Last fall, I predicted who I thought would be the breakout hitters, starting pitchers, and relievers of 2018. I got several right, a few wrong, and some have yet to play for the Eugene Emeralds, who started their season on June 15. And there were of course a few I did not foresee. Here are this spring’s breakout players of the first half.
Hitter: Jared Young
He tore it up in August last summer at Eugene and I thought that would carry over to this year at South Bend. And did it ever, as Young hit .301 for the first half. Despite missing half of May, he led the Cubs’ system with a146 wRC+ and 42 runs batted in. Look for him in a Pelican uniform very, very quickly.
What I love most about Young is that he doesn’t try and kill the ball. He just puts a nice swing on it and barrels it up. At 6-2 and just 180 pounds, there’s still plenty of room to gain some more muscle and power without messing up his swing or his approach and eye for the ball. I also like the fact that he is playing five positions this spring – 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. It’s a very nice package to add to his prospect profile.
Starting Pitcher: Matt Swarmer
Swarmer spent the first two months of the year at Myrtle Beach where his 93 mph fastball — an uptick in velocity due to some added muscle — combined with a plus change, high leg kick, and funky delivery to make him the Cubs’ April Pitcher of the Month. He put up a 1.74 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only three walks in 20.2 innings.
May was pretty similar as he had 29 strikeouts and another three walks in 25.2 innings. However, his ERA was all the way up to 2.98 despite a 61-point drop in his batting average against. He had one great start again to open June before he was sent up to AA Tennessee.
Reliever: Tyler Peyton
Peyton regularly hit 95-96 out of the pen for Tennessee, but his breakout actually began in 2017 at South Bend in mid-July. He was pretty dominant for the Cubs the last six weeks of the season, which is why I picked him to break out this year. He’s appeared in 18 games with a 1.42 ERA and he’s struck out 30 in 31.2 IP. Peyton was almost unhittable in May with a batting average against of 0.96. He’s had a couple rocky outings in June but has been able to pitch out of jams.
Though they don’t merit top billing on this particular list, there are several other prospects putting together notable seasons around the organization.
Tennessee: Vimael Machin
The utility infielder has been a walk machine (pun intended) all year and he parlayed that ability into a promotion to a level. Now his bat has woken up and he is hitting well over .300 to go with his near .400 OBP.
Myrtle Beach: Jhonny Pereda and Connor Myers
The only one who saw Pereda’s rise this year was Myrtle Beach manager Buddy Bailey, who lobbied to take the young Venezuelan import back to South Carolina with him following spring training. Pereda, who was already having an outstanding defensive spring, surprised many by hitting .304 with 13 RBI in April.
He backed that up in May with 16 RBI and a .287 average while getting on base at a .386 clip with three home runs to earn April Hitter of the Month honors. He might tire as the season behind the plate is a grind, but he looks to be able to sustain his performance for now.
Myers has always been a great outfield defender and baserunner, the problem was he wasn’t hitting enough to get on base. This year, he’s hitting over .280 after choking up on the bat a bit, ala Anthony Rizzo (who actually inspired the change).
South Bend: Cory Abbott, Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas, Jesus Camargo, Erich Uelmen
It is looking more and more like the Cubs really did well in last year’s draft. Even though Abbott is now at high-A Myrtle Beach, his draft class is not far behind. Fellow pitchers Rollie Lacy and Erich Uelmen have almost unhittable curves and sinkers, respectively. As for Camargo and Thomas, changeups are their specialty. It will be fun to watch them continue their development in the second half.
With Eugene and two Mesa teams firing up their seasons as you read this, there will be many more prospects who could grab some headlines for their play. They include outfielders Fernando Kelli and Jonathan Sierra at Eugene; pitcher Brailyn Marquez at Eugene; and shortstop Luis Verdugo and pitcher Florencio Serrano at Mesa.