Bryce Ball – Picture by Todd Johnson
We are far enough along in the season to start declaring some players as breaking out. In 2019, we saw Brennen Davis break out in the second half along with Cam Sanders. We saw Christopher Morel go on a run from late May to the middle of July. In 2021, we saw Yonathan Perlaza tear it up in the second half along with Bryce Windham. Darius Hill broke out at Tennessee last spring and then Caleb Kilian and Nelson Velazquez broke out in the Arizona Fall League. Reliever Brandon Hughes took it to another level as he dominated at South Bend and Tennessee. It was a fun year to see players really step up their game.
As for this year, our story starts in Tennessee.
It’s rare to see a player breakout in Double-A. We saw Wilson Contreras do it in 2015 and we also saw Darius Hill bust it last year. This year‘s breakout is none other than Bryce Ball. His aggressiveness early in the count is really turning some heads in the system and around baseball as he’s hitting over .300 now, about 100 points higher than his last two seasons. He still has a power stroke and that’s only going to improve as he continues to mature.
Fellow Smokies 1B Matt Mervis has also been a huge surprise. Like Ball, Mervis was knowing for having a lot of power potential. As well, Mervis also did not hit very well in 2021 at Myrtle Beach. I was surprised that the Cubs had him at South Bend to begin the year but I was not surprised to see him hit clutch home runs. I always thought Mervis had a good approach at the plate; he just did not hit for average. However, he’s just killing it this year between South Bend and now Tennessee. In fact, there’s really no difference between the two affiliates for him. His numbers are pretty close to identical in terms of average, OBP, and slugging.
Reliever Eury Ramos is really putting together a breakout campaign at Tennessee. He’s been very impressive in 11 games with a 0.60 ERA. What makes Ramos so hard to hit is he really comes from a steep angle. He uses his long arms to get on top of the ball and to drive the ball down into the zone. That makes it very hard to square up. He’s been sitting 95 to 97 most games and he’s really stepped up his dependability to get the job done. I can still remember him as a struggling starter at the beginning of 2019 in South Bend. He’s come a long way since then.
The South Bend bullpen is now filled with guys who really stepped it up this year. Newcomers to the Midwest League like Jake Reindl and Sheldon Reed are having outstanding years and also displaying out pitches which is something they are going to need to make it to the next level. Both were outstanding at Myrtle Beach the first six weeks and now will get to play their arsenal a level up.
When the Cubs made the Yu Darvish trade back in the winter of 2020, one of the players Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline raved about was infielder Yeison Santana. Callis loved his hit tool and the fact that he had already had some success in the Arizona Rookie League. That success in 2019 did not transfer to Low-A in 2021 for Santana. That’s a huge jump in competition going from rookie ball to Myrtle Beach. Instead, Santana went back to Mesa last summer and worked hard to improve. He showed up this year and he is hitting the cover off the ball. He still has other things to work on. Eliminating mental errors defensively and also on the base paths will come with experience.
As usual, most of the breakout performances this year are down in Myrtle Beach.
It’s been a ton of fun watching this team play every day as they are supposed to be in the pitchers league but they just keep destroying the baseball on offense. Top 100 Prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong and BJ Murray are the two biggest new names. I don’t need to hype PCA any more than I already have but I am really excited about Murray because of video that I saw of him shortly after the draft last summer and thought he would breakout this summer. I really liked what he did in college and how that transferred over to his short stint in Arizona. I don’t see Pete Crow-Armstrong and Murray spending too much more time in Myrtle Beach this summer.
As for the pitching side of things at Myrtle Beach, I’m still a little hesitant to declare anybody a breakout. I want to see more. I want to see Luke Little stretched out to five innings a night. I want to see some more sustained success from Luis Devers, who could be the May Starting Pitcher of the Month. And I want to see more from Gallardo, not at this level, but in South Bend. He is currently repeating a level. Naturally, he should be much better than he was last year and he is. How that translates to South Bend remains to be seen.
Close to Breaking Out
I have several other players who are also on the list who I think could break out in the second half. Dalton Stambaugh Is a lefty reliever who has improved by leaps and bounds over last year thanks in part to having a full off-season of development and instruction in the Cubs’ system. Righty reliever Hunter Bigge looks very close to regaining his 2019 form when he was at Eugene and just throwing bullets in a short ten inning season after signing. My guy, Porter Hodge, is also close to making it as I think we’re going to see some consistency from him in the second half. He had a great April and then struggled a bit, but it looks like he adapted in his last start on Tuesday night where he went five innings and struck out seven.
Upcoming Rookie League Breakouts
I will have a preview of the Mesa squad at some point next week and the Dominican squads will probably be profiled after the season begins in order get a full accounting just who all is going to be on those rosters. I’m sure the Cubs made some signings they have not announced yet.