The Minor League season starts tomorrow and once again, I'm here to bring you every game by the Cubs affiliates. For those of you who don't know me, I'm the masochist that writes up recaps of every single Cubs minor league game. (OK. Technically I don't write up the Dominican Summer League games.) So while I know that we're all excited about the major league team this year, I ask that you continue to keep an eye on the minor league system. After all, the Cubs are a huge organization and every piece is dedicated to bringing multiple World Series titles to Wrigley Field. The minor league system is going to be just as important this season as it was in the past, either through promotions to fill in holes or as players to use as trade bait over the summer.
I also put updates on the Cubs Minor League games on Twitter, and you can follow me at @Cubsminorswrap. I don't watch the games every day, but I do watch the majority of games and you can get more information from me there, so I do ask that you follow me.
If you're interested in watching the games, you are in luck. All four full-season minor league teams put all of their home games on milb.tv, which you can purchase for $50 for a full season of games. The Iowa Cubs have all of their road games streamed and the Tennessee Smokies have most of the road games also on video. The quality of all the Cubs broadcasts are quite good, although sometimes the road broadcasts are a little iffy. Just don't expect major league production values anywhere.
If you don't want to pay for video, you can listen to the radio call of every game for free at milb.com.
I start my preview of the four Cubs minor league teams with a look at the South Bend Cubs, who play a short drive away from Wrigley Field. The South Bend Cubs play in the Midwest League, which is a "Low-A" league, meaning it is the lowest rung of the four full-season minor league teams. (There are two short-season teams below them that start play in June.)
The South Bend Cubs play at Four Winds Field, which got a major renovation the winter before last and from all accounts, is a superior place to watch a ballgame. They also play on the road in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.
The South Bend Cubs play the West Michigan Whitecaps tomorrow night at home.
Coaches: The SB Cubs are managed for the second straight season by Jimmy Gonzalez, who led the team to a 65-72 record last season. They were much better in the second-half than the first, however. David Rosario is the pitching coach. Rosario is in his 12th season in the Cubs organization and served as the pitching coach for Myrtle Beach last season.
Guillermo Martinez is the hitting coach after coaching with Double-A Tennessee last year. He's in his third season with the Cubs organization. Ricardo Medina is the assistant hitting coach and he's worked with the Cubs in various positions since 1999.
Mike McNulty is the trainer and Ed Kohl is the strength and conditioning coach. I will say this is a big change in the organization from the Tribune days, when they didn't have assistant hitting coaches nor full-time strength and conditioning coaches.
Pitchers: I'll start with the pitching because I always do and besides, it will probably be the strength of the SB Cubs this season. I'll start with "the twins," Carson Sands and Justin Steele. They aren't actually related, but they're very similar tall left-handed pitchers, taken in the 4th and 5th rounds of the 2014 draft. Sands is from Tallahassee and Steele is from Southern Mississippi, not far from Mobile, Alabama. Both throw in the 92-94 range and use a curve as their second-best pitch. Sands is a little bigger and Steele is a little more athletic. Steele had a little better results in Eugene last year and misses more bats. Sands has more room to improve. But it's OK if you get them confused sometimes and they're both Top 20 prospects in my pre-season rankings.
I'm going to mention someone not on the team because I know I'm going to be asked about him. Oscar De La Cruz was the pride of the Eugene Emeralds last season and drew rave reviews from the prospect mavens. However, he's starting the season in Extended Spring Training and I assume he'll get assigned to South Bend when the Cubs feel he's ready.
Canadian Ryan Kellogg will probably start for South Bend. He's big (6'6", 230) which allows him to get a good angle coming to the plate. There's some upside there, although he didn't really shine in Eugene last year.
Kyle Twomey was a third-round pick by the Athletics out of high school, but he didn't sign and went to Southern California, where his stuff just didn't progress much. The Cubs took the lefty in the 12th round in 2015 and he had a strong debut in Eugene, striking out almost a batter an inning and putting up an ERA of 2.35, although it should be mentioned he walked too many batters. His best pitch is probably his changeup.
Preston Morrison is another interesting arm who will make the Opening Night start for the SB Cubs, although If he has a major league future, it will probably be in the pen. Morrison relies on a lot of deception and breaking pitches to compensate for his below-average velocity. But he did strike out 30 batters and walked only 3 in 22.1 innings in Eugene last year. He also only allowed two runs. So something is working.
Right-handers James Norwood and Michael Wagner return to South Bend this season. Every other pitcher was in Eugene last year. Norwood is big and throws hard, but the results were just so-so last year. Wagner has been a reliever who relies on his slider. This is his third year in the Midwest League, although last season the Cubs did bounce him around to fill in holes and he got knocked around a bit in Triple-A.
Scott Frazier is a tall, 6'7" right-hander who really hasn't stayed healthy since the Cubs drafted him in 2013. There's a lot of potential there, but he's pitched a grand total of 31 innings over the past three seasons in the minors. And only 11 over the past two seasons.
Venezuelan right-handers Adbert Alzolay and Greyfer Eregua were both very good out of the pen for Eugene last summer. Neither one of them is very big so as short right-handers, they're probably set for pen work.
Catchers: Ian Rice is the South Bend Cubs only full-time catcher. He showed a good eye but little power in Eugene last summer.
Luckily, Rice won't have to catch every game. Tyler Alamo is a C/1B player who hit .261 with a .338 OBP last summer in Eugene. Unfortunately, only one of his 36 hits was an extra-base hit, and that was a double.
P.J. Higgins was a 12th round pick and played only infield last summer, but he did catch some at Old Dominion and he's going to be a full- or at least most-time catcher this year. Higgins has some potential as a hitter, as he hit .299/.351/.445 between Mesa and Eugene last summer. If he can prove he can catch, he'll be someone to keep an eye on.
Infielders: The South Bend infield isn't as good as the outfield (saving the best for last), but there are guys to watch. Second baseman Andrew Ely tore up the Northwest League and got a promotion to South Bend last year, where he was overmatched at the plate. (.196/.235/.294) He'll try again this year. First baseman Matt Rose, an 11th round pick last summer, did much better after he got promoted to South Bend, hitting over .300, but it was in only 14 games. Rose was a big power hitter in college and pretty much checks off all the boxes that you're looking for in a first baseman, except that he's right-handed.
Mexican middle-infielder Carlos Sepulveda makes the jump from rookie ball, where he demonstrated an ability to get on base and steal bases, but not any power to speak of. Bryant Flete had a miserable season at the plate last year but in fairness, he got sent to Double-A Tennessee mostly to fill in for injured players. He should do better at this level.
Outfielder: Now we're talking. I haven't scanned any other Midwest League rosters yet, but there aren't going to be many that have the kind of talent the Cubs are putting out here. Cuban outfielder Eddy Julio Martinez was the top international prospect last summer and signed with the Cubs for $3 million, but only after reports had him signing with the Giants first. He'll make his minor league debut tomorrow night. Martinez is a great athlete (so I hear) with great bat speed and control (so I hear) with the possibility of playing all three outfield positions. (so I hear). Let's be honest: Martinez is all legend at this point. He's not as good a prospect as Jorge Soler or Yasiel Puig were, but he definitely has the talent to be a major league regular someday soon.
Another big talent from the Caribbean is Dominican right fielder Eloy Jimenez. Jimenez was the top international talent in 2013, and while guys like Gleyber Torres have passed him in the prospect rankings, Jimenez is still highly regarded. Jimenez has the prototypical right fielder projection: big power hitter with a good arm. He'll also strike out a lot. Last year in Eugene, Jimenez hit .284/.328/.418 with 7 home runs in 57 games as an 18 year-old. The Midwest League is hard to hit home runs in, especially in April, so South Bend should provide a good test for him.
Joining those two, probably in left field, is Donnie Dewees, the Cubs' second-round pick from last year. Whereas Jimenez is about power and Martinez is about line drives into the gap (we think), Dewees is one of those pesky little left-handed hitters who single, steal a base and score. In Eugene, Dewees hit .266/.306/.376.
Next: The Myrtle Beach Pelicans