What a difference a year makes. At this time last season, Cubs followers would have a difficult time finding any top players in their minor league system, let alone any hope for the future. Bolstered by a solid 2018 draft, some reshuffling of the major league roster, and a year of experience, the Cubs minor leagues looks a bit more solid. Here’s a look at the top performers, as well as a summary of the first month.
Pitcher of the Month: Riley Thompson, RHP
The Cubs‘ 2018 11th round draft pick was a bit of a gamble for an organization that plays things relatively safe. Riley Thompson had Tommy John surgery prior to beginning his college career. He also redshirted and had a very uneven freshman season. And prior to being selected, Thompson continued to struggle as he bounced between the rotation and the pen.
However, Thompson began posting some good numbers after signing with the Cubs. Assigned to Short Season-A Eugene, Thompson posted a 2.84 ERA and 1.303 WHIP to go along with 25 strikeouts in 25.1 innings in 9 appearances.
Thompson is now solidly in the rotation thanks to an improved curve to go with his two and four-seam fastballs and change-up. In four starts, Thompson has sparkled with a 1.42 ERA and 1. 158 WHIP. As a result, Thompson has run his record to 2-0 with 16 strikeouts to 5 walks in 19 innings. Thompson has also shown that increased innings have not affected his velocity.
Player of the Month: P.J. Higgins, C/INF
Selected in the 12th round of the 2015 draft, the Cubs made the decision to convert infielder P.J. Higgins to catcher shortly after completing his first professional season. Higgins made a smooth transition, quickly establishing himself defensively both as a receiver and in controlling the opposition’s running game.
But Higgins partially paid the price at the plate. Higgins put up a .283 average and .744 OPS in his first full season. But then, Higgins saw his production tumble as he advanced up the chain. Higgins was only able to muster a .625 OPS in 2017 at Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. And after returning to the Pelicans to start 2018, Higgins saw his OPS plunge to .615 with a mid-season promotion to Double-A Tennessee.
But the Cubs sent Higgins to the Arizona Fall League following the season. Although Higgins only hit .158, he was clutch with 6 RBI in only 38 at bats. Higgins also cemented his reputation defensively, working well with the pitching staff.
With his defense established and the presence of catching prospect Jhonny Pereda, Higgins has been moved around more this season. Coming back to the Smokies, Higgins has mainly split his time between first and third base. Higgins has also seen time at catcher and second base.
It’s at the plate were Higgins has shown the greatest improvement. Higgins has come out of the box swinging, slashing .312/.400/.468/.868 for the first month. Higgins production includes 3 doubles, 3 home runs, 10 RBI, and 3 stolen bases.
Biggest Surprise: The Kids Are Alright
Opening the year with 7 players 20-years old or younger on their roster, Low-A South Bend has had surprising results. The SB Cubs were 13-10 in April, with their youngest players taking the lead. A pair of 20-year old lefty starters Brailyn Marquez and Faustino Carrera top the pitching staff. With 27 strikeouts, Marquez leads the team while Carrera is third with 19. In the field, OF Nelson Velazquez paces the club’s young players with a .326 average, while OF Cole Roederer is second with 15 RBI. The SB Cubs are also getting significant contributions from INF’s Fidel Mejia and Christopher Morel, as well as OF Jonathan Sierra. Mejia was hitting .333 before being injured, while Morel and Sierra have shown promise both offensively and defensively.
Biggest Disappointment: Myrtle Beach
With a record of 7-19 for April, the Pelicans blend of experienced first year professionals and holdovers is not meshing. Infielders Grant Fennell and Luke Reynolds; outfielders Jimmy Herron, Kevonte Mitchell, and D.J. Wilson; and pitchers Bryan Hudson, Alex Lange, and Paul Richan have all gotten off to slow starts. All of the hitters are currently batting below .220 while the pitchers all have ERA’s over 4.00. At this point RHP Javier Assad is the bright spot with a 3.38 ERA, 1.292 WHIP, and 21 K’s in 24 innings. Infielder Aramis Ademan has been making some minor improvement, batting .262 with 2 homers and 13 RBI.
Uneven play has been the hallmark of the 11-12 April for Tennessee. The Smokies have received good play from SS Nico Hoerner (currently injured), 1B/OF Jared Young, and player of the month Higgins. Hoerner was hitting .300 with an .891 OPS before going down. Meanwhile, Young has slugged 3 home runs, has 20 RBI, and is batting .307. But for the most part, Tennessee has been buoyed by over-aged prospects in INF’s Robel Garcia and Vimael Machin. The 26-year old Garcia has 6 homers and 25 RBI to go with a .928 OPS from Machin. The Smokies pitching staff have alternated good and bad performances, with the exception of RHP Tyson Miller. Miller could be angling for a promotion with a current 1.07 ERA, 0.750 WHIP, and 25 whiffs in 25.1 innings.
Prospect followers are familiar with the term AAAA player. At 14-10 in April, the I-Cubs could be considered a AAAA team. With 24 players having major league experience, including bona fide big leaguers in OF Ian Happ, RHP Carl Edwards Jr., and LHP Brian Duensing, Iowa has cruised through the early part of their schedule. Added to that roster will be SS Addison Russell in May. With all that experience, Iowa has only a middle of the pack offense in the PCL. The I-Cubs however lead the league in defense and are third in both ERA and WHIP. While all that experience may be helpful for the Cubs this year, how it affects their player development down the road remains to be seen.
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.