March 10, 2016
Chicago Cubs Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: This is now more of a quantity than quality system, but the player development department is playing with house money now, anyway.
The Top Ten
1. Gleyber Torres, SS
When you graduate as many quality prospects as the Cubs did, sometimes your no. 1 prospect is just someone by default. That’s not the case here. Torres’ feel for hitting is exceptional and gets better every year, and his ability to make consistent, hard contact to every part of the field with an easily repeatable swing gives him a plus hit tool. He’s shown he’s not allergic to taking pitches, but he can get aggressive. That’ll lead to more swing-and-miss than you’d like from a hitter with fringe-average power. But he has enough strength to put the ball into gaps, and his above-average speed allows him to take extra bases—whether by stretching hits or stealing bags.
There was once debate about whether Torres would stay at shortstop. That debate is over. Torres has excellent hands, top-notch instincts and an easy plus arm. Is he Francisco Lindor with the glove? Nope, but he’s only a notch below. He’s really good, and when you add in his ability to get on base and swipe bags, you get a really valuable player.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: After an eye-opening 15 or so years from the 1990s through the 2000s, we’re back to no longer expecting big power from our fantasy shortstops. Which is a good thing for Torres, since he can be a strong contributor everywhere else. A potential .290 hitter with 25-plus steals and non-zero power is safe bet for many top-10 finishes.
Major League ETA: 2018
2. Willson Contreras, C
Contreras went from a fringy backup-catching prospect to arguably the best catching prospect in baseball in the span of a season. That’s fun. He is the rare player who added bat speed at his age, and he also cleaned up the swing path, allowing him to make more consistent hard contact. His hand-eye coordination is in the upper echelon, so there’s minimal swing-and-miss. He’s never going to be among the league leaders in homers because the swing path doesn’t have a ton of loft, but he’s naturally strong, and 10-15 home run seasons aren’t impossible.
Behind the plate, Contreras is still a work in progress, but he has shown progress in that work. He has a cannon, which will keep runners at bay even without a quick release or tidy mechanics. Receiving is the big focus point right now, as he’s still learning how to frame pitches and call games.
Outside of spelling his name incorrectly, there’s an awful lot to like about Contreras, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he’s the starting catcher at some point in 2017.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: This is the universe reminding us that the last Cubs’ catcher of the future was missing an “L” in his name. Contreras doesn't have the type of pop that Welington Castillo had (or the pop that faux-catcher Kyle Schwarber now has); he’s more on the Yadier-Molina-without-the-
Major League ETA: 2017
3. Ian Happ, OF/2B
Yes, Cub fans, we all know you wanted a pitcher in last June’s draft. Instead of reaching for one, they took one of my favorite hitters in the class. The swing is slightly better from the left side, but he’s going to be able to hit for average from both sides of the plate, and he sprays line drives all over the field. He’s comfortable hitting with two strikes and is more than willing to work counts, but that also means there are going to be more strikeouts than you typically see from a plus hit tool. He has excellent balance in his lower half and a swing that contains some loft, so above-average power is well within reach. He’s also an above-average runner who gets excellent jumps on the bases, so you could be looking at a 20/20 guy.
If that happens, it won’t matter where Happ plays, which is good, because there are still questions in that regard. There’s no question he can handle an outfield corner, but the Cubs will give him a chance to play a premium position. Center field is the dream, but the most likely landing spot is second base (where the Cubs have worked him out exclusively since the offseason), and that’s a place where his above-average arm and adequate hands will make him passable. He has a chance to hit at the top of the order anywhere, but if he can stay up the middle? That increases his value substantially.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Happ can do everything you want in a fantasy hitter, let alone someone who might have middle infield eligibility. He can threaten .300 while pushing both 20 homers and steals if everything breaks right—so that means he can also be a plenty valuable player if either the eligibility or the the power doesn’t max out. He’s an easy top half of the first round selection in dynasty drafts this year.
Major League ETA: 2018
4. Billy McKinney, OF
Billy McKinney can flat-out hit. That could be the end of the report, but you probably want to know why, and that’s understandable. You just don’t see 22-year-olds repeat a swing this well. His fluid, quick movements give him as close to a plus-plus hit tool as any hitter outside of that Seager guy. He’s not completely devoid of power, but because he doesn’t generate much leverage or loft, asking for much more than 15 homers a year is asking too much. He’s also not fleet of foot (more on that in a second), and he’s not going to provide much value when he’s on base.
In the field, McKinney isn’t Glenallen Hill, but he’s not going to remind you of Starling Marte, either. His arm is below average, his jumps are only okay, and the lack of speed means there are occasionally some adventures out there. That puts an awful lot of pressure on his bat, but a potential .300/.400/.450 hitter makes those defensive deficiencies easier to deal with.
So what makes McKinney a better prospect than the two bats below him? Simple: probability.
Yes, Martinez and Almora have bigger ceilings than McKinney (as their tools reflect), thanks to their ability to play center, and play it well. But the unknowns (Martinez) and limited offensive potential (Almora) place their realistic outcomes somewhere in the fourth-outfielder orsecond-division starter range. McKinney has a borderline plus-plus hit to go with three other average tools that say he’ll be an everyday guy.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Usually players who have an offensive-heavy LF-only profile are more attractive in fantasy leagues; however, McKinney just doesn’t do enough outside of hitting for average to be on the forefront of dynasty owners’ minds. Sure, he has a very good chance to hit .300 (at least as far as prospects go), but if he can’t even get to 15 homers or steals, there’s a ceiling on just how valuable he can be.
Major League ETA: 2017
5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF
This is an aggressive ranking for a player with this little experience and limited viewing (my report is based on video and international scouts), but the upside is higher than that of any hitter in the system—even Torres. He’s an exceptional athlete, and you can see that athleticism come through in a swing that has plus-plus bat speed. He needs to do a better job of refining it, however, and it’d be surprising if there isn’t a boatload of swing-and-miss in this profile. He shows plus raw power from his strong wrists and the aforementioned bat speed, but he’s going to have to show more patience at the plate if he’s going to tap into it. He’s an easy plus runner, and he should be a significant nuisance if and when he gets on base.
Fortunately for Martinez, he’s much more advanced with the glove, and he should be a lock to stick in center field. If he was to move to a corner he’d be just fine there, and his plus arm would make him a nice asset in right field.
There’s a ton of volatility here, but if you squint really hard and dream even harder, you could see him becoming a poor man’s Andruw Jones. It’s just as likely he’s a fourth outfielder, but the ceiling is just too high to not land in the top five in this system.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: If you’re into risk, Martinez is a great grab in the late first/early second round of dynasty drafts. The tools are there for him to be a five-category contributor, but we’re so far away from knowing anything substantial about his in-game abilities that it’s just throwing darts at this point. Maybe he’s an OF2. Maybe he’s a spare outfielder.
Major League ETA: 2018
6. Dylan Cease, RHP
Cease was not your typical sixth-round pick, as he was a potential day-one guy before it was revealed in March that he’d eventually need Tommy John surgery. Still, kudos to the Cubs for taking a chance on him and getting this type of talent into the system. This could be an 80 fastball when all’s said and done, as he touched triple digits and sat in the mid-90s at times in his return to the mound last summer. The curveball doesn’t have that potential, but it’s at least an above-average offering with hard, power spin, and he showed the ability to throw it for strikes in the AZL, too. He relies heavily on those two pitches, but he’s shown an average changeup with late tumble at times, though there’s a noticeable difference in arm speed.
The stuff says Cease can pitch at the top of a rotation. The command says “you sure about that?” He’s athletic and there isn’t a ton of effort in the delivery, but he’s often wild in the strike zone, and he can beat himself with walks. Because of that and the injury, there’s at least a chance he ends up in the bullpen, but if everything clicks he’s a potential no. 3 starter—maybe more.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Even in rookie ball, you can spot the players who have “WHIP risk” written all over them, and Cease is certainly one. However, when you’re betting on these distant arms, go stuff first, go stuff second, and everything else third when you’re trying to assess future fantasy value.
Major League ETA: 2018
7. Albert Almora, OF
Almora’s stock took a significant hit in 2014, and while he’s no longer a top-30 prospect, he did do his best to reestablish his value this summer. He’s always made a lot of contact, but the big difference in 2015 was that there was far less weak contact, as he showed more strength in his swing and put balls into the gap. He still swings too often to ever hit at the top of a lineup, and double-digit power is probably just out of his reach.
What Almora lacks in offensive upside, he makes up for in defensive value. His instincts are stupid good, and even though he’s not more than an average runner, he still gets to everything and anything. He also has a plus arm, so he’s basically that rare plus-plus center fielder who doesn’t have blazing speed.
He’s no longer the best outfield prospect in the system, but Almora is still a valuable prospect, and be it as a fourth outfielder or regular, he provides a ton of value with the glove, and just enough with the bat.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Unless your league counts FRAA, excitement has properly waned around the fantasy value of Almora. As an everyday player, dynasty owners shouldn’t be expecting more than about a .260 average with the ability to barely sniff double-digits in home runs and steals. That’s an OF5 for those of you scoring at home.
Major League ETA: 2017
8. Duane Underwood, RHP
If you see Underwood on the right day, you’ll wonder why he’s not in the top five of the system. He consistently touches the mid-90s with his fastball, sitting 91-94 mph with just enough movement to call it a plus offering. He can really spin his curveball, and when he doesn’t get underneath it, it’s an above-average pitch with 11-5 break. He’ll also show feel for a change, and it has some late tumbling action that makes it potentially above average as well.
Unfortunately, his stuff doesn’t just vary from start to start, but from inning to inning. There’s zero consistency, and part of that comes from his inability to stay on top of the delivery or repeat his arm slot. That makes him a candidate for the bullpen, but he’s still young, with enough upside to maybe, just maybe, pitch in the middle of a rotation someday.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: If I’m taking a single Cubs pitcher on a dynasty team it’s Underwood, as he has the best combination of floor and upside on this list. Of course, without large projected strikeout totals, that upside gets capped at a good SP4..
Major League ETA: 2017
9. Eloy Jimenez, OF
The Cubs have taken things slowly with Jimenez, but if you had a chance to see him play in beautiful Eugene, you would have seen why many rated him as the top international prospect of the 2013-14 international class. The calling card is plus power, generated from above-average bat speed and exceptionally strong wrists that allow him to take the ball out to any part of the ballpark. Unfortunately,the length of his swing makes his in-game power more likely to be above average than plus. The swing path also makes his hit tool closer to 40 than 50 at this point, and pitch recognition does not appear to be a strength.
Jimenez played some center field last year, but it almost assuredly won’t be his landing spot at the big-league level. He should be solid in right field, however, as his plus arm and average speed will allow him to be just fine in that cozy corner. The upside is a 30-homer hitter who will get on base enough to justify playing everyday, with a realistic and defensible floor of lefty-masher off the bench.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: The power makes Jimenez worth rostering in dynasty leagues with 200 prospects owned. In fact, he’d likely be close to making a top 150, if such a thing existed. With 25-plus home runs a possibility in time, Jimenez can flash OF3 potential even if the hit tool doesn’t allow him to contribute positively at all in batting average.
Major League ETA: 2019
10. Carl Edwards, Jr.
If it seems like Carl Edwards, Jr. has been with the Cubs since 2004, it’s because he has. (Ignore the obviously false information I have entered above.) The dream of him becoming a mid-rotation starter is over, but the new dream of him being a set-up man or more is a pretty nice dream, too. His fastball has plenty of movement, and it’ll get up to 97 mph in short spurts, making it an easy plus-plus pitch. He complements that heater with a hammer curveball, one that is rarely a strike but doesn’t need to be. He’s also thrown a change, but it’s not a pitch that he shows very often in relief. The only thing that keeps him from being a lock for the ninth inning is his control, as he beats himself far too often to trust in high-leverage situations at present. If he can show even fringe-average control, he’s going to be a dominant reliever. If he can’t, the two out pitches should allow him to stay on a roster, but we’ll always be left wondering “what if he could throw strikes?”
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: After 300 of these writeups together, we end on yet another reliever and I’ve run out of different ways to tell you not to waste your time with relief prospects. See you next year!
Major League ETA: Debuted in 2015
Dan Vogelbach, 1B – If there was ever a time to emphasize that this is not a ranking of 11-15, this is the time. I’m not a fan of Vogelbach’s skill set, but I do find him pretty darn interesting. It’s not a question of his offensive upside; he controls the zone well, and he shows plus raw power from the left side. The problem is when you’re a 20 runner and defender, you need to be more than a 55-55 offensive guy to contribute at the big-league level. Is it impossible that he becomes a regular? Nope. Is it a massively uphill battle? You bet your bottom dollar.
Oscar De La Cruz, RHP– Not only was De La Cruz a serious candidate for the top 10, there were some who believed he was the most talented pitcher in the entire system. He sits 92-95 mph with a fastball that has touched the high 90s, and he’ll also show you an above-average power curveball. He pounds the strike zone with those two pitches, but the command is well behind the control and the change needs substantial work. He’s at least three years away from seeing the big leagues, but the upside is substantial.
Bryan Hudson, LHP – Hudson was the Cubs’ third-round selection last June, and he just might be the best left-handed pitching prospect in the system. He shows two plus pitches, led by an 88-92 mph fastball that touches 94. At 6-foot-8, he gets easy downhill plane with sink. His curveball is his best current pitch, showing serious break and quality depth to boot. The changeup is a pretty big step behind those two pitches, and as you might guess from his height, repeating his delivery is a problem. As with Cruz, you won’t see him in the bigs for a while, but there’s mid-rotation upside in his left arm.
Donnie Dewees, OF – Dewees is a great story. He went undrafted out of high school and missed almost all of his sophomore year at North Florida after breaking his wrist. To go from that to a legit day-one talent and second-round pick is pretty commendable. His short, compact swing allows him to shoot the ball all over the park, and he generates enough rotation to give him fringe-average power, to boot. He’s also a plus runner who can go get it in center field, though his arm strength leaves a lot to be desired. The upside here is starting center fielder; the floor is super useful fourth outfielder.
Justin Steele, LHP – If Hudson isn’t the best southpaw in the Cubs system, it’s Steele. He doesn’t offer the same kind of projection, but he does have a plus fastball that can get up to 95 mph, and there’s some solid sink. When he stays on top of the curveball it’s an above-average offering, and he has shown flashes of having a competent change with solid-average command as well. Consistency isn’t his friend, but he’s 20, so it doesn’t have to be just yet.
For most of the past four years, the fate of the Cubs’ franchise rested on the twin pillars of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, nos. 1 and 2 on last year’s edition of this list. Castro is a Yankee now, and Rizzo reached the advanced age of 25 on August 8th of last year, making him ineligible for consideration here. Kyle Hendricks and Neil Ramirez, 9 and 10 last year, are similarly ineligible in this year’s edition by virtue of age.
Which leaves us with a new no. 1. Bryant fell in behind Russell on last year’s list, while both were prospects, but his tremendous performance in last year’s rookie campaign—26 home runs, a .317 TAv, and 5.9 WARP over 559 big-league plate appearances—not only pushed him ahead of his partner on the left side of the Cubs’ infield, but also cemented him firmly in the upper echelon of big-league third basemen, and players in general. He’ll work on some things this year at the plate (as all hitters do), but there’s no reason not to expect Bryant to stay what he was last year going forward, which is very, very good.
That’s a descriptor that equally applies to Russell, who—despite being passed by Bryant on this edition of the list—did nothing to embarrass himself during a first turn in The Show last year. He slides in ahead of Schwarber not because the bat is more advanced—it’s not, at least yet—but because the overall profile, especially at shortstop, could make him the best player on the list--maybe even on the Cubs’ entire roster if everything breaks right. Even if it doesn’t, he’s extremely likely to be a top-flight big-league shortstop for years to come, and that’s not a bad place to be.
If you’re looking for a bad place to be, try looking between Kyle Schwarber and a baseball. All Schwarber did last year was hit: a .371 TAv at Double-A Tennessee, then .385 at Triple-A Iowa, and then .307 over 273 plate appearances for Chicago, after which he did unspeakable things to baseballs in the playoffs. The only thing holding him back from the top two is the ambiguity around his defensive home. If he’s a quality catcher behind the plate—where he’ll spend about 10 percent of his time in 2016—then he’s in contention for the most valuable player on this list. If he’s the Cubs’ left fielder or some other team’s designated hitter, instead, he’s merely extremely good (although he’ll need to learn to hit lefties—watch for that this year).
Soler and Baez follow as young players with talent for days, work ethics to match, and records that don’t quite match the expectations items one and two have begotten. Soler gets the slight edge because his offensive profile is quite a bit better-rounded than Baez’s, and he has a higher floor and ceiling, but he doesn’t quite have Baez’s light-tower power or white-hot intensity on the field. And he can’t play shortstop, or center field, as Baez can. Each player comes with a great degree of risk—Baez with quite a bit more than usual—but each could threaten for MVP awards if they put everything together. In this, they’re quite like the three players above them. What separates these two, though, and puts them a clear rung or two below, is that there’s also some reasonable chance that either busts out of the big leagues in three years.
So why is Baez ranked above Torres? One word: talent. Torres is a talented young man, yes, but Baez’s swing puts lightning strikes to shame, and he’ll match Torres play for play up the middle. Torres has a much higher floor than his Puerto Rican elder, but his upside is only a little bit better than what Baez is right now. And if Baez puts it together? There’s no competition. —Rian Watt
President, Baseball Operations: Theo Epstein
I’m not sure what else there is to say about Theo Epstein that hasn’t already been said. When he took over, this was a mediocre club without much young talent on the major league club, and the top prospects were Brett Jackson, Trey McNutt and the wrong Chris Carpenter. Now there’s at least a chance—and I don’t like throwing this word around—that they’re setting up a potential dynasty. To do that in under five years is an impressive feat, and most of the credit belongs to Esptein and Hoyer.
So that’s all well, good and obvious, but the question is why has it worked? If I knew I would have a job that didn’t involve writing about Eloy Jimenez, but I believe it comes down to an impressive ability to be open-minded and stick to their beliefs at the same time. How many clubs would think to add a Manny Ramirez to the roster to help work with a Javier Baez on his approach? How many teams would have seen the offensive talent they had in their system and reached for a pitchers with their high picks? How many clubs had Kyle Schwarber in their top five? The first two questions I can’t answer, but the second I can: not many. McLeod and Dorey are both guys that could become General Managers someday, and they all (obviously) get a ton of credit for what they’ve done to make this sustainable. But the willingness to to think outside the box while sticking to their principles make this the best organization in baseball, with the humblest of apologies to the Dodgers.