I really enjoyed the 2014 minor-league baseball season. After its conclusion, the Cubs changed three of their affiliates including my favorite, Kane County. It was nothing for me to get in my truck and drive half an hour to Sycamore and then another 20 minutes to Geneva to catch the Cubs low-A baseball team. When I first heard the news that the Cubs were moving to South Bend, Indiana, I was a little disappointed. A year later I can say that was a foolish attitude.
Jason McLeod, Cubs Vice-President and Director of Scouting said the following shortly after the Cubs announced they were moving to South Bend:
We are excited to partner with South Bend and look forward to a productive relationship with the team, as well as the entire South Bend community. Making the decision to switch minor league affiliates is never an easy one, but we are confident that this agreement will further strengthen our farm system.
The South Bend Cubs’ first season as a low class-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs has been quite a success story! Owned by Andrew Berlin, now a minority owner in the Cubs, the franchise shattered their previous season attendance record with 16 home game games remaining. I was never surprised to turn on MiLB.TV and see a packed house every night. Looking back, it’s easy to see why the big league Cubs were drawn to Berlin and the South Bend area.
A player development center was built across the street from Four Winds Field just for the Cubs, which is why Berlin was able to get a four year development deal rather than the normal two. The franchise has been masterfully run as the Cubs prospects improved throughout the course of the season.
In the first half of the year, the South Bend Cubs struggled with a 29-38 record. The record was strange, though, as they put together one of the best starting pitching staffs in the Midwest League. The bullpen, on the other hand, blew six saves in the first few weeks. As soon as a closer began shutting down the opposition, he was promoted to Myrtle Beach. First it was Jasvir Rakkar, then James Farris, and later Brad Markey.
Starting pitchers Ryan Williams and Jeremy Null, along with second baseman Chesney Young and outfielder Trey Martin, were promoted in the first half to Tennessee and Myrtle Beach. In early June, the Cubs struggled to win on the road. Despite their record, the talent shined through at the Midwest League All-Star game. The Cubs had five players represent the team in the exhibition, including Jeremy Null, the game’s most valuable player.
The second half of the season went much better for the Cubs. In July and August, the starting pitching stabilized after a series of injuries and suspensions. Erick Leal, Zach Hedges, Jake Stinnett, Trevor Clifton, and Tommy Thorpe did excellent jobs as the South Bend Cubs played just above .500 ball and had a chance for a playoff spot before they were eliminated with five games left in the season.
When outfielder Charcer Burks went down with an injury in June, Jeffrey Baez took his place in the leadoff spot. At the time, Baez was hitting .188. In the second half, however, Baez hit an amazing .348 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs and stole 25 bases. Along with Cubs’ top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres, the two right-handed hitters provided most of the Cubs offense in the second half. Torres, the Cubs top prospect in the organization, lead the team in RBIs (62) despite hitting in the second spot in the lineup.
Outfielder Rashad Crawford, who hit ninth, was second with 50. Third baseman David Bote had a great August and 2015 draftees Ian Happ and Matt Rose joined the Cubs for a short stint at the end of the year. In the bullpen, Corbin Hoffner solidified the closer role while relievers Ryan McNeil and Daniel Lewis had great second halves to the season. It was an exciting team to watch every night.
Outside of Torres, the young team did not have any MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cubs prospects as position players. Jake Stinnett and Trevor Clifton were the only pitchers on that list at South Bend. However, several prospects did win Midwest League Player of the Week honors. They included Cael Brockmeyer, Yasiel Balaguert, Jeffrey Baez, and Erick Leal. Jeremy Null, Ryan Williams and Baez were all named player of the month in the minors by the Chicago Cubs for their efforts in April, May, and July. Last week, shortly before his promotion to Myrtle Beach, Gleyber Torres was named by the Midwest League as Prospect of the Year.
— South Bend Cubs (@SBCubs) August 24, 2015
Some of my favorite prospects to watch were Torres, Clifton, Rose, and reliever Ryan McNeil. I enjoyed Clifton’s dramatic growth in the second half and I loved how McNeil’s velocity increased throughout the year. As for Rose, I just loved watching him as he is so balanced in the box. I enjoyed Ian Happ as well, and I think next year he will really come into his own at Myrtle Beach, maybe even at second base.
As for 2016, most of the players will be promoted to Myrtle Beach. A few will stay behind, some injured players will return, and a few will be released. Playing 140 games in one year for the first time is tough for a lot of players, especially young players like South Bend had this year. It’s a long grind and the players should be better for it next year as they learn to prepare their bodies and minds for 140 games at high-A. Many of this year’s Cubs who will do fine under the tutelage of Manager Mark Johnson in Myrtle Beach.
Most of South Bend’s roster in 2016 will be made up of the Eugene Emeralds’ current roster, which is loaded with five of the Cubs top 30 prospects including Eloy Jimenez, Carson Sands, Justin Steele, Oscar De La Cruz, and Donnie Dewees. Another interesting hitter is PJ Higgins, who reminds me a lot of Chesny Young. Add in 2B Frandy DeLaRosa, who has a lot of skills at the plate, and this team could put some runs on the board. There also are a lot of veteran college pitchers like Preston Morrison, Kyle Twomey, Ryan Kellogg, Casey Bloomquist, and Scott Effross to go along with an outstanding relief corps in Trey Masek, Adbert Alzolay, Greyfer Eregua, Pedro Araujo, and Jose Paulino. The Emeralds just missed the playoffs after losing the last game of the year on Sunday.
The future is very bright indeed for South Bend. In 2015, fans flocked to the park, the players developed over the course of the year, and I don’t think you could have asked for more in South Bend’s first year as an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.