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Cubs Top Prospects: 1-4

We finally get to the top 4 and at least 2 of these names should not be a surprise, but they're both hitters and Cubs fans have to be getting pretty spoiled about how the Cubs draft and develop hitters.  The development that might be more exciting for some is that two of them are pitchers -- and that is in addition to the Trevor Clifton, Jose Albertos, and Duane Underwood.  The Cubs have a group of five pitchers with mid-rotation potential or better and floors of power relievers.  I believe they all have top 5 prospect ability.  It's been a while since the Cubs have had a group of arms this good.

4,  Oscar De La Cruz

  • Position: Pitcher
  • Bats/Throws: R/R
  • Age: 21
  • Last level reached: Class A (South Bend)

Projecting pitchers can be tough and it is especially so for the Cubs, where all but one pitcher in their top 10 is at the A ball level or lower.  But if there is one pitcher that oozes physical projection, it is Oscar De La Cruz.  He's listed at 6'4", 200 lbs., but looks closer to 6'5" or even 6'6".  He's a great athlete, having originally played the infield before being signed.  That athleticism has led him to have a fluid, effortless delivery almost from the start while the size is imposing as De La Cruz throws anywhere from 92-97 mph with good plane and good command for a young pitcher of his size and velocity.

De La Cruz also flashes a good curve but as with a lot of young, inexperienced pitchers it can be inconsistent.  When he gets on top of it, it's a plus pitch.  Those qualities -- the size, the athleticism, and two potential plus pitches make for a great starting kit to assemble a frontline line starter.  What has been missing from De La Cruz is that third pitch, that change.  When I saw him this spring i was a little disappointed in that the pitch didn't seem very far along.  He showed decent arm speed but he too often left it up in the zone, causing it to lose movement and as you might expect, it got whacked pretty hard.  The R word creeps in at that point, as in reliever.  But I'm told that the change-up has improved much since those early days of spring and now is about a fringe average pitch.  If he can get it to be an average offering, then his two plus pitches can carry him and the change can be a weapon he uses against lefties as well as an occasional change of pace.  The development of both the curve and the change is the key to his future as a starter because the fastball is already a weapon based on it's velocity, movement, downward plane, and command.

De La Cruz did not pitch much because of some early elbow soreness but he showed no ill effects upon returning, even seeing an uptick in velocity and an improvment in his change-up.  He performed exceptionally well at both Eugene and South Bend, where he combined for 12.25 Ks per 9 IP while walking just 2.5 batters per 9 IP.  His FIP at South Bend was 2.14.  There may be no more need for him to spend time there and it would not surprise me to see him go right to Myrtle Beach.

The last thing about De La Cruz that is easy to like is his aggressive approach on the mound.  He's no wallflower out there.  He's going to come right after you the way Jake Arrieta does.  He's ultra competitive and confident on the mound.  Like all 5 pitchers in this top 10, all the parts are there and it's a matter of putting it together.  It isn't outlandish to think that by the end of this season, the Cubs system will be known more for it's pitchers than it's hitters.

3. Dylan Cease

  • Position: Pitcher
  • Bats/Throws: R/R
  • Age: 20
  • Last level reached: Short Season A ball Eugene

Cease will actually be 21 by the time everyone reports to spring training so he isn't that young, fireballing teenager anymore.  That's not to say he can't still hit triple digits, which he did at least twice in my viewings.  Cease often starts the game at about 94-95 then ramps it up to 96-98, T99 by the next few innings.  There isn't a more live arm in the entire organization now that Aroldis Chapman has departed.  The fastball is the best in the system because it isn't just velocity, there is good movement as well.  In particular I remember him throwing a 97 mph fastball that had some late run in on a RH hitter that would have had people like me bailing out halfway to the on-deck circle.  On the professional level, that's the kind of pitch that's going to break more than a few bats.  What is more exiting is that he does it with surprisingly low effort and what one scout described to me as a 4 out of 5 on his personal scale for pitcher mechanics.  Like Clifton, mechanics was Cease's biggest flaw as an amateur but unlike Clifton, Cease paid the price with a UCL injury that required Tommy John surgery.  The improvement with his mechanics has made it at least less likely that he will re-injure that elbow.

Cease not only has the best fastball in the system, he may also have the best curve.  His main competition there comes from Bryan Hudson.  You have probably heard this before but one club official compared his curve to Dwight Gooden's.  At one game (h/t to AZ Phil on this story), one pitcher from another team charting pitches jokingly asked if that was really Jake Arrieta on the mound.  That's some pretty lofty company on both counts and a testament to how good his raw stuff is.

Two pieces of the puzzle remain,  The first is the change-up and it is a pitch that Cease worked hard on this spring and summer.  It's more of a straight change though it does have a bit of run to it.  The understanding here is that this is not going to be a major weapon.  It just needs to be average and from what I have seen, it should get there.  The change I have seen from Cease is better than the one I saw from De La Cruz.  If it can keep hitters off balance and give him an additional weapon vs LH hitters, then it will be plenty good enough considering his top two offerings. The second piece is command.  Of the top 5 pitchers, Cease has the furthest to go in terms of command.  At the same time, his stuff is so good he doesn't need to be as precise.  Given his athleticism and refined mechanics, I think he'll have at least average command with time.

The last thing to consider with Cease is his strong makeup.  He's a polite young man off the field and a bulldog on the mound.  Like De La Cruz, he isn't up there to finesse you.  He's the highest ceiling pitcher in this system and for me, that's enough to rank him as the team's top overall pitching prospect in an increasingly good crop.

2. Ian Happ

  • Position: 2B/OF
  • Bats/Throws: S/R
  • Age: 22
  • Last level reached: AA (Tennessee)

Happ has vaulted to #1 on some lists on account of his exceptional showing late in Fall League, particularly the championship game in which he hit two HRs.  The versatility, the ability to play both 2B and OF may play a role in that as well. He's the best all-around player of the near MLB ready Cubs prospects.  Happ has worked hard and really improved his footwork at 2B and while he may never be Roberto Alomar out there, there is certainly a solid chance he can stick there, at least on a part time basis.  More fast than quick, he is best suited for a corner OF spot and he has played some CF as well.

Happ's calling card regardless of where he plays is his bat.   That is where Happ is exceptionally quick showing some of the best bat speed in the Cubs system along with the person ahead of him on this list.  He's listed at 6'0" but he is thickly built and strong, capable of driving the ball out to all fields and from both sides of the plate.  Happ also exhibits a good eye at the plate and shows good discipline, though even he has said he is still learning to recognize pitches as pitchers get better and more advanced as he moves up the ladder.  He struggled a bit in AA ball and I expect him to return there to start the season, but wouldn't be surprised if he got the bump to Iowa by midseason.

As mentioned, he also runs well, stealing 16 bases between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee last season.   Happ is a multi-dimensional threat on offense, perhaps a 20-20 player that can beat you with his bat, power, speed, or batting eye.  The best of his tools is his bat.  He makes consistent hard contact and should put a good batting average on balls in play.

You don't have to watch Happ for long to see that he is an intense competitor with a burning desire to win --- and as we have mentioned often, the desire to keep improving at whatever he is asked to do.  There's a lot to like about Happ.  He looks like he'll be a versatile offensive player who gets regular playing time and provides above average production on offense from a number of different defensive positions.

1. Eloy Jimenez

  • Position: OF
  • Bats/Throws: R/R
  • Age: 20
  • Last level reached: Advanced A (Myrtle Beach)

I feel like I got in on the ground floor watching Eloy Jimenez out here in Arizona.  I've seen him transform from a gangly, quiet 17 year old to a powerful physical specimen who balances fun and budding leadership skills in just two years.  That maturity and growth has shown on the field as well.  The ridiculous raw power Jimenez showed on the backfields has started to show up in live games.  I would grade him at 70 power as it's almost effortless.  And as with Cease, it's that plus-plus tool that gives him the edge for me when it comes to the rankings.

That is not to say Jimenez is a one tool player.  Far from it.  He shows good skills as a hitter, able to take the ball to all fields and turn on pitches for power when the opportunity presents itself.   His pitch recognition is good, but it reflects more on his ability to wait for pitches or make adjustments rather than walk totals.  Those walks will come as pitchers start pitching around him and he learns to lay off of more pitchers' pitches.  Jimenez can still be prone to chasing from time to time, but it is becoming less frequent as he gains experience.

Jimenez is an intelligent player who adapts quickly and I think it's that ability to make adjustments quickly which to me make him a better prospect than Jorge Soler, even if Soler's raw skills and athleticism is a tick above Jimenez's.   We've mentioned his ability to adjust on offense -- from adapting an all-fields approach to learning to tap into this raw power.  I think his offensive approach will continue to evolve.  He's just scratching the surface right now.  But the other area where Jimenez has improved greatly since I first saw him is on defense.  He has made himself into at least an average corner OFer with an above average arm, making him a fit in either LF or RF.  He has made his share of good catches quietly here in AZ, but his new found ability was on display for all prospect fans to see with his spectacular catch at the Futures Game.

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Of course, he also hit a ridiculous HR onto the 3rd deck in that game as well and that is what is going to make him a star at the big league level.  You've heard me talk about his rooftop blasts on the backfields, but this HR should give you a sense of that power.  And he's not done getting stronger.  He just turned 20 and is still maturing physically.

Jimenez is perhaps the one position player who can force his way into the Cubs talented lineup one way or the other.  He fits their profile as a power hitter as well as the type of player who will represent them well off the field as well.  Of course, the Cubs seemed to have made a habit of finding those kinds of players over the last five years.

This is the last part of the rankings portion but there are many prospects still to cover.  We'll continue the series after the Christmas weekend.

In case you missed them, you can read the rest of the Top 16 Cubs Prospects List here...

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  • Cease, De La Cruz and Clifton,... core of a solid MLB rotation in a few years?

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Could well be. Those are the top 3 pitching prospects by most accounts with Albertos maybe joining them if he has a strong, healthy season.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    It's an exciting notion to ponder. Dylan Cease and Oscar De La Cruz won't be ready until late 2019 and more likely 2020 but both of those guys, especially Cease, have #1 or #2 upside.

    As John said in his profile of Cease, control and command is his biggest issue right now with BB/9s of 6 in 2015 and 5 this past year. Given those were his first two years back from TJS, it's understandable. I'm looking for that trend to continue as he moves up through the system.

    Here's why: Cease took himself out of the game in the 5th inning on July 11th after feeling discomfort and calling his manager to the mound. It was scary when I heard about it but it turned out to be not a major injury as he returned to the mound 18 days later. In that game, he was very wild, walking 4 of the 5 batters he faced. In his next outing, he pitched just 1.2 innings as he slowly worked his way back.

    After that, though, it was on. In his last 5 outings, he held batters to a .101 batting average. In 21 IP, he allowed 17 guys to reach base and picked off 2 of them. He gave up 7 hits (4 singles, 3 doubles) and walked 10 and but struck out 39 of the 78 batters he faced. That's a 50% K-rate and 16.7 Ks per 9.

    Cease has held opposing batters to averages of .145 and .175 in his first 2 seasons and pitched just under 70 innings between extended spring training and Eugene last year, so he is in line to reach 100 IP in 2017.

    I think there's a 50/50 chance he skips South Bend and starts in Myrtle Beach this season. As John alluded to, he's mature enough and has the make-up to handle any struggles that might come and clearly hasn't been challenged by his opposition yet. Plus, avoiding the cold April games in South Bend will be wise.

    A lot can happen on the way to the majors for Clifton, Cease and De La Cruz so it's difficult for me to envision all of them as a part of a future Cub rotation. Any one of them could flame out, get injured or be moved to the bullpen. But it's fun to dream on and track their journey!

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Cease's ceiling is Verlander. His floor is probably a Kelvim Herrera.

  • How's Eloy's baserunning?

  • In reply to Oneear:

    Average. He is a slightly above average runner now but he may tick down to average as matures.

  • John, how's Happ's arm? Is it good enough for RF? I'm assuming yes.

  • In reply to markw:

    It is easily above average and I would have no problems putting him in RF.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    2019 - maybe Happ in RF and lead off batter with Heyward moving to CF.

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    Is it true the Yankees got to pick between Gleyber and Eloy? If it was a choice between the two, I'm glad the Cubs still have Eloy.

  • In reply to Glen Krisch:

    From what I've heard, that rumor is not true.

  • Great series, John! Do you think the Cubs see Happ as the second baseman of the future, or does his glove profile better in the OF? With Torres out of the picture, I'm wondering whether Happ or Baez eventually becomes the everyday second baseman.

  • In reply to October:

    Thank you, I see him as a multi-positional player much like Zobrist and Baez. He is a better OFer than he is a 2B, but no question he has made great strides at 2B. I'd bet on Baez being the everyday 2B after Zobrist retires/moves on.

  • In reply to October:

    Heh. We may get a clue in ST if they work Javy out in CF some more. Nice problem to have. It seems nobody can feel set in their position with Javy around.

  • As always thanks for the great info, John. The like the potential for all the players you named. Of course they won't all make it to MLB and not all with the Cubs, but I feel like I got to know them a little bit and will follow their career wherever it goes. Merry Christmas to John and all the contributors and commenters, and continued good health.

  • In reply to Cphil:

    You are welcome. It made it fun to see these guys make it to the majors, then to a WS wins. Feels like we watched them grow up (as my wife would say) since they were babies.

  • Great stuff John. Seems like if Heyward turns things around and ops out that would be right around the time Jimenez is really to take over.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Very possible. Could start at AA and be in Chicago by late 2018 if all goes well.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Surprised to hear that you think Jimenez could skip High-A. How likely do you think that is and why?

    And thanks so much for these prospect breakdowns. You know I love 'em!

  • Well done. Thanks so much for this recap John. I locked on to Eloy earlier in the season and had that "there is just something about him" quality that was only reinforced in the Futures game.

    Your overview is fantastic for guys like me that just don't have the time to keep on the multi-layers of depth in the evolving farm system. I'm surprised and thrilled to hear the great news on pitching - but at least my radar is up on these guys as the year starts.

    Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year to Cubs Den!

  • In reply to TheCHISportsFan:

    Thank you. I appreciate that very much.

    And you forgot Happy Festivus! :)

  • The Cubs just picked up David Rollins off the waiver wire for the second time this fall. We have a nice soft 40-man roster spot waiting for him if he can stick. He's just went from Seattle to Cubs, Rangers (do-oh), Phillies, back to the Rangers and now to the Cubs (DO-OH!) It's amazing fun for waiver wire transaction watching, but certainly not fair to the player.

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    You answered the one question I had at the end of the piece. I wanted to know if any of the prospects could take over from anyone on the Cubs--maybe Eloy you said. I imagine that doesn't include the pitchers. Are any of our prospect's ceilings above any of our position players?
    I'm impressed with our pitchers, but again they are all young. In a year of two or three it looks like the wave will be of pitchers and not hitters like we've seen, and at the same time our core will still be in their 20's. We could have started an amazing run.
    Thanks again John! Happy Holidays--all of them to you and everyone.

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    John, I just wrote but it got swallowed up. I just want to know whether any of these prospects (excluding pitchers) have higher ceiling than our position players on the Cubs now? You said Eloy could force his way in, but I wonder about the others.
    All our pitchers will probably be up in 2 years or so, and still our core will be in their 20's! We're going to enjoy this run.
    Happy Holidays to you and every one else on Cubs den!

  • I wonder how long that Futures Game blast was by Eloy.

    The funny thing about that game is that the broadcasters didn't seem to know much about Eloy when he first got in the game but they sounded more and more impressed with him every time he did something and then he capped it off with a mammoth home run.

    I bet Moncada was elected as the MVP before Eloy hit that blast, because I think Eloy was the actual top performer that day.

  • Thanks to John for the profiles of top prospects in the Cubs system. During the lean years at the big league level, it was critical to our sanity to monitor the young minor leaguers. But now, even with the Cubs winning at the mlb level, it remains great fun!
    I watched Happ play 4-5 times in person. I think Happ can stay at 2B. Most of the times I watched, Happ on the field with Torres. Happ's range and arm seemed comparable. Maybe he does not have the "soft hands" of a mlb gold glover, but that's all I saw missing.
    Once a player is "tagged" with a scouting report before the draft or early in the minors, curious your thoughts on how difficult it is to overcome original observations. It seems early scouting reports can follow a minor leaguer through their development even when they improve weaknesses

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    Totally off topic, sorry. But this has always bugged me. I don't like the way the Rockies ball park is so hitter friendly. Is it possible that they could build a Boston like 'Green Monster' all the way around the outfield and catching it off the wall is an out(as long as it doesn't touch the ground)? Would the league ever allow something like that? That would be really awesome. Their games would be a huge TV success and a lot of fun to watch. Would that even accomplish the goal of evening things up?

  • I'm looking forward to hearing your thought on the other guys in the system. Is there any chance Sands and Steele can regroup and get back on the list? Or, should we just be happy that we went 1-3 with HS arms from that draft?

  • Great write up on the top prospects. As a long time reader, I feel like I knew those guys well already, but there was still some new info.

    Really looking forward to a deeper dive on the 20-50 ranked Cubs prospects that we can't get on other sites!

  • Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

  • I didn't follow the minors as close this season because of the team at Wrigley, but I wasn't aware Cease made it to Myrtle Beach this season?

  • He didn't. There's talk of Cease starting in Myrtle Beach this coming season, though.

  • SS seems a suddenly weak position in the system. While certainly strong in its top 2, there's now a long drop to anyone who can move up.

    Hoping to hear some better news in a future write up, John, but it would seem an Epstoyer college SS bat in round one would be a big help.

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    In reply to Gunga:

    We have two of the best young shortstops in all of baseball. there is really no way for anyone to beat them out for the next 10 years. I think by then we will have many replacements ready to go. Epstein is brilliant and will always make surprising transactions. What we need , we get.

  • In reply to Ironman McGinnity:

    In the 2015 IFA year I think we picked up a couple good 16 year old SSs. They are in the system and coming but they are still young. They are a future wave just not the next wave.

  • Not that I expected to see him here, but it's time for Chesny Young to get some love! Not sure about the defense, but that dude can hit.

  • In reply to Cubsinfl:

    Agree. I have been on the Chesny Young train for 2 years. I even picked him in the pre-season poll to be the Cubs MILB and win his second consecutive batting title.

  • During the last few days it is great to read that the Cubs have
    some pitcher that might help the team during 2018-2019.
    In next year draft with 2 of the top 35 picks I hope they go for
    pitchers if they have the right talent. Pitchers we must grow our own.
    The price of FA pitching is way to high

  • Good stuff, John, as always. There's no such thing as a "sure thing" prospect, but I've come to trust your opinions on our prospects as much as anyone out there. I do believe a player's makeup on and off the field is important and thats where Cubs Den gives us a different view than most. And a year from now should be even better as the Cubs now have the 27th and 30th pick in next year's draft.

    I like the way Theo went heavy in free-agency last year in a strong group of players, sacrificing a couple of picks for Heyward and Lackey, then passing this year in a weak field allowing us to re-stock a little. One overlooked fact from last year was that by stealing Dexter Fowler away from Baltimore at the last minute, not only did the Cubs get a great player at a bargain price that was a huge factor in helping win 103 games and a championship, but they changed his comp pick from a late second rounder to the 30th pick in this year's first round. Had Balt. signed Fowler the Cubs would have received a comp pick at the end of the 2016 first round, which they would have immediately lost because it would have been one of their first two picks. They then would have drafted in the second round instead of the third. Now they get the 30th pick for him. Theo/Jed are geniuses and nothing they do surprises me anymore. Merry Christmas to all Cubs Den staff and readers!!

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