(tap, tap, tap.) Ahem. Is this thing on? Is it still working? I don’t remember how to turn it on anymore. We’re really going to do this thing, huh? OK. Let’s go. I’ll give it my best shot.
On September 14, 2019, the South Bend Cubs beat the Clinton LumberKings 5-0 to sweep the best-of-five series three games to none and claim the Midwest League title. Five hundred and eighty-eight days later, on Tuesday, May 4, there will be Cubs teams playing minor league baseball again.
A lot has happened since then. For one, Minor League Baseball, as a separate organization, no longer exists. (To be clear, minor league baseball, uncapitalized, still exists.) The Clinton LumberKings, who have been playing baseball since 1954, are no longer a professional baseball team. Instead, they’re in a summer wooden bat league for college amateurs. The Midwest League is now known as the “High-A Central League,” at least until MLB can sell the name of the league to a corporate sponsor. After covering the Cubs minor league system here on BCB for 13 years, I was laid off for the 2020 season until I was re-hired for the 2021 season. As it turned out, there was no minor league baseball to write about for 2020 anyway.
So in preparation for Tuesday’s return of minor league baseball, I will try to preview all four Cubs minor league teams over the next couple of days. You’ll have to bear with me because most of the information I have is over a year old and I’m out of practice. But I hope that after reading these previews over the next few days, you’ll get excited about the minor league again.
The previews will work the minor league system with the new lowest team on the ladder, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans of the new Low-A East League. That will be followed by the South Bend Cubs, the Tennessee Smokies and finally the Iowa Cubs.
Please remember that all this information is from the team-announced Opening Day lineups. Minor League rosters change often, sometimes before the season even starts. So the players you see here might not be where they are for long. If someone is missing, they might not be missing for long.
Who? The Myrtle Beach Pelicans are the Low-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. They’ve been a Cubs affiliate since 2015. They will open the season with a six-game series at Charleston on Tuesday, May 4. Their home opener will be on May 11 against the Augusta GreenJackets. The stands will be at 50 percent capacity at their home park, TicketReturn.com Field.
The Pelicans play in the Low-A East League, which is its name until MLB can find a corporate sponsor to tack their name onto the league.
I’m confused. I thought Myrtle Beach was a High-A affiliate? That’s one of the changes for 2021. When MLB forced an entire reworking of the way the minor leagues worked, they decided that they wanted the lowest level (above rookie ball at the Spring Training complexes) to be in warm weather locations. MLB feels that there is less chance of bad weather in southern cities and that players who already have a year of pro ball under their belt would be more able to adapt to a schedule disrupted by weather. Also, they felt that all the Latin American and Caribbean players in the United States for the first time in their life would acclimate better if they didn’t have to deal with early-season cold weather. That’s why the former Midwest League is now a High-A league and the former California and Florida State Leagues are now Low-A leagues.
The Low-A East League that the Pelicans play in is made up of teams from the former High-A Carolina League, like the Pelicans, and the former Low-A South Atlantic League.
Who is in charge? The 2021 manager of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans is Buddy Bailey, who is a minor league legend who has won 2,140 games in his 33-year career as a minor league manager. He also was the Boston Red Sox bench coach for the 2000 season. Bailey has been in the Cubs minor league system since 2006 and was the manager of those Midwest League Champion South Bend Cubs in 2019.
The pitching coach is Clayton Mortensen, who is new to the Cubs organization this year. He pitched in the majors for five years and four teams from 2009 to 2013. He pitched in the minor leagues until 2017, after which he joined the Royals organization as a minor league pitching coach.
The hitting coach is Dan Puente, a Chicago native and Bradley University alumnus who has been with Chicago’s Elite Baseball Training Academy since 2012. Punte played in the Orioles system in 2004 and 2005. He joined the Cubs system last year and would have been a hitting coach with South Bend in 2020 had they played.
Who are the top prospects? I’m just going to start with the top prospects, because that’s what most of you are interested in and then get into the rest of the roster later.
The biggest name on the Pelicans is shortstop Ed Howard, the Cubs’ first-round pick last season, Chicago native and Jackie Robinson West Little League alum. Howard has yet to officially make his professional debut, although he participated in instructs in the fall and has gotten into many other team scrimmages.
Howard, 19, is considered a no-doubt shortstop with sure hands, good range and a solid arm. The big question will be his ability to hit, which will be tested in Myrtle Beach which has always been a pitcher’s park in the past.
I ranked Howard as the fifth-best prospect in the system. He’d certainly be the fourth-best now that Adbert Alzolay is no longer a prospect.
The left side of the Pelicans infield is strong with Luis Verdugo. The Mexican Verdugo, 20, was one of the breakout stars of the 2019 season, hitting .305/.367/.447 for one of the Cubs rookie ball teams in Arizona. Verdugo has a reputation for making hard contact to all fields. Verdugo has played shortstop in the past and while he’s not bad there, he’s probably destined for third base if he makes the majors. So I’d expect that Howard will get most of the time at short and Verdugo will play third, where his arm strength is easily good enough to handle the position. I’m sure Verdugo will get some reps at short.
Verdugo was my 14th-ranked Cubs prospect heading into the season.
The third shortstop prospect on the Pelicans is Yeison Santana, whom the Cubs obtained in the Yu Darvish deal. Santana, 20, also was impressive in the Arizona League in 2019, hitting .346/.429/.494 in 162 at-bats over 41 games. He also showed good strike-zone judgement, striking out 38 times and walking 23 times. Santana also gets praise for his defense, although I don’t think anyone would put him in Howard’s class as a shortstop. He will probably play a lot of second base as well as get some games at short.
I ranked Santana as my 16th-best Cubs prospect in my pre-season rankings.
There are two solid outfield prospects in Jordan Nwogu and Yohendrick Pinango. Both players made my “others to know” list. Nwogu, 22, is a big man and a terrific all-around athlete who had several football scholarship offers out of high school. The Cubs took him in the third round in last summer’s draft out of Michigan, where he has completed his degree in computer engineering. Nwogu had a funky swing out of Michigan that scared some teams off, but the Cubs think that they’ve fixed it. Nwogu is a high-risk, high-reward prospect who projects out to be a slugging corner outfielder if he clicks.
The Venezuelan Pinango, 18, is the prospect that I’m most excited to see this summer, if only because I’ve never seen him play. Pinango is a center fielder with great speed, and the Cubs haven’t developed one of those since, I don’t know, Augie Galan?
In the Dominican Summer League in 2019, Pinango hit .358/.427/.442 with 27 steals in 62 games. Even better, he walked more times than he struck out, 27 to 20. Now the quality of the opposition in the DSL is generally pretty low, so we’ll have to see how he can make the jump to Low-A. I’m fascinated to see how he does.
Behind the plate, Ethan Hearn was one of the top high school catchers in the 2019 draft. The Cubs got him in the eighth round out of Alabama and signed him to a big over-slot deal. Hearn’s big selling point was left-handed power.
Hearn, 20, hasn’t played much since being drafted, just 23 games in rookie ball. He didn’t impress in that short time. But that was over a year ago and a small sample size.
The pitching staff isn’t quite as impressive, with Davidjohn “DJ” Herz as probably the best prospect. Herz, 20, was the Cubs eighth-round pick out of high school in North Carolina, but he signed for fourth-round money. The left-hander has reportedly added some velocity to his fastball and now reportedly throws in the mid-90s. He also has a slider with some good break that could end up as plus when all is said and done.
Who are the rest of the pitchers?
Here’s the rest of the pitching roster, minus Herz. Also included is their age, where they are from and the year they joined the Cubs organization.
RHP Jose Albertos. 22. Mexico/2015.
RHP Manuel Espinoza. 20. Mexico/2017.
RHP Richard Gallardo. 19. Venezuela/2018.
RHP Jose Miguel Gonzalez. 23. Dominican Republic/2017.
LHP Scott Kobos. 23. NDFA/2020. Costal Carolina
LHP Adam Laskey. 23. 19th round/2019. Duke.
RHP Joe Nahas. 21. NDFA/2019. Georgia Southern.
RHP Carlos Ocampo. 22. Colombia/2016.
RHP Bailey Reid. 22. NDFA/2020. Westmont College.
RHP Jake Reindl. 24. 17th round/2018. Arkansas.
RHP Sam Thoreson. 22. NDFA/2020. Minnesota.
RHP Blake Whitney. 24. 24th round/2018. South Carolina-Upstate.
Albertos and Gallardo are two formerly highly-regarded prospects whose stock has fallen. Albertos, in particular, developed the dreaded “Steve Blass disease” or the inability to throw a strike. He hasn’t pitched in a game since June 16, 2019 as the team has tried to get him straightened out. If they have, he’ll be a strong prospect again as he’s still only 22.
Kobos is a player who has been getting some buzz out of last fall’s instructs and minor league Spring Training. Being a non-drafted free agent in a draft with only five rounds doesn’t carry the same meaning as being one in a draft with 40 rounds.
Who are the rest of the hitters?
C Pablo Aliendo. 29. Venezuela/2018.
C Raymond Pena 24. Dominican Republic/2014.
3B Grayson Byrd. 24. 24th round/2019. Clemson.
SS Josue Huma. 21. Dominican Republic/2016.
3B Ryan Reynolds. 23. 14th round/2019. Texas.
OF Edmond Americaan. 24. 35th round/2018. Chipola JC.
OF Darius Hill. 23. 20th round/2019. West Virginia.
Byrd is the son of former major league pitcher Paul Byrd and Reynolds is the son of major league pitcher Shane Reynolds, who you might remember as the losing pitcher in the Kerry Wood 20-K game. (Reynolds pitched a complete game and struck out 10 that day.)
Americaan had a good season in Eugene in 2019 and he’s one to keep an eye on as well.
Next up: The South Bend Cubs.