Even with the excitement surrounding the young talent that is already on the major league roster, the Cubs minor league system is still generally agreed upon as the top ranked system in all of baseball. It can be a challenge keeping track of which player is at each level, especially as the season begins, but we’ll take a look at what each roster looks like at the start of the season:
Iowa Cubs – AAA
The roster that is most likely to experience early change (buy your tickets now if you want to see Kris Bryant play in Des Moines), but also the one with plenty of reasons to watch even after the end of this month.
Who to watch:
Bryant: Of course. And although he won’t be here long, look for him to get some time in LF in preparation for spending time there when he’s called up. That call up would happen, at the earliest, somewhere around April 17, but the Cubs have not given any indication as to when they plan to bring him up. That does give him time to play in the first to series with Iowa, but both are on the road, so if you live near Memphis or New Orleans, get tickets!
Javier Baez: Perhaps a surprise to see him in Iowa, but especially after a rough spring (.182/.237/.236, 21 Ks), it is necessary. It’s hard to predict how long he’ll stay in Iowa, but it’s expected that he’ll return to the majors at some point this summer. Look for him, of course, to work on reducing his K rate by focusing on pitch selection.
Addison Russell: He’s the one who is most likely of these three to spend all or most of the season in Iowa. Speculation is already abounding that he may one day force Castro out of the SS spot, whether it’s because Castro takes a different position or is traded, so the timing of Russell’s call up may hinge on Castro’s fate. Don’t be surprised if we see Russell with a similar fate to that of Bryant next spring. He’s young enough (21) that the Cubs can afford to wait on him for another year.
The Iowa Cubs don’t play at home until April 17, but they’ll open their season against Memphis for a four game set starting tomorrow.
Tennessee Smokies – AA
Like the AAA brethren, the Smokies have a roster with plenty of reason to watch. This would be a team to follow very closely, as some of these guys are likely to make their debuts in the coming years (2016 is really going to be fun.).
Who to Watch:
Kyle Schwarber: The Cubs first rounder last year made a quick rise through the system (moved through 3 levels), and could continue doing the same, depending on what the Cubs want for him defensively. This could be a season that he spends entirely in AA to focus on being a full time catcher, or if the Cubs do explore other defensive options, he could move up more quickly. Either way, he hits like crazy (1.061 OPS, 18 HR overall last year)
C.J. Edwards: I’ve mentioned him before, but the biggest test for Edwards this season may be whether or not he can stay healthy for a full season. He has the potential to have an impact on the pitching staff at the major league level very soon, but injury problems have interfered so far. He made just 10 starts in AA last year, so he could be in Tennessee all season.
Dan Vogelbach: If ever there was a reason for me to want to embrace the DH in the NL, it’s this guy. He can absolutely mash, but given that he’s a first baseman and Anthony Rizzo has that spot pretty much locked down for the next several years, there’s really nowhere for Vogelbach to go at this point. The 2011 2nd rounder could be a valuable trade piece at some point, but there’s not specific expectation that that will happen at this point.
Note: Albert Almora will be in Tennessee as well, and is a worthy candidate for a bounce back year in 2015.
The Tennessee Smokies begin their season with a 5 game series against Mississippi before coming home next Wednesday, April 15 to play 5 games against Pensacola.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans – A+
This is the first year that the Cubs’ High A affiliate is in Myrtle Beach, after ending their relationship with the Daytona franchise. The roster in Myrtle Beach is absolutely loaded with 9 highly ranked prospects starting the year there.
Who to Watch:
Billy McKinney: Acquired from Oakland last year when Jeff Samardzija was traded, McKinney is proving to be a solid outfielder. Oakland took him in the first round in the 2013 draft out of high school, and he’s put together some noteworthy numbers during his 2 seasons in the minor leagues (.283, 14 HR, 95 RBI in 181 games overall), and those averages are down slightly because of an adjustment to high A ball last year while he was in Stockton. Since joining the Cubs’ system, he’s hit significantly better.
Jen-Ho Tseng: Tseng has been a topic of conversation here before, but he looks to be a high ceiling pitching prospect in a system that’s heavy on offensive talent. His experience in the minors isn’t extensive, but he had a very impressive year in Kane County last season (2.40 ERA, 0.867 WHIP, 85 Ks in 105 innings)
Duane Underwood: Another second rounder that the Cubs took out of high school in 2012, Underwood showed distinct improvement from 2013 to 2014, even while moving from low A Boise to A level ball in Kane County. He pitched twice as many innings, and still lowered cut his ERA practically in half (from 4.97 in 2013 to 2.50 in 2014).
This is basically the team that won the Midwest League Championship while in Kane County last year, so they’ll be fun to watch. They open their season at home tomorrow with a 4 game series against Wilmington followed by 3 games against Salem.
South Bend Cubs – A
Formerly the Kane County affiliate, South Bend has a few spots of real talent, including a very young shortstop who provides ample reason for excitement. Four Winds Field has also been under construction this past offseason and it looks like a place worthy of a mini road trip if you live near northwest Indiana.
Who to Watch:
Gleyber Torres: The 18 year old shortstop spent most of his season in 2014 at the rookie ball level in Arizona, with just a 7 game appearance in low A Boise. But what a 7 games: an OPS of 1.254 and 11 hits in 28 at bats. Granted, the sample size is small, but the ceiling is very, very high here.
Jake Stinnett: The Cubs picked him in the 2nd round last year after he opted not to take the Pirates’ offer when they drafted him in the 29th round the year before. His rooked ball numbers were perhaps a little scary (don’t look, trust me on this), but when he made the move to low A Boise, he pitched like the Cubs are hoping he can: 0.789 WHIP, 7 Ks in 6 innings.
Gioskar Amaya: This 22 year old Venezuelan has been in the Cubs’ system since he was 17, and the Cubs have moved him somewhat slowly through their system, having him spend full seasons at Kane County in 2013 and Daytona in 2014. He looks to be a solid defender in the middle infield who will probably always hit pretty well, but offers some speed on the basepaths as well, with 73 stolen bases in his minor league career so far.
The South Bend Cubs open a 3 game series at home tomorrow against Bowling Green. They’ll play Kane County this season, but at home, so there won’t be a chance to check these guys out in Chicagoland.