South Bend Cubs: Could They Go from Worst to First?

On Tuesday night, five South Bend Cubs took part in the Midwest League’s All-Star game in Peoria. Gleyber Torres earned national praise for his play and pitcher Jeremy Null earned MVP honors. Null, who went 6-2 with a  2.33 ERA in the first half, struck out all six men he faced. His performance showcased kind of talent the South Bend Cubs have in spite of their record.

Null accepts his All-Star of the Game Award

When the first half of the season ended, the South Bend Cubs finished dead last in the Midwest League’s Eastern Division with a record of 29-38, 11.5 games out of first. To be honest, I don’t think the team’s record is indicative of its talent – far from it, actually. A few adjustments here and there and I think this team could go from worst to first in the second half.

And I am not alone in this judgment. When South Bend Cubs radio announcer Darin Pritchett sat down for a long phone conversation Friday afternoon, we talked of many things related to what went wrong and what went right in the first half and what the Cubs could do to make changes to win in the second half.

So far, the Cubs are 3-0 in the second half and those two wins have been on the road.  Thursday they began the second half with a brilliant seven inning start from Zach Hedges who gave up 2 earned runs while striking out five. The bullpen came in and shutdown the Lake County Captains with Brad Markey getting the save in a 4-3 victory. And that victory provided the pretext and context for the interview.

What went wrong in the first half?

In late May I detailed some of their troubles facing South Bend.  Things didn’t change in June. Darin agreed with me on most of the items from the article such as:

April bullpen – They blew five saves in the first three weeks of the season
Poor road record – 12-21 on the road including 6 out of 7 at Lansing and Great Lakes
Situational hitting – The team hits for average but they don’t make productive outs to move runners over with less than two outs.
Falling behind early – Many starters often had trouble in the first two innings of games. More often than not, the team was playing from behind.

How could they win in the second half?

In the interview with Cubs Insider, Pritchett detailed several items the team could the team improve and go from worst to first:

  1. Quality 0uts – The team hits for a high average, but they don’t score as many runs as they should. The Cubs were fifth in the league with a .262 average and in fourth with an OBP of .327.
  2. Blown saves – With James Farris moving to Myrtle Beach, someone else is going to have to step up. The Cubs have four new arms in the bullpen since April: Michael Wagner, David Garner, Brad Markey, and Daniel Lewis. No reliever has been as dominant this month as Jordan Minch, last year’s 36th round pick out of Purdue. The power lefty has a 1.54 ERA in June and has given the Cubs something they have been lacking in the system. Darin feels more comfortable with how the pen is constructed and each pitcher’s defined roles now compared to back in April.
  3. Consistency in the outfield – To Darin, the promotion of Trey Martin was a key point in the season. The Cubs are looking for someone to fill that role in the lineup. One player who has shown some potential is Kevin Encarnacion, who has some serious pop but is still overcoming injuries from a car crash and fire in the winter of 2013.
  4. Developing players, making adjustments: Zach Hedges has an ERA in June under 2.50 after an ERA over 5 in May. A key, according to Darin, is in Hedges throwing first-pitch strikes. Hedges gets a lot of weak of ground balls because his fastball (which acts more like a cutter) breaks late. By staying ahead, he keeps hitters off balance for his slider, a plus pitch for Hedges. For Trevor Clifton, the inability to get the leadoff batter out has been causing  his problems. Before his start on Friday the 26th, hitters leading off an inning were hitting .359 with 8 walks against him. Pritchett believes Clifton has the stuff to succeed, especially if he can get “easy” innings by getting the leadoff hitter out first.
  5. New roles – Tommy Thorpe struggled in the bullpen. Now, with the promotion of Ryan Williams to Tennessee, Pritchett thinks moving Thorpe into the rotation has settled him down. In two starts, he’s pitched seven innings and has not given up a run. Darin believes that Thorpe feels much more at ease in the role of a starter and the daily activities starters do to get prepared to pitch.
  6. Lack of Promotions – The depth and redundancy in the Cubs’ system did not provide for many promotions this summer. Many of the South Bend Cubs’ top players will be staying while other teams in the league will be having some of their best players leaving. It doesn’t look like Gleyber Torres or Cael Brockmeyer are going anywhere soon. In years past, players who excelled in the first half would be at high A to start the second half. That’s good for this team that it stays together.

Other Items of Note

Darin also raved about the bats on this team. He could not believe the maturity level of Gleyber Torres, the poise and leadership of Cael Brockmeyer, and the line drive hitting of Rashad Crawford, who is hitting .378 in June. In addition, he praised the tools of Charcer Burks and Yasiel Balaguert in soldifying the top half of the lineup after the promotion of Chesny Young to Myrtle Beach.

After the interview, South Bend went out and got their second victory of the second half and their fourth win in a row dating back to last Saturday. The offense struck early in the first, scoring four as South Bend sent all nine men to the plate. With this early lead, Trevor Clifton looked like the pitcher from late April/early May as he went six strong innings and struck out four. His changeup was his best pitch that night. In addition, Clifton got five of the six leadoff hitters out on the night, three by groundout, one flyout, and one swinging strikeout. Jason Vosler had a good night going 2 for 4 as the Cubs won 5-2.

The victory was not without its moments. Daniel Lewis gave up a run in the seventh, and Ryan McNeil, who had a 2.54 ERA in June, walked in a run in the ninth before David Garner came in and closed out the win out by striking out the only batter he faced.

On Saturday, the first place Cubs sent Jake Stinnett to the mound. Like Hedges, Stinnett has made some adjustments to his game in June with a 3.31 ERA for the month. If you haven’t had a chance to see Stinnett pitch, you should. He gets insane movement on all his pitches about ten feet from the plate. His development will be a key component to the Cubs winning in the second half.

The night was his longest outing of the year at six and 2/3 innings. Except for giving up 3 runs in the fifth, his night was outstanding. Brad Markey came in and pitched 2 and 1/3 innings for the save. Jason Vosler hit a homer in the second and Rashad Crawford’s triple plated two in the fourth as the Cubs piled up 6 runs early on their way to a 6-4 victory. It is their fifth win in a row.

With solid starting pitching, a good bullpen, and some timely hitting, this team could go on some streaks in the second half and get in the Midwest League playoffs.


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