In the first half of the Midwest League season, the South Bend Cubs finished with a record of 29-38. Along the way they had a 12-21 road record, lost two starting pitchers, two closers, their starting center fielder, their leading hitter by average, and their cleanup hitter, all to promotions. For most teams, these types of occurrences might cause a death spiral.
For South Bend, these are things that Manager Jimmy Gonzalez’s squad had to overcome. Players had to step it up at the plate. Relievers had to learn new roles and new starters were added to the rotation. Somehow, the young Cubs are getting it done. In fact, I think they are just getting started.
Currently, the Cubs are 9-9 in the second half and sit only 3.5 games out of first place. This is a very different team than what started the year. Gone are position players Chesny Young, Trey Martin, and Cael Brockmeyer. Starters Ryan Williams and Jeremy Null moved up, as did closers James Farris and Jasvir Rakkar. In their stead we now find a whole collection of players who are now finding their way, and rather successfully.
The Cubs still have Gleyber Torres and Charcer Burks at the top of the lineup and they are continuing to be a steadying force in the lineup in the second half just as they were in the first. Rashad Crawford acts like a second leadoff man in the nine spot and he has had several key moments this season as he continues to improve his game.
Stepping Up Their Game at the Plate
Kevin Encarnacion has done really well. Now strictly a left-handed hitter, Encarnacion is hitting .305 since arriving in mid May. Along with Yasiel Balaguert, who took off the same time as Encarnacion’s arrival (likely a coincidence), the two are a steady force in the middle of the lineup. Balaguert’s six home runs leads the team, he has had a solid .290 average for over a month, and he also has a penchant for late-inning heroics.
Another key to the growth of this team has been Gioskar Amaya. While he is learning a new position (C) this year, he struggled early at the plate before turning it on. The former 2B hit .300 in June and is hitting .368 in July. Sharing the catching duties since Brockmeyer’s promotion is Erick Castillo, who is proving to be a worthy replacement by throwing out runners and hitting .273 in nine games.
Recent draftee Vimael Machin has come to South Bend and has been quite the utility man during his one week on the ballclub, hitting .261 while playing 3 different positions.
New Roles on the Mound
The pitching staff now versus the beginning of the year is quite different. The bullpen only has Jordan Minch and Ryan McNeil remaining from April’s opening day. Daniel Lewis and Corbin Hoffner are now settling into their new roles. Lewis has been on fire lately with a 1.82 ERA in his last ten outings and Hoffner’s submarine style has produced a 0.93 ERA in 5 outings.
For the starters, Zach Hedges has stepped up his game by commanding his fastball; he also has a plus slider and an improving changeup and curve. Those four pitches have seen him produce monthly ERA splits this year of 3.00/5.72/3.23/1.13. Earlier this week he went 8 innings in a great start versus Fort Wayne, the top team in the Eastern Division.
Relievers Tommy Thorpe, Michael Wagner, and Tyler Ihrig have taken the place of Null, Williams, and, most recently, Brad Markey in the starting rotation. Thorpe has looked much better as a starter than a reliever. The same is true for Ihrig. Thorpe has a 3.21 ERA as a starter and Michael Wagner, ironically, has the same ERA as a starter.
Second Half Rebounds
To me, starting pitching is always the key to a team having a chance to compete. I think if two of South Bend’s starters can rebound this second half that will help the team compete for a title. Jake Stinnett and Tyler Clifton are two of my favorite pitchers to watch in all of the Cubs’ system. They both have a bulldog mentality on the mound and a variety of pitches to throw. They’ve each had their own set of struggles this season, but all hope is not lost. They both can become very good very quickly.
Stinnett has been having much better starts as of late. He has been pitching deep into games going 6, 6, and 7 innings in 3 of his last 4 starts. He looks like he has taken a little off of his pitches and has been pitching more to contact than going for strikeouts and it is working since he gets such great movement on all his pitches. It is an impressive adjustment.
Clifton has had three good starts in a row in my opinion. The first start saw him go 6 innings, giving up four hits with no runs while striking out four. In his last start, he was solid through three and then everything that could go wrong did in the fourth inning. Nubbers, slow rollers, an error, and a bad pickoff throw lead to a five-run outburst.
When he is going well, he commands his fastball and has a solid curve and developing change. Part of developing as a pitcher in the minor leagues is about learning to make adjustments. Trevor is making adjustments and we have seen some success in small glimpses. Early in the year, Trevor struggled with getting the leadoff man in each outing out. They were hitting .359 against him at one point. In his last start, he got five of the seven he faced out, walked one and hit one as he pitched into the seventh inning for the first time — a solid achievement — and struck out 8 along the way.
This team has made several adjustments throughout the year and they will continue to do so. Players will be promoted in and out of South Bend, especially in early August. I think they have the talent at the plate and on the mound to make a run, but they have to string together a nice winning streak to surge away from .500 and put themselves in a position to get in the playoffs. That’s quite a turnaround from the first half.