The Minor League Baseball season starts on Thursday and that means it’s time to take a look at the four full-season Cubs affiliates. We start our tour today with the South Bend Cubs, the Cubs’ Midwest League affiliate.
I should take this opportunity to encourage you to see one of the minor league affiliates this summer or, barring that, a different minor league team closer to where you live. Minor League Baseball is a terrific value and most teams find something fun for everyone in the family to do. Admittedly, sometimes the actual game can get a little lost among all the promotions and such, but the players take the game very seriously and you can see some terrific ball there every day of the season. (Maybe some not-so-terrific ball too, but that can be entertaining as well.)
If you want to follow every game, there is milb.tv, the minor league equivalent of mlb.tv. For $50, you can watch every home game of the Cubs top five affiliates and many of the road games as well. (A lot of teams are offering $10 off coupons as well.) More and more of the games are being broadcast in high-definition as well.
I should also mention that these rosters could change before Thursday.
Who? The Midwest League is considered A-ball (or informally, Low-A) and is the lowest full-season minor league team in the Cubs system. There’s Eugene and the Arizona rookie ball teams below them, but their seasons don’t start until June.
The South Bend Cubs have been the Cubs’ low-A affiliate since 2015. They play at Four Winds Field in South Bend.
Who are the top prospects? I’m just going to start with the prospects in this year’s previews because what most of you want to know is which top prospects are at each affiliate.
The top prospect in South Bend to start the season is left-handed pitcher Brailyn Marquez, whom I ranked as my third-best prospect in the Cubs system this past winter. Marquez just turned 20 this January and his fastball has been known to touch 98 mph at times, although it normally sits lower than that. A Northwest League All-Star last season, he was promoted to South Bend late last year and got in two starts before the end of the season. You’ll want to keep an eye on the development of his curve and changeup—both will have to improve if he’s to be a number 2 or number 3 starter in the major leagues.
The second top prospect in South Bend right now is outfielder Cole Roederer, whom the Cubs took in the second round last season out of Hart High School in Santa Clarita, CA. Roederer was very impressive in the rookie Arizona League last season and I ended up ranking him as my fifth-best prospect this winter despite him playing just 36 games and none above rookie ball. The Cubs are challenging Roederer here, so fans should give him a chance to settle in.
Roederer showed a lot of maturity in Spring Training this year as well as some talent. You probably remember him hitting a home run against the Mariners. He’s got a good stroke to all fields and good speed. We’ll all be looking to see if he continues to hit with authority in the Midwest League. He’s a terrific all-around talent that, according to Baseball America, had a lot of scouts hanging an Andrew Benintendi comp on him. We’d all be really happy if that were true.
Who are the coaches? The legend Buddy Bailey will be the skipper of the SB Cubs this year. One of only 11 managers in history to have won over 2000 games in the minor leagues, Bailey comes to South Bend after spending the past two seasons in Myrtle Beach. Bailey has been managing in the minors or coaching in the majors since 1983. (One of his players his first season? Urban Meyer. Yep, that Urban Meyer.) Bailey has been managing in the Cubs minor league system since 2006.
The pitching coach is Jamie Vermilyea, who was a coach in Mesa last summer. He pitched two games with the Blue Jays in 2007.
Paul McAnulty is the hitting coach and returns from last season. He’s previously coached in the Angels system. You may remember him as a outfielder for the Padres from 2005 to 2008. The assistant coach is Pedro Gonzalez, and he coached for the Cubs teams in the Dominican Summer League last year.
Who are the pitchers? Other than Marquez, right-hander Riley Thompson is one to watch this season. The right-hander from Louisville was the Cubs’ 11th-round draft pick last summer and he showed great stuff in Eugene last summer, striking out 25 in 25.1 innings. Thompson’s two goals this summer are to throw strikes and stay healthy. He’s already had Tommy John surgery in college.
Derek Casey is another Tommy John survivor whom the Cubs took in the ninth round out of Virginia last summer. Despite throwing just 7.2 innings in Eugene last season, he’s accepted the challenge of pitching in the Midwest League. His best pitch is his changeup.
Eury Ramos is a 21-year-old right-handed Dominican who made nine starts and three relief appearances for Eugene last summer. Despite an ugly ERA of 6.29, he did strike out 41 in 44.1 innings, so he can miss some bats.
The Cubs signed left-hander Faustino Carrera out of Mexico in 2015 and he’s been slowly working his way up the system. Last year he was one of the more dependable starters for the Northwest League champion Emeralds with a 2.54 ERA in nine starts and four relief appearances. He also wears some rockin’ Buddy Holly-esque goggles on the mound, so you’ll remember him from that.
Right-hander Peyton Remy is also making the jump from Mesa to South Bend after the Cubs took him in the 17th round last summer out of Central Arizona Junior College. He struck out 59 and walked just 13 in 52.1 innings in Mesa and posted an ERA of 2.58, so his career is off to a good start.
Right-hander Ethan Roberts is the name to know in the bullpen as the Cubs took him in the fourth round last year out of Tennessee Tech. Roberts pitched 15 innings for Eugene last summer and struck out 13 and walked 6. His best pitch is his cut fastball.
Right-hander Jeffrey Passantino returns to South Bend after an August promotion from Eugene. The fact that he was a 40th-round draft pick and sports a physique that can best be described as “Rick Reuschel-like” makes him a fan favorite. That he posted a 9-1 record with a 3.34 ERA between Eugene and South Bend makes him more of a fan favorite. He struck out 76 and walked just 13 in 72.2 innings last year. He can both start and relieve.
Also joining South Bend from Eugene last year are right-handers Dalton Geekie, Riley McCauley, Zach Mort and Cam Sanders and lefty Eugenio Palma. Left-hander Ryan Lawlor returns to South Bend after pitching 16 innings for the Cubs there last summer.
Who are the catchers? It’s a step down from Miguel Amaya last summer, but that’s not exactly criticism. Gustavo Polanco spent the last two seasons in Eugene, but the Venezuelan is still just 21 and he generally seems to hit the ball hard when I’m watching him, although that hasn’t shown up in his stat line, where he hit an anemic .222/.242/.333 with three home runs in 41 games last year.
Eric Gonzalez played four games in South Bend last summer as well as 14 for Eugene and 8 in Mesa. The Cubs took Rafelin Lorenzo from the Pirates in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in December. He hit .315 with 3 home runs in just 24 games for the Pirates low-A affiliate last year.
Who are the infielders? Right-handed hitting middle infielder Andy Weber is the name most of you will be watching this summer. The Cubs took Weber in the fifth-round out of Virginia last year and he showed some good on-base skills for the Ems last summer, hitting .291 with a .363 OBP in 23 games. He’s got no power at the moment as 20 of his 23 hits last year were singles and the other three were doubles. He did show more power in college, however, so maybe it was just a matter of adjusting to wooden bats. Cub fans will want to see him continue those OBP skills and add just a few more extra base hits.
Switch-hitting third baseman Fidel Mejia makes the jump from Mesa to South Bend this summer, although he was repeating the Arizona League last year. After struggling in Mesa as an 18-year-old, he ripped up the league to the tune of .324/.389/.410 over 50 games in 2018. Still only 20, the Midwest League will be a nice challenge for Mejia.
The Cubs took Levi Jordan out of Washington in the 29th round last season. He hit .256/.305/.326 in 39 games for the Emeralds. Jordan can play second base, third base and shortstop.
Left-handed hitting first baseman Tyler Durna was a 15th-round pick out of UC-San Diego last year. Durna hit .259/.333/.383 in 24 games in the Northwest League last year.
Delvin Zinn was a 23rd-round pick in 2016 and is returning to South Bend after hitting a solid .286/.335/.323 in 59 games last summer. Rafael Narea was the SB Cubs’ primary shortstop last summer and while he provided a solid glove, he hit just .237/.295/.310. He turns 21 on Wednesday, so he still has time to improve on that but he will need to take a step forward this year.
Who are the outfielders? Other than Roederer, the big name here is right fielder Nelson Velazquez, who I ranked as the Cubs 17th-best prospect coming into the year. Velazquez. the Cubs’ fifth-round pick out of Puerto Rico in 2017, has tremendous power to all fields, but he simply hasn’t been able to tap into that in games as he often just tries to pull everything. He started last season in South Bend and it was a disaster. He hit .188/.242/.196 over 31 games for South Bend before the Cubs finally pulled the plug and sent him back to Mesa. He was much better when he went back to Eugene in June as he hit 11 home runs and stole 12 bases over 72 games. He just turned 20 in December, but he can’t fail the Midwest League again. See if he starts hitting the ball to the opposite field this summer. He’s got enough power to hit it over the right field fence.
The Cubs loved Jonathan Sierra as an amateur in the Dominican Republic, enough so that the gave him a $2.5 million bonus. He’s a big left-hander with above-average speed, a good glove and a good arm. The problem is that the power that the Cubs thought he grow in to has never developed. Sierra has 648 career at-bats in the minors and has hit just five home runs. The big problem seems to be that there just isn’t any lift in his swing and he hits a ton of ground balls.
In 68 games in Eugene last year, Sierra hit .255/.318/.362 with three home runs and ten steals. Still only 20, he still has time to make the necessary adjustments. See if he starts hitting more balls in the air.
The fourth outfielder is speedy D.J. Artis, whom the Cubs took in the seventh round out of Liberty last year. Artis is a strong glove in center, although his arm does not get as positive a review. Artis hit .235/.321/.382 with two home runs and six steals in 20 games for the Emeralds last summer.
When does the season start? The South Bend Cubs start a two-game series at Four Winds Field with the West Michigan Whitecaps this Thursday.