Fans at Four Winds Field in South Bend are in for a treat with the outfield trio of Eloy Jimenez, Donnie Dewees and Eddy Martinez. Three of the organizations top players are joined by a deep pitching staff for the start of the 2016 season.
The 19-year-old Jimenez is on the verge of bursting onto the prospect scene as he seemed to hit majestic homers on a daily basis during spring training. Despite missing two ten-game stretches with injuries last year in NWL, Jimenez batted .284/.328/.418 with seven homers and 10 doubles in 232 at-bats. Signed in 2013 out of the Dominican Republic, Jimenez is making his full-season debut after spending his first two years at Mesa and Eugene.
The Cubs second-round pick last June out of North Florida, Dewees hit .266/.306/.376 in 66 games in the Northwest League and displayed his power and speed with five homers and 19 steals. The 22-year-old spent most of his first pro season in center but can play all three outfield positions.
The Cubs have signed and drafted a lot of young prospects the past four years since Theo Epstein took over baseball operations and none of them have started their pro career at a full-season affiliate until now—meet Eddy Martinez. Considered one of the top international prospects and once tied to the Dodgers with an $11 million deal, the Cubs signed the 20-year-old Cuban for $3 million in October. Described by Cubs Director of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod as a player with a body of a NFL defensive back, Martinez is considered a five-tool player and the MWL will provide a good challenge.
With all the hype the outfield will get this season, you can’t forget about the starting pitching depth headed to South Bend, led by young left-handers Justin Steele and Carson Sands. Both drafted out of high school in 2014 and receiving $1 million bonuses, there careers have mirrored each other, pitching in Mesa the first year, spending last season in Eugene and making their full-season affiliate debuts with South Bend. Steele was taken in the fifth round out of Mississippi and threw 40 innings last year in Eugene, making 10 starts with a 2.66 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP, and 38 K. Sands, a fourth-round pick, made 14 starts, compiling a 3-4 record with a 3.92 ERA in 57.1 innings.
One of the surprises of the 2015 season in Eugene was the development of right-hander Adbert Alzolay, who went 6-2 with a 2.04 ERA in 53 innings. While the 21-year-old only made three starts, several of his relief appearances went over five innings and he tossed six innings of no-hit ball in late July and earned NWL pitcher of the week honors.
The rest of the starting staff is comprised of college arms drafted last June including fifth-round pick Ryan Kellogg, a left-hander from Arizona State. Preston Morrison gets the ball on opening night after logging 22.1 innings in Eugene and an impressive spring. The Cubs 8th round pick out of TCU was nearly un-hittable his first pro season with 30 strikeouts, a 0.81 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP. Kyle Twomey (23 IP-Eugene) and Casey Bloomquist (19.2 IP-Eugene) are also in the mix for innings.
After battling injuries last year, James Norwood, the Cubs 7th round pick in 2014, returns to South Bend along with Michael Wagner, who also pitched at Iowa and Tennessee. Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, and John Williamson, all 2015 draft picks, will make their MWL debuts and are joined in the bullpen by Greyfer Eregua and Scott Frazier.
Tyler Alamo, Ian Rice and P.J. Higgins will share the catching duties this summer in South Bend. Alamo, 20, was the Cubs 24th round pick in 2013 and the right-handed hitting backstop had his best year in Eugene last summer, hitting .261/.338/.268 in 41 games. Rice, 22, was the Cubs 29th round pick last June out of Houston and hit .252 with two homers for the Emeralds in 47 games. Higgins, 22, will be seeing his first pro action behind the plate, after hitting .299/.351/.445 in 36 games between Mesa and Eugene as an infielder.
Matt Rose, Cubs 11th round pick last year, returns to South Bend and will play first and third, after recovering from a shoulder injury. Rose, 21, could challenge Jimenez for the HR crown after hitting .271/.309/.392 in 45 games with 4 HR between Eugene and South Bend. Andrew Ely is back in town after splitting his second pro season between Eugene and South Bend. The 23-year-old batted .247/.303/.365 between the two levels.
Bryant Flete spent most of last season on the Tennessee bench as a reserve but should see plenty of playing time at short for South Bend. The 23-year-old has spent four years in the Cubs system after signing in 2012 out of Venezuela. Adonis Paula makes the step up to South Bend after playing 47 games last year in Eugene, most of them at third. Signed in 2011 out of the Dominican Republic, Paula will start the year on the DL.
A pair of infielders who spent last year in the Arizona Rookie League will make the jump to the Midwest League. Carlos Sepulveda, signed out of Mexico in 2014, hit .281/.351/308 in Mesa, playing second and a few games at short. It looks like Jose Paniagua will be seeing plenty of time at first after spending his first four seasons in the Cubs system as an outfielder. Paniagua, who has shown good game power, spent his first three seasons in the DSL and hit .255/.304/.401 with 4 HR last year in Mesa. Daniel Spingola, the Cubs 31st round pick last year out of Georgia Tech, will be the fourth outfielder. The 22-year-old played 12 games between Mesa, Eugene and South Bend.
Jimmy Gonzalez begins his third season as a manager in the organization, his second with South Bend. Gonzalez made his managerial debut in 2014 with Mesa after serving as hitting coach with the club in 2013. A former catcher, he played 14 minor league seasons after he was selected in the first round of the 1991 draft by Houston.
Handling pitching coach duties at South Bend will be David Rosario, who begins his 12th year in the Cubs system. Rosario served in the same role with Myrtle Beach last season and spent the previous year in Kane County, both title teams.
Guillermo Martinez begins his third season as a coach in Chicago's organization and first as a hitting coach with South Bend. He spent last year as a coach with Tennessee. Ricardo Medina joins South Bend as the team's assistant coach and has been with the Cubs organization since 1999 as a coach, manager or scout. Mike McNulty is the team's athletic trainer after serving in the same role last season with Eugene. Ed Kohl enters his sixth year in the organization and his second as South Bend's strength and conditioning coach.
The South Bend Cubs open the season at Four Winds Field on Thursday, April 7, against West Michigan (Tigers) with a 7:05 p.m. EST first pitch. The Cubs face the Whitecaps on Friday night with a 7:35 p.m. first pitch and then head to West Michigan for a two-game set on Saturday and Sunday before returning home for three games with Bowling Green.
All South Bend home games are on MiLB.TV and you can listen to all games on Milb.com. Darin Pritchett starts his second season calling games for the SB-Cubs and his 17th year with WSBT Radio. He hosts the station’s Notre Dame football pre-game show. The Illinois Media School and the South Bend Cubs reached an agreement during off-season and students will be assisting with play-by-play duties as well as various aspects of sports broadcasting this season.