The second stop in our tour around the minor leagues is the Myrtle Beach Pelicans of the Carolina League. The Pelicans are the High-A team in the Cubs system, or the next step up from the South Bend Cubs. And that means if you went out to South Bend last summer, most of the guys you saw out there will be in Myrtle Beach this summer.
If you want to watch or listen to the Pelicans games, you're in luck as all the home games are available on MiLB.tv and even some of the road games, if you're willing to listen to the opposing announcers. Speaking of which, the new announcer of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans is Scott Kornberg, who did a good job as the broadcaster of the Winston-Salem Dash last season. Kornberg is also the voice of Western Illinois football and basketball, so he knows what Cubs fans are like. You can always listen to Scott for free on the audio call on the Pelicans website or milb.com
The Pelicans play at TicketReturn.com Field, which has it's own replica of the Wrigley marquee and its own beach. If you're in South Carolina this summer, be sure to go.
Did I mention that the Pelicans are the defending Carolina League champions? No? Well, they are.
Coaches: The Pelicans are managed by minor league legend Buddy Bailey, who managed the Tennessee Smokies the past four seasons. Bailey has been coaching in the minors since 1983 and has an overall record of 1848-1716 over the course of his long career.
The pitching coach will be Anderson Tavarez, who served as the pitching coach for short-season Eugene last year. Tavarez pitched in the Cubs system from 2000 to 2005 and has been working in the Cubs system as a coach or instructor since 2007.
Returning to Myrtle Beach from last season is hitting coach Mariano Duncan, who had a 12 year major league career, mostly with the Dodgers, Reds and Phillies. He joined the Cubs system in 2011 after serving five years as the Dodgers first base coach. Juan Cabreja will be an assistant coach, responsible for pretty much everything that needs to be done. Cabreja has been coaching in the Cubs system since 2004, including three season managing the rookie ball club in Mesa and one year managing the Dominican Summer League team.
Toby Williams is the trainer and Jason Morris is the strength and conditioning coach.
Pitchers: Right-hander Jonathan Martinez will get the start tomorrow night as the Pelicans start the season at home against Frederick. The Cubs got Martinez from the Dodgers for Darwin Barney in 2014 and is returning to the Pelicans after winning the Carolina League ERA title last season with a 2.56 mark. Martinez doesn't get a lot of strikeouts, but he doesn't walk many either and thrives on weak contact. He'll be looking for a promotion to Double-A soon.
Game 2 starter is Zach Hedges, who made 22 starts for South Bend last year and had a 4.25 ERA. The 6'4" right-hander uses his size to get a good downward movement on his pitches.
Going in game three is Trevor Clifton, who is probably the best prospect among the pitchers on the Pelicans this summer. Clifton throws 93 to 95 on his fastball and has flashed a strong slider and changeup, although he consistency is certainly an issue for him. Clifton did strike out 103 batters in 108 innings at South Bend last season, although we'd like to see him cut back on the 47 walks he issued.
Game 4 will be started by Venezuelan right-hander Erick Leal, who made 23 starts for South Bend and had a 3.85 ERA. The game 5 start is expected to go to Jake Stinnett, the Cubs second-round pick in 2014. Stinnett throws hard, but he had a poor 2015 in South Bend and will be looking to get untracked this season. Finally, the Pelicans are going with a six-man rotation this summer, and Tommy Thorpe is expected to be the sole left-hander in the rotation. Thorpe was very good as a starter last season, posting a 2.08 ERA over 12 starts, although his overall numbers were brought down by his relief appearances. So maybe it's best he's in the rotation for now.
The Pelicans pitching depth extends to their bullpen. Sidearmer David Berg returns to Myrtle Beach after recording four saves there last year. He was drafted by the Cubs in the 6th round last year and holds the single-season NCAA saves record when he got 24 for UCLA in 2013. Obviously Berg doesn't throw hard, but his sidearm approach can give hitters fits from the right side.
Dillon Maples finally reaches High-A after the Cubs gave him a $2.5 million bonus to keep him from going to North Carolina in 2011. Since then, he's been nothing but a disappointment and he's never been able to harness his wild delivery enough to throw strikes. However, reports of him from Spring Training were that he's looked better than ever and is finally locating his fastball consistently for strikes. He did finish the 2015 season on a positive note as well. If he's turned his career around, it would be a huge bonus.
The Cubs drafted Ryan McNeil in the 3rd round in 2012 with high hopes, but he was quickly derailed by Tommy John surgery. Last year was McNeil's first full season back from surgery and he thrived in a relief role for South Bend. He's a full-time reliever now, but he has a future again.
Right-hander James Farris and lefty Tyler Ihrig return to Myrtle Beach from last year. Daury Torrez was a starter for the Pelicans last year, but it looks like he's going to be pitching in relief for now. He may end up back in the rotation sometime this season.
Catchers: There are some interesting catchers on the Pelicans, all vying for playing time. Big Cael Brockmeyer finished the season with Myrtle Beach last season and he's got some power, hitting 9 home runs in 386 at-bats last year.
Gioskar Amaya was a top infield prospect in the Cubs system a few years ago, but he made the transition to catching last year and while there were a few growing pains, for the most part it was a successful transition. He hit .276 with a .379 OBP for High-A Daytona in 2014 as a second baseman, so if he can do something similar at the same level as a catcher this season, that would be a good thing. He also has excellent speed for a catcher and he stole 17 bases last season. His fellow Venezuelan Erick Castillo returns to Myrtle Beach as the third catcher.
Infielders: What an infield. The big news here is that last year's first-round pick, Ian Happ, is reporting to Myrtle Beach as a second baseman. We'll see how well he does there and how much outfield he plays, but he's a natural hitter who could have an all-star future if he can stick at second.
As interesting as Happ is, he's not even the best prospect in the Pelicans middle infield. That goes to the Cubs number one prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres. Torres hit .293 for South Bend as an 18 year-old last season and plays solid defense at short. He got a late-season call-up to Myrtle Beach last season and was starting for the team throughout their successful playoff run. At only 19, he's got plenty of upside and will be the first player teams ask for when the Cubs try to make a trade this summer. I think Theo and Jed will try to keep him around.
You may have seen Cuban Yasiel Balaguert hit a monster home run in spring training. When Balaguert connects, the ball just flies off his bat. He's mostly been an outfielder in the Cubs system before, but it sounds like he's going to be playing a lot of first base this season.
Daniel Lockhart returns to Myrtle Beach this season after struggling at the plate last year. The son of Cubs scout and former Braves infielder Keith Lockhart, he's pretty much a carbon copy of his dad. Jason Vosler is a guy who can play all four infield positions and has some pop at the plate, hitting 10 home runs in 107 games between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. David Bote is the consummate utility guy who hit .251/.328/.384 for South Bend last year and even pitched in four games.
Outfielders: The outfield isn't quite as interesting as the infield, but there are some guys to watch here. Right fielder Jeffrey Baez, who got a reputation as a "troll J. Baez" when both he and Javier were down in the minors, is actually a right fielder with an interesting power/speed combination. Last season with South Bend, he hit .284/.324/.427 with nine home runs and 34 steals in 101 games at South Bend. He did get a short late-season callup to Myrtle Beach last year. I think Baez is someone whose power could really develop in Myrtle Beach.
Rashad Crawford makes the jump to High-A after a successful season in South Bend. He hit 280/.322/.382 with 20 steals and can play all three outfield positions, although he's primarily a center fielder. He's not much of a power hitter, but he can get some doubles and his speed can turn some of them into triples. Charcer Burks is a lot like Crawford, except he bats from the right side. Burks returns to Myrtle Beach after hitting .257/.339/.347 with 28 steals in 107 games.
Shawon Dunston Jr. clearly has the most famous name of anyone on the Pelicans. He returns to Myrtle Beach after missing most of last season with an injury. Other than the name and the athleticism, I guess, Dunston's not much like his famous father. He's a left-handed hitting outfielder with a good arm, but nothing like his dad's arm. He can also draw a walk, which I've often joked he must have inherited from his mother.
Trey Martin is the final Pelicans outfielder who returns to Myrtle Beach after struggling at the plate last season, hitting only .239/.281/.307. He's a defensive specialist so he doesn't have to hit that well, but he has to hit better than than.
Tomorrow: The Tennessee Smokies and the Iowa Cubs. Also, Opening Night.