When Theo Epstein arrived in Chicago, his goal was to make the Cubs a more complete organization. He started by reacquiring Anthony Rizzo. The next biggest event was the 2012 amateur draft. And while the 2011, 2013, and 2014 first round picks are all expected to be contributing members of the Chicago Cubs this season, none of the top of the 2012 draft have advanced past AA Tennessee.
Don’t read that statement as a comment on that draft being a bust. Three of the top four picks were high school players. The oldest of the group is 24 year old Pierce Johnson. It’s entirely too premature to discuss the entire draft class in terms of “busting”. But 2016 will offer some clarity on the futures of three of the top picks, Albert Almora, Pierce Johnson, and Duane Underwood, Jr. All have had some struggles to work through. All have had some injury issues to work through that has slowed their development. And all still find themselves on top prospect listings. However, with the Cubs bursting through their competitive window last season, now is a critical time in the development of these three players. All have the potential and opportunity to be a part of winning Cubs’ teams over the next few years because of uncertainty at their positions. 2016 should answer a lot of questions about those futures.
2015 was a step forward for Albert Almora. Although his first half showed some of the same struggles that his 2014 season ended with, Almora’s selectivity at the plate improved as the season wore on. The results of such were a .304/.368/.470 slash line after June. In many ways, that is the Albert Almora we’ve all been waiting for. He was never going to be a high power guy, but his 6 home runs in 2015 are still short of the mid-teen projections that were made when the Cubs selected him. Albert did manage, though, a career high with 26 doubles, match a career high with 4 triples, and post his best full season walk rate (7.1%) and strike out rate (10.4%). In terms of the big picture, if he is able to maintain something similar to his full season .272/.327/.400 full season slash line, coupled with his defense in center, Albert Almora may become a key piece of the Cubs’ future as soon as this summer.
When Almora gets to AAA Iowa, his continued development should help shed some light on the future of the Cubs’ outfield situation. Much of what we know about Almora is that we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get quite yet. He hasn’t put together a full consistent season of production as a professional. What makes 2016 so important for Almora is the current state of the major league outfield. With the addition of Jason Heyward, Albert Almora’s time in the Cubs’ organization could be running into the borrowed category. He must prove in Iowa that what he did in the later portion of last season was closer to who he is as a player than what he did in late 2014 and early 2015. If he can prove that his offense has turned the corner, he could make some decisions interesting for the Cubs this July or next winter. If Jorge Soler doesn’t have a strong season, a resurgent Almora could make Soler an even more trade-able commodity than he was thought to be this winter. 2016 will go a long way toward answering a number of questions about the future of the Cubs’ outfield. One of the keys, if the not the biggest key, will be if Albert Almora carries a strong end to 2015 into 2016 and shows continued improvement. If he does, either he or Soler could become hugely valuable assets toward shoring up the future of the starting rotation.
One of the reasons that the Cubs are looking for young, cost controlled starting pitching is they have not developed their own. Enter Pierce Johnson. Pierce Johnson was the lone college player the Cubs picked in the first three rounds of the 2012 draft. He has made 33 starts and thrown 186.2 innings at AA Tennessee. Over that time, he’s worked to a 2.31 ERA, 1.189 WHIP, and has kept the ball in the yard, surrendering only 12 long balls. The problem? Discontinuity. An assortment of ailments have prevented Pierce Johnson from “mastering the level” and moving forward in his development. He has a series of small samples at AA, so while the numbers are pretty good, they’re not the kind of consistent numbers that should make anyone feel good about him as a safe bet moving forward.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for Pierce Johnson. To be sure, much of the problem with his development has been his health. And none of his past injuries are indicative of long term problems. He has simply been afflicted by something we in the blogosphere call “bad luck”. The lone statistically alarming thing for Pierce has been his walk rate, which he brought down to 8.4% at AA last season. It seems likely that he will head to Iowa to open this season. The most important thing for him is to stay on the mound this season. If he can make 30 starts, this season will be a positive in his career. If he can improve his walks, bring his strike outs back up after a dip last season, and stay healthy, Johnson should be in the running for a back end of the rotation spot in 2017. With Jason Hammel‘s contract expiring after 2016 (he does have a 2017 team option) and Kyle Hendricks being maddeningly inconsistent, Johnson’s 2016 will either make him an option to be a part of the rotation in 2017 or it will show the Cubs that they need to further explore options outside of the organization. It isn’t “put up or shut up” time quite yet, but it’s getting close. Pierce Johnson needs to stay healthy and produce. Or the Cubs will have to move on.
Looking further down the road, the 2012 pick with the most to gain in 2016 is Duane Underwood, Jr. Before an elbow problem shortened his 2015, he was showing a lot of positive growth in Myrtle Beach. His walks, which have always been his biggest problem, were down. His strike outs were also down (to a career low 5.89 K/9), but he was attacking the strike zone and getting hitters out with stuff that was, quite frankly, better than his competition. Things were very much looking up for Underwood before the arm problem.
Like Johnson, the 21 year old Underwood has an opportunity for a spot in the rotation down the road. John Lackey is only signed for two seasons. If Underwood is able to pitch a full season in 2016 and have a strong season at AA, he could find himself in AAA to open 2017. If he is able to manage to continue to keep his walks under control and bring his strike outs back up, he could meet the middle of the rotation potential he is said to have. At this point, he looks to be between a year and a half and two years away from being ready to come to Wrigley. That timing is actually quite good for someone in Underwood’s shoes because in two years, the middle of the rotation (as it stands today) will have an opening. The keys for 2016 mirror those of Pierce Johnson: Stay on the mound for a full season and keep the walks down. If he is able to successfully do both of those things, Duane Underwood will position himself as a potential contributor in late 2017 or 2018.
Because of the meteoric rise of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, the acquisition of Addison Russell, and the breakout of Gleyber Torres, these players have been somewhat forgotten as Cubs’ prospects. In some respects, that can be a good thing. They all had flaws to work out and have been given time to do so without slowing the rebuilding process. But now, entering their fourth full professional seasons, they need to put together all of the time spent developing and knock at the big league door. There is a very real chance that none of them ever play for the Cubs. They could flame out or become trade assets in some combination. 2016 is the time to show their value, though. To either be a part of winning Cubs teams or to be traded for someone who can.