2014 has been a banner year for the Cubs organization, especially in the minor league system. Players have developed, players have been called up, players have been added, and players have emerged. Throughout the storm of change that happened at each level of the minor league system, each level had a strong level of success. The Single A Level saw each team make the playoffs while the advanced AA and AAA levels were in contention until the very end of the regular season.
The Top Prospect
Out of all of the possible stories to write in the Cubs’ system this season, the biggest story was the break-out and dominance by 2013 1st round pick, Kris Bryant. Between Tennessee and Iowa, Bryant hit .325/.438/.661 with 43 HRs, 103 RBI, 15 stolen bases, and 78 total extra base hits. With a performance like that, there is no surprise that he was named MiLB Player of the Year by Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, USA Today, and of course, the Cubs. There is no question as to if Bryant comes up in 2015, but there is as it relates to how soon. Whether the Cubs bring him north out of Spring Training or send him to Iowa for a few weeks until they secure another year of control remains to be seen. There is also a bit of ambiguity to his position, as he could still end up as an outfielder. Regardless of how the few questions surrounding him play out, there is no doubt that he is coming for his ability to hit and that plays anywhere on the diamond.
The Graduated Prospects
In the same vein as Bryant are the players who made MLB debuts this season, including the massively hyped Javier Baez. Baez was called up on August 4th, joining Iowa teammates Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks. All three have had a few ups and downs since their debuts, although for Hendricks, the ups have far out-weighed the downs in the early going. Baez has struggled a bit with his strike outs to this point, which has been entirely expected…and is a big part of the reason he’s up now. Alcantara has shown a strong ability in center field, although he played the position sparingly in Iowa before his call up. He’s also shown that his power and speed can play at the major league level. Jorge Soler may have made the most seamless transition to the majors, raking immediately and continuing to do so since his call up on August 25. Others who have made their debuts this season after starting in Iowa are Matt Szczur, Neil Ramirez, and Tsuyoshi Wada. Wada has joined the rotation and shown to be a capable fill in, albeit in a small sample. Ramirez has been outstanding out of the bullpen. And Szczur has been used as an extra outfielder in September.
The New Prospects
With the promotions that we’ve seen this summer, it would stand to reason that the system has gotten a bit weaker. That is likely true, but it’s not much weaker. Acquiring Addison Russell and Billy McKinney will help keep the Cubs’ farm system among the game’s elite next spring and after Kris Bryant is called to Chicago. Russell should start next season in Iowa while McKinney heads to AA Tennessee. 2014 1st round pick, Kyle Schwarber was picked for his ability to hit, but early on is making a push to remain a catcher. While he needs some work and will keep him from the majors a little longer, he did show that his bat can play after beating up on inferior competition in Boise and Kane County and finishing the season with a strong showing in Daytona. A few young pitchers joined the discussion of Cubs’ prospects this season…none more so than Jen-Ho Tseng, who was named Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The 19 year old pitched to a 2.40 ERA in Kane County with a 2.99 FIP and 3.30 SIERA. Those are strong numbers and will be worth watching as he heads to new Advanced A affiliate, Myrtle Beach.
Developing a Culture of Winning
While Iowa and Tennessee failed to make the playoffs, the Cubs put together strong showings at every level of the minor leagues in the standings. In many ways, Iowa and Tennessee failing to make the playoffs was related more to who they were playing without than who they were playing with. The players who were called up by the Cubs have been chronicled, and they came from somewhere. The best stories of the season come from the Single A levels. Daytona, after a miserable first half of the season, not only made the playoffs, but won the FSL North Championship series and played to defend their Florida State League title, although were unsuccessful in the championship series. Boise was eliminated quickly from the Northwest League playoffs. Kane County, however, finished the 2014 season as Midwest League Champions with a 98-49 record. Their .650 regular season winning percentage was the best in all of the full season minor leagues. As a system, the Cubs had a 361-330 record this year, a .522 winning percentage.
Looking to 2015
The Cubs will have at least one new minor league affiliation. After 22 years in Daytona, the Cubs will shift their Single A Advanced affiliation to Myrtle Beach.
#Cubs agreed with Myrtle Beach on new Player Development Contract to move the club’s Single-A affiliate from Daytona to the Carolina League.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 16, 2014
“Myrtle Beach is a well-respected franchise that will serve as a beneficial destination for our young players,” Cubs’ Jason McLeod said. — Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) September 16, 2014
Theo Epstein added that weather was a major factor in the decision to change affiliations. Daytona has struggled with rain, so it stands to reason. The Cubs will also likely leave behind a 14 year partnership with the Boise Hawks. It is unclear where a new short season affiliation will pop up for the Cubs, nor is it clear how many they will have. A number of teams have two or more short season clubs, so we could see the Cubs add more than one short season affiliate so that they are have an ample number of teams to send players to. Lastly, and in somewhat surprising fashion, the partnership with Kane County is not yet settled. There is a chance the Cubs move their affiliation in the Midwest League to South Bend. The travel difference to Chicago is roughly the same, which negates the reason the Cubs moved to Kane County from Peoria. What makes this surprising is that is not long ago that we heard Kane County was making renovations to accommodate the Cubs. It remains to be seen how either of these affiliations play out, but they should be cleared up in the next couple of weeks.