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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: System report through the end of May

Here’s how Cubs prospects are doing with two-fifths of the season in the books.

Hopefully, Nico Hoerner returns from injury soon
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As April and May are over, the minor league season approaches the two-fifths marker. That seems a useful time to pull into a rest stop, and make sure everything is still properly functioning. In general, it's been a rather successful season in the pipeline. Two teams are in contention for the post-season, and a third might be except for some injuries. That the organization has been able to deftly pivot around the difficulties is a glowing positive.

Zack Short and Nico Hoerner have missed significant chunks of time with hand/wrist maladies. Cristhian Adames and Dixon Machado are middle infielders also on the injured list, both in Iowa. Duncan Robinson, who was the starting pitcher in a big league game in Mesa, is on the mend from Tommy John surgery. South Bend put their entire opening day starting outfield on the injured list over a course of four days in late May. Injuries have limited the options, but "next man up" has been on display.

Triple-A Iowa Cubs

With Quadruple-A types like Johnny Field, Phillip Evans, Jim Adduci and others, the Iowa offense has been good enough to be, roughly, a week in first place. To be honest, though, that's more putting the cart on a different path, than in front of the horse. The bullpen in Des Moines has generally been fantastic.

Colin Rea and Trevor Clifton have represented in a league with pitchers adjusting to MLB baseballs with all the extra rabbit that entails. If the starters can get the game to the bullpen with anything resembling a lead, Iowa has usually been successful. In a division with the Cardinals affiliate (Memphis), the Cubs are 10 games better. Whether that means Ian Happ will necessarily return to Wrigley soon or not will continue to be debated, but Iowa's side is very solid with players ready to participate a level up.

Double-A Tennessee Smokies

Injuries to Hoerner and starting pitcher Keegan Thompson have run the Smokies out of first-half post-season contention. The premise of having "no prospects" is rather rubbish, though. The team has hit in a pitching-heavy league, even without Hoerner at the top. Part of that was European import Robel Garcia, but a team that has been offense-starved for a few years can now hold its own, more often. Jared Young was ablaze early, and infielder Vimael Machin earned honors recently.

It is, however, a pitching league. Tyson Miller has stepped to the front of the class, and is now brag-worthy. Cory Abbott has been only a step behind. While a few arms have struggled at the revelatory Double-A level, relievers Craig Brooks and Wyatt Short appear like they belong up a level. With Oscar De La Cruz currently on the roster, the Smokies look to have some top-flight pitching most nights.

Adavanced-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans

The Pelicans have struggled to hit. That lack of offense has severely tamped down on win-loss success, as well. Some of that is due to two draft campaigns of hitters going largely ignored, and Myrtle Beach is where that is most evident. However, the team has had high points.

Miguel Amaya has done nothing to dim his future upside. Young for his league, his pop counters a lower batting average than hoped for. His defense is on-target, and if he's getting traded, it should be for a piece with cost control. Given a second look at the league, Aramis Ademan's season has been much better than his 2018. Not much of the rest of the offense is being ballyhooed.

Javier Assad fronts the rotation. He wasn't this special last year, which is why pitchers keep getting the ball on sometimes middling results. The slightest improvement can sometimes lead to a positive domino reaction. Second-round compensation pick Paul Richan has managed to front a good win-loss record as a starting pitcher on a last place team. A spot in Tennessee may beckon Richan and Assad sooner than later.

The bullpen has had some troubles, but Jesus Camargo and Ryan Lawlor seem Tennessee-ready. Ryan Kellogg has earned special recognition for saving a shattered bullpen more than once.

Low-A South Bend Cubs

Four of the eight teams in the Midwest League Eastern Division are in competition for the two first-half playoff spots. Whether South Bend claims one or not, being in the hunt makes for more educational baseball than if not.

Much of the success has been spearheaded by the starting pitching. The league's All-Star Game will be in South Bend in a couple weeks, and the hosts should be well-represented on the mound. Brailyn Marquez starts have morphed from "He's good, but he gets pitch-counted in the fourth or fifth inning" to "He's good." 97 from the left side, when paired with poise and ability to throw strikes is a nice variation.

Riley Thompson and Cam Sanders were third-day choices last draft that will be Myetle Beach-ready when Assad and Richan graduate. By ERA, Faustino Carrera has been better than Marquez. The bullpen has been more stout than scintillating, but 2018 pick Ethan Robert's has usually been up to the task. Jose Albertos has been a recent addition to the bullpen, and much better than the 2018 version.

Hitting in northern Indiana in cold weather is hard to do. With a younger team, it isn't any easier. South Bend has had difficulty hitting homers, but has specialized in doubles, which can hint of future power surges. As the injury barrage sidelined starters DJ Artis, Nelson Velazquez, and Cole Roederer, that gave a chance for Brennan Davis and Edmond Americaan to represent. If Davis keeps getting a hit a game, he'll be tough to send back. Americaan, a lefty hitter with a reputation of not hitting lefties, drew a walk against one on Wednesday, and placed an ideal sacrifice bunt in a key spot.

South Bend's catchers Eric Gonzalez and Rafelin Lorenzo have done the basics, and hit in key spots. True first baseman Tyler Durna has been useful enough on both sides of the ball to encourage a similar draft choice next week.

Extended Spring Training

Players that missed the full-season roster cut have been playing this month and last, lobbying for gigs in Eugene or Mesa in June. Those that fail get returned to Boca Chica, or released. It's an obscured competition, but a competition nonetheless.

17-year-old Richard Gallardo has been better than the level. With him, the questions are how many innings they want him to throw, and if Eugene is out of the picture. My hunch is the plum of this cycle's signing class starts in the Arizona Summer League, tossing two up to four innings through the summer. If that isn't pushing him enough, he could get a late look in Eugene.

2018 Dominican League veteran infielders Rochest Cruz and Fabian Pertuz are looking safe for regular time in Mesa this summer. Players that do well in Boca Chica get the first looks stateside the next spring. 2018 prep choice Kohl Franklin sounds Eugene-ready.

One very minor acquisition in the early season shows how I try to link seemingly unrelated events. When the Cubs had the opportunity to buy or pass on Rule 5 returner Pedro Araujo, they did a bit of both. They bought him back, and traded him to Baltimore for international spending space.

Since then the Cubs have added nine players they might not have had spending space for, effectively turning the trade into a nine-for-one swap. Araujo is doing fairly well in Double-A for Baltimore. Possibly, he's better than a lower-end piece down Knoxville way. However, that's not my method of looking at Araujo. I wish him the best.

With the spending space added, the Cubs added a catcher, an infielder, and seven pitchers. The Cubs will be able to effectively keep all nine for four years without a shred of "roster woe". If they get better, adding velocity from the mound or off the bat, they get a look in extended spring training in a few years. If they're mediocre (which is, obviously, far more likely), they allow the Cubs this season to keep a few of the more intriguing Dominican arms in the states this summer. Pairing that with parting ways with players in extended spring that are unlikely to play well in South Bend or higher, the trade accomplishes two goals.

Players unlikely to shine in full-season ball make way for younger players who might not have had roster space in Mesa. Also, seven players get to show their wares in the DSL this summer that the Cubs wouldn't have been able to sign, otherwise. Out with the less-likely, in with the younger. Which is what a pipeline is supposed to be about.