Baseball magazines, media outlets and organizations have made the Chicago Cubs farm system the near-consensus choice as the best in baseball.
Many of the players responsible for that assessment will begin the 2015 season with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the franchise’s first season as the Advanced Class A affiliate of the Cubs after four seasons in the Texas Rangers organization.
Nine players ranked among the Cubs’ Top 30 prospects according to both Baseball America magazine and MLBPipeline.com’s Prospect Watch have been assigned to Myrtle Beach, including highly-touted outfielder Billy McKinney and a pair of pitchers ranked among the Cubs’ top 11 prospects by Baseball America.
“I can’t see any reason why we can’t win a bunch of games,” said Pelicans manager Mark Johnson.
Johnson moves up a level after being named Baseball America’s 2014 Minor League Manager of the Year. He led Low-A Kane County to a Midwest League championship and the best record in minor league baseball at 98-49, and 19 of his players will try to replicate that success in Myrtle Beach.
”It’s just a really, really good group of guys,” Johnson said. “They work well together. They’re hard workers dedicated to their profession. They work hard every day, have each others’ back and never give up. You can’t ask more from a group of guys to be around every day.”
The Pelicans open the season Thursday against the Wilmington Blue Rocks at TicketReturn.Com Field at Pelicans Ballpark.
The Cubs system received top marks from Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, the Sporting News, Minor League Ball and the MiLBY’s.
The organization’s top prospects beginning the season in Myrtle Beach, according to Baseball America, are outfielders McKinney (No. 6), Mark Zagunis (15) and Jacob Hannemann (17); catcher Victor Caratini (13); infielder Jeimer Candelario (24); and pitchers Duane Underwood (10), Jen-Ho Tseng (11), Paul Blackburn (18) and Daury Torrez (30).
McKinney was acquired by the Cubs through a trade that sent pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland. Drafted 24th overall in the 2013 Major League Baseball draft by the A’s, McKinney hit .264 with 11 homers last season split between Class A-Advanced Stockton (A’s) and Daytona (Cubs), where he hit .301 in 51 games.
“He can really swing the bat,” Johnson said. “He’s a mature hitter for being only 20 years old. He has an idea what he wants to do at the plate. He has good discipline and can hit for power.”
Underwood and Tseng are also just 20 and will top the starting rotation.
Underwood, the Cubs’ second-round pick in 2012 out of Pope High School in Marietta, Ga., started 21 games and went 6-4 with a 2.50 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 100.2 innings at Kane County last year.
Tseng, a Taiwanese righthander, started 17 games in his first minor-league season and went 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA, striking out 85 in 105 innings.
“They continue to improve and build strength,” Johnson said. “… They both have three pitches they can throw strikes with at any time and can locate their fastball. It’s always fun to watch them go out and compete, which they do. They both compete their butts off.”
The Pelicans roster also includes outfielder Shawon Dunston Jr., the son of the former Cubs star, and former Coastal Carolina University pitcher Josh Conway.
The righthander, who turns 24 Sunday, posted a 2.68 career ERA at CCU and was the 2012 preseason Big South Pitcher of the Year before missing part of that season and all of 2013 with an arm injury.
Conway was a fourth-round Cubs draft pick in 2012 and posted a stellar 1.96 ERA in 13 games in rookie ball last year in his first pro season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The Pelicans roster is very diverse. It contains players from eight countries (U.S., Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, South Africa, Taiwan and Venezuela) and 11 states and territories (California, Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Puerto Rico).
The Pelicans will be predominantly left-handed at the plate and right-handed on the mound. Eight position players bat left-handed, Caratini and Candelario are both switch hitters, and only catcher Ben Carhart, infielder Carlos Penalver and Zagunis bat right-handed exclusively. Gerardo Concepcion and Michael Heesch are the only lefthanders on the pitching staff.
Myrtle Beach’s initial roster is 27 players and will be cut to 25 by opening day.
One player the Pelicans missed out on is highly-regarded catching prospect Kyle Schwarber, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft who will begin the season with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. He hit .344 in 72 games with 18 home runs and 53 RBIs in 2014 while quickly moving through three minor league stops, including Kane County.
”Our job is player development,” Johnson said. “Obviously I would like to have him, but we support whatever is best for his career.”
Fans will have an opportunity to meet Johnson and his players during a free meet and greet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Broadway Louie's at Broadway at the Beach. Attendees are welcome to bring items for the players and coaches to autograph. The first portion of the event will include introductions of each player, followed by a Q & A session and autograph session.
Myrtle Beach is looking to make the Carolina League playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
Meet the players
What | Free meet and greet of Myrtle Beach Pelicans players
When | 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where | Broadway Louie’s at Broadway at the Beach, Myrtle Beach
What | Season opener for Myrtle Beach Pelicans against the Wilmington Blue Rocks
When | 7:05 p.m. Thursday
Where | TicketReturn.Com Field at Pelicans Ballpark, 21st Avenue North and Grissom Parkway, Myrtle Beach