Before the Cubs won on a field in Cleveland, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans took home their second consecutive Carolina League title. Unlike their Chicago counterparts, though, it was not obvious that the Pelicans were ticketed for the playoffs all season long. It was not until August, the final month of the season, that they pulled away and secured a playoff slot. And while they were playing well at the end of the year, this was not a team loaded with elite prospect talent.
In fact, I suspect many Cubs fans would be hard pressed to name five players who finished the year on the Pelicans’ roster. For the most part, he prospects you probably think of when you think of Cubs’ prospects were not at Myrtle Beach. This was not a juggernaut of the elite trampling the competition (we’ll talk about Eugene in a separate article). This was a good team, no doubt, but I’m not sure you can call it a great one.
So how did Myrtle Beach win it all?
As a team, their offense was in the middle of the pack. The Pelicans’ team OPS of .723 ranked fourth in the eight-team league, well behind Lynchburg’s .780. They did finish second in walks and third in home runs, but the Pelicans were not built to be an offensive juggernaut. One of their best bats for most of the first half, Ian Happ, wasn’t even on the team when they made their August and September run into the championship, having been promoted to Tennessee.
Their pitching, on the other hand, was arguably the best in the league. The Pelicans lead the league in team ERA (3.47), WHIP (1.29), allowed the fewest walks (411, 29 fewer than the next best) and home runs (65, 11 fewer than next best), and tied for the league lead with 14 shutouts.
The upwelling of pitching prospects in this farm system is going to be a recurring theme this winter, and Myrtle Beach is a good place to start.
About That Pitching
If Ryan McNeil was not the best reliever in the Carolina League in 2016, he was in the conversation. McNeil, a 22-year-old right-hander, piled up 22 saves in 44 games on his way to 10.2 K/9 and an ERA of 2.33. Minor league relievers often do not get a lot of attention in prospect rankings, but don’t be surprised to see McNeil continue to buck that trend. I already have him at No. 16 on the Top 40.
He was not alone in the bullpen. Jose Rosario spent part of his breakout season in South Carolina. David Berg, James Farris, and Daniel Lewis, all relief prospects worth knowing about, each spent at least part of the season in the Pelicans’ pen.
The real strength of the Pelicans, though, was in the starting rotation. Of the thirty pitchers in the league who tossed more 90 innings, three of the top four ERAs belonged to Pelicans (Trevor Clifton: 2.72, Zach Hedges: 2.89, Erick Leal: 3.23). Not making that list are Jonathan Martinez, the ace of the 2015 championship team who had a rougher season, Jake Stinnett (ranked 14th on the Top 40), and Preston Morrison, who posted an ERA of 1.77 in six starts after pitching much of the season in South Bend.
While Clifton is among the best pitching prospects in the system right now (I currently have him ranked third among pitchers), the key here is the depth of the Myrtle Beach rotation. Not all prospects pan out, so when you see a team that has this many solid pitching prospects, and when you look around the organization and find that same pattern emerging on team after team, it is a good thing. Odds are pretty good that out of this deep depth the Cubs will find at least a couple guys who can hold down jobs in Chicago in a few years.
In the first half of the season, the Pelicans’ offense was led by two very familiar prospects: Ian Happ and Gleyber Torres. Happ was promoted to Tennessee, Torres was sent to the Yankees, and without either of them the Pelicans went on a late season surge that carried them to a title.
Before we get into how that story had an unexpected ending, let’s do a bit of trivia.
Do you know who led the Pelicans in OPS in 2016 and who finished second in the league at .928? No, not Torres. Or Happ.
The answer is David Bote. The 23 year old utlity infielder bounced between High A and Triple A before playing a key role in the Myrtle Beach offense in the second half. His .980 OPS in August particularly stands out. He was slightly old for the league, so I don’t think we’re going to see Bote surge up the prospect rankings based on his second half breakout, but he is someone to keep an eye on.
As is Andrew Ely. Ely, also 23, and a left-handed hitting shortstop, had the unenviable job of replacing Torres at the beginning of August. His season line of .237/.317/.284 in 44 games in High A is not great, but it jumps to .294/.358/.341 with the everyday shortstop job in August. Given the age, the level, and that he really only had one good month, I don’t expect Ely to make much of a splash in the prospect rankings either. But when the Pelicans needed production the most, he was getting on base at a .358 clip. That’s not bad.
That’s not to say that Myrtle Beach only had fringe types who got hot at the right time. Charcer Burks is a solid outfield prospect who spent the full season in High A, won a Gold Glove, and finished with a respectable line of .247/.356/.407, 23 SB, and 11 HR. Yasiel Balaguert hit 19 homers and showed continual improvement throughout the year. His second half line of .300/.339/.495 is a big reason why the Pelicans took home the title. Jeffrey Baez was inconsistent at the plate, but his 38 steals and above average power make him a prospect worth monitoring. Ian Rice had a .357 OBP while performing fairly well behind the plate.
All in all, it was a good group that featured a lot of quality talent, but lacked real standout prospects (particularly at the end of the season). It is the sort of team we might expect to see in a deep system, but a system not loaded with impact talent such as the Cubs.
Most of this group will head to Tennessee in 2017, but I don’t necessarily expect that they will capture another championship at the Double A level. I expect the pitching to do well, but it seems like winning teams in the Southern League need a more potent offense than I think this group will provide.
Still, this is baseball and you never know. If someone breaks out like Willson Contreras did, it might finally be the Smokies’ turn to collect a title.