The 2015 Myrtle Beach Pelicans not only secured a playoff berth for the season, but the best record in the Carolina League. However, this squad is no strangers to success, and they could be providing Cubs fans with a glimpse of the future.
The Genesis – The 2012 AZL Cubs
To most, the 2012 AZL Cubs will be remembered for its star-studded line-up, as top prospects in OF Albert Almora and OF Jorge Soler and 1B Dan Vogelbach staked them to a 14-5 record in their first 19 games.
But a core emerged that included infielders Carlos Penalver and Danny Lockhart, first baseman Jacob Rogers, and outfielder Shawon Dunston Jr. The athletic Dunston was the most dynamic player left after the big-name promotions, batting .286 with two home runs and 24 RBI. Penalver and Lockhart steadied the defense up the middle and gave the offense some spunk, stealing seven and 11 bases respectively. A 40th round draft selection and converted third baseman, Rogers was the elder statesman that provided leadership and was a monster in the middle of the order, hitting .341 with two home runs and 17 RBI in 26 games.
A collection of 19-year olds made key contributions on offense, which included OF Trevor Gretzky, OF Garret Schlecht, C Justin Marra, and utility player David Bote. However, the biggest impact came from utility player Tim Saunders, as the 32nd rounder of that year’s draft hit a whopping .493 with three home runs and 17 RBI in 17 games before being promoted.
The workhorse of the pitching staff was Carlos Martinez-Pumarino, who went 5-0 with a 3.53 ERA in 43.1 innings, while Venezuelan Loiger Padron was 4-0 with a 2.54 ERA in 28.1 innings. But the 2012 draft provided an influx of talent for that squad, as first round pick Paul Blackburn, second rounder Duane Underwood, third round pick Ryan McNeil, lefty fifth rounder Anthony Prieto, sixth round pick Trey Lang, tenth rounder Chad Martin, 14th rounder Corbin Hoffner, 17th round pick Nathan Dorris, 21st rounder, Stephen Perakslis, and 26th round pick Jasvir Rakkar went a collective 12-5 with five saves. All totaled, those 12 pitchers were involved in 26 of the team’s 37 wins.
Close, But No Cigar- The 2013 Boise Hawks
In 2013, some significant members were added to the core, as OF Kevin Encarnacion and OF Yasiel Balaguert along with RHP James Pugliese became part of the team. The draft also provided a number of players making brief but significant contributions. Those players included first round pick 3B Kris Bryant, second rounder LHP Rob Zastryzny, third round OF Jacob Hannemann, fourth round pick RHP Tyler Skulina, eighth round selection LHP Sam Wilson, 10th round pick RHP Zach Godley, 11th rounder INF Jordan Hankins, and 16th round C Cael Brockmeyer. Hankins would become the primary third baseman once Bryant was promoted, and Brockmeyer had a promising beginning to his career derailed by a concussion.
The Boise offense dominated the Northwest League stats, as Encarnacion won the league batting crown by hitting .355/.431/.566/.997 with eight home runs, 30 RBI, and ten stolen bases. Lockhart, Dunston, and Rogers were also in the top 10 in hitting. Balaguert, Encarnacion, and Rogers all tied for second in home runs with eight apiece. Balaguert and Rogers finished 1-2 in RBI at 48 and 47 and Bote was 10th in the league with 31 RBI. Dunston tied for 14th with 12 stolen bases after having his season cut short due to injury.
The pitching staff was still gelling, but the addition of Pugliese was a big boost. Pugliese was second in the league with a 2.32 ERA and his 1.081 WHIP was fourth. Tyler Bremer and Matt Iannazzo formed a potent right-left combination out of the bullpen. With seven saves, Bremer finished fifth in the league while Iannazzo was eighth with four.
While being one of the best offensive teams in the Northwest League, the Hawks had to back their way into the playoffs. Salem-Keizer (Giants) won both halves of the season in the Southern Division, but Boise ended up with the second best overall division record (third best league record). But the Hawks were peaking at the right time, beating the Volcanoes in two games straight to meet Vancouver in the finals.
After winning the first game, Boise was dealt a severe blow as neither Encarnacion nor Balaguert could get work visas to play in Canada. The Hawks dropped two straight to the Canadians, with Wilson having to line up in center field for one of the games.
Champions- The 2014 Kane County Cougars
The Cubs’ front office revamped the pitching staff for the 2014 Kane County team, and it paid big dividends. Blackburn and Skulina were retained in the starting rotation and joined by 2013 Cougar holdover Juan Paniagua. Two newcomers, Daury Torrez and Jen-Ho Tseng, and sixth starter spot were added with several players rotating in. The highlight of the first two months was a combined no-hitter thrown by Skulina and Bremer. The 24-year old Bremer took over the closer role after Godley received a quick promotion to High-A. With the starting rotation filled, Pugliese was converted to a reliever and became a mainstay. There were several mid-season shake-ups, as Skulina and Paniagua were promoted and Bremer was traded. In their places came RHP Duane Underwood, RHP Jonathan Martinez and RHP Francisco Carrillo. The Kane County staff blew away Midwest League hitters, as their team ERA of 2.85 was 20 points lower than the second place finisher. The Cougars also led the league with a team WHIP of 1.17. Pitchers Torrez and Tseng were named the CCO’s Co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Tseng was 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA, 0.867 WHIP, and had 85 strikeouts in 105 innings. Torrez led the Midwest League with a 1.000 WHIP, tied for second with teammate Martinez with 11 wins, and was fourth with a 2.74 ERA.
While taking a back seat to the Cougars pitching staff, the opportunistic offense put up the numbers that put a smile on the faces of Cubs’ executives. The team batting average of .261 was two points off the league lead. Kane County also had the second fewest amount of strikeouts. The closest the Cougars had to a league leaguer in any offensive category was Rogers tying for sixth with 16 home runs. What the position players provided was defense, as Kane County tied for the league lead in fielding percentage (.977) and fewest errors (119). The speedy outfield, rock solid infield, and sturdy catching were all broken up by mid-season but still did not miss a beat. Outfielders Balaguert and Hannemann were lost to injury and promotion, while All-Star third baseman Hankins was also moved to High-A Daytona. The outfield recovered as the swift Dunston and Trey Martin stole 27 and 29 bases respectively. Hankins was swapped for Jeimer Candelario, as the 20-year old was having a rough time in the Florida State League. An injury to starter Will Remillard and the promotion of Ben Carhart ceding the catching to Brockmeyer, but first round pick Kyle Schwarber also made a short appearance.
The Cougars breezed through the playoffs, never losing a game and swept Lake County for the Midwest League Championship.
Playoff Bound- The 2015 Myrtle Beach Pelicans
With the pitching staff in good shape, Cubs’ management decided to bolster the offense of this group for the 2015 season. Hannemann was reunited with the team, which also placed Billy McKinney and 2014 third round pick Mark Zagunis in the outfield. Hannemann and McKinney didn’t last too long before being promoted, with McKinney leading the Carolina League in average, home runs, and RBI at the time of his departure. At mid-season, Zagunis is the league’s best hitter with a .320/.442/.481/.923 with 14 doubles, four triples, five home runs, 33 RBI, and nine stolen bases. Zagunis is leading the league in average, on-base percentage, and OPS. Another big addition was utility player Chesny Young. In 37 games, Young has batted .364 with 14 RBI and five stolen bases while playing second, shortstop, third, and outfield. The steadying influence remains Rogers, who is tied for second in the league in both RBI with 42 and in home runs with nine. Candelario is fourth in the league with 16 doubles, and Penalver has rediscovered his offensive stroke, driving in 29 runs. Those improvements led to the Pelicans leading the league with a .262 batting average, as both Zagunis and Candelario were named mid-season All-Stars.
Acquired in a deal late in 2014, Victor Caratini has taken over the catching and has fit right in, providing solid defense. The team as a whole is even more airtight than is was the previous season, leading the league with a .981 team fielding percentage and committing a league low 47 errors in 69 games.
But the heart of this squad is the pitching staff, whose members are beginning to reach new heights. Underwood has emerged as the Cubs’ best pitching prospect, and is leading the Carolina League with a 1.85 ERA and a 0.932 WHIP. Martinez is second to Underwood with a 0.966 WHIP, and seventh with a 2.95 ERA, Skulina is eighth in both ERA (3.05) and WHIP (1.119) and tied for 10th with 55 strikeouts. Rakkar is tied for the league lead with nine saves. As the team, the Pelicans are second in ERA at 3.24 and WHIP at 1.12 while leading with 25 saves.
The Future – 2015 and Beyond
It isn’t certain what the second half of the season holds for this squad, but looking at the past few seasons can give some insight.
Myrtle Beach most likely will lose some of their present members to promotion. The most likely candidates are Zagunis, Young, and Underwood. There will also be a few more, but it would be hard to speculate at this time.
Given how the Cubs have recently handled their top draft choices, it would not be a surprise to see 2015 first round pick OF Ian Happ in Myrtle Beach, provided he shows the proper development. There are also several players struggling at Double-A Tennessee, including OF Albert Almora Jr., OF Bijan Rademacher, INF Bryant Flete, and LHP Gerardo Concepcion. Any of them, as well as several others, could use a fresh start.
Despite a disappointing record, several members of Low-A South Bend could be promoted, including familiar faces Balaguert and Brockmeyer. Others could possibly be All-Stars RHP Jeremy Null and RHP James Farris. The big question would be SS Gleyber Torres. The Cubs may not want to rush their 18-year old All-Star, but Torres is ninth in the league at .312/.381/.390/.770 and also tied for ninth with 38 RBI.
What is known is that the level of success can’t be anything but beneficial to these players as they go forward. They will have been exposed to pressure situations and have been able to maintain their focus when thing may not go their way.
But for now, it is beware to the Carolina League and look out Southern League in 2016.