Minor League Preview – Low-A South Bend Cubs
The second installment of a series previewing the 2015 minor league season focuses on the South Bend Cubs. And a brief overall look at the system will precede the team summaries.
Please note that the previews are based on current roster assignments and anticipated Spring Training success. All assignments, both as to position and level, are subject to change pending the completion of Spring Training. Click here for the Cubs’ minor league camp rosters.
Low-A – South Bend Cubs
While there isn’t one outstanding area for the South Bend Cubs this season, every aspect of the team appears to be solid. There should be a few early standouts, with possibly more emerging as the season progresses. It should be an interesting year for an enthusiastic fan base and new manager Jimmy Gonzalez.
Infield – With a little more insight for Spring Training, it appears to be a good bet that shortstop Gleyber Torres opens the season with the SB-Cubs. Torres batted .279 with a home run and 20 RBI in 43 games for the AZL Cubs, but .393 in seven games for Boise at the end of the 2014 season. On the odd chance that Torres is not at short, Gonzalez will have two other very good options in Jason Vosler and Bryant Flete. While neither looks like they will stay at short over the long haul, each provide a different aspect. Vosler is a steady defender, while Flete is more dynamic. Drafted in the 16th round last year, the 21-year old Vosler hit .266 with a home run and 11 RBI in 30 games for Short Season-A Boise. Flete split his time between the rookie league and Boise in 2014, as the 22-year old batted a combined .273 with 19 RBI and five stolen bases in 55 games. Both are left-handed hitters and both can be expected to see action at second base and in the outfield.
As a hedge, the Cubs also signed Tanner Witt from the Frontier League. The 24-year old Witt was Rookie of the Year last season after batting .305 with four home runs and 39 RBI in 96 games. Holding down third base is an emerging prospect in 20-year old Jesse Hodges. Hodges made a huge leap in production last season with Boise as he improved to .265 at the plate with seven home runs and 44 RBI in 73 games. A former shortstop, Hodges has also made big strides defensively.
First base is a bit of an unknown, but a player who will probably see a lot of time there is 23-year old Alex Tomasovich. A 20th round selection, Tomasovich also played second and third base, but steadied the infield when at first while hitting .311 with 18 RBI in 37 games. A wild card is 21-year old David Bote. An 18th round pick in 2012, Bote has played everywhere but catcher and seen action at every level of the minors accept for Double-A Tennessee. The front office loves Bote’s potential, but can’t seem to find a place on the diamond for him so that he can concentrate more on his offense. Playing at three levels last season, Bote batted .235 with four home runs, 40 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 99 games. Don’t be too surprised to see Bote get most of his playing time at first base.
Outfield – It remains to be seen as to how they are deployed but two relative certainties for the South Bend outfield will be Jeffrey Baez and Rashad Crawford. A dynamic prospect that may be ready to take center stage on the national scene, Jeffrey Baez took the Northwest League by storm as he clouted seven home runs and stole 15 bases in 38 games for Boise and was named a league All-Star before being promoted to Low-A Kane County. The 21-year old struggled a bit with the Cougars, but overall for the season hit .255 with 13 home runs, 45 RBI, and 17 stolen bases in 69 games. Baez also has a strong, accurate throwing arm and is comfortable in both center and right field. Crawford is a player that has been gaining a lot of attention on the national level. The 21-year old Crawford batted .259 with a home run, 34 RBI, and 14 stolen bases in 71 games. While capable of playing center field, Crawford may be best suited for left field. Just who might be lining up in right field is a bit of a mystery at this point.
A classic right fielder from a physical standpoint, Yasiel Balaguert’s production needs to catch up with his potential. The Cuban national played for Kane County last season, but lost about fifty games to injury, and being advanced at this time may not be good for his overall development. Balaguert’s season numbers were .252 batting with seven home runs and 53 RBI in 96 games. At this point it’s hard to know what to expect from Kevin Encarnacion in 2015. The 2013 Northwest League batting champion spent the better part of 2014 recovering from second and third degree burns from an automobile accident. Encarnacion is currently practicing with the outfield group that stands a good chance to play in South Bend, but has given up switch-hitting and is currently batting left-handed.
The SB-Cubs could line up Crawford in center and Baez in right, with Charlie White taking over in left field. Selected in the 21st round, the 22-year old White is a local kid, playing for Naperville North High School before attending the University of Maryland. The left-handed White hit .200 with eight RBI, along with two stolen bases in 36 games while also pitching four innings.
Catching – About the only thing certain is that Canadian Justin Marra will be part of this squad. The 22-year old Marra has always been a good offensive player, tying for third in the Northwest League last season in home runs with nine, while finishing eighth with 38 RBI as he hit .279. However, Marra is just average defensively, fielding at a .986 percentage and throwing out only 20 percent of all base runners last season. It appears from training camp that Marra may be joined by last year’s third round draft pick Mark Zagunis.
The 22-year old Zagunis hit well after signing, batting a combined .288 with two home runs, 32 RBI, and 18 stolen bases in 57 games. However, Zagunis desperately needs exposure at catcher, playing only 19 games at the position after seeing most of his time in the outfield. Apparently, the organization is serious about converting infielder Gioskar Amaya to catcher. Therefore, expect to see 22-year old Amaya take the same path that Ben Carhart did last season, going back to Low-A to get playing time at the position. Amaya batted .276 with four home runs, 35 RBI, and 14 stolen bases for High-A Daytona last season.
Seeing time at catcher, first base, and designated hitter last year, Danny Canela batted a combined .292 with 12 home runs and 53 RBI. The 24-year old lefty is currently on restricted duty in Spring Training. A 2014 Midwest League All-Star, 22-year old Will Remillard is also on limited duty after batting .286 in 49 games.
Pitching –Time will tell whether the South Bend Cubs have a pitching staff as good as the Cubs’ Low-A squad last season. But like last year, the pitching talent will be coming in waves. It all starts with the 2014 second round draft pick Jake Stinnett. After three appearances and 4.2 innings in the rookie league, Stinnett made two starts for Short Season-A Boise where he had a 2.84 ERA and seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings. Following could be a winter acquisition for the Cubs in RHP Lars Huijer. Picked up from Seattle in a trade, Huijer was ranked the Mariners 17th best prospect. Huijer split his time between Low-A Clinton and High-A High Desert, where he was a combined 6-9 with a 5.08 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP that included 76 strikeouts in 124 innings. The native of the Netherlands is a sinkerball pitcher that projects more as a starter than a reliever.
Next up for the Cubs should be another young but talented thrower in Trevor Clifton. The-19 year old led the Boise Hawks rotation with 13 starts and finishing seventh in the Northwest League with a 3.69 ERA. For the season, Clifton went 4-2 with a 1.46 WHIP and 54 strikeouts in 61 innings. Just two months older than Clifton, 19-year old Erick Leal is another young and promising pitcher. As a member of Short Season-A Boise last season, Leal tied for third in the Northwest League in wins at 6-2, which was also tied for fourth among league starters in winning percentage. Leal was eighth in the league with a 3.73 ERA and had a 1.37 WHIP that included 31 strikeouts in 62.2 innings. Providing veteran leadership while trying to get his own career back on track should be Joshua Conway.
With a strict pitch count due to a previous injury, Conway had 13 starts and pitched 36.2 innings. Conway was 0-1 with a 1.96 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, and 24 strikeouts against nine walks.
Last season, the Cubs organization used a six man rotation for most of the season at Low-A Kane County, and could do so again this season. There are plenty of other starting options at this level, including James Norwood, Jeremy Null, Ryan McNeil, and Alexander Santana.
Drafted by the Cubs in the seventh round last year, Norwood has limited experience due to an elbow strain in college. With concerns about overworking him, the 21-year old Norwood tossed just 20 innings in ten appearances for both the AZL Cubs and Short Season-A Boise, going 0-2 with a 7.65 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP with 20 strikeouts. The towering Null (6-foot-7, 200 pounds) came to the Cubs in the 15th round of last year’s draft and made a swift rise after signing. Following a two-inning warm up in the rookie league, the 21-year old Null appeared in five games for Short Season-A Boise, in addition to starting one of the Hawks’ playoff games. Null’s totals were 2-0 in seven appearances with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP (13 strikeouts in 16 innings).
McNeil attempted to come back in 2014 from Tommy John surgery and was on a severely limited pitch count. With McNeil still not back at full strength and unable to get in the groove, the results were predictable. The 20-year old was 0-5 in eight appearances with an 8.44 ERA and a 1.88 WHIP that included 12 strikeouts in 16 innings. Now 21 years old, Santana has probably done enough to make the jump straight from the rookie league, in a similar fashion to Daury Torrez last season. Pitching on a very crowded staff for the AZL Cubs in 2014, Santana was 3-2 in 11 appearances (five starts) and had a 2.55 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP, and 36 strikeouts in 42.1 innings.
There appears to be a surprise as far as the closer role for South Bend, with former starter Dillon Maples now being looked at as a reliever. To say that Maples may be getting one of his last chances could be an understatement. In a career fraught with injuries and innuendo, the 23-year old Maples sputtered to a 0-4 record with a 9.00 ERA and a 2.18 WHIP that included 23 strikeouts in 28 innings between the rookie league and Boise in 2014.
Bringing some experience to the back of the bullpen will be a setup/closer combo in Sam Wilson and Jasvir Rakkar. The 23-year old left-hander Wilson had a productive season with Short-Season A Boise, going 5-1 with three saves in 16 appearances with a 3.62 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP (40 strikeouts in 32.1 innings). Rakkar was highly valued by the Cubs last season, appearing at every level in the minors except for Double-A Tennessee. Rakkar, a 23-year old, went a combined 3-2 in 25 appearances with a 3.83 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP (40 strikeouts in 42.1 innings).
If there is a story to be followed as far as pitching prospects, Daniel Lewis’ ranks as one of the most interesting. The 23-year old Lewis spent four years in the Air Force, signing as a free agent and making eight appearances for Short Season-A Boise, going 1-0 with a 0.87 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP (13 strikeouts in 10.1 innings).
Middle relief is solid with two more 2014 selections, eighth round lefty Tommy Thorpe and 19th round selection Brad Markey. The 22-year old Thorpe put up some good numbers in ten appearances between the rookie league and Short Season-A Boise, going 1-0 with a 3.05 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP (23 strikeouts in 20.2 innings). For his part, the 22-year old Markey had some success as he got a fairly heavy workload for a newly drafted player. Markey tossed 29 innings in 15 appearances between the AZL Cubs and Boise, going 1-1 with two saves, a 3.10 ERA and a 1.0138 WHIP that included 29 strikeouts. Selected in the ninth and tenth rounds of the 2014 draft respectively, James Farris and Ryan Williams are pitchers that can have futures as starters, but are presently being used out of the bullpen. The 22-year old Farris went straight to Short Season-A Boise after signing and appeared in seven games, finishing two of them. In 14 innings, Farris had a 2.57 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP with 21 strikeouts. In 11 total appearances between the AZL Cubs and Boise, the 23-year old Williams went 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP (29 strikeouts in 26.2 innings).
Corbin Hoffner had a season he would like to forget. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder had a rough time moving up to Low-A Kane County, posting a 5.64 ERA and 1.62 WHIP before being demoted to Short Season-A Boise. Things got a little better for the 21-year old, but he still ended up at 3-3 in 22 appearances with a 5.05 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP that included 35 strikeouts in 39 innings.
A couple of 2013 round draft picks will be looking to work their way back from injuries in 2014 are Trey Masek and Brad Renner. There are other pitchers that could also be in the mix, such as 24-year old Josh Davis, 23-year old lefty Alberto Diaz, 22-year old Trey Lang, and 22-year old Carlos Llano.
What to Watch for:
The South Bend Cubs have a similar profile to last year’s Midwest League Champions, the Kane County Cougars. But those kind of high expectations may be hard to live up to. With a loaded pitching staff and some promising position players, they should be in the hunt for the playoffs. It will be up to first year manager Jimmy Gonzalez to keep the team on a steady course.
Minor League Previews
Five Minor League Players to Watch
- Rookie and Short Season-A Ball – Down on the Farm Report – 02/23/15
- Low-A South Bend and High-A Myrtle Beach – Down on the Farm Report – 03/02/15
- Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa – Down on the Farm Report – 03/09/15
Attention CCO Readers
The Down on the Farm preliminary reader’s poll has been completed, and the top 20 players nominated are part of an online poll to reduce the number down to ten players. Please vote at the CCO home page in order to ensure that that your favorite player is followed by Down on the Farm Report for the 2015 season.
Race to Wrigley
For the third straight year, I will be competing in the Race to Wrigley 5K run on April 25, 2014. If anyone is interested in making a donation or joining the CCO team, please visit Race to Wrigley – Chicago Cubs Online to register. All proceeds go to Chicago Cubs Charities and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.