I am not too big into midseason prospects list because I think there is too much emphasis put on the statistics from the first few months of the season. Jeimer Candelario didn't suddenly forget how to hit -- and he has shown that in AAA. Billy McKinney isn't a .260 hitter with no power, though in his case it may have much to do with a knee injury that was slow to heal this spring. Justin Steele has good stuff and good makeup, I can't imagine him not bouncing back -- and possibly better than ever.
At the same time, we want to give credit to those players who have made a breakthrough early in 2016. I've had the good fortune to see all of these players since February, so I know that the breakthrough seasons of Eloy Jimenez, Bryan Hudson, and Trevor Clifton -- or those of sleepers like PJ Higgins, Jesus Castillo, and some of the other arms -- didn't just come out of nowhere. Though we do weigh early good performances, this is not about short statistical sample flukes, this is about the overall statistical body of work, my opinions on players based on multiple viewings as well as the opinions of professionals.
I am just doing a top 11 and then we'll talk about other prospects in separate categories. We'll break it down like this...
- The Top 11 Prospects
- The injured talent
- The Eugene Emeralds Rotation -- because we all know the Cubs need impact pitching
- Middle of the Field Players because they tend to be the most versatile, enhancing their chances of making the big leagues.
- Middle infielders
- The Arizona Rookie League -- because I am there and some of the Cubs picks from the MLB Draft are beginning to sign.
We'll keep the descriptions brief, so click on the players names if you want to see additional physical info and statistics.
This one goes to 11
Willson Contreras is the top prospect in the system. I think that should be pretty clear by now, but it seems that he has no plans of returning to Iowa. Another would-be top 5 prospect, Albert Almora, will likely return once Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler, and Tommy LaStella return. But just for fun, let's assume nothing and count them as big league ballplayers, which they undoubtedly have shown that they are no matter what happens in the short term. I am sharing the top spot with two players, so to make up for it, we'll go to 11.
1A: Ian Happ. 2B, 21, (AA): Happ has some of the best bat speed, especially from the left side, in the organization. He's a good athlete who is capable of stealing double digit bases every season. Add that he has some of the best plate discipline at any level and his defensive improvement at 2B, there really are very few holes in his game. Happ has really improved his footwork at 2B and is making the plays he should make -- only 7 errors all season and I believe that about 3 were in the first week. If there is one thing you'd like to see, it is less strikeouts, but he is improving that part of his game as well. And as Happ continues to develop power they should be something the Cubs can easily live with.
1B: Gleyber Torres, SS, 19, (A+): Torres has been up and down with the batting average but let's be serious here. He's 19 and playing in one of the toughest pitching leagues against pitchers who are 3-4 years older. The rest of his game continues to develop. He has shown a better approach and has improved his power while still playing good defense at a premium position. The increased power may have made him a little pull-happy and it's possible he outgrows SS in time, but with his great instincts, I wouldn't bet against him staying at short even if he does grow a bit more. And it's fitting that two close friends and former (and possibly future) DP partners should share the spot.
3. Eloy Jimenez, OF, 19 (A): Also fitting that Jimenez and Torres are side by side as they were the Cubs two big signings in their heralded 2013 IFA class. You could make a case for him as the top prospect as well because Jimenez has the highest ceiling and the best raw power in the system (70 grade). He is a more polished hitter than you might think for a 19 year old power guy, employing an all-fields approach that is improving as the season goes on. Defensively he has a chance to be at least an average corner outfielder with an above average arm. Considering the power he potentially brings, that is plenty good enough.
4. Dylan Cease, RHP. 20 (SS): Cease has the best fastball in the system and if Jimenez is it's highest ceiling position player, Cease is the system's highest ceiling pitching prospect. It's a plus-offering and the curve flashes plus as well. He's added a change which looks like it can be an average offering and it should complement the first two pitches nicely and perhaps play them up even more. The command is improving, though we need to remember he's young and coming off of recent TJ surgery, so patience is important. And if that is not enough, his mental makeup is off the charts as well. There is ace potential here if he can stay healthy and keep making progress.
5. Duane Underwood, RHP, 21 (AA): Yes, he is having a tough year but the quality of the stuff hasn't diminished at all. I've seen him hit as high as 97 and one stadium gun had him as high as 100. Both the curve and change also flash above average to plus. If there is one thing that hasn't returned since his early season injury, it is the command. Underwood has walked nearly 5 batters per 9 innings and has left too many pitches up in the zone.
6. Bryan Hudson, LHP, 19 (SS): Maybe I am a little ambitious ranking a young pitcher who is all about projection this high, but there are enough present skills for me to feel confident. Hudson throws a heavy 2-seam FB that is accentuated by the natural plane his 6'8" frame gives. Hitters consistently beat that pitch into the ground. If they miss or take the pitches, Hudson has the control to get out in front and then put hitters away with his plus CB, which some consider the best int he system already. He's athletic and that helps him repeat his delivery despite the long, lanky frame and the young age.
7. Jeimer Candelario, 3B, 22, (AAA): We've talked about Candelario a lot recently because of his promotion to AAA, where he has excelled, and his recent addition to the World Team in the Futures Game. Candelario can flat out hit. He has strong, quick hands that the more often uses to drive the gaps than hit over the fence, but that HR power could still develop. He has a patient, disciplined approach, good feel for contact, and he has improved his defense to the point where many scouts think he can be an average defender at 3B. Seems like he has been around forever, yet he's just 22.
8. Mark Zagunis, OF, 23 (AAA): Zagunis has some of the best strike zone judgment in the system, consistently generating high walk totals and getting himself into good hitting counts. So far he has hit for average but does show some raw power in BP, suggesting that maybe he can hit 15-20 HRs down the road as he gains experience. He's a good athlete with some speed, though not a particularly fluid one, so he works best in the corners, particularly LF because of his average arm strength.
9. Trevor Clifton, RHP, 21, (A+): He always had raw ability, tools, and good makeup, now he has put it together in an all-star season for Myrtle Beach. He has cleaned up his delivery a lot since signing and his command has improved a great deal, though there is still a ways to go there. Clifton can throw in the mid 90s with good movement, a curve that flashes plus, a solid slider, and an improving change. He's still a work in progress but there's enough there that if the command, secondaries, and pitchability don't develop as hoped, you can still envision him as a power, late inning reliever because of his aggressive approach and the possibility that the FB may tick up even more in short stints -- but Clifton has come a long way already and I am not going to bet against him getting to where he needs to make it as a starter. He's just 21.
10. Dan Vogelbach, 1B, 23, (AAA): Vogelbach has proven me wrong to some degree. I always knew he could hit and I always knew he had raw power, but his lack of defensive prowess had me wondering if he'd hit for the kind of power teams like out of their 1B/DH types. Vogelbach doesn't incorporate his lower half as well as Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Schwarber, but his upper body strength and his tremendous plate discipline that always seems to have him in advantageous hitting counts helps make up for it. He's having a career season at AAA Iowa. Yes, he's strong, but he's a smart hitter as well, as the strike zone awareness, ability to go the other way, and the presence to foul off pitcher's pitches with two strikes suggests.
11. Jake Stinnett, RHP, 24 (A+): Stinnett is another guy who has a fallback as a power bullpen arm. He pitches anywhere from 91-96 mph and adds a plus slider, so the potential two plus pitch combo is there for short stints. He's also attacking the strike zone more aggressively than he did last season and trusting that the tremendous movement on his sinking fastball and slider will do the work for him. The average change will play. Lastly, Stinnett has a strong, durable frame to eat innings and is a good athlete who started as a position player, so if he makes it to the Cubs in the next 2-3 years, we'l probably see him play LF in a 15 inning game or something.
There are some notable absences from the list but when healthy, they are players with the talent to crack the above list or at least complement it and make a solid top 15.
- Oscar De La Cruz, RHP, 21, (rehab): Cruz is just starting to throw bullpen sessions after sitting out most of the spring. Cruz is a potential top 5 type talent with his mid 90s FB, good CB, and intimidating size/presence on the mound. If he comes back healthy, then he's a top 10 without question.
- Billy McKinney, OF, 21 (AA): If you asked Billy Baseball if his knee was affecting him, I would bet the house that he would say no, but he was a little slow to heal this spring and never fully got on track. The OBP skills are still there and he is starting to make better contact, though the power has yet to show. When 100% healthy, he's another easy top 10 guy.
- Pierce Johnson, RHP, 25 (AAA): Like Underwood, Johnson has had trouble regaining his command but Johnson's inability to stay on the mound has hampered his development to where he had slipped out of most Cubs top 10 lists. When he's healthy and throws strikes, he can still be very good.
- Ryan Williams, RHP, 24, (AAA): Williams was just starting to get into a groove when he went on the DL. One scout raved about the movement Williams has on all his pitches (88-92 sinking FB, CB, SL, CH) and he has the best command in the system. And, of course, the best beard this side of Jake Arrieta.
The Emeralds Rotation
We've already talked about Dylan Cease and Bryan Hudson, whom I consider among the Cubs top 10 prospects at this point, but they aren't the only intriguing arms out there in Eugene. The Emeralds are so deep they could legitimately run out one of the leagues best 5 man rotation without them.
- Jose Paulino, 21 LHP: A good frame and a live, loose arm that generates a mid 90s FB and sharp, hard slider. He's still raw but hard to imagine a lefty with that stuff not being at least a bullpen guy if he can throw strikes. He obviously has the time to develop and be more than that.
- Manuel Rondon, 21, LHP: Another LHP who can reach 96, Rondon also adds a solid, improving breaking ball. The key to his improvement has been that he has been more aggressive in the strike zone and trusts his stuff much more than he did early last year. The Angels aren't stocked with prospects, so I am scratching my head as to why they would give up such a good, young, lefty arm for a third string catcher (Rafael Lopez).
- Jesus Castillo, 20, RHP: Perhaps the most improved pitcher since last season, Castillo has always had a live arm and a projectable, athletic frame but he has matured physically now. The FB has gone from 86-87 to 91-92. He's always had an advanced change, now the breaking ball and the command are coming around as well. You may remember Castillo as part of the payment along with another solid SP prospect (Erick Leal), in exchange for Tony Campana.
- Pedro Silverio, 22, RHP: Silverio surprised scouts with added velocity, pitching at 92-94 mph the last time I saw him and complements that with a solid curve. Command is the biggest key for him right now. He has a very good pitcher's frame (6'2", 210 lbs) but it is also more physically mature than anyone else's in this rotation, so that limits his upside a little.
- Justin Steele, 20, LHP: We touched on Steele earlier and he had his struggles at South Bend, but when right, the lefty has a good low 90s FB (T94-95) that he throws with some deception and perhaps the best LH prospect's curve this side of Bryan Hudson, though fellow well-regarded lefty Carson Sands might beg to differ. He's still just 20 with Travis Wood-like athleticism, perhaps the best of any pitcher in the minor league system, and good makeup, so I expect him to turn things around.
The Middle of the Field Players
A good catcher is among the rarest commodies in the the game. The Cubs have that department taken care of with Willson Contreras for the foreseeable future, but he's not the only one with big league potential.
- Victor Caratini, 22, (AA): Switch hitter with line drive bat, good contact skills, a mature approach, limited HR power, and average defense. Needs to work on throwing out baserunners.
- P.J. Higgins, 23 (A): Except that he is only RH, we could give the same hitting description as we did for Caratini. I think he has a chance to be better defensively however, particularly when it comes to throwing out runners, where he rivals Contreras for the quickest release in the organization.
- Miguel Amaya, 17 (DSL): Amaya is just a kid, but already shows good leadership skills, a mature approach at the plate, and advanced defensive skills. The biggest key for him is that he needs to get stronger, but there is plenty of time for that.
- Ian Rice, 22, (A+): Rice easily has the best short and long term power in this group and tremendous plate discipline, but the biggest question is if he can stick at catcher. Right now that is very much in doubt, but if he can even catch part time, that would be an asset. The Cubs have similar situations with lower level catchers like Kevin Zamudio, Gustavo Polanco, and Michael Cruz, but Rice is easily the most advanced hitter of the group.
If you can play middle infield, chances are you can handle other positions too. And if you can also swing the bat a little bit, the major leagues will find you. We've already talked about Happ and Torres, the two top prospects on our list, here are some others...
- Chesny Young (AA): Young has great hands and excellent feel for the barrel. He makes contact effortlessly and adds a solid approach. He can hit and has shown some versatility on defense.
- Carlos Sepulveda, 19 (A): Short to the baseball and similar to Young as a hitter, the LH hitter isn't quite as athletic and may have trouble matching Young's versatility, but he can hit too and he is doing it as a teenager in a tough hitter's league.
- Andruw Monasterio, 19 (SS): A mature player who takes to coaching well, Monasterio is one of the more athletic players in this group to go with a bigger frame that could lead to more pop down the road. He showed patience and contact ability in the AZL last year but has traded some of that (for now), for an increase in extra-base power.
- Yelier Peguero, 18 (SS): Peguero has quick hands both at the plate and in the field. Those hands give him surprising gap pop for a player his size (5'10", 150 lbs). He has deferred SS to Monasterio and is playing 2B, but I think the switch-hitter's skills work well there.
- Isaac Paredes, 17 (AZL): Paredes makes consistent, hard contact and has some of the best power potential in this group, which admittedly isn't saying a lot. Paredes has soft hands and good instincts at SS, but a thick build and a lack of plus athleticism clouds his future at the position. The bat would play at 3B if it continues to develop.
- Zack Short, 21, (AZL): I have seen Short for all of one game. He has an athletic build, good plate discipline, contact ability, and pop. Based on reports I had, he's a player I consider a sleeper (17th round). The tools are there but he was inconsistent in his amateur career. He does have something of a high leg kick and it has been the Cubs pattern to tone that down over the years, as they did with current big leaguers Albert Almora and Javier Baez.
- Aramis Ademan, 17 (DSL): The slickest glove in this group, Ademan has the kind of fluid athleticism that you like to see at the position. He has the best chance to stick at SS on a full-time basis of anyone in this group. At the plate he has a quick, short swing that produces line drives. He may need to add some strength and doesn't have the big frame to add a lot, but the smooth stroke should allow him to hit for average and gap power to go with a mature approach.
- Yonathan Perlaza, 17, (DSL): A very different player than Ademan, Perlaza has a thick, strong build, particularly his lower half, which he uses to drive the ball with authority. Despite being just 5'8" he has some of the best power potential on this list along with Paredes and Short. Defensively he's a little crude and his hands aren't as soft as Ademan's, so a move to 2B is likely and is in fact, already taking place.
This group is probably the best group of athletes in the Cubs system right now. When you have athleticism and a strong mental makeup to match, then you have to give those players every chance to succeed, even if it doesn't happen right away.
- Donnie Dewees, (A): Dewees has struggled of late but he can hit, using a slash and dash approach that helps him make consistent contact and hit line drives to either gap, as well as the bat speed to turn on pitches and pull them down the line. He is an exciting player to watch. He's one of the faster Cubs and has taken to CF well, which enhances his value even further. He's become more patient at the plate and while the average is down now, I think we'll see it improve as the year goes on.
- DJ Wilson, 19 (SS): The 19 year old Wilson is an absolute dynamo, packing a lot of energy and quick twitch athleticism into his 5'8"frame. He can flat out fly, cover acres in CF, throws well, and shows very good bat speed. He's still raw as far as his pure hit tool. He's still learning to slow things down at the plate, but if that bat develops as hoped, he'll be one of the most exciting players on the future Cubs -- and that is saying something.
- Jacob Hannemann, 25 (AA): If Wilson is the most explosive athlete on this list, then Hannemann might rank as it's most fluid one. He's a graceful runner who eats up ground in a hurry both on the bases and in the field. He's been working on transitioning from athlete to ballplayer and he's made good progress this year, improving both his plate discipline (8% BB rate) and contact skills (16.7% K rate). He is also deceptively strong, as anyone who has seen Hannemann take BP already knows. That raw power has begun to translate on the field, where he has hit 10 HRs, a .179 slug, and a .179 ISO. All are career highs.
- Rashad Crawford, 22, (A+): Crawford is another tremendous, fluid athlete who covers a ton of ground in CF, and like Hannemann shows raw power -- and again, it mostly shows in BP, but it is there and this year he is hitting for more power (.132 ISO is a career high in the tough Carolina League to boot) He is trying to make a similar transition as Hannemann but he has had a head start. Crawford is still scratching the surface of what he can be and is still raw and a long ways away, but I never count out elite-level athletes with his kind of work ethic.
- Eddy Julio Martinez, 21, (A): Martinez was a much bally-hooed IFA signing out of Cuba. He has played corner OF in deference to Dewees, who has better present skills at the position. Martinez, however, has the tools to play CF down the road too if he can improve his reads and routes. He does have the arm strength to play RF if he doesn't. The question then will be whether Martinez will hit for the kind of power you want out of a corner OFer. He's not as advanced as you would hope for a 20 year old, but he has great tools/athleticism to build on. The approach has improved as the year has gone on, with the walks going up (9.4% now) and the Ks going down (22.4%). He may have to tweak his swing a bit this fall to take better advantage of his bat speed and natural feel for the barrel.
- Robert Garcia, 22, (SS): The switch-hitting Garcia does some things well. He has feel for the barrel and quick hands. He can drive the gaps. He runs well and can play all 3 OF positions. More of a 4th OFer type.
Arizona Rookie League
For most of the players here, you have to squint really hard to see a major league ballplayer. That is not a slight at them or the Cubs system, it is just a testament of just how far they have to go. We mentioned Paredes and Short in the middle infield section, so we won't mention them again here, but there is some talent here too, even if some of it is about as raw as you can get at the pro level.
- Jose Albertos, 17, RHP: Albertos sits in the mid 90s, has touched 98 and already throws 3 pitches, a curve with flashes plus, and a change-up with some sink that he used as his go-to secondary in his last start. Despite his young age, Albertos is not as physically projectable as some of the other pitchers we've talked about, but he already has a solid pitcher's frame (6'1", 185 lbs) and good present stuff as well as a simple, repeatable delivery. His command has improved of late and if it continues, Albertos could move quickly once the Cubs are ready to take the kid gloves off. Right now they are understandably concerned with protecting a good, but very young arm.
- Andri Rondon, 20, RHP: A little rough around the edges but he is some kind of strong, perhaps having the best raw arm strength down here, reaching 96 despite a delivery that needs to be cleaned up a bit to maximize that velocity. Even though he has a strong, mature frame that doesn't project, I think he can reach at least a couple of ticks higher. He also shows feel for a hard slider.
- Erling Moreno, 19, RHP: Listed at 6'3", he seems taller and the frame is pretty filled out, so there isn't much physical projection here. He pitches more with leverage than pure arm speed and he has good plane on a low 90s FB. He has an advanced change-up and a curveball that is inconsistent but can be at least an average pitch. He throws strikes. There are a lot of present skills here but doesn't have the upside of the first two on this list.
- Javier Assad, 18, RHP: Assad is another guy with a rather mature frame for his age. He shows clean arm action and a simple, repeatable delivery. He was 90-93 when I saw him and mixed in a big mid 70s CB. Needs to improve his command but the delivery bodes well for that.
- Junior Marte, LHP: He's the most raw pitcher on this list. He has athleticism, arm speed, and a loose frame. Throws low 90s with a big, loopy low 70s CB. Maybe if you're a good development guy you can turn him into something, but he's 21 and has very little command right now. His last start was encouraging, however.
- Yapson Gomez, 22, LHP: He's on the older side but could be something of a late bloomer. Pitched at 92-93 when I saw him and touched 94. Also throws a good CB at 77-78 mph. The biggest thing about Gomez is that he repeats his fluid, athletic delivery well and fills up the strike zone. I think he's too advanced for this league right now but he also has limited upside because of his size (5'10", 158 lbs), though he could move quickly as a reliever.
- There's not much in the way of bats here. I have already mentioned Paredes and Short, a couple of infielders with solid bats, as well as Kevin Zamudio and Gustavo Polanco, two powerful catchers who will have to work hard to stay behind the plate. Rafael Mejia has good bat speed but busy hands undermine him often, but some talent there if he makes adjustments -- but also a guy who may not make it out of A ball. The most advanced offensive player may be the speedy 20 year old LH hititng Luis Ayala, who is similar to Robert Garcia in that he may be more of an extra OFer type down the road. Jhonny Bethencourt is a grinder with some athleticism and versatility, though he hasn't hit as well as expected so far.
- There's also the MLB rehab contingent of Aaron Crow, CJ Riefenhauser, and Jack Leathersich. Leathersich, a 25 year old LHP, is my favorite of the bunch. He throws a deceptively quick 91-92 mph FB and a plus CB that he consistently locates well. He has put up huge K rates in the upper minors and it isn't hard to see why.
Obviously there are plenty of others to watch that we haven't named and as always, we apologize for the omissions, but feel free to ask about any prospect not listed, including a lot of solid arms with MLB ability who probably have a better chance of making it than many players on this list, but this is how things shook out in this particular format. And don't rule out seeing some off those arms on our larger ranked list at the end of the fall, not to mention currently unsigned players from the 2016 draft.