I made a midseason list earlier this month (1-6, 7-15, and fast risers), so I won't get into two much detail, but I feel I at least need to update the list considering the Cubs got two top prospects in return for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Addison Russell is among the top prospects in all of baseball and Bill McKinney is looking like he may have a legit corner OF bat, which is to say he has the potential to hit in the middle of a good lineup someday.
We also now officially have the entire draft class in tow, though two of the highest profile picks, 2nd rounder RHP Jake Stinnett and 6th round overslot RHP Dylan Cease have yet to pitch. In Cease's case, he may not pitch until this time next season at the earliest. They will not make this list in part due to that and because this is simply a loaded system.
Two prospects, Kyle Schwarber and Mark Zagunis, have hit the ground running, particularly Schwarber, who is already helping lead the 2nd half surge at Daytona. Zagunis is showing a great line drive bat and an advanced approach at Boise, but questions about his long term position and power have him just missing the cut this time around. That could change after this next offseason.
There are some slight changes from the last time, as I have some additional information and opinion as well as confirmation as to what I was hoping I was seeing earlier in the year.
I will just have brief explanations here since we already covered that ground and this is intended only to be an update.
Nothing has changed here. He has dominated every league after a very small adjustment period. His 3B defense has continued to improve and he is good enough to stay there if the Cubs move one of their 3 shortstops. He has the highest floor in the system and ranks only behind Javier Baez and possibly Jorge Soler in terms of pure ceiling. It looks like he will hit .280-.290 with plenty of walks and 35 HR power.
He is the top player in the system in terms of ceiling, but there is a bit more risk involved here. After another slow start to a new league, Baez has adjusted nicely. Over the last 2 months, covering 231 PAs, Baez has hit .299/.347/.564 with 12 HRs. He has done a better job of understanding how pitchers are approaching him. He's taking more pitches and working counts. His walk rate is just below 8%, which is solid, but the biggest impact has been in his ability to wait for pitchers to make a mistake he can launch into the ozone.
You can't judge Russell by his numbers this year, as he has battled hamstring injuries, has missed most of the season, and is still adjusting to a new organization as well as being among the youngest players in AA. Russell excites scouts because of his great hands, both in the field and at the plate. Compared to Barry Larkin by some for his well-rounded set of skills, he is the best defensive SS in the system and has the ability to hit for average and power, though not to the same level of power as the first two players on this list. He may outgrow SS, so the Cubs will probably wait before committing to him there long term, but even if he doesn't stick, he has the bat to profile as an offensive 3B.
The Cubs haven't promised that Alcantara will stay in the majors, in large part because they prefer him to learn CF outside the big league spotlight. He is a fast-twitched player with dynamite in his wrists despite a rather slender build. He has easy extra-base power to all fields, the speed to steal bases, and the approach to get on base at a solid clip. His athleticism should help him pick up CF and it shouldn't be long before he's a permanent fixture at the top of the Cubs lineup.
Almora's ability to play top caliber defense at a premium position raises his floor to the point where I decided to rank him above a more talented player in Jorge Soler as well as a highly advanced bat like Kyle Schwarber. Almora is a pretty good hitter in his own right, Almora has dealt with personal issues as well as having to adjust to the FSL, a tough hitters league. despite limited experience in pro ball so far. On top of that he has worked on cutting down his leg kick and like Starlin Castro, has worked on taming an aggressive approach. After a rough adjustment period, he has hit a solid .294/.317/.429 with 5 HRs over his last 240 PAs. He will have to continue to hone his approach, but the bat to ball skills (11.7% K rate) are there for Almora to hit .300 and he has enough pop to hit double digit HRs. That may not be a star but, considering his ability to prevent runs about as well as he can produce them, this is potentially a good player you can write into a playoff caliber lineup day in and day out.
He fell off the radar for some because of his frustrating inability to stay healthy but Soler is so gifted that he can step in and seemingly pick up where he left off. He has explosive hands and bat speed and a surprisingly mature approach for a player who has missed so much development time. Circumstances have dictated that Soler isn't going to follow the Cubs ideal development path but he may have enough talent to overcome that until he can rack up more experience on the fly. That said, the Cubs will probably use every ounce of time they have left with him to maximize his development at the minor league level. He's an extra base machine with 30+ HR power and a good overall approach to hitting, Defensively he has the rifle arm to profile in RF. But despite the tremendous ability, I still have to hedge my bets here until he shows he can sustain performance over the grind of a long season.
It's ridiculous that I have to rank Schwarber 7th but that is because the talent in this system makes it difficult to place him any higher, Given he has the least experience and the most uncertain defensive value of the top 7, he draws the short straw here. But this is not to say he isn't potentially a high level offensive player who will provide OBP and power in the middle of a playoff caliber lineup. An advanced approach and power to all fields to go with underrated athleticism give him a pretty high floor and as one scout told me, even if he hits .280 with 25 HRs in LF, which he saw as very likely, he can be an inexpensive but valuable, productive asset in your lineup -- and there is a chance he can do much better than that. I have no qualms if people want to shuffle 5-7 here, as they are all one tier down from the elite top 3, but this is how I see it at this point and I will need to see bigger samples from Almora, Soler, and Schwarber before I change this up.
It's really impossible for me to think of a reason not to rank Tseng at the top of the list when it comes to Cubs pitching prospects. He is excelling as a 19 year old in a full season league. He has shown fastball (90-94) command and has flashed one of the best breaking balls in the system. Add a feel for pitching, makeup, and poise on the mound and you have the whole package. Once the Cubs feel confident that he is physically mature enough to handle a MLB load, he will be in the major league rotation as long as he is healthy. That could be as soon as 2 years from now.
Edwards will return to the mound sometime next week as the Cubs are understandably being cautious with shoulder inflammation. Only time -- and lots of it -- can help bring that down. When healthy, Edwards pitches in the 92-94 range with great life and a curveball that is more consistent at this point than Tseng's. He has perhaps the best one-two punch of any starter in the system right now and the only question with him is whether he can handle the load to be a starter at the big league level. It may be unfair to knock a player down because of injury but I think considering his ability to handle a load was one of Edward's ability to handle the day to day grind, then it is warranted here. If healthy, you could make the argument he has more raw ability than Tseng.
The fact that he is not just holding his own, but his ability to control the strike zone in a pitcher's league at age 19 speaks volume as to McKinney's natural feel for hitting. He doesn't have one outstanding tool, but as a hitter he is above average across the board in terms of the ability to hit for average, power, and get on base it all plays together to make an everyday bat at a corner position. He is a solid athlete and should defend well, but his fringe average arm may relegate him to LF.
When I last saw Johnson, he appeared to be working on fastball command (92-94) and his cut fastball, which he throws in the high 80s. I didn't see much of the power curveball I saw in 2013 but there appears to be an emphasis on fastball command in the organization right now, perhaps taking a page from the Cardinals playbook. When he is throwing his curve, Johnson has the stuff of a 2/3 starter but questions about his command may push him down to a #4 type starter in a good rotation.
Hendricks is back in the majors, probably for good this time so this will be his last appearance on any prospect list. Hendricks works 90-91, touches 93 but his biggest assets are command and pitchability. It helps plays up average stuff across the board, giving him a ceiling as a #4 starter who can work efficiently and eat up innings.
Vizcaino has stumbled of late as the grind of a full season may have caught up to him after missing 2 seasons. We can probably chalk that up to a dead arm period for him, but when he is on Vizcaino is the pitcher with the best fastball (up to 98) and breaking ball (power curve) in the system. Add solid command and a changeup he can use to keep hitters honest and he really is a starter who is only in the bullpen because of durability concern. That gives him the potential to be a lights out closer.
Blackburn is one of the more complete pitchers on the Cubs staff, but like Hendricks, lacks that pure velo and one wipeout pitch that would make him a top of the rotation candidate. What he does do well is throw strikes and show an advanced feel for pitching. He flashed mid 90s velo at Boise last year but that appears to be an outlier. Blackburn figures to eventually pitch in the low 90s with a solid curve, and change with the command and feel to make it all play up. He is a good bet to compete for a rotation spot, though his ceiling may be more of a #4 than a mid-rotation type.
Staying on the theme of the importance of fastball command, nobody has come further in this respect than Underwood. He has some of the best arm speed in the system and pitches 92-94 early in the game before tapering off as the game progresses. That is to be expected from a teenage pitcher in a full season league. As one scout told me, "Think about this is if he was in college. He would be throwing once a week with greater recovery time and would likely be showing more consistent velocity" So we expect that consistency to come he matures. The same thing goes for his curve as he begins to throw it more and more as he develops. Right now the Cubs are focused on FB command, figuring they can shift to his breaking ball and change as that primary skill becomes proficient.
A tremendous physical specimen at 6'4", 205 lbs., Jimenez could be the next big thing in this system 3 years from now as the first and 2nd waves hit Wrigley and he gains experience. He is obviously far away, so a lot of things can go wrong between now and then, but his ceiling is tremendous and he is more polished than you might think. The Cubs obviously thought enough of him to have him skip the DSL and come stateside. And they aren't hiding him. He's hitting in the middle of the lineup at Rookie-Level Arizona. What is impressive about Jimenez is that despite the great raw power, he isn't some huge hulking mass taking uppercuts from this heels. His bat stays in the zone a long time, creating an ability to make consistent contact -- something that is in part illustrated by a 13.7% K rate. That is especially impressive in a league where he is among the youngest players, often having to face recently drafted college pitchers. He has also shown improving ability to take pitches and I expect that to improve with experience.
Vogelbach has one of the best bats in the system, showing a good approach, a solid hit tool, and tremendous raw power. He has lost a considerable amount of weight as he looks to improve his defense, but he lacks the athleticism to play anywhere else. In other words, Vogelbach's bat is going to have to carry him, which hurts his ranking in a system this deep. But Vogelbach should hit and if he continues to do so, then things will take care of themselves one way or the other. He has shown the strong makeup to get every ounce out of his ability as well as the work ethic to shore up weaknesses.
Don't worry about the numbers yet. Like Underwood, this is about development first -- and again, that starts with fastball command. Specifically, Zastryzny is looking to keep his 91-93 FB down in the zone. It is good velocity and the 2nd round pick has been throwing strikes and missing bats all season. He still has work to do, however, as he can get burned when he leaves his pitches up in the zone, but he has shown flashes of being a very effective LH starter. His change is ahead of his breaking ball right now and he will likely start to develop that breaking ball more next season. When we say not to worry about numbers below the AA level, Zastryzny's development plan is a prime example as to why you should take them with a grain of salt.
One of the more polished hitters for his age, Torres shows a line drive stroke and an advanced approach that he has been able to sustain against older pitchers. Torres doesn't have the upside that Jimenez does, but he has the potential to be a plus offensive player at a premium position. Some question whether he has enough athleticism to stick at SS as he matures physically but for the time being, the fundamentally sound Torres is looking like a good bet to stay there.
I may be aggressive with this ranking but I think Clifton has the best chance to enter that next echelon with Tseng, Edwards, and Johnson as well-rounded power pitchers. Clifton is 91-93 right now but with his age and room to add on to his frame, that could increase in time. He shows the ability to spin a breaking ball but as a scout told me, they have really cleaned up some of the delivery concerns that caused him to slip to the 13th round in last year's draft. The Cubs scouted him well, including his willingness to work hard and take to coaching. An optimistic ranking now, but a pitcher I think Cubs fans should keep an eye on.