Baseball Returned to the Bend
For the first time in over 600 days, the South Bend Cubs returned to action at Four Winds Field on May 4 this year. The 2020 season was cancelled due to Covid-19 and 601 days after Cole Roederer scored on a wild pitch to win game two of the Midwest
For the first time in over 600 days, the South Bend Cubs returned to action at Four Winds Field on May 4 this year. The 2020 season was cancelled due to Covid-19 and 601 days after Cole Roederer scored on a wild pitch to win game two of the Midwest League Championship Series, the Cubs finally played in front of their home crowd again.
A season that started on a chilly Tuesday night in South Bend with a Peyton Remy strikeout and a Cubs 7-4 victory over the River Bandits, ended on an incandescent Sunday afternoon in Quad Cities with a Cubs 5-4 win in extra innings.
So how do you measure a Minor League Baseball season?
77 players played for the South Bend Cubs this year; collectively they hit 84 home runs, scored 543 runs, picked up 1,358 total bases, logged 1,027.2 innings on the mound and struck out 1,202 batters. The Cubs finished the season 52-67 with the 11th best record in a 12-team league. But Minor League Baseball is about the development of young talent. “You know Minor League Baseball isn’t about the championships as much as it’s just about developing these kids and getting the chance to help them get that feeling of getting promoted to the next level,” said Cubs first-year Manager Michael Ryan in July.
Of the 77 players that appeared with South Bend, 33 would go on to play with AA Tennessee or AAA Iowa at some point during the season. That list includes some highly touted prospects whom everyone expected to climb through the ranks and some sleepers who performed tremendously and gave the organization no choice but to advance them.
Let’s Talk About Growth
Ryan Jensen in 2021, among a few others like Max Bain and Yonathan Perlaza, showed the kind of tremendous growth the minors is all about. The Cubs first-rounder from 2019 out of Fresno State logged just 12 innings in Minor League Baseball in 2019, and with the 2020 season cancelled, this was a crucial year for his advancement.
Two months into the season Jensen, who started the year as a Cubs top-10 prospect, was 2-4 with a 7.89 ERA. The arm-side run and sink on his fastball looked elite but his command was lacking and his secondary pitches weren’t doing enough to threaten hitters. That all changed drastically in July. That month we saw a pitcher who could drop in a breaking ball on the outside corner for a strike, run an unhittable two-seamer low and in on a righty or pull the string and get a lefty to chase a changeup low and away.
Jensen’s month started with a perfect 18-up, 18-down outing at Lake County and he kept his foot firmly on the gas from there. All told he finished the month tossing 22.2 innings with a 1.99 ERA. He struck out 28 batters in July and walked just four, finishing with a 32.9% K rate and a stingy 4.7% walk rate.
If you combine his next two August starts he allowed just one more run. On August 19 he was promoted to AA Tennessee and finished the season making his final four starts with the Smokies to the tune of a 3.00 ERA across 18 innings.
The growth of Jensen in his first full season of Minor League Baseball is a testament to the South Bend coaching staff, pitching coach Tony Cougoule, and the ability of the former Bulldog to learn, adapt and dominate. In Jensen’s first nine starts he allowed 25 earned runs in 31.2 innings, allowing seven homers and accumulating that 7.89 ERA. In his final 11 starts (four in AA) he twirled 48.1 innings with a 2.23 ERA and allowed three long balls. It’s about growth.
It was a roller coaster of a season for Bain despite being the only Cubs pitcher to begin the year in the South Bend rotation and finish the year in the South Bend rotation. The undrafted DII product signed off of a twitter video bullpen session entered his rookie season this May and didn’t get off to the dream start he’d have imagined. On a cloudy 45-degree night in early May, Bain made his debut; the first batter he ever faced walked on five pitches and the next batter he faced took an 0-2 pitch over the left field wall.
Check out Bain’s month-by-month numbers and you’ll see a wild ride. Here is his ERA by month: May - 5.89, June – 3.98, July – 11.34, August – 2.96, September – 4.73.
Bain’s struggles sent him to the Development List on July 25. The staff and him took some time to tweak things mechanically. A week and a half later we saw him freshly activated and pitching exclusively out of the stretch, keeping his torso more vertical and centered; it was a rebirth. On August 5 Bain made his first start in nearly two weeks since having his spot in the rotation skipped, exactly one month later on September 5 he was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the month. It’s about growth.
About two weeks after Jensen found his stride, Perlaza did the same. The Venezuelan infielder entered this season having never played more than 52 games in a year in his first four seasons. His previous career high in homers was three, RBIs was 26 and slugging percentage was .391. This year he played 99 games, the most of any SB Cub all season; he crushed 15 round-trippers, the most of any SB Cub all season; he drove in 64, the most of any SB Cub all season; he slugged .479, the best of any SB Cub this season.
Echoing Jensen’s season, Perlaza through 52 games was slashing .222/.307/.370 (avg/obp/slg). But in his final 47 games he hit .345 (2nd in the league), got aboard at a .399 clip (4th in the league) and slugged a league-best .601. Among qualified players on the roster he finished first in average (.280), first in on-base percentage (.350) and first in slugging (.479). Perlaza reached base in 43 of his final 46 starts, tallying 58 hits and 16 walks over that stretch.
The second half of the season was defined by an influx of young talent from other organizations.
One of the first trades of the season came on July 15 when the Chicago Cubs sent OF Joc Peterson to the Braves and got back the Braves #12 prospect, 1B Bryce Ball. Ball’s numbers this year in high-a Rome were similar to the numbers he put up with South Bend. In Rome he played 54 games (53 in SB), scored 24 runs (24 in SB), had 67 total bases (70 in SB), slugged six homers (seven in SB), walked 40 times (40 in SB), batted .206 (.207 with SB), and got on-base at a .350 rate (.351 with SB). He didn’t quite exhibit the power he did in his rookie season but his ability to work walks is as good as anyone in the organization's farm system. His 80 walks were more than any other player at the high-a level in 2021.
And when he does connect, the ball can fly.
On July 29 and 30 the Chicago Cubs made four more trades that involved receiving a prospect that would be assigned to South Bend. The only other position player acquired among that group was Alexander Canario, a 21 year old who was one of two players the Cubs got in return from the San Francisco Giants for Kris Bryant.
Canario, now the Cubs #12 prospect, caught everyone’s attention immediately and burst onto the scene with a base hit in each of his first nine games at the high-a level, including a four-game homer streak at the tail end of the hitting streak. In just 42 games he tallied six outfield assists, the second most of any outfielder on the team all season. A red-hot first few weeks cooled down towards the end of the season but there is plenty to be excited about watching this Dominican kid born in 2000.
His performance on August 24 was one of the best of any Cub all season as he launched a two-run homer in the sixth inning and then came back the next day when the game resumed and hit a ninth-inning grand slam on the road in Peoria. The six RBIs set a new career high and tied him with Perlaza for the most in a game this season. And oh by the way the first homer he hit that game was to the opposite field and traveled 473 feet. For reference the furthest homer by a Chicago Cub this season to this point is 464 feet.
Three pitchers were added to the roster after the trade deadline; Bailey Horn from the White sox, Anderson Espinoza from the Padres and Alexander Vizcaíno from the Yankees.
Horn, the former Auburn Tiger, came over one-for-one in the trade that sent Chicago Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera to the South Side. Horn started out on the IL, didn’t debut until August 17 and didn’t return to the mound in a starting role until September 2. But in his final three starts of the season he allowed just five earned runs in 12.2 innings, good enough for a 3.55 ERA and certainly trending in the right direction into the offseason.
Espy was also involved in a one-for-one deal, one that sent OF Jake Marisnick to San Diego. The Padres former #1 prospect four years ago entered this year without having played in a game since 2016 due to multiple Tommy John surgeries. After pitching against the SB Cubs twice this year, he debuted in the Cubs organization with South Bend on August 4 vs. Peoria. It was an up-and-down first few outings but the right-hander who had only made it into the fourth inning once in his first 15 outings this year, saved his best for last. In his last two outings with South Bend, Espy was nearly unhittable, allowing only three hits and two runs while striking out 16 over nine innings. He was promoted to AA Tennessee on September 2.
Alexander Vizcaíno came to the Cubs organization on July 29 in the deal that sent 1B Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees. The 24-year-old flamethrower, who ranks as the Cubs #19 prospect, had missed most of the season due to injury and like Espinoza wasn’t yet working deep into games. Vizcaíno allowed a homer to the first batter he faced with South Bend but then scattered just one base hit over his next 9.2 innings pitched. In August, his first month with the club, opponents hit just .094 off of the scrawny 6-foot-2, 160-pound righty, and they slugged an inept .188. The Dominican injured his arm again and missed his final two starts of the season after being placed on the 7-day IL.
Brennen Davis, who is currently crushing homers in AAA Iowa like I crush McDonalds drive-throughs on a road trip (which is to say daily, nightly and ever so rightly), started his season right here in South Bend. It took the Cubs #1 prospect eight games before he was sent up to AA, and in those eight games he hit .321 with a 1.013 OPS and two homers.
The final two home games of the season saw two highly touted prospects make their South Bend Cub debuts on the mound starting vs. Lake County. The first came on a Saturday when 20 year old D.J. Herz, the Cubs #13 prospect recently promoted from low-a Myrtle Beach, toed the Four Winds Field rubber for the first time. And if there was any thought that Herz wasn’t equipped yet for high-a baseball (if you thought that, show yourself) that was stymied after a five-inning debut in which Herz picked up the win, allowed just one unearned run and struck out eight batters facing a team in the thick of the playoff race. The southpaw, whose position on the rubber and arm angle make it appear as though the pitch is being delivered from the second baseman, made three starts with SB to end the year and went 1-0 with a 2.81 ERA, striking out 26 batters in just 16 innings.
The next night was September 5, the final home game of the season, under the lights with the Cubs first-rounder from this year’s MLB Draft on the mound. Jordan Wicks was drafted 21st overall as one of the most pro-ready players in the draft class. Wicks struck out the very first batter he faced in Minor League Baseball. He K’d Christian Cairo, the son of White Sox Bench Coach Miguel Cairo, and tossed one perfect inning in his pro debut. On the final day of the season Wicks was extended further and tossed three innings, allowing just one run against the best team in the High-A Central in Quad Cities.
The Moments We’ll Always Remember
The No-No: August 12, 2021 is a date that will go down in history for South Bend. The Cubs took the field at Parkview Field against in-state rival Fort Wayne and tossed their third no-hitter since becoming a Cubs affiliate in 2015 (and the first one on the road). Vizcaíno tossed the first two innings, Joe Nahas then logged the most impressive relief outing of the season going six innings and facing the minimum 18 batters, and Burl Carraway came on and well, see for yourself.
The Comeback: On May 25 the Cubs climbed back over .500 with a 12-10 thrilling victory over the TinCaps (I see a trend here). Fort Wayne struck for a six-spot in the first inning and going into the bottom of the sixth South Bend trailed, 7-0. On the backs of a couple two-run bombs, one from Davis and one from from Nelson Velazquez, the Cubs put up a six-spot of their own in the sixth. Two innings later the Cubs trailed 9-6 and put up ANOTHER SIX-SPOT. Bryce Windham gave the Cubs the lead and Delvin Zinn (who was crowned the stolen base king of the HAC with his 42 steals this season) knocked in a pair of crucial insurance runs.
Back-to-Back-to-Back Walk-Offs: From July 14 through July 16 South Bend was the walk-off capital of the world with three-straight wins over Cedar Rapids on the final swing of the game…
2020 showed us all that we can’t take Minor League Baseball for granted. And after a cancelled season last year all the young talent in the Cubs farm system was on full display in 2021. There were rookies who shot through the Cubs farm system like reliever Scott Kobos who has allowed one run all season and started in Myrtle Beach but will finish the year in Iowa, having stopped along the way for eight games in South Bend. Then there are veterans like Velazquez who in his fourth season shouldered the Cubs offense day-in and day-out in the early stages of the year, earning a promotion to AA in early August, where he earned the Cubs Minor League Player of the Month honor in his first month with Tennessee.
World Series are not won or lost in Minor League Baseball, but the foundation for future World Series are built in the minor leagues. If nearly every player that graced the field here in Downtown South Bend is better now than they were in the spring, then I’d say the foundation could prove to be a strong one.