime Braves utility infielder Keith Lockhart. If you can remember Keith, you know what type of player Danny is. Lockhart could be a useful utility infielder in the majors.
Carlos Penalver is a fabulous defensive shortstop who has trouble hitting. First baseman Jacob Rogers will provide the power for the Pelicans as he hit 16 last season for Kane County. He also walks and strikes out a lot.
Andrew Ely and Wes Darvill round out the infield.
Who are the outfielders? The top prospect for the Pelicans this spring is outfielder Billy McKinney, who came over from the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija trade and was ranked by Baseball America as the sixth-best prospect in the Cubs system. He's an advanced hitter with great plate discipline and line-drive power. McKinney hit .301/390/.432 in 52 games in Daytona after the trade, although he did only hit one home run after clubbing ten for High-A Modesto in the California League. He's been compared to former Cubs outfielder Todd Hollandsworth.
Jacob Hannemann is a top athlete who is ranked 17th in the Cubs system by Baseball America. Hanneman's skills are still raw, but his plus-speed allowed him to steal 37 bases last season between Kane County and Daytona. He struggled a bit with the bat in Daytona, hitting only .241 with a .299 OBP in 36 games. He'll get another crack at High-A in Myrtle Beach.
Mark Zagunis is listed as an outfielder, which may mean the effort to leave him at catcher may be over. Despite that, he was one of my favorite draft picks from last season and he showed an advanced bat, hitting .288/.420/.420 over three levels. He may just be too fast to be a catcher, as he stole 16 bases in 18 attempts in only 57 games. As you can see from those statistics, he profiles as an ideal leadoff hitter, although probably in left field now. Baseball America ranked him as the Cubs' 15th best prospect last year.
Adding to this star-studded outfield is the fourth outfielder and biggest name among all of them, Shawon Dunston Jr. Unlike Dunston's dad, Shawon Jr. is a left-handed hitting outfielder. He had shown good plate discipline in the short-season ball, but his OBP skills took a dive in the Midwest League last year. He'll need to draw more walks if he wants to be a major league ballplayer. He does have good speed, stealing 27 bases last year.
All and all, there is a lot of speed in that outfield. Opposing catchers in the Carolina League are going to dread facing the Pelicans.
So when does this all start? The Pelicans season starts on Thursday at 6:05 as they take on the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Royals affiliate. The game will be on milb.tv or you can listen to the radio broadcast of the game for free at milb.com. Nathan Barnett, a new friend of Bleed Cubbie Blue, will handle the call for the Pelicans.
And of course, if you're in South Carolina, tickets are still available for opening night.