While the last couple of off-seasons have put a renewed focus on the major league product, the Cubs still feature a robust and healthy minor league system. As players like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber have all graduated out of the system, a new core of intriguing and exciting young Cubs’ prospects is emerging. Whether fairly or not, they will certainly not carry the same level of interest that the crew headed by the aforementioned did. Those prospects were being counted on to lead the resurgence of the major league team and their progress on the farm was what the hopes of the future were resting on. For this crop, development can truly be the focus. The face of the organization isn’t on the farm, anymore, as it was when Baez and Bryant were working their way to the big league level.
Make no mistake, though…this is a talented group. Although some on this list will never wear a Cubs major league uniform, they are all keys to the next step in the organization’s process. Whether they become trade chips, role players, or future stars, all of these young players as important to maintaining and surpassing the level of success that the major league team achieved last season.
This list is a compilation of scouting reports from the various baseball scouting sites and publications, coupled with my own observations of these players. Some of those observations have been in person, the vast majority on MiLB.tv, and others in video captured of the players. This is to say…these ranking are imperfect and come with the disclaimer that I’m not a scout.
1. SS Gleyber Torres
Torres, who just turned 19 (December 13), turned in quite the full-season debut. After a .293/.353./.386 slash line in South Bend, he earned a late season call to High A Myrtle Beach. He showed off some of the advanced plate approach that scouts have mentioned, drawing walks at an 8.4% rate in South Bend. Although Torres doesn’t come with great speed and isn’t overwhelmingly quick, he stole 22 bases on the year. Defensively is where is quickness may become an issue. His range is going to be limited by it and may force him off shortstop. Because of his strong and fluid arm, though, he would likely excel at the other infield positions. Physically, Torres comes with a ton of maturing to do. He is quite literally a (very young) man in a boy’s body. He comes with a ton of physical projection, which may help him increase the 3 HRs he hit this year. He’ll likely never hit 20 in a season, but he has room to add enough strength to put him in the 12-17 range, and his solid contact swing could make him a very strong line drive hitter.
Torres will most certainly start 2016 at Myrtle Beach. At only 19 years old and with a strong, young infield core, the Cubs don’t need to be in any hurry to move Torres along. That should help him fare well in his development, as he will have ample time to work on both his game and his body. Both are very young, but based on early results, the future should be very bright for Gleyber Torres.
2. C Willson Contreras
Contreras has flown up prospect rankings boards with his prolific season with the bat at AA Tennessee. He was relatively unknown after being held in short-season ball in the Northwest League as he was making a conversion to catcher and played a full season for the first time in 2015. That full season was outstanding, though. He won the Southern League batting title, posting a .333/.413/.478 slash line, far and away exceeding career bests. The surge is almost entirely due to better command of the strike zone, with his strike out rate coming down to a full season career low of 11.9% and his walk rate jumping to a career best 10.9%. Athletically, Contreras is very gifted. He has the arm and the quickness to be an elite defensive catcher…which is what prompted the move. He is another in a list of players in the Cubs’ organization who can stand to add to his frame without sacrificing traits that make him who he is. That is to say, Contreras is a player who could get stronger (and likely will), without remarkably losing any of the quickness that makes him an asset behind the plate. The knock on him at this point is that he needs more time and experience with game-calling and receiving pitches.
An argument could be made that Contreras, who will probably start the 2016 season at AAA, might be the best catcher in the organization. With only Miguel Montero, David Ross, and Kyle Schwarber ahead of him in the organization who can play the position, it would not be a surprise to see Contreras in the major leagues in 2016. Going into what is likely the end of Ross’ major league career, Contreras has the opportunity to work himself into a big league job in 2017, either as the starter or as Montero’s primary back-up/ platoon mate. Ultimately, it will all depend on his ability to continue his strong approach at the plate and continuing to grow as a defensive catcher and pitch receiver.
3. OF Billy McKinney
The Jeff Samardzija trade is the gift that keeps on giving. Billy McKinney would have been a pretty good return as the center piece of that deal, but as the second player in it, there’s no real debate that it should be a long-term bargain for the Cubs. All McKinney has done since coming to the Cubs organization is hit. And if he’s not hitting, he’s walking. Although he started 2015 in Myrtle Beach, it took only 29 games for him to see a promotion to AA Tennessee. He posted a .285/.346/.420 line with an 8.8% walk rate and a 15.3% strike out rate after his promotion. Physically, he doesn’t appear to have a lot of room left for growth. While it is silly to close the door on the physical projection of a 21 year old, McKinney’s body is much like his approach at the plate…mature beyond their years.
He missed the end of the 2015 season with a fracture in his knee. Fortunately, the hairline fracture in the knee should not have any lasting effects on his career and he should be completely healthy. Unfortunately, the fracture in his knee may prevent him from having the same kind of productive winter a professional baseball player making a push to a big league career would want to have. If it were up to me, I’d probably send McKinney to AAA Iowa to start the season (assuming his health is completely in order), but it should come to a surprise to nobody if he starts off in AA again at the outset. The Cubs have shown a propensity to take it slow with some prospects…McKinney being one of them after seeing time in High A Myrtle Beach to start 2015.
4. RHP Duane Underwood, Jr.
Since being drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft, Underwood has steadily reduced his walks. That was the biggest knock on Underwood, whose stuff has never been a question. He can operate in the mid 90s with his fastball that he pairs with solid secondary offerings. The consistent improvement in his command and control put itself on full display in 2015, where he was an absolute pleasure to watch pitch at Myrtle Beach. He worked to a 2.58 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 73.1 innings. The higher FIP is linked to a drop in the strike out rate, where Underwood attacked hitters with stuff that was, frankly, better than the competition.
Unfortunately, Underwood was limited to 14 starts in High A because of an elbow issue. He made a couple of late starts in the Arizona League, but they were only a total of 5 innings long. The lack of innings may push Underwood back to Myrtle Beach at the start of the season. If he returns in 2016 in the same form he showed in 2015, his stay will be short. Underwood is regarded as the best starting prospect in the system by some, and if he continues his growth with command, control, and consistency, his stay in the minors may be winding down in the next year or two.
5. OF Albert Almora
When our mid-season top ten dropped in July, Almora was ranked 10th. That was in part because of the overall strength of the system. The other part is because Almora was struggling through changes in his approach at the plate. His defense has never been an issue. But a .234/.250/.355 second half of 2014 in Tennessee and a less than thrilling first half at AA didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in his production at the plate. Through the end of June, Almora was slashing a paltry .246/.293/.344. Improvement over 2014 to be sure, but still nothing to raise an eyebrow at. It was what happened in the second half that pushed Almora back up the prospect ladder. His at-bats got better. He looked like a much more disciplined, confident hitter. And his .304/.368/.470 slash line illustrates that. He drew 17 free passes in the second half, compared to striking out only 22 times.
To be sure, a really nice second half isn’t the end of Almora’s development. Much like has happened when he’s moved up in past levels, there is a high probability that Almora has some struggles when he reaches AAA, whether that is at the beginning of the season or sometime later. In that respect, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Almora pick up at AA to find and get into a rhythm before advancing. If he is able to continue to take strides in his discipline at the plate and swing at pitches in the zone, he could be a forceful hitter. Even when he has struggled at the plate, he has never been a high strike out batter. The improvement, the consistent contact, and the still excellent defense of the 21 year old Almora bring him back up the list. If that improvement continues in AAA, he may not be far from making a major league debut in either September 2016 or in 2017.
6. IF/OF Ian Happ
The 2015 first round pick (9 overall) got off to a good start in his professional career, splitting his professional debut between short-season Eugene and South Bend. Happ is another in a line of advanced hitting college prospects selected in the first round by the Cubs. He was focused primarily on playing in the outfield in his debut, but split between the infield and outfield in his time at the University of Cincinnati. What is genuinely striking about Happ is how athletic he is. He is fluid in motion, making baseball movements without any signs of being uncomfortable with the movements he’s making.
Happ fits the profile the organization has focused on since Theo Epstein’s front office took over. He controls the strike zone, can hit for some power, and is a versatile athlete. His short time in A ball has been focused on center field, but his athleticism should allow him to play across the outfield with the ability to also contribute as an infielder. In some ways, he could be the ideal Joe Maddon type of player. As early as his development is, Happ could be groomed to play a role like new Cub Ben Zobrist. He is athletic enough to do it and with instruction moving through the system, could become a valuable commodity down the road.
7. OF Eloy Jimenez
Eloy turned 19 in November, but already looks like a fully grown man. The fun thing about him is that he isn’t fully grown. Ultimately, the thing that lands Eloy here is the same thing that landed him here in the mid-season ranking. In an organization that boasts Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Kyle Schwarber at the major league level, Eloy Jimenez may be the finest physical specimen the Cubs have. He has a long way to go, to be sure, but his frame can easily accommodate 30-40 pounds of added muscle, making his existing power more dangerous down the line.
Jimenez had a fine debut at short season Eugene and should be on the way to South Bend in 2016. As he continues to grow and develop, Eloy could make the price of MiLB.tv worth it by himself. Physically, he leaves no questions. At this juncture, he’s raw. At this time next year, if things continue to progress well with his development, he could find his way onto top 100 prospect lists.
8. RHP Pierce Johnson
Johnson was limited to 95 innings in 2015 because of yet another injury. When he did pitch, he managed to drop his walk rate from 5.30 at AA in 2014 to 3.03 in 2015. For Piece, those two things are the story. Walks and injuries. The 95 innings in AA and the additional 24.2 innings in the Arizona Fall League and 23 total starts represent career highs. When he’s pitched, his results have been strong.
It is likely Johnson finally reaches AAA to start 2016, assuming (which is risky) that he stays healthy through spring. If he can have a full and healthy season in 2016, his addition to the 40 man roster make him a September call-up candidate at the low end of the spectrum. At the higher end, he could work his way into being included as starting rotation depth as early as this upcoming season. Again, those things will hinge most upon his limitations…walks and health.
9. 3B Jeimer Candelario
Jeimer had a really strong and impressive bounce back season in 2015. After a mid-season demotion in 2014 from Daytona to Kane County, Jeimer earned a late season promotion from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee in 2015. He is a perfect example of the notion that progress isn’t always linear. He’s another player with a solid contact bat, which he showed in his late season promotion to AA, slashing .291/.379/.462 in a limited 182 plate appearances.
Candelario is likely headed back to Tennessee to open 2016. If he continues the rise he made in 2015, he may not find himself in Tennessee through the entire season. His continued growth could make him a candidate to promotion to AAA. His addition to the 40 man roster this fall could also make him an ideal prospect to include in a midsummer trade to bolster the major league roster.
10. 1B Dan Vogelbach
Vogelbach is a really good hitter. His .272/.403/.425 slash line, coupled with a strike out rate at 19.5% and a walk rate of 18.2% illustrate that. He has power, makes strong contact regularly, and has excellent command of the strike zone as a hitter. But in a system full of excellent athletes, Vogelbach just isn’t one of them. Although he’s slimmed down and vastly, visibly improved his conditioning, he isn’t much more than a really good left handed hitter. And because he’s in an NL organization with a really good first baseman and another guy who could be a pretty great DH if the day ever comes that the NL adopts it, it would be unwise to get attached to Vogelbach. He’s got trade bait written all over him. But man…can he ever hit.
These are some really talented players who were close to making the list. Eddy Julio Martinez, to me, is an unknown commodity coming from Cuba. Sands actually made the mid-season top ten, but was a touch inconsistent in his debut at Eugene. Cease is coming off Tommy John surgery, debuting in the rookie league over the summer. As he moves further from the surgery, he could be an absolute stud. Dewees is another very good athlete, who opened his pro career at Eugene and should jump to full season ball in 2016. Zagunis probably should have been in the top ten. He is a very advanced hitter and is a good athlete to match. Truth be told, if he had stuck with it behind the plate, he likely would have been around number six or seven on this list solely because his athleticism and bat at a premium position would have improved his prospect stock, in my eyes.