On a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon in South Bend, Liam Spence made an incredible diving catch in foul territory towards the Cubs bullpen and promptly got mobbed by his nearby teammates. It was a highlight reel ending to the season for the defending Midwest League Champions, who won five of their
On a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon in South Bend, Liam Spence made an incredible diving catch in foul territory towards the Cubs bullpen and promptly got mobbed by his nearby teammates. It was a highlight reel ending to the season for the defending Midwest League Champions, who won five of their final six games to end the year on a high note.
But how do you measure a Minor League Baseball season?
64 players suited up for the South Bend Cubs in 2023; collectively they hit 91 homers, scored 621 runs, stole 157 bases, picked up 1,687 total bases, logged 1,151.1 innings, and struck out 1,191 opposing batters. The Cubs finished the campaign 57-73 this year, however their +25 run differential was second best in the West Division and their expected win-loss record was 67-63, also second best.
In the last few years the Cubs farm system has continued to climb the rankings of Minor League Baseball and per the newest edition of MLB.com’s farm system rankings, released in August, the Cubs have the fourth best collection of prospects in all of baseball. Before the 2022 season began the Cubs system was rated 18th, but through the MLB Draft, trades, and the development of players in the organization, the Cubs system became as loaded as it’s been in nearly a decade. 14 of those top-30 prospects made their way through South Bend in 2023.
This year we saw the Chicago Cubs first round picks from 2022 and 2023, plenty of other top prospects, plus a preponderance of memorable moments and performances.
Let’s Talk About First Rounders
In late August and early September we saw the MLB Debuts of former South Bend Cubs, and previous first round picks Jordan Wicks and Pete Crow-Armstrong. PCA was acquired in the Javier Baez trade but Wicks is a homegrown product developed internally. Matt Shaw and Cade Horton are the two most recent Cubs top picks hoping to follow in Wicks’ footsteps.
Matt Shaw was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft in July and currently sits as the Cubs No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline. After another incredible year at Maryland he debuted in pro ball with the Cubs rookie affiliate in the Arizona Complex League. After just three games he was promoted two levels to South Bend. Beneath a partly cloudy sky on a 81 degree night at Four Winds Field, Shaw debuted and tripled to center field on his first swing. The electric 21-year-old came out blazing and through 20 games hit .392 with a 1.082 OPS. Shaw homered four times, stole seven bases and picked up 33 hits before his promotion to Tennessee. Shaw’s got every tool in the bag and may be en route to a Wrigley debut by next fall.
With the seventh overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft the Chicago Cubs selected Cade Horton. Horton, a former two-way player at Oklahoma, shot up draft boards with an incredible postseason run with the Sooners in 2022 and helped catapult them to the Championship Series in the College World Series. Well the Cubs No. 2 prospect picked up right where he left off that spring and in his home debut fanned 8 batters in just four innings. But he only got better as spring turned to summer. In his next outing he punched out nine in four innings and didn’t allow an earned run, then back at home the following week he was spellbinding, twirling five scoreless innings with only two hits, no walks, and a career-high 10 strikeouts. In the month of June the then 20-year-old dominated to the tune of a 0.92 ERA and struck out 29 in 19.2 innings, while allowing only two earned runs and nine hits.
I would be remise not to mention that this season also saw the return of 2020 Chicago Cubs first round pick Ed Howard. Howard left a game on May 10, 2022 with a severe hip injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the season. After a long journey back to the diamond the 21-year-old shortstop took the field for the first time in nearly 13 months on June 6, 2023 and picked up three hits vs Lansing.
More Top Prospects
Kevin Alcántara, the Cubs No. 4 prospect, followed a script somewhat similar to what we saw from Owen Caissie last year. After a 1-for-5 effort on May 25 vs Dayton, Alcántara was slashing .219/.253/.351. Last year Caissie slashed a similar .214/.274/.357 through May 20 as a 19-year-old. Owen turned around his season, but Kevin completely flipped the script and flourished enough to overcome his sluggish start and finish as one of the best hitters in the league. Alcántara finished the year second in the Midwest League in batting average (.286), third in slugging (.466), sixth in RBIs (66), eighth in total bases (173), and 10th in OPS (.807). The 6-foot-6 center fielder finished the season on a 16-game on-base streak in which he hit .417 with a .683 slugging percentage and a 1.161 OPS. Alcántara also logged a 23-game on-base streak earlier in the summer, the longest of any South Bend Cub this season.
Another top prospect who called South Bend home all season long was James Triantos. The 20-year-old infielder climbed his way into the top-10 (No. 9) in the most recent rankings update in August. In late March the former second round pick needed surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. He broke camp late but in 80+ games this year was better across the board in nearly every way than he was in 113 games in Low-A last year. His batting average bumped up 18 points (.285), on-base percentage 28 points (.363), slugging four points (.390), and OPS 32 points (.753). There’s still room for growth in size and power as Triantos won’t even turn 21 until 2024. He distributes his base hits all around the park and leaves behind a spray chart that looks like a well-functioning sprinkler. Looking at players with 350+ plate appearances in High-A this year, Triantos finished as the fourth hardest player to strikeout (10.6%) and the three above him are all 22 years old or older. Also with the same search parameters in the Cubs org, Triantos finished 4.8% ahead of the next closest player (Ezequiel Pagan, 15.4%).
Another riser in the Cubs organization this year was 19-year-old catcher and fellow top-10 prospect (No.7), Moises Ballesteros. The argument could be made that Bally possesses the best bat-to-ball skills in the entire system. Moises played exactly 56 games in both Low-A and High-A this year and his numbers are pretty similar. With a two-hit game in the final game for South Bend, Ballesteros finished his time in South Bend hitting exactly .300, while registering a .827 OPS, 15 doubles and six homers.
In glimpses of other top prospects we saw flashes of huge potential. Guys like Haydn McGeary, Kohl Franklin, Michael Arias, Josh Rivera, and more weren’t here long but made their presence known.
McGeary, a 23-year-old first baseman selected in the 15th round in 2022 out of DII Colorado Mesa, began the year as arguably the hottest hitter in the league. Upon his promotion after 20 games, here’s McGeary’s rankings among the Midwest League: 1st in hits (28), 1st in 2B (8), 1st in XBH (11), 1st in total bases (45), 2nd in OPS (1.059), 2nd in SLG (.592), 3rd in OBP (.467), 3rd in avg (.368), tied for 6th in RBI (16), and tied for 7th in homers (3). That’s a long but necessary list to iterate the incredible start for a player in his first full season of pro baseball.
Franklin needed just five starts to earn a promotion to AA Tennessee. The former sixth round pick from 2018 with a rocket of a fastball came back healthy and better than ever. His ERA stood at a 2.79 when he got the call up to the Smokies.
Arias, another right-handed pitcher, is a former shortstop turned pitcher with an absolutely electric arsenal. After an incredible run in Myrtle Beach with 64 strikeouts in 42.1 IP, plus a 2.55 ERA, the 21-year-old from the Dominican Republic struggled some in South Bend but it was only his third season as a pitcher. The converted shortstop shot from unranked to No. 12 on MLB Pipeline’s rankings, and the future looks bright for a kid flashing big-league stuff.
Rivera was the Cubs third round pick this summer, two rounds after Chicago took Shaw. The shortstop from Florida helped the Gators on their run to Omaha and homered in back-to-back games in the College World Series. He was promoted to South Bend the same day Shaw was and with his versatility around the infield and his combination of hit tool and power, he’s a candidate to breakout in 2024.
Successful Development is the Name of the Game
The two biggest development successes this year were undoubtedly Christian Franklin and Luis Verdugo. Both of these young men showcased profound mental strength and toughness after being marred in lengthy slumps to begin the season.
Christian Franklin missed all of last season with a knee injury and when he earned a promotion in late April, for the first time stepping up to High-A, something was off. After 37 games with Sound Bend the former Razorback, taken in the 4th round in 2021, was batting .200 with a .374 OPS, .267 SLG, 6 XBH, and 44 strikeouts. He hit the Development List and traveled back to the complex in Arizona. After working a lot on his timing and trying to catch fastballs out in front of the plate, Franklin was sent back to South Bend after playing seven games in the Arizona Complex League. Well from July 20 on, in 36 games, Franklin knocked the cover off the ball. He slashed .315/.449/.593 with a 1.042 OPS, eight homers, 23 RBIs, 23 BB's compared to 27 K’s, and 30 runs scored. He led the league in slugging over that time, was second in OPS, third in OBP, sixth in homers, and seventh in avg. Franklin is back in the Cubs top-30 at No. 30.
Luis Verdugo on the other hand won the Midwest League Championship with South Bend in 2022 and began the year in AA. In 18 games with the Smokies the 22-year-old third baseman hit .105 with a .315 OPS. After going out to Arizona and working on things, which Verdugo said mainly included working on his mental game as the most important aspect, Verdugo was back in South Bend on May 30. On August 9 at Lake County he picked up a hit and went 1-for-3 with an RBI. That kickstarted an incredible run to end the season in which Verdugo reached base in 20 games in a row while batting an astounding .443. His OPS over that stretch was 1.280 as he clubbed five homers, nine doubles, drove in 21 runs, scored 16 times, picked up 31 hits, and walked as many times as he struck out, nine each. On September 6 he collected five hits, including a homer and two doubles, while driving in five runs and scoring four times. Luis finished the season as the Midwest League Player of the Week and is just oozing with supreme level confidence.
Going into the final day of the season, Ezequiel Pagan possessed a batting average of .296. In his previous four seasons the Puerto Rican outfielder has never hit over .292, so he was working on a career best while gunning for a .300 season and needed a big day. Well he smashed three base hits to climb him up to .301, above .300 and just two points away from the batting title in the Midwest League. There’s no question Pagan has big-league bat-to-ball skills.
How about the big man Felix Stevens? In the first three years of Stevens’ career, the 6-foot-4 outfielder/first baseman slugged 24 homers in 159 games. This year he managed to step out on the field for 119 contests and belted 27 homers to lead the entire Cubs farm system. He finished second in the Cubs organization with a 142 wRC+. His power plays to all fields as the majority of his homers down the stretch went to right-center, and he rocked the furthest homer at Four Winds Field this year traveling 473 feet. Stevens registered a 15-game hit streak that clocked in tied for the second longest in the league this season.
NO-NO: On July 6 the South Bend Cubs tossed their first no-hitter since August of 2021. Michael Arias, Jarod Wright, Eduarniel Nunez, and Frankie Scalzo Jr. combined for the no-no against Peoria.
Offensive/Pitching Team Notables
Throughout the entirety of the season the Cubs pitching staff was among the best in the league. A starting rotation sparked by 2022 MLB Draft picks like Horton, Brody McCullough, Brandon Birdsell, and Connor Noland, plus former international free agents like Luis Devers, Richard Gallardo, Manuel Espinoza, and Arias helped set the tone for a successful season for the staff under Clayton Mortenson, in Morty’s first year as the South Bend Cubs Pitching Coach. A bullpen highlighted by Frankie Scalzo Jr., Sheldon Reed, Adam Laskey, Eduarniel Nunez, and Joe Nahas helped out greatly as the Cubs staff finished 1st in WHIP (1.29), 3rd in opposing batting average (.232), T-3rd in fewest homers allowed (98), 4th in fewest walks (483), 4th in fewest hits allowed (1,002), 4th in K’s (1,191), and 6th in ERA (3.96).
On the offensive side of things the final season numbers came out rather strong. The Cubs finished the regular season 1st in batting average (.252), 1st in doubles (246), 1st in hits (1,110), 4th in runs per game (4.78), 4th in OPS (.713), 5th in SLG (.383), and 5th in OBP (.330).
Bend to the Bigs in One Year, Again!
Last year both Nicholas Padilla and Jeremiah Estrada started their seasons in South Bend and ended them at Wrigley Field. This year another Cub pulled off the impressive feat in 6-foot-8 southpaw Luke Little. Through four outings in April, all as a starter, Little went 15.2 innings allowing only one earned run and punching out 18. batters. After a scoreless relief outing on May 2 that saw his ERA dip to a minuscule 0.52, he was promoted to AA Tennessee. On August 5 it was on to AAA Iowa and just over a month later on September 6, he boarded a plane for Chicago. That day he debuted in a dominant Cubs victory at Wrigley Field vs the Giants; the game was pitched exclusively by members of the 2022 Midwest League Champs with Jordan Wicks getting the start, Daniel Palencia coming out of the bullpen first, and Little finishing the job.
As the Season Concludes, we Look to the Future and Bright Days Ahead
World Series are not won or lost in Minor League Baseball, but the foundation for future World Series are built in the minor leagues. The Cubs farm system keeps improving through the draft, trades, and internal development, and now they’re considered by all one of the best collections of talent around. A sturdy foundation abound with potential is set, now we wait to see how well the rest of a possible masterpiece comes together.