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Cubs minor leagues: Get to know the South Bend Cubs

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The Cubs “new” High-A affiliate will take the field this week for the first time in over a year.

Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs
Al Yellon

Our second stop in our preview of the Cubs minor league system takes us to South Bend and the Cubs “new” High-A affiliate, the South Bend Cubs.

Please note that this preview is based on the Opening Day rosters that were announced last Friday. It’s actually common to see some changes in the roster before Opening Day, as players either get hurt or get healthy in the meantime. Or in the world that we live in these days, they could be in quarantine. Let’s hope that last one doesn’t happen, but it might.

Who? The South Bend Cubs are the new High-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, after having been the Low-A affiliate of the Cubs since 2015. As I mentioned in the earlier preview of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, MLB decided in their re-organization of the minors that they wanted the youngest and least-experienced minor leaguers in the warmer climates, so the Midwest League went from a Low-A league to a High-A league. It’s also called “High-A Central” rather than the Midwest League, as MLB presumably is looking for a corporate sponsor to stick their name on it.

This means that there are a whole lot of players on the 2021 roster who were in South Bend in for the 2019 season. It also means the South Bend Cubs, who won the 2019 Midwest League title, will remain as Midwest League Champions forever.

South Bend will open their season at home against the Quad Cities River Bandits tomorrow night, May 4. They play at Four Winds Field and there will be limited capacity, although they’ve been rather opaque about the exact percentage of seats that will be sold. Tickets are going to be for a specific section and fans will be encouraged to social distance.

The League Formerly Known as the Midwest League also got a lot smaller. It used to have 16 teams, but the Clinton LumberKings, the Burlington Bees and the Kane County Cougars were asked to excuse themselves from affiliated baseball. The Bowling Green Hot Rods moved over to the High-A East league. Clinton and Burlington will play in a summer wooden bat league for college players and Kane County will continue as an independent team in the American Association.

Who is in charge? The new manager of the South Bend Cubs is Michael Ryan, who was supposed to manage the Tennessee Smokies in 2020. Before that, Ryan spent seven seasons as a manager in the Pirates system, including Double-A Altoona from 2017 to 2019. His 2017 Altoona Curve won the Eastern League title.

As a player, Ryan played four years as an outfielder for the Twins from 2002 to 2005. He got one last chance to play in the majors with the Angels in 2010.

The pitching coach for South Bend is Tony Cougoule, who joined the Cubs system last year. Before that, he was the pitching coach for three collegiate teams, most recently for Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA from 2010 to 2019.

The hitting coach is Paul McAnulty, who returns to South Bend after serving in the same position for South Bend in their title-winning season of 2019. He was an assistant manager for South Bend in 2018. Before that, he spent three years as a hitting coach in the Angels system.

McAnulty was a first baseman/outfielder for the Padres from 2005 to 2008 and for the Angels in 2010.

The assistant hitting coach is former Cubs player Eric Patterson. Patterson also played for Oakland, Boston and San Diego.

Who are the top prospects? Since South Bend is probably the minor league location that most of you are most likely to attend, you’re probably wondering what future Cubs you might be seeing there this summer.

The pitching staff for South Bend is headlined by Cubs 2019 first-round pick, right-hander Ryan Jensen, 23, who was the eighth-ranked prospect in my preseason rankings. Jensen throws hard and in his short time in the Cubs system, he regularly sat 96-98 with a hard-breaking slider. He only pitched 12 innings for Eugene in 2019 (he’d thrown a lot at Fresno State and the Cubs wanted to limit his innings) and so he’s still pretty much an unknown at the professional level. But what we’ve heard out of the lost year is that he’s throwing even harder now.

Cubs fans are going to be looking for four things out of Jensen this season. The first is how hard is he throwing. The second is “Can he throw his slider for strikes?” The third thing is whether he’s developed a third pitch well enough that he trusts it in key moments. And the final thing is “Can he last a solid five or six innings every time out?” If the answer to all those questions is yes, Jensen is a possible mid-rotation starter. If the answer to most of them is no, then he might still have a future as a valuable pitcher out of the bullpen.

The second top prospect in the pitching staff is 2020 second-round pick, left-hander Burl Carraway, 21, who spent some of last summer in South Bend when it was the Cubs alternate site. He was my 13th-ranked prospect in my pre-season rankings. Carraway is purely a reliever, but he’s got an upper-90s fastball and a looping curve that seems almost unfair if a batter is looking for the heat.

Right-handers Derek Casey, 25, and Peyton Remy, 24, are also interesting pitchers who are returning to South Bend after pitching for the Cubs there in 2019. (Remember, that’s a promotion.) The two of them combined to throw a no-hitter against Cedar Rapids on May 6, 2019.

The top hitter on South Bend is second baseman Chase Strumpf, 23, who was my seventh-ranked Cubs prospect before the season. Strumpf was the Cubs’ second-round pick in 2019. He is an offense-first right-handed-hitting second baseman who can hit the ball on a line with authority to all fields. Strumpf should be a guy who gets on base a lot and hits a lot of doubles into the gap in South Bend, where it’s fairly difficult to hit home runs. In better hitting parks, more of those drives should clear the fences. Defensively, he’s fine at second base, but would be stretched elsewhere unless he’s made some improvements over the past year. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Cubs try him in left field and third base in 2021 and if so, how he does there. Strumpf played in 13 games for the major-league Cubs in Spring Training this year and hit .250/.438/.500 (4-for-16) with a home run.

The other top hitting prospect is left-handed outfielder Cole Roederer, 21. who returns to South Bend after playing all of 2019 there. Roederer was my 11th-ranked Cubs prospect heading into the season. Roederer fell into some bad habits and had a rough season in 2019, but he’s also crazy talented and has the potential to be a plus player both at the plate and in the field. He’s also still really young and has time to straighten things out. Cubs fans will be looking to see if he can hit with authority to the opposite field this summer, among other things. There’s a high ceiling and a low floor on Roederer.

Infielder Delvin Zinn, 23, was one of the better players in South Bend in 2019 which got him a mid-season promotion to Myrtle Beach, where he struggled. He’ll try to do better in High-A two years later. Zinn has plus speed and good hands. He can play pretty much every position on the field but pitcher and catcher. (He’s never played first base and while he’s kind of short for the position, I bet he could do it with a little work. It’s not that hard. Tell ‘em, Wash.) He’s also one of those smart and hard-working grinders who sometimes just will themselves into a major league bench job. I’d like to see him make more contact and cut down on the strikeouts.

Who are the rest of the pitchers?

RHP Max Bain. 23. NDFA/2020. Northwood U.

RHP Matteo Bocchi. 24. NDFA/2019 Texas.

LHP Brandon Hughes. 25. 16th-round/2017. Michigan State.

RHP Tanner Jesson-Dalton. 24. 17th-round/2019. Sacramento State.

RHP Chris Kachmar. 24. 28th-round/2018. Lipscomb U.

RHP Garrett Kelly. 26. Minor league free agent/2018.

RHP Graham Lawson. 24. NDFA/2020. South Carolina.

RHP Ben Leeper. 23. NDFA/2020. Oklahoma State.

RHP Eury Ramos. 23. Dominican Republic/2014.

RHP Samuel Reyes. 25. Claimed off waivers/Pirates.

RHP Cayne Ueckert. 24. 27th-round/2019. McNeese State.

A lot of these pitchers I haven’t seen. For some of the others, it’s been so long that it’s hard to remember. Hughes was drafted as an outfielder, didn’t hit, and he made the switch to pitching in 2019. (He did pitch some at MSU.) He got in a few games for South Bend in 2019 and looked good. It will be interesting to see how much progress he’s made over the past year with the transition.

Ramos, like a lot of pitchers, has some promise but has had trouble staying healthy.

Who are the rest of the hitters?

C Cam Balego. 25. 30th-round/2017. Mercyhurst U.

C Jake Washer. 25. 29th-round/2019. East Carolina.

C Bryce Windham. 24. 32nd-round/2019. Old Dominion.

1B Tyler Durna. 24. 15th-round/2018. UC San Diego.

2B Scott McKeon. 23. NDFA/2020. Coastal Carolina.

1B Jacob Olson. 23. 26th-round/2019 South Carolina.

2B Yonathan Perlaza. 22. Venezuela/2015.

SS Luis Vazquez. 21. 14th-round/2017. Alberto Melendez Torres HS (PR)

OF Nelson Velazquez. 22. 5th-round/2017. PJ Education School (PR)

OF D.J. Wilson. 24. 4th-round/2015. Canton South HS (OH)

Everyone seems so old for High-A because they all lost a year to the pandemic. There’s just no way around that. The key is how much progress did they make away from the prying eyes of the fans and the scouts.

Balego and Windham are both former infielders who are converting to catching in hope of having a better path to the majors. Washer did well in 22 games with Eugene in 2019.

The left-handed Durna ripped up South Bend in 2019 to the tune of .304/.387/.437 in 76 games in 2019. That got him promoted late in the season to Myrtle Beach, where his power kind of disappeared. But it was a small sample size and we’ll see how he does returning to South Bend.

Vazquez is a slick-fielding shortstop with a plus arm who needs to hit better.

Velazquez and Wilson couldn’t be more different as outfielders, but they are similar in that they’ve both possess considerable tools that they’ve been unable to translate into on-field production. Wilson is very fast and covers a ton of ground in center field. But he struggles to recognize breaking stuff and he just hasn’t hit for three straight seasons. This will be his third year in a row in High-A. Or third year out of four with a missing season in there.

Velazquez shows off a good arm and has the potential for plus power, but other than one season at hitter-friendly PK Park in Eugene, he’s never really been able to translate that power into games. Velazquez had a decent season in South Bend in 2019, hitting .286 with a .338 OBP in 76 games, but the mere four home runs was disappointing. He certainly has the skills to be a major league right-fielder, but whether he gets to that point is doubtful.

Tomorrow: The Tennessee Smokies, the Iowa Cubs and Opening Night!