Year One in Myrtle Beach Could Not Have Gone Any Better – Championships Tend to Do That
Things could not have lined up any better for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 2015. The new advanced-A affiliate of the Cubs inherited a roster made up of 17 players who were on the low-A Midwest League champion Kane County Cougars. In 2014, the Cougars went 98-49 and were named Minor League Baseball Team of the Year. This year, the Pelicans went 81-57, including a 4-1 playoff record and the Carolina League Championship, also known as the Mills Cup.
At the end of the 2014 season, the Cubs moved their high-A affiliate from Daytona, Florida to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to cut down on the number of rainouts that took away development time for the players. The expectations for the Pelicans were high coming into 2015.
The first half of 2015 was a dream for the Pelicans. The team went 41–28, captured first place in the Carolina League’s Southern Division, and clinched a playoff spot. Outfielders Jacob Hannemann and Billy McKinney earned promotions to AA Tennessee and were replaced in the lineup by Chesny Young and Trey Martin. The key to the Pelicans in the first half, as it had been with the Cougars, was starting pitching.
Duane Underwood, Jen-Ho Tseng, Daury Torrez, Paul Blackburn, and Jonathan Martinez picked up where they left off in 2014 at Kane County. In addition, Tyler Skulina returned to his college form and was throwing in the mid 90’s. Jen-Ho Tseng even tried to increase his fastball; at one point it was up to 95 miles an hour but his walks increased as his speed did. The wicked bullpen, led by Taylor Scott, James Pugliese, Michael Heesch, and Josh Conway, was almost unstoppable in May and early June. Jasvir Rakkar, David Berg, and James Farris joined them in the second half.
When the second half began, there were some new players, some injured players, and a lot of changes in the daily lineup and on the mound. Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn, and Taylor Skulina were on the disabled list. Taylor Scott had gone to Tennessee along with Juan Carlos Paniagua. In July, Jeimer Candelario went to AA Tennessee with Jacob Rodgers. Midwest League All-Stars Jeremy Null and Cael Brockmeyer, along with Brad Markey, were promoted from South Bend to the Pelicans. Fernando Cruz came down from Tennessee while outfielders Trey Martin and Shawon Dunston battled injuries throughout the year. All the fluctuation contributed to the Pelicans losing their first five games after the break.
By mid July, the Pelicans had righted the ship under the leadership of Mark Johnson and at one point won 9 out of 10 games. Chesney Young compliled a 44-game on base streak, a Carolina League record, which helped to balance all-star outfielder Mark Zagunis, who saw his average plummet from .310 down to .270 in just July. Jen-Ho Tseng ditched his 95 mile an hour fastball and reverted back to pitching like he did at Kane County in 2014 when he was the Cubs 2014 minor-league pitcher of the year. His fastball still sat at 92-93 miles an hour where he had more control and less walks.
Pitcher Jonathan Martinez earned All-Star status for his first half and in ten second half starts he had a 2.17 ERA. The biggest surprise of all at Myrtle Beach was the emergence of Brad Markey as a starter. Markey had begun the year in late May at South Bend as reliever and he had a 4.70 ERA before being given the closer’s role He made only one spot start at South Bend before coming to Myrtle Beach, where he was stretched out to move into the rotation. Markey just dominated in the second half for the Pelicans as he went eight starts going 7-0 with a 1.15 ERA and a whip of 0.75.
Close behind Markey’s stats for the second half were those of Paul Blackburn. In eight outings after coming off the DL, Blackburn had a 1.31 ERA while striking out 29 in 41 innings with a 0.99 WHIP. Opponents only batted up .218 off of Blackburn. Compared to his first half, in which he had a 4.66 ERA, Blackburn was in complete control of his arsenal down the stretch, mixing his pitches and changing speeds. Sadly, he would wind up back on the DL at the end of the season.
In September, Skulina and Underwood returned just in time for the playoffs. Shortstop Gleyber Torres, the Cubs’ number one prospect, joined the team along with outfielder Jeffrey Baez with a week to go.
Throughout the year, several Pelicans won Carolina League Player of the Week honors, among them: Brad Markey, Victor Caratini, Ben Carhart, Jonathan Martinez, Mark Zagunis, Kevin Brown, Billy McKinney, and Tyler Skulina (2X). In addition, Mark Zagunis was named by the Cubs as June Player of the Month and Brad Markey was named by the Cubs as Pitcher of the Month in July.
I think Manager Mark Johnson described his players and their commitment to winning best via Max McKinnon:
“When you grind and compete daily for 175, 180 days – spring training, regular season and postseason – and you have a chance to win a championship and then you actually come through and do it, it’s an incredible feeling that can’t be described. On the same tone, I can’t describe the pride and the joy and the happiness I have for this group of guys. They are true professionals.”
As Cubs VP and Director of Scouting Jason McLeod is fond of saying, dominance at one level does not preclude dominance at the next. Most of the Pelicans’ pitchers will move on to AA Tennessee in 2016. They have been the core of this team the last two years. It will be interesting to see how they do at AA, which is usually the hardest step to make in the minor league system.
As for the position players, I think two catchers–Victor Caratini and Ben Carhart–will go to Tennessee along with 1B Jacob Rodgers, 2B Daniel Lockhart, and OF Mark Zagunis. Injuries derailed the summers of Trey Martin and Shawon Dunston and they have just missed too much time to earn a promotion. Jason Vosler only saw a month of action in Myrtle Beach, though his power helped win several games. It is also likely that Torres, Baez, and Brockmeyer will begin 2016 at Myrtle Beach. However, they may not be there for long.
Coming to Myrtle Beach will be several outstanding starting pitchers who had great second halves. Trevor Clifton, Jake Stinnett, Erick Leal, Tommy Thorpe, and Zach Hedges all had an outstanding August in almost getting South Bend into the playoffs. The Cubs’ top draft pick in 2015, Ian Happ, will begin his first full season, likely at 2B, and 2015 11th round pick Matt Rose will be joining him, likely at 1B. Outfielders Charcer Burks, Kevin Encarnacion, along with one of my favorite prospects, Rashad Crawford, will make for an exciting outfield in the Carolina League. Finally, one of August’s hottest hitting prospects, 2B David Bote, will bring his flashy glove and solid bat to high-A ball.
It will be another exciting summer at the beach in 2016 with all that talent!