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Ryan Jensen in 2021, among a few others like Max Bain and Yonathan Perlaza, showed the kind of tremendous growth the minors is all about. The Cubs first-rounder from 2019 out of Fresno State logged just 12 innings in Minor League Baseball in 2019, and with the 2020 season cancelled, this was a crucial year for his advancement.
Two months into the season Jensen, who started the year as a Cubs top-10 prospect, was 2-4 with a 7.89 ERA. The arm-side run and sink on his fastball looked elite but his command was lacking and his secondary pitches weren’t doing enough to threaten hitters. That all changed drastically in July. That month we saw a pitcher who could drop in a breaking ball on the outside corner for a strike, run an unhittable two-seamer low and in on a righty or pull the string and get a lefty to chase a changeup low and away.
Jensen’s month started with a perfect 18-up, 18-down outing at Lake County and he kept his foot firmly on the gas from there. All told he finished the month tossing 22.2 innings with a 1.99 ERA. He struck out 28 batters in July and walked just four, finishing with a 32.9% K rate and a stingy 4.7% walk rate.
If you combine his next two August starts he allowed just one more run. On August 19 he was promoted to AA Tennessee and finished the season making his final four starts with the Smokies to the tune of a 3.00 ERA across 18 innings.
The growth of Jensen in his first full season of Minor League Baseball is a testament to the South Bend coaching staff, pitching coach Tony Cougoule, and the ability of the former Bulldog to learn, adapt and dominate. In Jensen’s first nine starts he allowed 25 earned runs in 31.2 innings, allowing seven homers and accumulating that 7.89 ERA. In his final 11 starts (four in AA) he twirled 48.1 innings with a 2.23 ERA and allowed three long balls. It’s about growth.
It was a roller coaster of a season for Bain despite being the only Cubs pitcher to begin the year in the South Bend rotation and finish the year in the South Bend rotation. The undrafted DII product signed off of a twitter video bullpen session entered his rookie season this May and didn’t get off to the dream start he’d have imagined. On a cloudy 45-degree night in early May, Bain made his debut; the first batter he ever faced walked on five pitches and the next batter he faced took an 0-2 pitch over the left field wall.
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Check out Bain’s month-by-month numbers and you’ll see a wild ride. Here is his ERA by month: May – 5.89, June – 3.98, July – 11.34, August – 2.96, September – 4.73.
Bain’s struggles sent him to the Development List on July 25. The staff and him took some time to tweak things mechanically. A week and a half later we saw him freshly activated and pitching exclusively out of the stretch, keeping his torso more vertical and centered; it was a rebirth. On August 5 Bain made his first start in nearly two weeks since having his spot in the rotation skipped, exactly one month later on September 5 he was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the month. It’s about growth.
About two weeks after Jensen found his stride, Perlaza did the same. The Venezuelan infielder entered this season having never played more than 52 games in a year in his first four seasons. His previous career high in homers was three, RBIs was 26 and slugging percentage was .391. This year he played 99 games, the most of any SB Cub all season; he crushed 15 round-trippers, the most of any SB Cub all season; he drove in 64, the most of any SB Cub all season; he slugged .479, the best of any SB Cub this season.
Echoing Jensen’s season, Perlaza through 52 games was slashing .222/.307/.370 (avg/obp/slg). But in his final 47 games he hit .345 (2nd in the league), got aboard at a .399 clip (4th in the league) and slugged a league-best .601. Among qualified players on the roster he finished first in average (.280), first in on-base percentage (.350) and first in slugging (.479). Perlaza reached base in 43 of his final 46 starts, tallying 58 hits and 16 walks over that stretch.
The second half of the season was defined by an influx of young talent from other organizations.
One of the first trades of the season came on July 15 when the Chicago Cubs sent OF Joc Peterson to the Braves and got back the Braves #12 prospect, 1B Bryce Ball. Ball’s numbers this year in high-a Rome were similar to the numbers he put up with South Bend. In Rome he played 54 games (53 in SB), scored 24 runs (24 in SB), had 67 total bases (70 in SB), slugged six homers (seven in SB), walked 40 times (40 in SB), batted .206 (.207 with SB), and got on-base at a .350 rate (.351 with SB). He didn’t quite exhibit the power he did in his rookie season but his ability to work walks is as good as anyone in the organization’s farm system. His 80 walks were more than any other player at the high-a level in 2021.
And when he does connect, the ball can fly.
On July 29 and 30 the Chicago Cubs made four more trades that involved receiving a prospect that would be assigned to South Bend. The only other position player acquired among that group was Alexander Canario, a 21 year old who was one of two players the Cubs got in return from the San Francisco Giants for Kris Bryant.
Canario, now the Cubs #12 prospect, caught everyone’s attention immediately and burst onto the scene with a base hit in each of his first nine games at the high-a level, including a four-game homer streak at the tail end of the hitting streak. In just 42 games he tallied six outfield assists, the second most of any outfielder on the team all season. A red-hot first few weeks cooled down towards the end of the season but there is plenty to be excited about watching this Dominican kid born in 2000.
His performance on August 24 was one of the best of any Cub all season as he launched a two-run homer in the sixth inning and then came back the next day when the game resumed and hit a ninth-inning grand slam on the road in Peoria. The six RBIs set a new career high and tied him with Perlaza for the most in a game this season. And oh by the way the first homer he hit that game was to the opposite field and traveled 473 feet. For reference the furthest homer by a Chicago Cub this season to this point is 464 feet.
Three pitchers were added to the roster after the trade deadline; Bailey Horn from the White sox, Anderson Espinoza from the Padres and Alexander Vizcaíno from the Yankees.
Horn, the former Auburn Tiger, came over one-for-one in the trade that sent Chicago Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera to the South Side. Horn started out on the IL, didn’t debut until August 17 and didn’t return to the mound in a starting role until September 2. But in his final three starts of the season he allowed just five earned runs in 12.2 innings, good enough for a 3.55 ERA and certainly trending in the right direction into the offseason.
Espy was also involved in a one-for-one deal, one that sent OF Jake Marisnick to San Diego. The Padres former #1 prospect four years ago entered this year without having played in a game since 2016 due to multiple Tommy John surgeries. After pitching against the SB Cubs twice this year, he debuted in the Cubs organization with South Bend on August 4 vs. Peoria. It was an up-and-down first few outings but the right-hander who had only made it into the fourth inning once in his first 15 outings this year, saved his best for last. In his last two outings with South Bend, Espy was nearly unhittable, allowing only three hits and two runs while striking out 16 over nine innings. He was promoted to AA Tennessee on September 2.
Alexander Vizcaíno came to the Cubs organization on July 29 in the deal that sent 1B Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees. The 24-year-old flamethrower, who ranks as the Cubs #19 prospect, had missed most of the season due to injury and like Espinoza wasn’t yet working deep into games. Vizcaíno allowed a homer to the first batter he faced with South Bend but then scattered just one base hit over his next 9.2 innings pitched. In August, his first month with the club, opponents hit just .094 off of the scrawny 6-foot-2, 160-pound righty, and they slugged an inept .188. The Dominican injured his arm again and missed his final two starts of the season after being placed on the 7-day IL.
Brennen Davis, who is currently crushing homers in AAA Iowa like I crush McDonalds drive-throughs on a road trip (which is to say daily, nightly and ever so rightly), started his season right here in South Bend. It took the Cubs #1 prospect eight games before he was sent up to AA, and in those eight games he hit .321 with a 1.013 OPS and two homers.