The 2018 Myrtle Beach Pelicans staged an impressive rally at the end of the first half to put themselves in postseason contention, but could not finish it off or carry that momentum into the second half. They finished well under .500 (61-78) and were not much of a playoff factor after the All-Star break.
But that doesn’t mean it was a bad season. On the contrary, if you want to feel good about the direction this farm system is headed, this Myrtle Beach team is a great place to start. For years High-A has been the place where Cubs’ prospects really start to put themselves on the radar, and this year was no exception. Breakouts were definitely the story of 2018.
So lets start with the one who didn’t. The Cubs very aggressively sent 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan to Myrtle Beach to start 2018, and I think a lot of fans were hoping he’d build on that confidence to solidify himself as the systems’ top prospect. He didn’t. Ademan had some good games and his raw tools were definitely in evidence, but his overall production was lackluster. He finished with a troubling line of .207/.291/.273, three homers, and nine steals. His walk rate was good (8.4%) and his strikeout rate wasn’t that bad (21.0%) for his age and level, but almost half the balls he hit went into the ground. That’s probably not going to work for Ademan. At the very least he needs to turn more of those grounders into line drives if he’s going to move his overall production into an attractive range.
I think he has the skillset to do it, but I would urge caution when contemplating his ceiling. Seeing ’19-year-old shortstop in High A’ could lead us to envision a future star, but I think a solid every day kind of guy is much more plausible. He’s still a good prospect, but I don’t see Ademan as being a Top 100 candidate this winter. If he can make some changes at the plate this offseason, we could be having a very different conversation next fall, but for now I’ll be expecting Ademan to repeat High-A (at least to open the season, if Nico Hoerner doesn’t complicate that) and looking for progress in his batted ball rates.
One guy who definitely caught our attention was 22-year-old catcher Jhonny Pereda. A largely unknown backstop coming into the season, he was named the primary starter out of spring training and surged to a very solid .272/.347/.363 season line. His was walk rate was very good (10.3%) and his strikeout rate was very great (13.7%). He also hit more balls on the ground than I’d really like to see, but he did a very good job spreading those hits to all fields. And when he did square one up, he turned it into a homer a team high eight times (for context, only 19 Carolina League players had ten or more homers last season).
Pereda isn’t the best catching prospect in the system (spoiler: that’s Miguel Amaya), but he is definitely one to watch when he heads to Double A next year. If he can get a few more balls in the air, he could turn into a potent offensive player. Behind the plate, he should be just fine.
Joining him in Double A next year is likely to be the poster guy for 2018 breakouts: Jared Young. Young torched the Midwest League for a 150 wRC+ and ten homers to open the year, then moved to Myrtle Beach and kept up a 118 wRC+ and added another six bombs. When you consider that was his first full professional season and fatigue was probably factor as he headed down the stretch, those numbers are even more impressive. The Cubs drafted this left-handed hitting infielder out of college in 2017 (15th round), so some level of proficiency was expected, but no one was looking for a breakout quite like this. Young went on to be named the Cubs’ minor league position player of the year.
Young isn’t an extreme fly ball hitter, but his 34.5% rate isn’t bad. He does a decent job spreading the ball around, and with a 19.2% strikeout rate in High-A, he isn’t swinging himself out of at bats. He could stand to walk more (just 5.3%), but given he finished up Myrtle Beach with a .341 OBP and was in his first full season, I’m not too worried. He’s played second base in the past (and I think he could again), but the horde of middle infielders in the lower levels of the Cubs system meant he spent most of 2018 on first. Look for him to flip between those two positions, and maybe start to mix in some outfield, when he heads to Tennessee sometime in 2019.
There are other hitters we could talk about here, but the last one I want to put a spotlight on before I switch over to the pitching side is Christian Donahue. For reasons unknown, Donahue was left off the postseason roster at the end his Oregon playing days, and that – combined with his size – may have been part of the reason he went undrafted. The Cubs signed him as a free agent, and by midseason he was playing regularly for South Bend (where he hit .287/.352/.379). He moved to Myrtle Beach late in the year (just 46 plate appearances) and just kept hitting (.282/.391/.513). His walk rates at both stops were good (9.1% and 13.0%), but his just fine 19.8% strikeout rate with South Bend jumped to a less sustainable 26.1% with Myrtle Beach. He is definitely a fly ball guy, and as he adds more muscle onto his 5’8″ frame I wouldn’t be surprised to see his home run totals track into the double digits with regularity. For now, though, he remains a solid left-handed hitter with good overall profile and a few remaining questions. I think he’ll be back at second in High-A to open next season, but with a strong start he could make the jump to Tennessee in a hurry.
Now for the pitching. Projecting pitching prospects is never easy, but the one factor that seems to correlate with future success the best is… success. Seriously. Stuff plays a factor, as does velocity and control (especially control, I think), but at the end of the day, we find time and time again that the pitchers to watch are the ones who are consistently getting guys out.
One measure of how good a pitcher is at getting guys out is WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched). It isn’t a popular stat these days, but it does a decent job telling us how good a pitcher is at keeping runners off the basepaths (though we should note that a good defense certainly helps make this number look good). There were 145 pitchers in the Carolina League who threw at least 30 innings last year. And if we rank them by WHIP we find a lot of Pelicans:
2. Erick Leal (0.82)
3. Keegan Thompson (0.92)
8. Matt Swarmer (0.97)
9. Wyatt Short (0.98)
24. Tyson Miller (1.09)
Not sold on WHIP as a useful stat? Fair enough. Let’s do the much more popular and more universally recognized FIP (fielder independent pitching):
3. Matt Swarmer (2.03)
9. Jhon Romero (2.49) (traded to the Nationals)
13. Wyatt Short (2.60)
18. Erick Leal (2.74)
27. Bailey Clark (2.98)
28. Cory Abbott (2.99)
Prefer something that more directly measure a pitcher’s performance? How about the ratio of strikeouts to walks (K/BB)? This should tap into how much control a guy has as well as how good he is at getting strikeouts.
1. Matt Swarmer (8.43)
9. Keegan Thompson (4.69)
28. Tyson Miller (3.60)
29. Erick Leal (3.59)
We can do this all day. Sort by batting average against, and we see Leal in the top four and Manuel Rondon makes his first appearance on the leaderboard. Sort by ERA, and Leal leads the pack, while four other Cubs crack the top thirty. Even sorting by age yields two Cubs (Bryan Hudson and Abbott) among the youngest hurlers in the league.
The point is that when we compare Cubs’ pitching prospects to their own league we find that the Cubs are doing pretty well in the pitching department. Every pitcher I named here has at least one flaw that results in him being seen as no more than a back-of-the-rotation type or bullpen guy by many analysts (a projection I don’t necessarily agree with in all cases, but we’ll get into that when the Top 40 comes out), but every one of them has demonstrated some degree of an ability to do the most import job a pitcher has: get outs and prevent runs.
And it wasn’t all that long ago many folks were writing off Kyle Hendricks as nothing more than a future fifth starter despite the fact that he was consistently among the best in his league at getting outs and preventing runs while he came through the minors. That doesn’t mean any of these guys are the next Kyle Hendricks, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss any of these guys due to a lack of velocity or the lack of power stuff.
Another pitcher to watch who was not on those statistical lists is Justin Steele. Steele only had 18.1 innings with Myrtle Beach as he worked his way back from arm surgery, but his numbers would have put him on the league leader list in both WHIP (0.98) and FIP (2.76).
Next year will be a big year for a lot of this crop of pitchers. They’ll head to Tennessee (if they haven’t gone there already), and a full season of Double A will tell us a great deal about how they project going forward. If they continue to rank among the league leaders in Double A in the key categories of getting outs and preventing runs, then we’ll officially have to stop referring to pitching as an organizational weakness (if anyone still was, that is).
As for the Pelicans, the crowded pitching situation in Iowa and Tennessee all but guarantees that some very good pitchers who could use a promotion are going to stay in Myrtle Beach to start the year, and they’ll be joined by a pretty good group coming up from South Bend and maybe one or two from the draft. I think the Pelicans should be fine in that department, and should probably have a little more upside on offense than what they saw this year. I’m not sure they’ll make playoffs, but I think they should be in contention at least in the first half.