As much as I am excited about the major league team this spring, I'll be spending a lot of time on the backfields as well. The Cubs farm system is still strong but with Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant shooting to the majors to stay last year, they are lacking that marquee prospect. Only Gleyber Torres is a consensus top 50 prospect and there is at least some mixed opinion as to who is #2, though most have Willson Contreras in that spot,
I am, of course, looking forward to seeing them play as well as other top Cubs prospects such as Billy McKinney, Duane Underwood, and Albert Almora. But to be a prospect hound is to be always looking ahead and dreaming on the possibilities. With that in mind, here are the top 10 prospects I look most forward to seeing this spring.
1. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF (Did not play in 2015)
Obviously. Like most non-professional scouts, I have yet to see him play live. When a player gets as much mixed review as Martinez does, that makes him difficult to evaluate when it comes to compiling prospect lists. My methodology when it comes to ranking prospects depends heavily on such live evaluation. As much as I respect the opinions of those in the field, I ultimately like to make my own decisions and I depend on multiple viewings to come to those conclusions. Video is helpful but there is something about seeing a player live -- to hear that crack of the bat, to see the burst on bases or in the field, and even just seeing how a player goes about preparing. All of that factors in my decision process.
I had Martinez 17th but that is admittedly a hedge on my part. It's essentially a floor ranking rather than a combination of floor and ceiling as is my usual custom. It is because I have incomplete information. I am more excited to see Martinez than any other prospect -- and more than any other prospect in my top 25, Martinez has a chance to jump way up the list by the end of March.
2. Ian Happ, 2B-OF (South Bend, A)
Specifically, I am interested in his transition to 2B. The first couple of times he went out there, Happ looked a little stiff and heavy footed. And while he is never going to have that fluid athleticism I like to see in middle of the field players, he is still a good athlete and worked hard on his footwork during the fall. By the time camp broke, I was convinced he has a shot to stick there. Happ has a muscular build and I am curious to see if he'll shed some of that bulk in favor of more lean muscle mass if it does not detract from his power. That could help his quickness at 2B.
At the plate, Happ is pretty far along. He'll strike out, in large part because of his ferocious swing, but he has good bat speed, great discipline, and an intelligent approach. He was the most impressive, consistent all-around hitter I saw this fall. He also has surprising speed and perhaps has the potential of becoming a 20/20 player on offense.
3. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP (Eugene, Short-Season A)
I am going to assume he'll stop growing at some point. De La Cruz may be as tall as 6'6" right now and still carries a lean, athletic build. He has an easy, fluid delivery that he can repeat well, which should help him continue to throw strikes. He can already touch 97, though he sits more at 92-93 right now. With physical maturity, he may be able to sustain the upper end of that velocity deeper into games. The curveball also improved last year and has plus potential so I will be interested to see if that continues. He has an aggressive, attacking demeanor on the mound and if he develops at least an average change, he suddenly becomes a legitimate top of the rotation prospect. At worst, he has a good chance of becoming an intimidating high leverage reliever.
4. Dylan Cease, RHP, (AZ Rookie League)
I think we just saw him scratching the surface last year. The easy velocity that reached as high as 100 mph last summer drew a lot of attention -- and deservedly so. The Cubs simply don't have a lot of arms like Cease's. There is a lot to dream on with the just turned 20 year old. The curveball shows potential and he has some feel for the change already. Last year was about getting back on the mound and regaining arm strength. Mission accomplished.
This year the bar is set higher. Scouts are going to want to see improvement with his secondaries and his command. If Cease can display that this spring, he may just skip Eugene and re-join his draft classmates at South Bend this year.
5. Eloy Jimenez, OF, (Eugene, Short Season)
Jimenez took that step forward last fall as far as maturation and it has me really excited to see how he continues to develop this spring after some time off. The broad-shouldered Jimenez is already physically mature and he really seemed to grow in confidence. He even showed some emerging leadership qualities when he took some even younger players under his wing.
But where we really want to see him grow right now is at the plate. He has a relatively polished swing and tremendous raw power but that power has yet to manifest itself consistently in games. In order for that to happen, he'll have to develop a more mature, consistent approach, get himself into good hitting counts and learn to wait for pitches he can drive.
6. Justin Steele, LHP (Eugene, Short Season A)
Like De La Cruz, Steele may not be done growing. MiLB now has him at 6'2" at 195 lbs. -- and they may be a bit light on that weight. He may be as much as 10 pounds heavier than that and it appears to be lean muscle weight. He is one of the most athletic pitchers in the Cubs system and has a tough mentality on the mound.
Steele was reaching 95 when I saw him last spring but more often worked at 92-93 while also flashing a plus curve and improved command. Along with De La Cruz, he was the pitcher that stood out to me the most.
On the downside, Steele seemed to tire around the middle innings and would start to open up in his delivery. I tend to get so hyper-focused on movement that on one start, I stepped away for a couple of innings, came back and thought it was a different pitcher when I first returned. In addition to the change in his delivery, the curve flattened out and the fastball was up and tailing away.
With the added weight and, presumably strength and stamina, the hope is that Steele can sustain his mechanics and stuff deeper into games -- and he did start to show that ability later in the season. If that happens, then I think he can be a mid-rotation starter. At worst he is a power lefty out of the pen.
7. Bryan Hudson, LHP (AZ Rookie League)
I didn't see Martinez at all and I only saw a couple innings of Bryan Hudson last year, so he is another one I hedged on a bit and am looking forward to seeing more of him this spring.
What I did see of Hudson was impressive. He worked at 89-91, flashed a plus curve, and showed surprising athleticism and coordination for a 6'8" teenager. He still has a long, long way to go. As you would expect from a gangly teen just out of high school, he still needs to mature in all aspects of the game, but the physical size and skills make him an intriguing breakout candidate once it all comes together. I don't expect that to happen in 2016 but I am curious to see how much progress he's made and how much work he'll put into improving this spring.
8. DJ Wilson, OF, (AZ Rookie League)
Wilson is the most dynamic position player in the Cubs system. He is perhaps their fastest runner (and certainly the fastest I timed) and packs a lot of pop into what is listed as a 5'8", 177 pound frame, though after seeing him up close, I think he may be an inch or so taller and several pounds heavier than that (5'9", 185 lbs.?). Wilson struggled at first in the rookie league. He seemed to be chopping down on the ball and using his wheels to get on base -- perhaps that was something he was instructed to do as a prep athlete, but after about 10 days off, Wilson came back and seemed to make adjustments to his swing. He was driving the ball into the gaps with authority and he carried that trend into the fall, where he even showed some HR power to his pull side.
In a system that has plenty of highly skilled players but lacks explosive athletes, Wilson stands out. I talked about being reserved until I see a player live in the Martinez segment. Wilson, along with Steele and Contreras a few years ago, are prime examples of players that need to be seen live to be appreciated. Those three players are among the most athletic in the Cubs system and I really think you have to see them live to get a feel for how dynamic they are on the field. There is only so much you can glean off of stat sheets, second hand reports, and video.
9. Adbert Alzolay, RHP, (Eugene, Short Season A)
There are two things that intrigue me about Alzolay -- his live, loose build that helps him generate tremendous arm speed and frankly, the fact that Theo Epstein included him on a list of 20 and under pitchers (along with Steele, Sands, Cease, De La Cruz, and Hudson) that are among my favorite arms in the system . They are the arms, that along with Duane Underwood, may tip the scales toward pitching in the Cubs system when this season is all said and done.
Like Hudson, I only saw a couple innings from Alzolay and so I was reserved in my ranking (He would have ranked 26th had I extended the list). I hope to get a better feel for Alzolay's secondaries and command this spring.
10. Donnie Dewees, OF, (Eugene, Short Season A)
I think we will see the real Donnie Dewees stand up this spring. He's coming of a tough year in many aspects and while he showed some flashes of displaying the kind of hitting ability that made him a borderline first round talent, Dewees never seemed to fall into a groove -- that is, until the last couple of weeks of the instructional league when he was driving the ball as consistently as any Cubs hitter in camp.
I am hoping to see him build on that this spring as well as getting an extended look at him in CF, where he showed some ability despite a well below average arm. If Dewees can stick in CF, then he throws himself into that mix with Almora, Wilson, Martinez, and perhaps Ian Happ as the Cubs CFer of the future.
Others: Carson Sands (LHP), Trevor Clifton (RHP), Wladimir Galindo (3B), Andruw Monasterio (SS), Aramis Ademan (SS), Pedro Araujo (RHP), Miguel Amaya (C)
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