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.
- 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.
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...