The State of the System: The Cubs should keep racking up pennants above Wrigley, but the pursuit of major league success has left the farm quite fallow.
The Top Ten:
- Adbert Alzolay, RHP
- Jose Albertos, RHP
- Aramis Ademan, SS
- Brendon Little, LHP
- Alex Lange, RHP
- Victor Caratini, C
- Thomas Hatch, RHP
- Oscar de la Cruz, RHP
- Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP
- Alec Mills, RHP
1. Adbert Alzolay, RHP
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 180 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Signed November 2012 out of Venezuela by the Chicago Cubs for $10,000.
Previous Ranking(s): N/A
2017 Stats: 3.03 ERA, 4.38 DRA, 32 ⅔ IP, 27 H, 12 BB, 30 K in 7 games at Double-A Tennessee; 2.98 ERA, 3.82 DRA, 81 ⅔ IP, 65 H, 22 BB, 78 K in 15 games at High-A Myrtle Beach
The Good: The Cubs’ top prospect has a lot going for him, including a very high floor, since he already has two MLB-quality pitches after only a taste of Double-A. It starts with a future plus fastball at 93-96 (t97) that runs hard to the arm-side with moderate late sink. He pairs it with sharp a 11-5 slider that is a true bat-misser at its best. Although his command of both pitches gets a little spotty with fatigue, Alzolay’s delivery and athleticism bode extremely well for command and changeup—his third pitch—improvement. He has a strong lower half that is the foundation of a stable, balanced, moderate-effort delivery for a hurler of his size, and that effort is less concerning since he repeats his delivery well for long stretches. There may be some reliever warning signs here, but with two future 60 pitches, solid mechanics, and a smidge of projection in the upper half, Alzolay’s chances to remain in the rotation are strong.
The Bad: That changeup only briefly noted above? It’s a show-me pitch at present, firm at 85-88 mph and with little movement. Without much separation from the fastball, the pitch must take a step forward for Alzolay to pitch every fifth day. While I am a big fan of his mechanics, his arm action is a little long for some, and there is undeniable effort after footstrike, albeit he manages to repeat for quality stretches. In addition to changeup development, Alzolay’s command needs to take a step forward to stay in the rotation—this was an issue in some AFL looks—when both his fastball and slider became flat and hittable up in the zone. That said, he could join a MLB bullpen in 2018 and would have a bright future as backend reliever.
OFP 55—No. 3/4 starter
Realistic 50—No. 4 starter, leverage reliever
The Risks: Not many if you are content with speeding Alzolay to the pen where he could eventually be a high-impact reliever. The risks go up for the rotation future—changeup and command development might be a tall order in the upper minors, but I am bullish on Alzolay’s ability to continue improving and stay in the rotation, a result of plus athleticism and a solid delivery. —John Eshleman
Major league ETA: Late 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Alzolay may be the Cubs’ top prospect IRL, but he’s not terribly exciting from a dynasty perspective. Sure, No. 3/4 starters who play for good teams are useful, but they’re not very difficult to acquire. And sure, elite relievers are great, but they’re altogether less special if they’re not grabbing you saves. Essentially, it’s entirely possible that Alzolay becomes a solid fantasy contributor, but his upside isn’t such that it’s worth letting him eat up a roster spot as we wait to find out.
2. Jose Albertos, RHP
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 185 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Signed July 2015 out of Mexico by the Chicago Cubs for $1.5 million.
Previous Ranking(s): #6 (Org)
2017 Stats: 2.86 ERA, 2.22 DRA, 34 ⅔ IP, 24 H, 14 BB, 42 K in 8 games at short-season Eugene; 4.32 ERA, 5.41 DRA, 8 ⅓ IP, 6 H, 3 BB, 6 K in 2 games at complex-level AZL
The Good: Albertos has obscenely advanced stuff for an 18-year-old. He generally works in the low-90s, but has mid-90s when he needs it. He commands the fastball well and there is usually enough arm-side run to make it tough to square despite less-than-ideal plane. The party piece here is the changeup, which falls off the deck with 10+ mph separation. At its best it looks like a future plus-plus offering. His upper-70s curve is used sparingly and flashes less often, but the best ones make you think it could be a future plus pitch as well, although it likely settles in more as average.
The Bad: Albertos doesn’t exactly have your traditional projectable teenaged pitching prospect body. He’s well over his listed 185 now, and a bit stocky. In a couple years he has a chance to be a large adult son. He’s a shorter righty who doesn’t get much extension, so the fastball can be a bit true. The curve can get slurvy, and the change is inconsistent, floating in at times. The arm action and velocity separation has been enough that it hasn’t mattered so far, but it will higher up the ladder.
OFP 60—No. 3 starter
Likely 45—Back-end rotation piece
The Risks: Albertos is relatively polished for his experience, but his experience is also only 50 professional innings, none above short-season A.
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Albertos is the top dynasty prospect in this system for my money. His ceiling might not seem *that* much higher than Alzolay’s, but I think the strikeout upside is more prevalent here, even if his floor as a backend guy isn’t very exciting. I don’t think Albertos has done enough to be a top-101 dynasty guy yet, but he’d probably be in the next 25-or-so for me. How the mighty systems have fallen, etc.
3. Aramis Ademan, SS
Height/Weight: 5’11”, 160 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Signed July 2015 out of the Dominican Republic by the Chicago Cubs for $2 million.
Previous Ranking(s): N/R
2017 Stats: .244/.269/.378, 3 HR, 4 SB in 29 games at Low-A South Bend; .286/.365/.466, 4 HR, 10 SB in 39 games at short-season Eugene
The Good: Ademan is a potential plus bat who has the defensive chops to handle shortstop. The swing features above-average bat speed with mild leverage that should produce average pop as the body matures. He shows an advanced feel for the strike zone and the ability to square up pitches. He’s not flashy in the field, but has quick hands, decent range, and is athletic enough to handle middle infield.
The Bad: The bat is the carrying tool with all others playing close to average. That current average speed looks to play down a notch with physical maturity. With only one projectable plus tool, there is a lot of pressure on the swing to continue to develop.
OFP 55—Regular middle infielder
Likely 45—Reserve middle infielder
The Risks: Age, inexperience, and a profile that includes only one projectable plus tool make Ademan a high-risk prospect. He’s going to have to continue to hit as he advances and is exposed to better pitch sequencing and greater velocity. —Nathan Graham
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: There’s a chance we’re just dealing with Kevin Newman 2.0 here, but Ademan retains just enough upside to warrant an inclusion on your watch list. Yeah, this isn’t quite the Cubs system from a few years ago…
4. Brendon Little, LHP
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 195 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Drafted 27th overall in the 2017 MLB Draft from State College of Florida-Manatee (Bradenton, FL); signed for $2.2 Million
Previous Ranking(s): N/A
2017 Stats: 8.41 DRA, 9.37 ERA, 16 ⅓ IP, 21 H, 9 BB, 12 K in 6 games at short-season Eugene
The Good: Little positioned himself as one of the best left-handers in this past draft class based on his strong, durable frame, big fastball, and big, overhand curveball. The fastball was up to 96 in my viewings, and sat 92-94, so it should be a plus offering at his peak. While the movement on it was inconsistent, it showed average arm-side life when located down in the zone. His curve is a power pitch, coming in at 77-79 with hard, 1/7 shape that has bite and depth. While he would struggle with throwing it for strikes at times, it still flashed plus and could settle in as such. He has an easy delivery with a clean arm action and quality arm speed that you can project on.
The Bad: While the delivery is clean, there is a lot of stiffness and his control suffered at times. The fastball can be flat when it is not located down, making it an easy pitch for hitters to square up. The curve would flash plus, but was inconsistent outing to outing. There is less changeup development here than you would like as he struggles to get movement on it, or throw it for strikes. I would have loved to see him not get crushed in his first foray into pro ball.
OFP 55—Mid-rotation starter that you guys always crush
Likely 45—No. 4/5 starter that you guys want to love more
The Risks: Command improvements are mainly projection at this point, inconsistency of breaking ball, only one year of innings under his belt, lack of changeup. —Steve Givarz
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I prefer Little to a bunch of the other arms on this list because his upside is higher. That being said, it’s not *that* high, and a lot can change between now and 2020. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but he’d probably be right around our top-200 mark.
5. Alex Lange, RHP
Height/Weight: 6’3”, 197 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Drafted 30th overall in the 2017 draft, Louisiana State University; signed for $1.925 million
Previous Ranking(s): N/A
2017 Stats: 4.82 ERA, 3.65 DRA, 9 ⅓ IP, 9 H, 3 BB, 13 K in 4 games at short-season Eugene
The Good: Lange is your classic first-round, good-but-not-elite, college pitching prospect. He’s tall and lean with a potential plus fastball. He has a potential plus secondary as well, a 12-6 power curve that he can spot or bury. It’s could be a true bat-misser at the highest level. Lange’s amateur pedigree is unassailable. He spent time with Team USA and was a three-year starter—a dominant one at times—at one of the better college programs in the country. What he lacks in upside, he makes up for in relative surety. He could move very quickly through the minors just on the strength of his fastball/curve combo.
The Bad: “Relative” surety. A less-than-stellar medical cost Lange a few bucks after the draft, and he was more low-90s than mid-90s as a pro. It’s something to keep an eye on. The heater can be straight at times, too, so he could use the extra velo. The changeup is the clear third pitch—he didn’t really need it even in the SEC—and more of a work in progress. The delivery has some late torque and I don’t love the arm action. You might be starting to see the rough outline of a reliever here.
OFP 50—No. 4 starter or leverage reliever
Likely 45—Backend starter or low-end setup guy
The Risks: Despite his polish, Lange has yet to create a professional track record and there’s recent injury concerns. He’s riskier than the profile would suggest.
Major league ETA: Late 2019, health permitting
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I swear I don’t have anything against the Cubs! They just have a bunch of guys with much more useful IRL profiles than fantasy profiles. This is an indirect way of saying you really don’t need to worry about Lange yet unless you roster in excess of 200 prospects.
6. Victor Caratini, C
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 215 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Drafted 65th overall in the 2013 draft by the Atlanta Braves, Miami-Dade Junior College (Miami, FL); signed for $800,000. Acquired via trade from Atlanta Braves.
Previous Ranking(s): N/R
2017 Stats: .254/.333/.356, 1 HR, 0 SB in 31 games at major league level; .342/.393/.558, 10 HR, 1 SB in 83 games at Triple-A Iowa
The Good: You can forgive a lot of what comes below when you have a switch-hitting catcher with a potential plus hit tool. Beyond that, Caratini is very much in line with Cubs prospects of recent vintage. He has a strong approach at the plate and should get on base at a good clip. He has some defensive flexibility—he started out as a third baseman—and has seen time at both first base and corner outfield since his conversion to catcher. And because he’s a recent convert maybe you can project further improvement in the presently below-average glove.
The Bad: Well for starters Caratini is a below-average defensive catcher despite decent arm strength. He’s a stiff receiver and likely doesn’t have the athleticism for anywhere else other than first, although I fully expect him to get rolled out in right field and third base as well in 2018 because it’s the Cubs. He’s never really hit for significant power outside of the PCL, and the swing is more geared for attacking the outfield gaps. There’s only average bat speed here and he struggled in the majors when seeing premium velocity.
OFP 50—There isn’t really room for the poor man’s Willson Contreras on a team employing Willson Contreras, but…
Likely 45—Generic backup catcher with some extra defensive flexibility
The Risks: Caratini is major-league-ready and in the right organization to get some value out of his skill set, I just don’t know how much value there is to extract. Teams other than the Cubs are now generally unwilling to give below-average receivers significant playing time behind the plate, so he may end up off in the wilderness without defensive improvements.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2017
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Caratini’s bat would make him very, very interesting if he landed an everyday (or nearly everyday) role somewhere while retaining catcher eligibility. That’s a pretty big if, though, and it seems as though Caratini would need an organizational change or an injury to Contreras to be of much use to us.
7. Thomas Hatch, RHP
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 190 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft, Oklahoma State University; signed for $573,900
Previous Ranking(s): #10 (Org)
2017 Stats: 4.04 ERA, 3.66 DRA, 124 ⅔ IP, 126 H, 50 BB, 126 K in 26 games at High-A Myrtle Beach
The Good: Hatch is a high-floor college arm with little risk, apart from the elbow injury that sidelined him in 2015. He throws a four-seamer at 93-94 (t96) that shows both run and life. He’s unafraid to attack hitters in the zone, and will rack up a decent amount of whiffs with it. However, his primary weapon is a sinking two-seamer that’s easy to get on top of. He did well to keep the pitch down and hitters had trouble getting the good part of the barrel to it, even after seeing the offering a number of times. The slider is his best secondary, and while inconsistent, the pitch showed above-average bite and late action to the glove-side corner. There were multiple misfires with the pitch for sure, but he shows enough athleticism to project a bit more consistency in the years to come. At 23 years old, Hatch controls the zone well and will not beat himself most of the time. He seems likely to meet his back of the rotation ceiling.
The Bad: While the floor is high, Hatch just doesn’t miss enough bats to be a real factor in the middle of a playoff-caliber rotation. Although the fastball velo is plus, he had difficulty finishing off hitters with major-league bat speed. He’s more control than command too, which works fine in High-A, but not as he continues to move up the ladder. The change might get to average because he gets solid fade on it, but he lacks a true feel for the pitch and really didn’t give it a chance to put a hitters away. The stuff is not good enough for Hatch to simply throw strikes and be all too effective as a starter, and I don’t see him developing the advanced command and pitchability he needs to make a jump past being a back-end of the rotation guy.
OFP 50—No.4 starter
Likely 45—No. 5 innings-eater/solid middle relief fallback
The Risks: Low. There’s injury history here from college, but Hatch didn’t have durability issues this past season. While there’s major-league stuff here, the ceiling is not all too high given his lack of a major-league out-pitch at the moment. Even though, his two-seamer will play well in the bullpen if the command doesn’t improve enough to stick in the rotation. He’s not all too exciting of a prospect, but he’ll contribute to a big league pitching staff one way or another. —Greg Goldstein
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I think we’re deep enough into the program that I don’t need to remind you how I feel about back-end starters at every turn. Hatch could be a solid streamer someday, but he’s too far away and his upside is too modest to be of much use to us at present.
8. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 200 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Signed October 2012 out of the Dominican Republic by the Chicago Cubs for $85,000.
Previous Ranking(s): #8 (Org)
2017 Stats: 3.46 ERA, 5.13 DRA, 54 ⅔ IP, 55 H, 13 BB, 47 K in 12 games at High-A Myrtle Beach; 0.00 ERA, 0.00 DRA, 2 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 1 K in 1 game at complex-level AZL
The Good: If you happen to catch de la Cruz on the mound, you don’t have to squint to see a really good major-league starter. It’s a power pitcher’s repertoire. You’ll see mid-90s velocity with big arm-side movement at times. He has a power 11-5 breaker that he commands well. There’s the potential for an average change. His body is built to log innings, and it’s an athletic delivery. He has a quick arm and a clean action. de la Cruz is a potential 6/6/5 starter. That should be higher on this list, right?
The Bad: Good luck trying to catch de la Cruz on the mound. You can’t quibble with the stuff, but he has been unable to get through a whole full-season assignment healthy. This year it was “arm tenderness” that shortened his summer and an attempt to get him some extra innings in the AFL fell by the wayside due to a pectoral injury. There’s just no evidence he can handle anything approaching a starter’s workload yet. If you do want to quibble with the stuff, his fastball command isn’t great, and the change-up only flashes average. These are the kind of things that can get ironed out with more development time, but well…
OFP 50—No. 4 starter or leverage reliever
Likely 40—Oft-injured back-end arm or good middle reliever
The Risks: High. He’s always hurt. He’ll be 23 before next season kicks off and has yet to pitch in the upper minors. The stuff is great, but can you have any confidence it holds up for six months in either a starting or relieving role?
Major league ETA: He’s really just one healthy season away from being a late-season major league option, so let’s say that takes two seasons and call it 2019. Your guess is as good as mine here, though.
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: He’s always hurt, but I still prefer his upside to guys like Lange and Hatch. That might not be as big a compliment as it sounds like, though.
9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 195 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Signed in July 2013 out of Taiwan by the Chicago Cubs for $1.625 million.
Previous Ranking(s): N/A
2017 Stats: 7.50 ERA, 5.82 DRA, 6 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 8 K in 2 games at major league level; 1.80 ERA, 3.09 DRA, 55 IP, 48 H, 14 BB, 39 K in 9 games at Triple-A Iowa; 2.99 ERA, 3.88 DRA, 90 ⅓ IP, 79 H, 24 BB, 83 K in 15 games at Double-A Tennessee
The Good: Prospect writers tend to yawn at command-and-control, pitchability righties, and look, Tseng isn’t Top Ten in a better system, but there’s some stuff to like here. He dominated the upper minors and sat more consistently in the low-90s. There’s a legit present plus change with late sink. It can be a major league out pitch. Tseng throws all four of his pitches for strikes and it’s an above-average command profile. The slider/cutter thing improved and gives him another major-league-quality option.
The Bad: Even with the velocity bump, Tseng’s fastball is still fringy. It has some arm-side wiggle, and he commands it well, but that might not be enough to keep major league hitters from squaring it. Neither breaking ball figures to be much better than average, and while he is comfortable throwing the change to both righties and lefties, the overall profile may be a bit longball prone even before considering the “within specifications” SuperballTM that we’ve seen in the majors the last couple seasons.
OFP 50—Average major-league starter
Likely 40—Homer-prone backend starter
The Risks: I’ve long held that these “safe number four” types are actually not that safe. Tseng’s change gives him a better out pitch than most arms of this ilk—the comp I keep coming back to is Dillon Gee who actually was that number four guy for a few years. It can go fast though, and sometimes it never actually gets there.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2017
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I miss Mau, but you will not miss out by not rostering Tseng.
10. Alec Mills, RHP
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 190 lbs.
Drafted/Acquired: Drafted in the 22nd round in the 2012 draft, from the University of Tennessee-Martin; signed for $70,000; Acquired via trade from Kansas City Royals.
Previous Ranking(s): Others of Note (KC)
2017 Stats: 3.21 ERA, 3.27 DRA, 14 IP, 12 H, 3 BB, 7 K in 3 games at Triple-A Iowa; 3.00 ERA, 3.39 DRA, 9 IP, 8 H, 1 BB, 7 K in 2 games at High-A Myrtle Beach; 0.00 ERA, 4.48 DRA, 5 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 6 K in 2 games at complex-level AZL
The Good: I thought Mills was a nice little get for the Cubs when they did an “others of note” swap for him with Donald Dewees last offseason. I was also intrigued when they decided to keep him stretched out as a starter instead of looking to him for immediate swingman help in a Mike Montgomery type role. While the overall arsenal seems a bit short to start, Mills has a very effective low-90s fastball with heavy sink. When he’s spotting it low in the zone it’s incredibly effective, and it pairs well with his changeup, which projects as above-average and he is comfortable throwing it to both righties and lefties.
The Bad: Mills was limited to just 28 innings by an early-season ankle injury. It’s not an injury that really worries you—he was fine in the Arizona Fall League—nor is the lost development time that much of an issue for a 25-year-old with major-league per diems under his belt. He is 26 now though, so he’s unlikely to take further developmental jumps. Anyways, the issues here haven’t changed much either. The overall stuff is fringy, neither breaking ball looks unlikely to get to average, and if he isn’t spotting his fastball down, it can be very hittable.
OFP 50—No. 4 starter
Likely 40—Swingman/middle reliever
The Risks: Mills was major-league-ready at the beginning of 2017. It’s still the case now. Otherwise almost everything I wrote for Tseng also applies here.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: /puts on “I Miss You” by Blink-182 and stares at Cubs 2015 Top-10 list.
The Next Ten (in alphabetical order):
David Bote, UTIL, Double-A Tennessee
The 24-year-old enjoyed an all-star AFL campaign that helped land him on the Cubs 40-man roster. Bote’s standout tool is 6 raw power, backed up with an above-average hit tool that allows him to get to a lot of that power in games. Bote controls the strike zone, lets the ball travel deep, and has a lofted swing that creates easy elevation. The hit/power combo is MLB quality, but Bote is limited defensively which prevents a regular role, looking below-average at second base in the AFL. Ultimately, the offensive tools should get Bote on a big-league bench, where the hope is that he can do enough defensively to snag ABs in the outfield corners and three non-shortstop infield positions. —John Eshelman
Wladimir Galindo, 3B/1B, Low-A South Bend
Signed out of Venezuela in 2013 as part of the Cubs international class that included Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez, Galindo missed the second half of 2017 with a lower leg injury. Prior to going on the DL, he was putting together a nice all-around season at South Bend. There is bat-to-ball skill and some natural pop generated by his large frame. However, the game power is limited by a swing that is geared more towards line drives, while the large frame limits him defensively to a corner position. He has a slow first step and limited range, but also displays soft hands and fluid transfers. There are no standout tools, but if he can return healthy in 2018 he gives the Cubs a solid corner infield prospect. —Nathan Graham
Dillon Maples, RHP, Chicago Cubs
The last time Maples appeared on a Cubs prospect list was before the 2013 season where he clocked in at number ten as a (very risky) potential Role 6 arm. The last time he was written about in these pages period was a late 2013 Ten Pack discussing his recent good run in the Northwest League. Maples was still a starter at that point. So it’s been a long time in the wilderness, but he finally put it together in the pen this year and made it to the majors. You can probably guess how it clicked. It’s a very easy 97 out of his hand, and he leans heavily on a big-breaking, high-80s slider that is a potential 7 offering as well. If we were more confident he would throw strikes consistently, he’d be a top ten prospect in this system and likely late inning reliever, but he hasn’t been able to do that even in his breakout season. Still, there’s an argument Maples is more of an impact arm than the pitchers at the backend of the list, even if he continues to walk the Carlos Marmol tight rope.
Eddy Martinez, OF, High-A Myrtle Beach
Martinez is 22 years old and still has a lot of work to do with his swing and overall feel for the zone. On the wrong day, the outfielder doesn’t look like even close to what his ceiling actually is. He consistently shows poor timing and doesn’t remain as grounded in the box as he needs to be. The bat speed also plays down at times because of his indecisiveness and he too often looks like he’s just going through the motions. However, on the right day, Martinez is a toolsy outfielder that possesses the necessary physical ability to develop into a guy that can hit for both average and power. Martinez’s bat speed is usually above-average and he can certainly turn on plus velo because of his strong hands and quickness to the ball. There’s spray ability here too, although he’ll often sell out for hard contact pull-side, even with pitches on the outer half. The arm is comfortably plus and he’s athletic enough to play in both corners if needed. The hit tool still needs a lot of development and will ultimately determine his professional future, but he shows just enough translation of his above-average raw tools where you can at least picture a solid-average regular down the road. —Greg Goldstein
Jose Paulino, RHP, Low-A South Bend
Paulino’s stuff is a tier below the names at the backend of the Cubs Top Ten, which makes him, well, not particularly appealing as a prospect. He makes for an interesting matched pair with Alec Mills as it’s a similar fastball/change approach. Paulino’s fastball is more fringy than average, and has more two-seam action than sink. His change is potentially average as well, and he is comfortable throwing it in any count. The slider is below-average, soft and sweepy in the upper 70s to low 80s. I’ll praise the command profile and pitchability here, and you can make the case that there is a backend starter in here somewhere with further refinement, but Paulino will be 23 next year and doesn’t have the relief fallback of a Mills or Hatch. It’s a tough road for a swingman/5th starter type, especially one this far away from the majors.
Yeiler Peguero, 2B, Low-A South Bend
Peguero, signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican in 2014, got off to a hot start this year at South Bend. As the weather warmed the bat cooled, regressing back to its true profile as fringe-average. Peguero struggled at times with pitch recognition and even abandoned switch-hitting for a time late in the year. Speed and defense is the key to Peguero’s game. He has plus-plus speed but it is raw and does not yet translate to game play. In the field he displays plus range and good instincts to go along with quick hands. It’s not a profile that will get Cubs fans excited but Peguero projects as a quality utility infielder. —Nathan Graham
Duane Underwood, Jr., RHP, Double-A Tennessee
Last year in this space we suggested the Cubs move Underwood to the pen. Instead he once again struggled to miss bats in Double-A. We think the suggestion still holds. You hope you are at that point in the Dillon Maples story where with Underwood where a move to the pen sees the fastball bump from the low-90s to the mid-90s—while keeping the wicked movement—and the breaking ball tightens up. Now this doesn’t happen to every failed starting pitching prospect, but Underwood seems like a good fit for the transition, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s throwing meaningful innings for the Cubs bullpen in 2018 if they go through with it.
Nelson Velazquez, OF, complex-level AZL
The Cubs went about $100,000 over slot to pop Velazquez in the fifth round of this year’s draft and he’s more exciting than the bevy of college arms they took in front of him on Day Two. He’s already playing mostly in the corners and filling out quickly, so there’s the usual cliches about “pressure on the bat.” You’re also looking at a long development horizon here as he is quite raw, but oh man that bat speed. This is a swing built for crushing baseballs. Right now Velazquez struggles to figure out which baseballs are suitable for crushing, but you could argue there’s more physical tools here than any other position player in the system. There’s also a huge delta, but if and when it clicks for the teenaged outfielder, he will rocket up this list.
D.J. Wilson, OF, Low-A South Bend
I make jokes in the Annual every year about how tiresome it can be writing up mid-rotation starter types for the 101. But really, the amount of third starters I will write about in any given offseason pales in comparison to the sheer tonnage of fourth outfielders. Wilson is exactly what you would expect from that epithet. He’s a plus-plus runner whose outfield instincts don’t allow the glove to completely carry the profile. There’s below-average offensive tools that you can live with from a bench outfielder, but look less appealing when he starts every day. And he’s short and physically maxed, so you can’t even really dream on much projection here. Now, Wilson is also left-handed, and lefties with this profile play for a decade. They just aren’t that exciting to write about on prospect lists.
Mark Zagunis, OF, Chicago Cubs
I have been told that leaving Zagunis off our 2017 list was a bit controversial, and all he did in 2017 was go out and post a shiny OBP in Triple-A again. He remains down in this tier because I’m still not sure he can actually hit major-league pitching, which is something you really need to do when you only have corner utility defensively. And if and when major-league arms figure that out, the OBP tends to look less shiny. Zagunis is still a few years away from being considered a Quad-A type, and he could probably be a useful corner outfield reserve for some major league team. That team is not going to be the Cubs, who have a surfeit of outfield options, so barring a trade he will likely head back to Iowa, and make another appearance on our 2019 Next Ten.
Friend in Low Places
Jeremiah Estrada, complex-level AZL
Perhaps it is a stretch to call a seven-figure draft pick a sleeper. Estrada dropped to the sixth round because of his strong commitment to UCLA and the one million dollar bonus was the price of doing business. Estrada is a little non-traditional as these overslot prep arms go. He’s not a huge projection bet—lean but not particularly tall. He has 95 when he needs it, but it’s not an overpowering fastball, and the uptempo delivery can lead to command issues. The breaker is very raw. But Estrada has one of the better changeups you will see as a prep pick. When I mentioned before that I write about third starters and fourth outfielders a lot, I did not mean to suggest I have had to come up with more linguistic tricks to keep things fresh than I do when discussing 18-year-olds changeups. With Estrada though, I can just say “potential plus.” It’s got big velo separation and serious sink and fade. It’s very possible he’s a reliever long term, and we are looking at a 2022 ETA here, but the million-dollar price tag may end up well worth it.
A Second Opinion: Jose Albertos should be No. 1
A lot of the arguments Jeffrey and I undertake are dumb by nature. Not only because it is me who starts them, but often because I whine about one player being ranked one spot below another player. This is a fair thing to do at the top of a Top 101, where an individual spot could connote a relatively significant shift in value. The problem is I often do this towards the bottom of the 101, when the players are of equivalent value, by and large, and the rankings are less important than the general groupings. Jeffrey reminds me of this often.
So here I am arguing about two players at the top of the Cubs list, in Albertos and Alzolay which would seem to have some merit. But as you see from their respective OFP/Likelies, they’re not very far apart in any sense of the word, and that includes their positioning on the back end of a 101. Alzolay is the safer bet, no doubt. He’s got two major-league pitches and he’s already worked in the upper levels of the minors, but he doesn’t have an out-pitch against lefties at the moment. Albertos flashes three pitches already, plus the ability to command his fastball. He has the changeup to neutralize opposite-handed hitters, and the curve could be a weapon in time.
“In time” is a relevant point and generally connotes risk around these parts, and there is risk in Albertos’ frame and lack of projectability, beyond the fact that he’s just a pitcher. Still, he has the arsenal of a starter and the ability to fly up the chain due to the advanced nature of his fastball command and his feel for pitching. His lack of upper-minors experience isn’t the development issue that it can be for some other pitching prospect profiles. Given his present abilities and polish, and the nature of prospect lists in general, I think we’d be well served promoting the upside of Albertos rather than the surety that Alzolay offers. —Craig Goldstein
Top Talents 25 and Under (born 4/1/1992 or after):
- Willson Contreras
- Javier Baez
- Addison Russell
- Kyle Schwarber
- Ian Happ
- Albert Almora
- Adbert Alzolay
- Jose Albertos
- Aramis Ademan
- Brendon Little
The Cubs top ten under 25 features someone other than Kris Bryant at the top for the first time since 2015, when Addison Russell edged the MVP third baseman for the number one slot. Russell remains, of course, with one more year of eligibility after this year, but his stock has fallen enough due to three seasons of below-average offensive production, landing outside of the top-two for the first time since he joined the Cubs. Russell’s offensive game is crystallizing, but not around the hit tool that made him the envy of every organization—it’s increasingly probable that this is who Russell is, and that’s merely “pretty good.”
Only some of this positioning is due to Russell’s struggles, however. Willson Contreras has firmly entrenched himself in the conversation for best catcher in the National League, non-Buster Posey division, a pleasant surprise for even those of us who expected Contreras to rake in the majors. The Venezuelan backstop has improved his defensive game wholesale, complementing his strong throwing arm and intelligence with adequate framing and blocking.
After Contreras, our list hinges more on potential lingering and potential squandered. Javier Baez has clawed at his strikeout rate while exhibiting world-class defense, inching toward the “unicorn” status some bestowed on him as a prospect. The infielder launched 23 homers in 2017 and was worth somewhere between two and three wins, with room to grow. Perhaps I am bullish on Baez, but the potential offensive gap between he and Russell is wider than the current defensive gap. Kyle Schwarber lost 2016 due to injury, and his 2017 woes are well documented, but the left fielder posted an impressive second-half slash and managed to reach the 30-homer plateau in only 486 plate appearances. Both have the ability to turn a corner in 2018.
The Cubs six best players under 25, then, are all major leaguers, the most in recent memory. There’s a gulf after the top four players on this list, as Ian Happ and Albert Almora will likely be role players going forward, and a gulf between the major leaguers and the prospects. Eloy Jimenez found himself traded to the South Side last summer, and the Cubs are without impact prospects for the first time in years. One needs to only glance upwards at the prospect rankings to understand why they grace seven through ten on this list. They’ll take that, of course: the graduates are taking care of business, and that’s exactly what Chicago wanted. —Zack Moser