With 2019 just about over, it's retrospective time. These are my five favorite Cubs stories with the highlights able to fall anywhere from the Dominican League to Wrigley Field. This countdown goes from No. 5 to No. 1.
5) The Iowa Cubs
The Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate has been really bad for most of the last decade. It's been really bad most of the last 50 years. Among the many problems has been the need to hurry players up the ladder. For anyone that has done remotely well at any level, the default has been to rush him up to the next level. Despite the lack of positive payback, historically.
The 2019 I-Cubs were keyed by good pitching. Relative to a league with high ERAs across the board, Colin Rea was the league's best pitcher. Unlike the historical Cubs trend, he was allowed to keep pitching in Des Moines. He wasn't alone in pitching well. The bullpen seemed good five nights out of seven, which was a higher margin than most of the league.
Much of the season, Iowa had a 10-game lead. Memphis, the St. Louis affiliate that had owned the Cubs in head-to-head matchups, slumped to six games back. Through a season of tracking, the I-Cubs were a more complete team than the Redbirds. For the Cubs to be a better organization than St. Louis, part of that is regularly having a better pipeline. While wins and losses in Memphis and Iowa aren't a pure proxy on development success, winning the division is nice. Now, a fair goal is to not go another decade between Triple-A postseason trips.
4) The rise of Robel
The news of the signing of Robel Garcia was an afterthought, if it was noticed at all. Teams sign random-sounding players all the time. Signing a player from an Italian league is meh, especially when he's "old," and washed out of the Cleveland system.
Once the season started, Garcia began mashing. Then he hit the injured list for a spell. And returned to clubbing the Southern League. Eventually, he moved up to Iowa, and the hard contact continued.
Garcia's defense is still a bit of a project, but he forced his way onto the big club. He hit five MLB homers, including a splash-down in San Francisco. For those of you who consider him a failure because he didn't tease out as an MLB regular, I have nothing for you. A player that anyone could have signed to a minor-league deal homered for the Cubs into McCovey Cove. That's what I consider locating, signing, and developing talent.
3) Nico Hoerner's call-up
I didn't like the circumstance of Nico Hoerner's call-up. That the Cubs didn't have a valid replacement for Javier Baez at season's end ought to be a player development education for anyone who undersells player development. That he was called up early needlessly takes an otherwise available 40-man roster spot this winter.
However, it provided a glimpse of the future. Hoerner showed what he showed scouts when he was at Stanford, and a bit more. The premise of youth in baseball isn't and never has been that "all of them will be useful." It is, as it has been, that fun young players teach us about why we dig the game. The veterans are fun, but all players were once developmental risks. When they show promise like Hoerner did, you get to wonder how he'll develop. Will he get better? Will the league adjust? Will Hoerner see what's being done against him, and adjust back?
It's guesswork, but Hoerner should develop just fine. The three homers he hit have likely ticked up his power expectations. And you haven't even seen Miguel Amaya, Brailyn Marquez, or Brennen Davis at the big-league level yet.
2) South Bend's championship
Every year since 2013, at least one Cubs affiliate has won a title. This time, South Bend ran the table in the Midwest League. Winning the seven games in a row was cool. Being an "upper crust" team all season was better long-term for the organization.
The Eastern Division of the Midwest League is a look at the haves and have-nots of MLB development. The Great Lakes Loons are the Dodgers affiliate. Their hitters churn at-bats like it's September all season long. If you follow the Bowling Green Hot Rods (Rays) long enough, you'll understand why they outplay their salary limits at the MLB level. The Indians affiliate in Eastlake, Ohio (Lake County Captains) mash, and find enough pitching to be a top-level pipeline.
South Bend hung with those four teams in both halves, while the affiliates of the Blue Jays, Padres, Reds, and Tigers lagged (in that basic order) all season long. It's like player development methods aren't random in baseball.
Early in the season, South Bend was impatient. They ranked at the very bottom in walks drawn much of the season. They rarely homered. They countered that with scads of doubles, and pitching depth, despite the contention the Cubs don't develop pitching.
They reached the playoffs, qualifying as the second half champion (two teams qualify each half) with a .544 percentage after a .565 in the first half. They.battled through nagging injuries in both halves, so their depth was tested. Marquez and Davis were both standouts. Cole Roederer did better than expected for the first "would have been a college freshman" to break camp with a Cubs full-season club in about 20 years. Andy Weber was solid at the plate and in the field. They synced as a team, and will make Myrtle Beach a nice 2020 default. For all the doom I hear about the pipeline, I largely discount it as coming from people who never tuned in for a game.
1) Adbert Alzolay’s MLB debut
Alzolay's season started on pause, due to an offseason that extended into April. When he debuted in 2019, it was in mid-May for Iowa. The call for him to get promoted didn't take long. After four Triple-A games, he had his cup of coffee.
Tyler Chatwood tossed the first four innings. The Cubs offense made quick work of Mets starter Walker Lockett. Alzolay entered the game in the fifth, and fired hitless relief into the ninth, when Todd Frazier lit him up for a solo blast. As Alzolay left, he received a standing ovation.
His next two outings were less fruitful. He returned to Iowa, and the injury woes continued. However, whatever happens in the future. Alzolay will always have his standing ovation. As fun as other things in the system were, the deserved ovation was my Cubs seasonal highlight.