As we creep into the point of the winter where the various outlets are going to release top prospect lists, the Cubs are going to be well represented. Baseball America released their top ten Cubs prospects today, without any real surprises. This is not a top prospect list (the over/under on comments regarding how someone is left off this list because it’s perceived at a top prospect list, though is set at 4.5).
The purpose of this piece is to identify players who can make significant steps forward this season, may take a step backward this season, or are players to be watched for other reasons. To be sure, some of the players discussed here are going to be top prospects…because nobody can talk about org guys and expect people to want to hear about it. Along the same lines, there is no point in discussing players who are not going to remain prospects because they are going to spend a massive portion of the season with the Chicago Cubs (So, no Kris Bryant fawning here. Sorry).
Addison Russell, Shortstop
Addison Russell is going to be the top prospect in the system by default about a month after the season starts with the call-up of Kris Bryant. That fact, on its own, makes Russell worth keeping an eye on this season. However, while Russell probably finds his way to Iowa after Spring Training, he may be on the list of players who can make a late season appearance in Chicago (or whatever city Theo and Jed decide to call him up in). With that possibility for the not quite 21 year old Russell, it is going to be interesting to watch his early season performance. If he dominates for the first half of the season and the Cubs find that maybe Kris Bryant is not as suited for third base as they hope, he could be a late remedy. In addition, he is the best trade chip in the system, and quite possibly, in the organization. If the Cubs are in position to make a run at a player who can be a difference maker at the deadline, Russell could be used to add that player. The fact that he’s the top prospect and that there are so many possibilities for Addison Russell make him someone to keep an eye on as the 2015 season wears on.
Albert Almora, Center Field
Albert Almora had an interesting 2014. He was sent to High A Daytona, where he got off to a really slow start. He ended his time in Daytona with a respectable .283 batting average, but his lack of walks only bumped his on-base percentage up to .306, which pulled his OPS down to .712 in Daytona. He was pretty aggressively promoted to Tennessee where he hit .234/.250/.355 in 36 AA games. Almora is destined for Tennessee again this spring, where things should be better than they were in his initial AA experience. Almora is the very definition of a contact hitter. He does not hit for a ton of power, but his strike out rates are consistently low. The highest of his professional career was in Tennessee, where it was 16%. That should come down this season. His plate approach may also see some scrutiny, as it took a comically long time for his first walk last season. While he doesn’t strike out much and makes a lot of contact, some of this .267 BABIP in Tennessee is directly linked to making weak contact on pitches he should have taken. While there was some fluctuation with his offense, his defense continued to be as advertised. The growth of his bat deserves a watchful eye this year. Almora very well could see a mid-season promotion to Iowa. If all goes well in Tennessee, the 2012 1st round pick could find his way inching closer to Chicago, priming him for a debut at some point in 2016.
Jen-Ho Tseng, Pitcher
Jen-Ho Tseng was outstanding in low A Kane County last year. He was a significant part of the reason they had such a great pitching staff to lead them to a Midwest League Championship. His 2.40 ERA was supported by a 2.38 FIP. His success was not an accident last year. It will be fascinating to see if he can continue to pitch so well at more advanced levels without the top notch stuff of other prospect pitching. He works around the plate, evidenced by his 1.29 BB/9 last year. More advanced hitters may take liberty with that. As he heads to Myrtle Beach this year in high A, it may become more clear that he feasted on younger, less experienced players. He may also show us that his first season in the US was not a fluke and have another strong showing in 2015. While he is still quite a distance from the majors, he stands out as a potential wild card in the Cubs’ system, which does not feature the pitching talent at the same level as position prospects.
Kyle Schwarber, Catcher
After being drafted and working his way to high A, Kyle Schwarber is another player who looks to be destined for Tennessee. In many ways, Schwarber’s development is on a perfectly normal track for a very good college hitter. Whether or not he is able to stick as a catcher is going to make this season interesting. The real question about Schwarber was always whether he would stick behind the plate or if he was headed to the outfield. He split time between catcher and left field in his first half season of pro ball. He absolutely pounded on single A pitching, too. It will be very interesting to see how he handles more advanced pro pitchers from an offensive standpoint. If he shows that he can be effective as a catcher, the Cubs may have gotten a steal with their first round pick last summer. His ability to stick behind the plate, if successful, can also make the aging major league catching core a little less concerning over the long term.
Eloy Jimenez, Right Field
At just barely 18 years old, and no experience outside of Arizona, this is a player worth keeping an eye on this year for no other reason than his huge physical upside. He only had 164 plate appearances in the Arizona Rookie League, hitting .227/.268/.367 with 3 HRs, but he was also only 17 years old. He’s a player who is not done…with anything. His body is going to continue to grow and fill out, adding to an already impressive frame. And he has a ton of room to mature and grow as a baseball player. It would appear to be unlikely that he moves past short season ball in Eugene this year, but for a player in his age 18 season, that’s still a pretty good place to be. If he continues to refine his game and grow as a human being, this is a kid who can become very relevant to the Cubs organization at a very young age.
Pierce Johnson, Pitcher
Pierce Johnson was limited to 20 games last season (18 starts) while battling some injury issues. When he was on the mound, though, he was effective. One concern for Johnson was that he walked a lot of batters. He handed out 54 walks in only 91.2 AA innings in 2014. It is not a sure thing that Johnson opens up on Iowa for that reason, although it wouldn’t be an upset if he did. Johnson appears to be the best starting pitcher prospect in the Cubs’ system because there is no certainty that C.J. Edwards is going to stick as a starting pitcher. In that event, it is going to be interesting to see if Johnson can get the walks under control. Furthermore, a full, healthy season is going to be important to his development. There is a very outside shot that he makes a late season appearance in Chicago, assuming he stays healthy and gets the walks under control. For a pitcher with his promise, the upper levels of the minors are where pitchers begin to separate themselves. Hitters are more advanced and pitchers need a better plan to get them out; having less ability to rely purely on stuff. It showed with Johnson last year, and 2015 will start to answer if he has been able to make that adjustment.
As the Cubs have called up prospects like Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Jorge Soler, the system that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have so diligently built is beginning to bear fruit for the current major league club. While that is exciting for all of us as fans, the system continues to churn out some good players who will play a role in the coming and sustained success for the Cubs down the road. In spite of the call-ups that the Cubs have had which make the system less deep, there are still interesting and talented players, even below the surface of the top prospect listings that have been released and that will continue to be released as the winter and spring wear on.