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Cubs minor leagues: Three up, but a bit of a downer for minor league baseball

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MiLB systems are struggling to get back to where they were in 2019.

Sam Thoresen
Sam Thoresen
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Normally, I do a bit of a ramble, then point to three players doing well, and three things that need improvement. My rambles seem to be getting more dark as the weeks continue. Tossing “three down” at the end, as usual, would have been too depressing to review. May the injury concerns decrease, and my non-idyllic outlook, with it.

A popular in-season refrain for pipeline fans is how bad their pipeline is doing. In almost every pipeline, apparently. It seems, working out a a Driveline-type facility isn’t the same as building up a pitch-count in-game, against hitters wanting to mash every mistake. Hitting BP with nets isn’t the same as hitting breaking balls from college veterans used to humiliating reasonably good hitters. And, staying healthy playing five games a week is hard, as well. Nobody seems particularly happy with any of the minor-league pipelines.

Apparently, trimming the available players in all 30 pipelines has hindered depth. Who could have foreseen that? (About anyone who understands how hard baseball is.) The players getting better aren’t necessarily the ones expected to. Darius Hill was an afterthought, until he played his way to Double-A (a two-level promotion) a week into the season. I thought that was an absurdly aggressive promotion, but he’s getting a hit or two every game there, as well.

But, most talk is how ill-prepared players are. With no minor leagues at all in 2020, what happened to that wide swath of players (in every organization) who would have benefited from a 50-60 game short-season level last year? Those players fended for themselves for a year. And six days a week at the batting cages won’t get you to the level of a second team All-Power Four Conference guy.

The Braves are normally considered a solid pipeline. Their Low-A Augusta squad is in last place, despite scads of early home games. Their win Sunday (against Myrtle Beach, the Cubs affiliate) gave them their first series win of the year. “Tim, you know it’s not about wins.” Exactly. Let’s dive a bit deeper.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans average age for hitters (as of Sunday morning) is 21.0, and the Pelicans are 11th in OPS. Their offense is bad, but it’s the fourth-youngest in the league (of 12). Augusta has the oldest offense in the league, at 22.4. Augusta’s OPS, despite the age-edge, ranks only eighth in the league (.670 to .621). They have a few hitters doing quite well, and a few guys that are indistinguishable from the lower batting marks of Myrtle Beach.

“But, the Braves always own it in pitching.” Exactly, Let’s flip the charts. Myrtle Beach is tied (as of Sunday) with the Rangers affiliate for the youngest pitchers at 21.6. Augusta is fourth-oldest at 22.0. In ERA, the Pelicans are sixth, at 3.87. The Green Jackets rank 10th at 4.99. The WHIPs are 1.327 for Myrtle Beach and 1.466 for Augusta. It isn’t that the Braves are horrible at developing talent, or the Cubs are elite. All the organizations have players that are underwater, and if someone was ready to take their spot, they would.

Many organizations have many holes, and injuries to the good young talent (both pitching and hitting) doesn’t help. Nor did a five-round draft in 2020. Players that have been shredding good college pitching should spring up through the levels in 2021, given the chance. Because too many minor league hitters can’t seem to hit.

How would a group of people honestly assess how the 30 organizations stack up against the same two years ago? Few baseball fans mind their own pipelines very carefully. To extend that to all 30 would take an absurd amount of work, with precious little payoff. Since teams are limited to 180 players in a pipeline, any injury of any duration messes with the functionality of said pipeline. Every pipeline has had injuries that have put players out for one month, and some for 14-18 months. I doubt if five organizations are as good now as they were 24 months ago, and I have no idea how to assess the accuracy of my hunch.

Three up

Ben Leeper was eligible for the last draft. He wasn’t selected. Nonetheless, he chose the Cubs as his professional launching point, for whatever reasons. (It wasn’t money that broke the tie. His maximum allowed signing bonus was $20,000, regardless his selected team.) He slowly ramped up, with no actual games to play in. He debuted as a professional with Double-A Tennessee, pitching 14⅓ innings, allowing five runs, with only two earned. (Extra innings baseball leads to unearned runs, often.) In Tennessee, he allowed nine hits and four walks, fanning 22.

Bumped to Triple-A Iowa, he’s made three appearances, for 4⅔ innings, allowing no hits, two walks, and seven strikeouts. In a normal season, there might be a call to get him to Wrigley. However, the bullpen in Chicago has been rather good, and some roster moves may be difficult to put into action, rather soon. While Eric Sogard and Rafael Ortega might be the next two out, is there any reason to assume that Leeper would necessarily be better than who is currently being used? As far as Iowa call-ups, I tend to be a “pecking order” type.

Brad Wieck is on the 40-man roster. He’s tossed eight innings of scoreless baseball in the majors this season, and isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2023, at the earliest. Wieck deserves the first look. Whether you’re a Trevor Megill fan or not right now, he’s pitched better than guys that get tossed on the DFA wire. Until other teams are offering actual future value for some of the Cubs relievers (Rex Brothers, Dillon Maples, or whoever), doing anything rash is probably a bad idea. Which leaves other valid options like Adam Morgan and Dakota Mekkes in Iowa, in front of Leeper, regardless his current success.

My guess? Leeper pitches in Triple-A in 2022, if healthy, with Brennen Davis, Chase Strumpf, Darius Hill, and a team-full of players that might have no higher level to get called up to, as long as the labor strife continues.

Myrtle Beach right-handed starting pitcher Sam Thoresen isn’t on most Cubs prospect lists, Aonther non-drafted player from the 2020 draft (University of Minnesota), his pitch counts have been in the 50s five times, 68 once, and 73 as a high. Two of his last three starts have been scoreless, He’s never allowed more than two earned runs in any start.

Thoresen belongs in Low-A Ball, for now. If he can get himself into the 80s in pitch count for a string of starts, there’s logic to moving him up to South Bend. As horrible as the starting pitching shortage has been in the upper minors, any justifiable move up is useful. Thoresen is doing his job, and was another nice value after the draft.

Closing out this version is a former shortstop who’s succeeding out in the pasture. Yonathan Perlaza was signed internationally (Paramo Tucani, Venezuela) as an infielder, and played in the Dominican Summer League in 2016. By 2019, he had advanced to short-season Eugene and Low-A South Bend. He was still largely an infielder then, but is South Bend’s right fielder, now.

His seasonal OPS is .738, with two homers. His OPS the last two weeks is .892, and there’s nobody coming to take his job. Perlaza should get five or six starts a week, if healthy, to try to push to Tennessee.