The 2016 Myrtle Beach Pelicans are going to have plenty of interesting prospects. Their pitching staff, in particular, projects to have a number of guys who could take significant steps forward this year, including two who could finish the season among the best pitching prospects in the organization if things go very right for them.
But don’t expect to hear too much about those other guys. If the Pelicans’ roster shakes out as I expect it to, Myrtle Beach could feature one of the best double play combinations in minor league baseball and that middle infield pairing is probably going to dominate the spotlight.
Shortstop Gleyber Torres is all but certain to return to the High A Pelicans when minor league teams leave Mesa next month, and even though Ian Happ will be taking on a new position and learning second base, I suspect the Cubs will let his bat dictate his pace through the farm system and will send him to the South Carolina coast sooner rather than later.
The duo of Torres and Happ have appeared on a number of Top 100 prospect lists this winter, are pretty much locks to appear in the top three for every Cubs top prospects list that has been published so far, and (spoilers!) will probably appear fairly high in the Bleacher Nation Top 40 when it is published later this month. Even in a Cubs’ organization that has produced infield prospect after infield prospect after infield prospect in recent years, this combination has a chance to stand out.
That said, it will be a developmental year for the both of them. Happ, in addition to learning a new position, will be tuning both sides of his switch-hitting swing. Last year Happ showed a little more power than we expected (isolated slugging of .207 in South Bend, SLG of .448) as well as plenty of patience (walk rate of 10.3%), but that was as a college draftee in the lowest levels of the minors. Happ’s swing already looks pretty good; his season will be more about making the small adjustments that are necessary for a hitter to maintain success over the length of a season than making fundamental alterations to his game.
The rest of the Pelicans roster does contain some quality talent, but not much of it has a chance to be on par with Torres and Happ. Two possible exceptions can be found in the starting rotation: Trevor Clifton and Jake Stinnett.
The Cubs drafted Trevor Clifton out of high school in 2013, and he has been progressing methodically up the system ever since. Thanks to his fastball, Clifton regularly appears in the 20s or 30s on Cubs Top Prospect lists, but so far he hasn’t quite been able to build on that fastball enough to emerge as a true top flight pitching prospect. Not over a full season, anyway. He finished 2015 on a high note, though, and is about at the point where we have seen pitching prospect break out in the past. He has the upside of a number two or three starter if things go right.
Jake Stinnett is also likely to head to Myrtle Beach, and, like Clifton, he is a candidate to break out and establish himself as a pitcher with front of the rotation potential. In fact, I would not be surprised to see Stinnett finish the year as the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He has much better stuff than his mediocre South Bend statistics show. Stinnett did not become a full time pitcher until he was in college, so that solid year of experience in 2015 was extra valuable for him. It will be interesting to see how he builds on that experience.
Joining him in the outfield will likely be intriguing guys like Charcer Burks and Rashad Crawford. Each is an impressive athlete and offers quite a bit to dream on, though each comes with power questions, especially in the outfield.
It would probably be safe to expect some surprises out of the Pelicans this summer, but for the most part I think this will be summer of Torres and Happ. I suspect that pair will result in a lot of Cubs fans checking out Pelicans’ games on MiLB.tv this year, and given that the Pelicans run one of the best video feeds in the business, that’s not a bad thing.
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