The minor league season starts on Thursday so it’s time to look at the rosters of the four full-season teams of the Cubs minor league system. We’ll start with the Midwest League A-Ball club the South Bend Cubs, who are the lowest of the four full-season minor league teams.
I’ve already written a piece on why you should go see a Cubs minor league game and how to do it. So check that out if you’re interested in driving out to South Bend (or if you live out there) and want to see a game.
Who is in charge? Jimmy Gonzalez is back for his fourth season managing the South Bend Cubs and fifth in the Cubs system overall. His pitching coach is Brian Lawrence, whom you may remember as a pitcher for the Padres in the early aughts. Or maybe you don’t. In any case, it’s his third-straight season as the South Bend pitching coach and his fifth season coaching in the Cubs system. Ricardo Medina is the hitting coach. He was previously the hitting coach in South Bend in 2016 and last season he was the hitting coach for the Tennessee Smokies. Finally, Paul McAnulty is the new assistant coach for the SB Cubs, joining the organization from the Angels system, where he coached last season. You may remember him as a backup outfielder for the Padres in the late-aughts, but once again, maybe you don’t.
Pitchers: If you want to see pitching this summer, South Bend is the place to be. The top prospect is going to be Mexican right-hander Jose Albertos, coming off a season in short-season Eugene where he went 2-1 with a 2.86 ERA in eight starts. Albertos also struck out 42 batters and walked 14 in 34.2 innings. Baseball America ranks Albertos as the #3 prospect in the Cubs system and so did I. His best pitch is a nasty changeup, although he’s not a soft-tosser, sitting 93-94 mph on his fastball and touching 97 mph when he needs to. His task in South Bend is to improve his third pitch, his slider, and demonstrate that he can withstand the daily rigors of starting every fifth game over five months.
Joining Albertos is left-hander Brendon Little, last year’s first-round draft pick and the Cubs seventh-best prospect according to both BA and me. Little made six starts for Eugene last summer and he struggled with command and control, going 0-2 with a 9.37 ERA. He pitched 16.1 innings and he struck out 12 and walked nine. But if he can learn to control them, he’s got three solid major-league pitches: a low-90s fastball with good life, a tight 12-6 curve and an average change. He certainly has the potential to be a mid-rotation starter if he can manage to throw strikes.
The wealth of pitching doesn’t stop there. Right-hander Cory Abbott was last season’s second-round pick and was ranked as the #16 prospect by BA and the #18 prospect by me over the winter. Abbott made five starts for Eugene last summer and struck out 18 and walked three in 14 innings with a 3.86 ERA. Abbott has modeled his game after Mets ace Noah Syndergaard and while he doesn’t have Syndergaard’s velocity, he can come close to Thor’s movement and deception.
Right-hander Javier Assad is another top prospect from Mexico whom BA ranks as the #23 prospect in the Cubs system. Assad was a workhorse for Eugene last year, making 13 starts and throwing 66 innings. He went 5-6 with a 4.23 ERA. He struck out 72 and walked 21. His pitches don’t wow you and he projects as more of a major-league innings-eater than anything else, but that’s valuable in this day and age.
You want more pitching? Right-hander Erich Uelmen was the Cubs’ fourth-round pick last and is BA’s #27 prospect. His best pitch is a heavy, mid-90s fastball. He only pitched in relief in Eugene last summer, but he has a chance to make the rotation as he moves up the system.
Still more? Right-hander Bailey Clark is the Cubs #28 best prospect according to BA and was the Cubs fifth-round pick in 2016. He struggled in a short cameo with South Bend last year after a successful start to the season in Eugene. He’s got a good fastball and a nasty slider, but like most pitchers at this level, control is his demon. If he conquers that demon, he’s got some upside.
Other pitchers to keep an eye on in South Bend this summer include right-hander Jesus Camargo, left-hander Tyler Thomas and right-hander Elvis Diaz.
With all those pitchers, it helps to have good catchers. Miguel Amaya is the top prospect here, ranked by BA as the Cubs’ #22 prospect coming into this season. The Panamanian struggled to hit in Eugene last summer, putting up a .228/.266/.338 line, but he was only 18 years old. Now at 19, he’ll look to do better in South Bend. But his primary strength is his defensive and leadership skills. He’s a guy who will try to get the best out of his pitchers.
Michael Cruz, the Cubs seventh-round pick in 2016, is the opposite. He’s got a strong left-handed hitting stroke, hitting .282/.379/.565 in Eugene, but he struggles with the defensive side of the game.
Tyler Payne also returns to South Bend after hitting .245/.312/.380 there last season.
Third baseman Austin Filiere has been touted by no less than Peter Gammons as one of the best prospects in the game—as a general manager. Filiere is an MIT grad with a major in management analytics—he’s everything teams are looking for in a future GM these days. However, right now, he wants to keep playing baseball as long as he can. Nothing he did in Eugene last summer indicates that he needs to hang up the spikes, however, as he hit .261/.392/.443 with six home runs in 49 games.
Venezuelan infielder Jhonny Bethencourt moves up from Eugene after hitting .272/.357/.390 in a successful first season in the US-based minors. His fellow countryman shortstop Rafael Narea will move up from Eugene with him. Canadian second-baseman Jared Young hit .257/.311/.336 with six steals in 39 games in Eugene last year.
Yeiler Peguero returns to South Bend after hitting .233/.318/.332 there last year and non-drafted free agent Christian Donahue will make his pro debut.
There are no big prospects here but all the attention will be on Chris Singleton, who has gained fame for his actions after his mother was killed in the Charleston AME Church terrorist attack. He’s not a top prospect, but he’s got some athletic talent and his public affirmation of the values of faith, forgiveness and healing is an inspiration to many.
The best outfielder is probably center fielder Zach Davis, who hit .257/.354/.340 with 24 steals in 60 games. He got a short, four-game cup of coffee in South Bend last year. Right fielder Brandon Hughes hit .248/.310/.359 in 41 games in Eugene. Last season’s ninth-round pick Chris Carrier hit .176/.309/.250 between Mesa and Eugene last year, albeit in just 24 games.
When? The South Bend Cubs season starts on Thursday night at 5:35 Central in West Michigan in a game televised on MiLB.tv. The home opener is Saturday at 6:05 Central (7:05 local). All home games can be seen on MiLB.tv or you can listen to the radio call for free at southbendcubs.com. Thirty-one home games will be televised on WMYS My Michiana, if you live in the South Bend TV market.