Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

cubs azl spring training logoAll things considered, this minor league season has gone about as well as we could have hoped. Where we needed to see breakout performances, we have seen some breakouts. Where prospects needed to take a step a forward in their development, they have often take three.  Positions that many thought to be weaknesses before the season began have emerged as strengths, and as a whole the organization has placed the Cubs (the major league version) in a better position than we really expected.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been some setbacks. Pierce Johnson, for example, remains on the sideline while Eloy Jimenez did not make the South Bend roster out of spring training as we had hoped, but those sorts of things are to be expected in any farm system in any year. For this system, for this season, so far anyway, those negatives have been much less negative and the positives have been more, well, positive. All things considered, things really are going very well.

After we check out the standings, we’ll go into some detail on a few places where things have gone particularly well.

Standings Watch

Iowa : 18-17, 2nd place.

A very good week that contained a small winning streak has moved the Cubs back into positive territory and into second place in the division. They remain six back of Oklahoma City. Since the I-Cubs are in Oklahoma City through Tuesday, though, they have a great chance to make up some ground.

Following this short road trip the Cubs return home for four games each against Tacoma and Reno. Both of those clubs are sub-.500 (although Reno has been winning quite a bit lately), so the ingredients are in place for Iowa to gain some ground in the standings. As always, though, they’ll have to do that while serving as the extended bench for the Chicago team.

Tennessee : 20-15. 2nd place.

The Smokies have won three straight and have become the second Cubs’ farm team to reach twenty wins, but they can’t seem to gain much ground on division leading Chattanooga. Despite having the second best overall record in the league, the Smokies are still two and a half back of their in-state rivals.

Like Iowa, though, the Smokies have a great opportunity to make up some ground. The second worst team in the division, Jackson, is in Kodak for a six game series that stretches through Wednesday, and on Thursday the Smokies open a five game set on the road against the division basement dweller Montgomery. This scheduling opportunity comes at a time when the Tennessee lineup is stronger than it has been all season thanks to the addition of yet another high quality left handed bat in Billy McKinney.

Myrtle Beach : 22-12, 1st place.

The Pelicans had a short week thanks to a bus accident that impacted the Carolina Mudcats and resulted in the postponement of that series. When they did play, though, they won. The Pelicans now own a four game winning streak and lead those Mudcats by two and a half games in the division.

Myrtle Beach wraps up a series against, you guessed it, the Carolina Mudcats today, and then have a day off before heading home to face Frederic and Potomac.

South Bend : 18-18, 4th place.

Another week of .500 baseball left the Cubs right where they started: .500 and in fourth place. The Low A affiliate trails division leading Bowling Green by three games.

The Cubs get a crack at Bowling Green in South Bend next weekend, but first they have to get past a road trip through Great Lakes and Lansing. Both of those clubs are division rivals of the Cubs, so it seems likely that by next weekend South Bend will have moved somewhere in the standings. Hopefully up.

Signs Of A Good Year

Coming into the season, Dan Vogelbach was one of the biggest unknowns. While he had hit well in the Florida State League (although some critics did claim he had not shown enough power even despite the power diminishing effect of the FSL), Vogelbach’s promise has long been that of a guy who can do a lot better than simply hit well. He was a patient, disciplined hitter from the minute he turned professional. Combine that with his prodigious left handed power and he had true star potential.

The kind of potential that as a 22 year old in Double A hits .360/.468/.579 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. The kind of potential that strikes out at just an 18% rate while posting an ISO of .219. Whether this success solidifies him as the Cubs’ DH of the future (assuming the next Collective Bargaining Agreement brings the DH to the NL) or makes him a key piece is a summer trade, the discipline and power in Vogelbach’s bat has been one of the biggest stories in the organization this season.

The Cubs also entered this season needing some pitchers to step up in the upper levels of the system, and Carlos Pimentel has quietly done just that. He was roughed up a bit in his first two starts (and had an ERA of 14.09 after that second game), but Pimentel has only allowed one run since then. In fact, he now made three starts in May totaling 16.2 innings without allowing anyone to cross the plate, and in doing so has brought his ERA down to 3.62. He isn’t the sort of pitching prospect that is likely to change the direction of a major league season, but he is the perfect example of a guy who has done exactly what the Cubs needed him to do this season.

The same can be said for Ivan Pineyro. After a 2014 campaign in which he was slowed by injuries, he has been one of the best starting pitchers in the Southern League so far. His FIP of 2.71 through seven starts puts him among the league leaders, and thanks to his strikeout to walk ratio of 5.13 and his K/9 of 9.30, we can feel pretty confident that his success is sustainable and not just some good luck. If he can keep it up when he eventual reaches Iowa, this 23 year old could also be a quality option if the Chicago club needs an extra arm down the stretch.

This sort of positive trend emerges wherever in the farm system we look.

Concerned about catching? Willson Contreras has broken out at Double A, Cael Brockmeyer is off to a hot start in Low A, and both Kyle Schwarber and Gioskar Amaya are showing that they have the potential, with time, to stay behind the plate.

Worried about the lack of quality potential starting pitching? Duane Underwood is carving up the Carolina League and Trevor Clifton has quietly found his command in the Midwest and is starting to look like the high ceiling guy we thought he could be. Frank Batista has converted nicely to being a starter, and of course the dominating duo of Jeremy Null and Ryan Williams have been frustrating Low A hitters all spring.

Think the Cubs need more infielders in the organization? Gleyber Torres is emerging as one of the best prospects in baseball, Stephen Bruno is still hitting, Jeimer Candelario has taken a step forward, and Chesney Young has been one of the very nice surprises of the early season.

Not sure the Cubs have enough prospects to trade for major league help? They have no fewer than four nicely marketable outfielders in Tennessee right now, and that does not include Schwarber (but does include Almora, McKinney, Rademacher, and Hannemann). Add in one of the best collections of A ball starting pitching around and the Cubs should have no trouble finding a way to make a deal or three should they need to.

No matter how we examine it, it really has been a nice start to the year for the organization as a whole, not just the major league team.

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