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Cubs minor leagues: Three up, three down for the first week of the season

Here’s who’s hot and who’s not in the Cubs system.

Ed Howard
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

With the minor leagues resuming in 2021, my thoughts went to how to write about the pipeline this year. Josh’s Minor League Wrap brought me here, and I dig his continued efforts. What do I wish to bring (back?) to the table? My favorite type of pipeline article was my “Three Up/Three Down” series, where I look at what seems to be working in the pipeline, and what doesn’t, and so I’m bringing that back.

To summarize the premise, each level of advancement has a specific level of quality simply by having a roster spot. For instance, Chris Kachmar (who ought to use a 1980s song by The Clash as his walk-up music) is a South Bend starting pitcher. A 28th Rounder in 2019 from Lipscomb, that didn’t start him with tons of expectation. Maybe a 10 on an up to 50 scale? He pitched well in Mesa in 2019, jumping him to Eugene. Now he’s up to perhaps 18 of 50. After the year and change off, he’s in South Bend, starting once per series. Maybe he jumps to 28? 32? Whatever your expected value is, there ought to be a level of advancement and quality displayed.

My “Three Up” will be of players that moved their value numbers up the most that week. I try not to wildly adjust, and if a player does jump from (say) a 21 to a 23, there ought to be a reason better than “He went 1-for-3 with a double.” There should be a reason players move up. The drops will be the Three Down section, but please know I’m not doing this to disparage players who are slumping.

Three Up

1) Ed Howard

Howard was selected as a defensive specialist with some potential pop. However, people with positive reputations said things about Eddy Julio Martinez’ defense. They were bunk. I like to be impressed during games. By the fifth inning of his first game, I was impressed with Howard. He’d doubled, made two good plays on grounders, and smartly fielded a liner. Now, there’s no rumor. There’s video:

Does this mean he’ll be an MLB star? Not necessarily, but he is more than a hot-shot prep who had some good video at showcases. He’s done the work defensively, and is learning at the plate. He’s still getting exploited by more veteran pitchers with advanced breaking stuff, but he’s getting a chance to get better.

2) Burl Carraway

Carraway is a pitcher I’ve been a bit vocal about. He was a quality closer with a good college program, and had some pre-draft hype. I don’t think he was the team’s biggest need in the second round last June, but if he throws strikes, he can be useful. Much of my trepidation regarded rushing him to MLB last season. Which, wisely, the team didn’t do. Had they done that, the 40-man crunch they’re facing now would be more harsh, and unnecessarily so.

Carraway went 94, 94, then this for his first pro hitter faced:

Nicely done. That will work. Do that for a month, then get to Kodak, Tennessee. Roll there for seven weeks or so, and visit Des Moines. However, don’t rush him. He won’t necessarily club an entire league because of one three-up/three-down ninth. Carraway as a leverage guy in Iowa in 2022 makes sense like Brennen Davis in Iowa in 2022, or Chase Strumpf in Iowa in 2022. That squad could have some talent.

Possibly, with no level to get called up to.

3) Manuel Espinoza

If I were going with “who had the best week,” Darius Hill and Tyler Payne would have been the top two. They were really good last week, and oppo radio was glad to be finished with both of them. But this is more about players popping up to show they belong. With six games in a series, and five-man rotations, one player figures to go twice in each series. That only happened with the Myrtle Beach series, as the other three lost a game to weather. The bonus start went to Manuel Espinoza.

Espinoza is a Cubs 2018 signing out of Mexico. He struggled mightily in his first outing, getting touched for five runs (and three earned) in four innings of his first full-season start. The second time, with more confidence (and a strike zone the size of Saturn), he pitched scoreless baseball. I’m not 100 percent sold on Espinoza, but he likely belongs at this level.

Three Down

1) Myrtle Beach starting pitching

I should probably put two asterisks there, but I won’t. I want to walk through what I’m grasping, and maybe a few of you will enjoy the trip. Each team has had their own method of advancement after the year off. Nobody knows what is “the right way” yet. The Pelicans started 20-year old Manuel Espinoza from Culiacan Rosales, Mexico on opening night. His height of experience had been in 2019 in the Dominican Summer League, and 18⅓ innings this winter in the Mexican Winter League. The Rays affiliate countered with John Doxakis, a second rounder from Texas A&M with nearly 250 innings in the Southeastern Conference. Doxakis was the better pitcher.

That’s just one night, though.

The next night, Myrtle Beach sent 2019 19th Round Draft pick Adam Laskey to the hill. He’s from Duke, from the ACC. So, that’s good, right? 143 innings worth. Injury concerns, but yeah. He’s more well-known. The Rays affiliate responded with 2020 3rd Rounder and a centerpiece of the Blake Snell trade, Cole Wilcox. I prioritized listening to this pitcher last draft cycle. He only pitched 82⅔ college innings, but he’s better than Laskey.

The Cubs have some guys still in extended spring training, but the chasm is huge. To catch up to the Rays, or anywhere near them, the draft has to be better, as does the pipeline alchemy.

2) Oh, the injuries

Across affiliated baseball, and any other sort, pitching injuries are a concern. Every year, for every team. This year, whether the delays or injuries have been announced or not, quite a few Cubs prospect pitchers aren’t this season. One of the Cubs prospect writers updated his board on Twitter this off-season on any signing. I used to do that. I’ve quit that, because the information of “who’s healthy” isn’t something I get informed of very often.

This year? The injuries are bad across baseball. Including in the Cubs pipeline.

3) The walks

Though not all the pitchers have been guilty of slowing games down with a lack of control, it seems most organizations are teaching offensive zone command. If a pitcher is willing to run up a 3-1 count, let him. Through the first week, no (Advanced-A) South Bend game has gotten over in less than three hours. Most South Bend games used to be done in 2:40 or shorter. At least one inning per day moves like paint in a can. Which isn’t compelling baseball, regardless the level.

Questions? Fire away, whether regarding the pipeline, or how the draft bleeds into it.