Last year I saw the Kane County Cougars about 10 times during their magical 98-win season. Most of that team wound up in Myrtle Beach this spring and the good times are continuing for that group of players. The team is currently at 29-15 and 5.5 games in front of second place Salem in the Carolina League.
For Duane Underwood, it has been a dominant move. To me, he is currently the number one starting prospect in the organization. Throwing an “easy” 96-98 this year, his 1.39 ERA is evidence of that growth. He is only 20 years old and is developing very nicely under the tutelage of pitching coach David Rosario and manager Mark Johnson in both 2014 and 2015.
Duane Underwood: 28 IP, 1.96 ERA, 9% BB, 20.5% K, .149 opponent batting average. Dominating.
— Stan (@Crewsett) May 8, 2015
However, as dominant as the starting pitching was last year at Kane County (team ERA under 3.00 for most of the season), some of the rotation has struggled going up one level at Myrtle Beach. To begin, Johnathan Martinez is showing a nice game as he has a steady 3.00 ERA in 7 starts. Paul Blackburn, Tyler Skulina, and Jen-Ho Tseng are all over the map though.
Blackburn’s last two starts were great and his ERA is finally now under 5. Tyler Skulina (4.25 ERA) looks healthy after some knee issues in 2014; he has had two dominant starts and some not so dominant ones. Jen-Ho Tseng had his best start of the year on Monday going 6, striking out 6, and not allowing run. His ERA dropped 1 run in 1 day to 4.26. And Daury Torrez also has struggled with an ERA just above 4.
The strength of this team this year, however, is the bullpen. Former Kane County Relievers Jasvir Rakkar, James Pugliese (pronounced Poo-Glees), Michael Heesch, and former starter Juan Paniagua have been outstanding out of the pen. Rakkar, Pugliese, and Paniagua all have ERAs under 2 and Heesch is at 2.45. Starling Peralta has struggled a bit, but newcomer Zach Cates has been great in 7 appearances since coming down from Tennessee. In addition, former starter Tayler Scott has made an extremely smooth transition to a relief role. Look for Scott (1.96 ERA) to go to Tennessee soon as a reliever.
When it comes to hitting, the Pelicans, like Kane County, do not have a lot of power. What they do have are some guys who can get on base. Led by LF and leadoff man Mark Zagunis, the Pelicans thrive on taking walks and hitting with runners in scoring position. They are a patient bunch who can work counts to get to a pitch they can hit. Chesny Young, who came up from South Bend a month ago, leads the daily core with a .348 average and a .436 OBP. Young has also been playing all over the field. Since arriving at the beach, Young has played SS, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. Former Cougar 1B Jacob Rodgers leads all current players with 23 RBIs and 5 HRs.
On defense, the Pelicans are anchored by the amazing glove and arm of Carlos Penalvar. At Kane County, Penalvar showed a solid presence up the middle of the field and he is turning heads again with his defense again this year (see the video below). While his hitting last year was not much to speak of, this year he is up to .230 with an amazing 22 RBIs in spite of his low average. Second baseman Danny Lockhart has also been flashing the leather and is having the same issues at the plate as Penalvar.
One player who is having a resurgent year in the organization is Jeimer Candelario. The former Cougar third baseman struggled in 2014 and we “reassigned” from high-A Daytona back to Kane County. It helped. In August, he hit .270 and began flashing the old glove and arm again. In the MWL Playoffs, he was a key player. This year, Jeimer is back at that .270-280 pace and has 2 HR and 17 RBIs. He still needs to be a little more selective at the plate as he only has 10 walks in 42 games.
In the outfield, it has been like a shell game. Originally, Billy McKinney and Jacob Hannemann were the stars of the team but they moved to Tennessee a while back. Since then, only Zagunis has had a steady role. Shawon Dunston, Jr., has had injuries and is back in Arizona. Recent promotee Trey Martin has not seen much action lately, and neither has Kevin Brown. Newcomer Pie-Chieh Chen has been solid since coming down from Tennessee by hitting .311 with a .415 OBP and playing a nice centerfield in 12 games.
At catcher, both Victor Caratini and Ben Carhart have struggled at the plate but not behind it. In Caratini’s last ten games, he is hitting .286 with 1 HR and 6 RBIs. He has really struggled against left-handed pitching hitting under .200 though and he is currently at .233 for the season.
There could be help on the way too. I think by the middle of summer Gleyber Torres and Cael Brockmeyer could be promoted from South Bend. If those two arrive, their bats could be the little extra push to win a second straight league championship for many of these players.
As for promotions, Duane Underwood and a couple of relievers could be on their way to Kodak, Tennessee later this summer. On the other hand, most of these players will stay in Myrtle Beach the whole year. Zagunis and Young could go up to Tennessee, but currently there is nowhere for them to play. The system is getting that deep and that’s a good thing.
Key things to know about the franchise:
– Originally the Durham Bulls* in high-A from 1980-1997 and played in Danville for 1 year in 1998
– The Pelicans have been in Myrtle Beach since 1999.
– Affiliated with the Braves from 1999-2010.
– From 2011-2014, the Texas Rangers saw many of their brightest talent play there, including uber-prospect Joey Gallo.
– The team won the Carolina League in 1999 and 2000.
– Only two playoff appearances since: 2008 and 2014.
– The Cubs signed a two-year agreement with the organization that runs through the fall of 2016.
– Their social media presence is outstanding. Not only do they tweet a lot but they have daily and weekly video recaps.
The club’s Twitter feed is @Pelicansbaseball and @nathansbarnett is Nathan Barnett, the club’s broadcaster.
*Currently the Triple-A team for the Tampa organization