There is a level of disinterest that comes with prospect writing for a team who has a Major League roster full of young players who are pretty recent call-ups themselves that just won the World Series. And the disinterest isn’t mine. There’s an understanding that the people who read these blogs and the work put out by the beat writers are far more interested in free agency and the trade market than they are in the minor league system, now. It’s a really first world problem. But since we’re nearing Christmas and free agency has cooled and there probably will not be any ground moving trades, this is as good a time as any to talk about the next wave of prospects to make their big league debuts with the Cubs.
Over the last few years, these types of pieces have had some really nice names. From Anthony Rizzo in 2012 (although it wasn’t a MLB debut, it was still highly anticipated) to Javier Baez and Jorge Soler in 2014 followed by the wave that came in 2015 with Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber, writing about the debuts with the Cubs has had some pretty significant star power. Even in 2016, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, and Carl Edwards, Jr. (again, not a debut, but the big league time wasn’t particularly noteworthy in 2015) were all highly regarded prospects who could be discussed coming into the season. Which doesn’t even mention Jeimer Candelario‘s call-up and brief stint. 2017 doesn’t really promise anything like we’ve grown a bit accustomed to with the Cubs. The vast majority of the players we waited so long for are Chicago Cubs, now…and not Iowa Cubs or Tennessee Smokies, anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t names to watch for, though. Even though the system isn’t stacked to the gills with awe inspiring talent that makes you gaze longingly into an MiLB.tv subscription, there are players who could play roles in the 2017 season who are merely a phone call away.
This should be the season we see some of the pitchers who have been in the organization for several years, now. The first and most obvious name to watch for is Pierce Johnson. He pitched in 22 games for Iowa last season, making 11 starts. He figures to start in Iowa again this season, but is a player to watch for, as he is already on the 40 man roster. The knocks on Pierce Johnson have been and remain walks and availability. Since being drafted, he’s spent time on the disabled list for a variety of ailments, including muscle injuries to his calf, hamstring and lat. He’s also been DL’d with blister issues and after being hit by a come-backer. If anything has held his career back, it’s been the injuries. Walks certainly haven’t helped, but for a guy who hasn’t been consistently available, the time to work out those issues just hasn’t been there. But alas, he was in Iowa last season, and could figure into the Cubs’ season if he is able to stay healthy. As we saw last season, the big league club isn’t afraid to call on a guy who’s issued some free passes, as they did with Carl Edwards, Jr. And if Johnson stretches back into a starter, the Cubs may need a spot start from a back end pitcher with the limited depth of the starting rotation headed into the season.
The most interesting and potentially impactful call-up the Cubs have in Iowa could be Corey Black. Although he somehow got less effective after moving to the bullpen, which was the role that had been projected for him since being acquired for Alfonso Soriano, he still features some pretty good stuff. His fastball hangs in the mid 90s and he has some solid off-speed and breaking offereings. The problem is he generally has no idea where it’s going. His nearly 11 K/9 rate in Iowa will play anywhere, but 6.23 BB/9 is holding him back from being a solid middle relief option. In fact, if his command and control were better, he has the pure stuff to be a high leverage option. He just won’t ever make a living if he walks 21 batters in 30 1/3 innings as he did in Iowa last season or 36 free passes in 53 innings between Tennessee and Iowa. It is important to note that Corey is having a very nice winter in Puerto Rico. He’s appeared in 20 games, throwing 21 innings, allowing 10 hits, 1 earned run, punching out 17 and walking 8. And his 12 saves are second in the league. While nobody is going to mistake is pitch placement with that of Kyle Hendricks, the 8 walks and 3 hit batters is still an improvement over some of his regular season numbers (with the obligatory small sample size alert). If he keeps making steps in the right direction, it would not be a surprise to see him pitching with the big league club this season. And if it does happen, he figures to be worked in slowly as the Cubs did with Edwards in 2016.
On the hitting side, if injuries break into the depth of the outfield, Mark Zagunis is an option who would fit the Cubs’ line-up nicely. While he’s limited to a corner outfield spot athletically, Zagunis is an on-base monster who features a walk rate above 10% at every professional stop he’s made. In some ways, a Zagunis call-up is likely to come in a similar situation to the Candelario call-up did last season. Some attrition due to injuries and/or a challenging portion to the schedule requires reinforcements to provide the regulars some rest during a long baseball season. And the Cubs could do worse than a guy who will grind out professional plate appearances in a spot start or as a pinch hitter. Realistically, that is probably going to be his role as a major league player. As little value as player comparisons have, his might be as a right handed outfield version of Tommy La Stella. Since Zagunis will arrive to The Show a little after La Stella did, maybe we can call him 4:30 am. In any event, he’s a guy who should probably at least have a cup of coffee at the big league level this season.
After 65 games in AA Tennessee last season, where he posted a respectable .262/.318/.415, Ian Happ is clearly the biggest name on this list. Unless he is included in a trade for starting pitching this winter or before next July’s non-waiver deadline, there’s a realistic chance we see Happ make a major league debut next season. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call his bat big league ready, although without seeing any time in AAA, that statement would be based more on projection than production. He doesn’t strike out a ton, has shown a willingness to take walks, although his 7.3% rate at AA was the lowest he’s had as a professional, and has some power, cranking 15 home runs between High A and AA last season in 134 games. Defensively, the focus has been on improving as a second baseman. There are very few questions about Happ as an athlete, however, so he can handle himself passably in the outfield and if his bat shows to be big league ready, he’s going to be an option as this season wears on. While he may never be an above average second baseman, his athleticism could make him a valuable switch hitting outfielder. If the Jon Jay/ Albert Almora platoon doesn’t work out, Happ is a viable center field candidate with plenty of arm and plenty of speed to do the job. While any call-up for Happ in 2017 figures to be temporary, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him, especially if he hits at the AAA level early in the season.
Some other names to watch for in 2017, albeit less likely, are names we’ve become familiar with over the past few seasons. Duane Underwood has been inconsistent and has dealt with injuries over the course of his professional career and his 2016 found him making 3 starts in the Midwest League. But his stuff is undeniable, and after a forgettable 2016, if he puts it all together in the early going, Underwood could be a spot start or relief option as the season wears on. Without a lot of organizational depth in the catching department, Victor Caratini figures to be open the year at AAA Iowa. After splitting time between first base and catcher, Caratini could be an emergency call if either or both of Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero get hurt. His call-up probably wouldn’t come under ideal circumstances, but he remains a guy to keep an eye on. Jacob Hannemann is a guy who, like Mark Zagunis, would likely only be called on to provide injury reinforcement or relief during a challenging portion of the schedule. He is a left handed, defensive oriented outfielder, who doesn’t provide the offensive value that Zagunis does. He could find his way onto the field in spot start duty or as a late defensive replacement or pinch runner. And he probably has an edge over Zagunis at this juncture because he is already on the 40 man roster. His ceiling is likely as a 4th or 5th outfielder who can play good defense and steal a timely base, but on a team with designs on winning another championship, that has value. If not before, he will almost certainly be called up in September.
None of the players mentioned here are as sexy as the players we’ve seen over the last few years. In some ways, that’s the sign of a healthy club. All of the players in the organization who can make the biggest impact on the big league product are doing just that. Which is not to say the Cubs are without minor league talent. Happ and Eloy Jimenez are very nice prospects who are reaching the top half of the minor leagues. And the bottom of the system is stocked with talented players who will start to make themselves known in prospect circles soon enough. But at this juncture, the players who are most likely to get a call from the big league Cubs are players who will not be needed to fill big roles. Fortunately, that won’t be necessary. The Champs are already well suited to compete after the initial waves of talent from Theo Epstein’s farm system.