As the rumblings of baseball looking to begin their season continue to grow, it’s time to explore how assignments for prospects might shake out. Today, we focus on the South Bend Cubs, who are looking to defend their 2019 Midwest League Championship.
The delay in beginning the season may work in the favor of South Bend in their title defense. There will be less games and a shorter time to evaluate players before team assignments. A conservative approach might be considered best. Therefore, the SB Cubs may receive more experienced players to start the season than they would have under regular circumstances. To that end, South Bend may be assigned as many as ten of the Cubs‘ Top 50 Prospects.
While lacking the star power of last year’s squad, the potential pitching staff for South Bend is loaded with talent.
Although he may not be at the top of the rotation, 20-year old Kohl Franklin would be it’s highest rated member. Franklin has a mid-90’s fastball to go with a change-up and slider, but is still a young pitcher growing into his body.
Joining Franklin is another youngster in 18-year old Richard Gallardo. There was some hope that Gallardo could begin 2020 at Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. But with the current situation, caution most like will be used. Gallardo has great movement on his mid-90’s fastball that goes with a sharp breaking pitch. Command will be the biggest challenge for Gallardo.
At the top the rotation will be either one of two experienced right-handers, Michael McAvene or Chris Clarke. The third round pick in 2019, McAvene will probably start for the innings. The big-bodied McAvene will need a third pitch to go along with his upper-90’s four-seam fastball and slider to remain in the rotation. The 6’7″ Clarke also needs a third pitch, but like McAvene has an upper-90’s fastball and slider.
The delay in the start of the season most likely hurt the chances of 19th round pick Adam Laskey opening with Myrtle Beach. The lefty from Duke did not pitch after signing due to injury. A crafty pitcher, Laskey pairs a low-90’s fastball with a slider and change-up.
The bullpen will need to sort itself out prior to the season, but expect 12th round selection Hunter Bigge to emerge as the closer. Bigge parlayed a mid-90’s fastball into 22 strikeouts in 16 innings following his signing.
The Cubs typically like to assign defensive catchers to South Bend in order to handle the pitching staff. But with the squad having experience, player development may rely on offensive firepower and versatility.
A 29th round selection, Jake Washer blasted 17 home runs as a senior and was two-time conference player of the year at East Carolina. The 23-year old continued to hit well at Short Season-A Eugene in 22 games, slashing .257/.342/.429/.770 with a homer and 8 RBI.
Another 23-year old, 32nd rounder Bryce Windham was selected as a second baseman. However, Windham started at catcher and third base as a senior for Old Dominion, where he played 7 positions. Windham had even more success at the plate than Washer after signing, batting .325/.459/.419/.878 with 19 RBI in 35 games.
The youth and promise of this team resides in the infield, but we will start with the steadying hand of first baseman Grayson Byrd. Chosen in the 24th round, Byrd got off to a hot start at the plate before cooling after a promotion to Eugene. But the 23-year old seemed to find a home at first base. The defensive stalwart could end up helping some of the young infielders with his play at first.
The 19-year old Verdugo holds a slight edge as far as prospect rankings. He would have to make the jump from the rookie league. But Verdugo combines both great defensive skills and power potential. The rookie league was no challenge for the native of Mexico, as he batted .305/.367/.447/.813.
Another 19-year old, the switch hitting Martinez ranks right behind Verdugo. After hitting .352 in 27 rookie league games, Martinez was not as dominant at the plate when he moved to Eugene late in 2019. However, Martinez should make a strong push to play in South Bend this spring with his ability to make contact, his speed, and tools to play anywhere on the infield.
A bit more challenged at the plate, the 20-year old Vazquez lets his glove do the talking. Vazquez is so respected for his defense that he played at four levels last season. Those assignments included stints with Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. South Bend now seems like the best place for Vazquez to round out his game.
Backing this quartet most likely would be two players. But whether the Cubs stick with youth or are more conservative is unknown. Twenty-two year old Ryan Reynolds fills a need by being able to play both third and first base. But Reynolds struggled to hit at Eugene. Josue Huma is a 20-year old switch-hitter that batted about the same as Reynolds, but is able to play all four infield positions. Another 20-year old, Flemin Bautista, would have to jump from the rookie league. But with his power, Bautista has the best offensive potential.
In constructing the team in the above manner, South Bend potentially has a great array of versatility. Because of that, the Cubs may only carry four designated outfielders.
Most eyes will be on speedster Fernando Kelli. A 20-year old, Kelli already has 133 career stolen bases. Finding consistency at the plate has been Kelli’s weakness, along with a below average throwing arm. If Kelli can improve his plate discipline, he can advance rapidly.
Yovanny Cuevas has always presented as a well-rounded player that has not realized his full potential. A good outfielder that can play all three spots, the 21-year old has not decided where his offensive game lies. Cuevas hit 5 home runs and stole 11 bases in 47 games, but needs to improve his contact rate in order to be more productive.
Lending stability to the corp will be 22-year old Darius Hill. The left-handed hitter would be returning to South Bend after a late season promotion last year. Like Cuevas, Hill will be able play anywhere in the outfield. Hill lacks Kelli’s speed and Cuevas’ power, but is a more consistent offensive player than either one.
Rounding out the squad is converted infielder Yonathan Perlaza. Always a hit-first prospect, the 21-year old switch-hitter will mainly play the corners while possibly seeing a little time at second and third base.
Born and raised on Chicago's Northwest side, Tom is entering his tenth year covering the Cubs minor league system, writing for prestigious sites such as Chicago Cubs Online, Locked On Cubs, and Cubs Den. Over that period, Tom has published interviews with top prospects such as Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, Willson Contreras, Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, Ian Happ, Eloy Jimenez, Cole Roederer, and Gleyber Torres.
Known as "Tom U" across the internet, Tom also has a close working relationship with the front offices of all four of the Cubs' full season minor league teams. A frequent guest of the South Bend Cubs on WSBT radio, Tom has also written monthly articles for the South Bend Cubs' stadium program.