EDITOR’S NOTE: The preview of the Cubs’ Low-A affiliate was supposed to run at 2 p.m. CT today. Instead, it got scheduled for 2 a.m. So it’s already been up for several hours, and in case you missed it, go here to read about the Myrtle Beach Pelicans for this year. Now, here’s a preview of the Cubs’ Midwest League affiliate, the South Bend Cubs.
The first weekend of the minor league season is already in the book and my apologies for not getting this tour of the system finished before the season started. But the Cubs waited until the last minute to announce the rosters and we also thought you’d like some content on an off day Monday. I hope you find this useful, even if it’s a bit late.
Every minor league club is special and every Cubs affiliate this year has some “must-see” players who are worth your while to go watch. But if you told me you could only follow one Cubs minor league team this year and asked me which one it should be, I would say the South Bend Cubs. This team is loaded.
The South Bend Cubs have been the Cubs’ High-A affiliate for the past two seasons. Before that, they spent five seasons as the Cubs’ Low-A affiliate. They play in the Midwest League, and you can make a case that they are the defending Midwest League champions since they won the title in 2019, there was no 2020 season and the Midwest League was called the “High-A Central” league last year.
The team plays at Four Winds Field in South Bend, which according to Google, is an hour and 45 minute drive from Wrigley Field. So this is the team that most of you will take a road trip to check out, if you are so inclined.
Who are the top prospects?
As I wrote above, every team in the Cubs system has good prospects and some other teams have some players that are higher-ranked than those on the South Bend Cubs. But no team has as many good prospects as South Bend.
To start out, the South Bend Cubs have the last two Cubs first-round draft picks in left-handed pitcher Jordan Wicks and shortstop Ed Howard. Wicks has a five-pitch arsenal, but his best pitch is his changeup, which he used to lead the Big 12 Conference in strikeouts last season. His mid-90s four-seam fastball is pretty good too. The Cubs were careful not to overuse Wicks last season after all the innings he threw in college, so he only pitched seven innings in four starts for South Bend last year. Three of those starts went pretty well and one did not.
Howard is the Chicago native whom the Cubs took in the first round of the 2020 draft. The Cubs aggressively assigned Howard to start in Low-A Myrtle Beach last year and it might have been too aggressive because he really struggled there at the plate, hitting just .225 with a .277 OBP. But the Cubs were confident enough in the adjustments he made over the winter to promote him to South Bend despite his rough 2021 season. One area in which Howard is not challenged is on defense, where he looked very good at shortstop for one so young and with so little experience. He could be an elite defensive shortstop one day.
Left-handed hitting slugger Owen Caissie came over to the Cubs in the Yu Darvish trade and the former second-round pick immediately started looking like the cream of the crop of prospects in that deal. Caissie is a big man with a patient approach at the plate and tremendous power when he does swing. His defense in the outfield needs work, but he certainly has a chance to stick as a corner outfielder and he’s got an above-average arm in right field.
Left-handed pitcher DJ Herz has a violent, cross-body motion that makes it difficult for hitters to pick up the spin. He has a nasty changeup to go with his mid-90s fastball, both of which he improved greatly during the lost 2020 season. Herz went from a guy who was best termed as “interesting” in 2019 to a top-ten prospect by 2021.
The Cubs got outfielder Alexander Canario from the Giants in the Kris Bryant trade and Canario has a little bit of Javy Báez in him, despite being an outfielder. Canario has a quick and violent swing that, similar to Báez, leads to strikeouts and some massive home runs. He’s also got a bit of that Javy swagger. Canario really hit the weight room this winter and he looks like he probably weighs 30 pounds over his listed weight of 165. But he still seems quick enough to play center field, at least for now.
Outfielder Yohendrick Pinango is just someone who can hit. He has a nice, left-handed stroke and he makes a lot of contact and sprays the ball to all fields. He’s probably not going to draw a lot of walks or hit a lot of home runs, but he’s going to get a lot of hits when he’s right. At worst, that’s a major league fourth outfielder. At best, that’s someone like Melky Cabrera.
Catcher Pablo Aliendo opened some eyes with a strong 2021 campaign with Myrtle Beach. Only 20 years old, Aliendo is still pretty raw on both sides of the plate. But he’s shown some real athleticism and an above-average arm behind the plate and he’s shown some good bat-to-ball skills and patience behind the plate. There are going to be some growing pains with Aliendo, but he’s one to watch.
The Cubs got right-handed pitcher Daniel Palencia from the Athletics in the Andrew Chafin deal last year. Palencia throws hard — he’s been known to touch 100 miles per hour — but he does need to work on his control. He was better and threw more strikes at the end of last season. I think Palencia’s future is in the bullpen, but the Cubs are giving him every chance to prove me wrong for now and letting him start.
Finally, right-hander Kohl Franklin returns to the mound after missing all of 2020 with a pandemic and all of 2021 with an oblique strain. Franklin was pretty dominating for Eugene in the short-season Northwest League, but missing two seasons had him sort of fall off the radar. But The Athletic’s Keith Law saw him on the back fields this spring and wrote “[My Cubs’] No. 15 prospect, right-hander Kohl Franklin, made a strong argument that that’s about 13 spots too low.” Law saw him throw some upper-90s fastballs with explosive life and a power curve and a change that both rated as plus. If Franklin can pick up on the trajectory that he was on in 2019, that would be a huge boost to the Cubs’ system.
Who is in charge?
The manager of the South Bend Cubs is Lance Rymel, who managed the Cubs rookie ball team in the Arizona Complex League last year, as well as the title-winning Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. He managed Eugene in 2019 and in the Dominican Summer League for the Cubs in 2017 and 2018. Rymel played three seasons in the Cubs minor leagues from 2012 to 2014, mostly for short-season Boise.
The pitching coach for South Bend, Tony Cougoule, is back for a second season in South Bend. Before joining the Cubs organization in 2020, he had spent many years as a pitching coach in college baseball, most recently with Westmont College in Santa Barbara from 2010 to 2019.
The hitting coach Dan Puente, joins South Bend after having been Myrtle Beach’s hitting coach last season. Before that, Puente was a hitting and catching instructor at Elite Baseball Training. He’s also been a scout for the Astros. Puente played two years in the minors for the Orioles.
The bench coach is former major league D’Angelo Jiménez, who has been in the Cubs’ organization for five years, most recently as a hitting coach for the Dominican Summer League teams. Jiménez played eight years in the majors with seven teams from 1999 to 2007. His best years were with the Reds from 2003 to 2005.
Who are the other pitchers?
Right-hander Chris Clarke was a fourth-round pick out of Southern California in 2019. He’s a tall man at 6’7” and he’s got some good sinking action on his pitches. He missed about half of last season with a hip strain but finished the year nicely in South Bend. He’s back to finish what he started.
Right-handed Manuel Espinoza went 4-9 with a 5.11 ERA in Myrtle Beach last year. There’s some evidence that he was a victim of bad luck last year, so he’ll see if his luck changes with the promotion to South Bend.
Panamanian lefty Didier Vargas went 4-2 with a 5.55 ERA for the Pelicans last year. But his underlying number of 58 strikeouts and 22 walks in 60 innings indicates he was better than that.
A few years ago, Jose Albertos was one of the better prospects in the Cubs system. Then he developed a bad case of the yips/Steve Blass disease. He looked better at the end of last season and so far this year. He’s still 23, so he has some time.
The Cubs signed Max Bain out of indy ball after he dropped 50 pounds and added ten miles per hour onto his fastball. He’s still raw, but his stuff has promise out of the bullpen.
Jeremiah Estrada got off to a late start last season and pitched brilliantly for Myrtle Beach. But after 23 innings, he got hurt again and missed the last two months of the season.
Hunter Bigge was a 12th-round pick in 2019 out of Harvard. He went 1-2 with one save and a 5.66 ERA for South Bend last year. He’ll try again this year. Fellow right-hander Bradford Deppermann also rejoins South Bend from last year. He was 2-3 with one save and a 5.53 ERA in 40.2 innings in 2021.
Last year, right-hander Joe Nahas did really well for Myrtle Beach, which got him promoted to South Bend. After pitching reasonably well for South Bend, he was sent to Tennessee where he ran into trouble. He’ll try to get back to Tennessee for a second chance this year.
Eduarniel Nunez had real control issues with South Bend last year. That’s what he’ll work on this season.
Nicholas Padilla only got in two games last season after the Cubs claimed him on waivers from the Rays organization.
Righty Bailey Reid is another guy who pitched decently in Myrtle Beach last year and then struggled in South Bend. He’s also another pitcher who needs to work on his control.
Dalton Stambaugh is a lefty who had a decent season for South Bend last year, going 2-0 with a 3.99 ERA and one save over 29.1 innings.
Who are the catchers?
Other than Aliendo, Caleb Knight and Jake Washer are the two catcher on South Bend’s roster. Washer returns to South Bend from last season where he hit .164 with two home runs in 47 games. Knight had the unenviable job of bouncing from team to team and serving as a fill-in catcher. Between South Bend, Tennessee and Iowa, Knight hit .162 with two home runs in 32 games.
Who are the infielders?
I could have stuck third baseman Luis Verdugo up with the top prospects, but he had a really poor 2021. Before the pandemic, he was considered a promising 18-year-old bat that could hit for both power and average and play at least average defense at third base. He’s still only 21, so he has time to put that terrible .229 OBP in 2021 behind him.
Matt Mervis is a first baseman with some patience and some power, but he needs to make more contact.
Second baseman Fabian Pertuz hit .223/.287/.308 in 67 games for Myrtle Beach last year. He hit the first South Bend home run of 2022 on Friday.
Scott McKeon played 22 games for South Bend last season and hit .158/.242/.175.
Who are the outfielders?
Caissie, Canario and Pinango are likely to be the starters, but they are joined by left-handed hitting Edmond Americaan and right-handed Bradlee Beasley. Americaan is a bit like Pinango in that he’s a contact hitter who sprays the ball to all fields and doesn’t have a ton of power, but he’s five years older than Pinango, so his upside is considerably lower. Americaan struggled in 64 games in South Bend after his promotion from Myrtle Beach.
Beasley hits from the right side and he has a bit of pop in his bat, hitting .226 with 8 home runs in 39 games for South Bend last year. (He also played a few games for Myrtle Beach and Tennessee.)
How do I see them?
For most of you, the best way to see the South Bend Cubs is to make the short drive out to South Bend. But the Midwest League also has teams in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as Indiana. So if you live in those states, you can look into seeing the team on the road.
There’s always milb.tv, as I’ve mentioned in the previous previews. Max Thoma and Brendan King are the primary broadcasters. (And boy, was that fun back in 2019 when South Bend had a pitcher who was also named Brendan King.) With luck, Marquee Sports Network will pick up a few South Bend games to broadcast again this season.