And just like that, the first half of the minor league season is over. The Cubs and every other organization were met with huge challenges this spring as they dealt with a rash of injuries after not playing for an entire season. At one point, the South Bend Cubs had 18 players on the injured list.
Some of the Cubs’ top prospects have yet to play this year, which made putting together an All-Star team for the first half a challenging task. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to find players at each position who stayed healthy while producing at a high level.
As a result, this group features several names you may not yet be familiar with but should probably get to know.
C – Pablo Aliendo
The 19-year-old catcher came out of the gate hot and displayed a very quick bat and the ability to hit almost any pitch. He’s still pretty small physically, but he’s got a lot of room for growth.
1B – Nelson Maldonado
Despite missing most of May, Maldonado took Double-A Tennessee by storm playing a mixture of first base, some outfield, and DH. His 128 wRC+ is one of the highest in the system.
SS – Delvin Zinn
He already has 33 stolen bases heading into this week, far outpacing anyone in the system and the High-A Central.
3B – Ryan Reynolds
Reynolds has put together a pretty good campaign in 2021 and has shown immense growth since 2019. He’s a big kid who had the potential for power and now looks to be fulfilling it as he has one of the top slugging percentages (.532) between Myrtle Beach and South Bend, where he was recently promoted. He had a 150 wRC+ at Myrtle Beach and showed up to South Bend last week doing the same type of thing, hitting dingers and doubles.
OF – Yohendrick Pinango, Nelson Velazquez, Darius Hill, Michael Hermosillo, Trayce Thompson, and Brennen Davis
While Pinango, Velasquez, and Davis were all expected to do well heading into the season, the rest of the outfield group has been quite a surprise. Velasquez currently leads South Bend with a 127 wRC+ and has a system-high 11 home runs.
Davis was spectacular in the Futures Game on Sunday, earning MVP honors after cranking two home runs. He has a 141 wRC+ at Tennessee after putting up a 172 in 10 days at South Bend on a rehab assignment. It’s okay to get excited, just don’t expect him in Chicago next week or this year. However, next year would be a good expectation.
Brennen Davis AGAIN!
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) July 11, 2021
Hermosillo was the Cubs’ MiLB Player of the Month for June and put himself at the top of the list for a promotion to Chicago should a spot open up. He has a 166 wRC+ at Triple-A Iowa so far. Hill was the Cubs’ breakout player for the first half. After destroying Myrtle Beach in the first week of the year, the Cubs bumped him up all the way to Double-A where he has thrived by hitting over .300 with a wRC+ over 100 from the leadoff spot.
Herz has been spectacular outside of one bad outing, including roles in four no-hit performances. His ERA is a little skewed in part due to that 2.2 IP performance that saw him be charged with nine runs. Take away that start and his ERA is just over 1.00.
“DJ HERZ HOW DO YOU DO” –@sam_weiderhaft
My guy is pitching with EMOTION pic.twitter.com/9p8MWpWbil
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) June 3, 2021
Espinoza has also been very good and was Cubs Central’s Starting Pitcher of the month (3.09 ERA) for June, barely beating out Casey. Remy was very good at South Bend and in his first few starts at Tennessee. Assad is probably the biggest surprise. With a sub-4 ERA and the ability to throw strikes, he is surprisingly keeping his head above water at Tennessee.
Although he was injured and is out for the season after tearing his UCL, pitcher Sam Thoresen should get an honorable mention as he had a 3.13 season ERA before he went on the shelf. He throws some nasty stuff and combines it with wildness, but he managed both to be effective at Myrtle Beach.
Relief pitching is the biggest strength of the system this year. Every single bullpen of every single affiliate has three or four arms that can come in and shut down the opposition this year. If the big league club needs help in the second half, the Cubs have three arms at Iowa in Leeper, Mekkes, and Rodriguez that could come up and do just fine.
The big thing about all of these pitchers is that they all throw 95 and above, which means the Cubs have finally joined the rest of the majors in developing relievers who throw gas. It’s a little shocking as a fan, but it’s also a very pleasant development in how the Cubs select and develop pitchers.
¡Yucateco de 1️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ millas! ⚾️🔥
— Leones de Yucatán (@leonesdeyucatan) July 11, 2021
Hill would be my pick for the top hitter of the first half, followed closely by Velazquez. Herz would win the award for best starter, while Leeper would barely nudge out Roberts for the reliever honors.
Looking forward to the second half, we should see some familiar names return. Getting Brailyn Marquez healthy and throwing again for the first time this season would be huge. Then there’s Davis, who is the next big thing in the Cubs system and is really taking off now that he’s settled in at Tennessee. He has a 266 wRC+ with a 1.367 OPS in July and he’s just getting warmed up.
Tennessee’s Jared Young just returned from injury and has been tearing the cover off the ball since he returned. Then we have the two squads in the Dominican and one in Arizona that are also going to fill out some box scores over the next several weeks.
Even if the Cubs themselves don’t give us much to get excited about in Chicago after the break, there’s a lot going on in the minors to look forward to.