We already discussed a few of the most exciting players deployed in the lower levels of the system in previous installments. Starting pitchers Jeremiah Estrada and Brailyn Marquez have been praised by many outlets for their MOR upside. Two other teenagers, athletic outfielders Nelson Velazquez and Jonathan Sierra possess as much raw power as any prospects currently in the system, and Velazquez was already making it translate on the field in the months after being chosen in the 2017 draft.
A few of these names are undoubtedly familiar to followers of the Minor league coverage on this site. Throughout July and August it seemed Fernando Kelli became a fixture in the daily recaps. DSL breakout performers Luis Hidalgo and Didier Vargas became frequent topics as well.
Kelli (.320/.437/.447) became one of the biggest stories in the system during the second half of the season thanks to a huge step forward at the plate in his second DSL campaign. He also began translating his athleticism and plus speed on the basepaths. Finishing the year among the league leaders in most statistical categories, he blew away the competition in the stolen base department. His 58 stolen bases were 23 more than his nearest competitor. During one 35 game stretch Kelli swiped 44 bases in 51 attempts.
While many of his fellow 2013 IFA signees such as Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres and Jen-Ho Tseng are knocking on the door of Major League rosters, Luis Hidalgo saw his first action stateside when he was called up from the DSL to help the Cubs win the AZL championship. It may not seem like a 21-year old in that situation bears much attention, but Hidalgo made an impressive 2014 debut in the VSL after signing as an athletic C/OF before a severe leg injury sidetracked his career. Hidalgo struggled in limited action the following two seasons in the VSL and DSL. When he returned to the island last spring, frankly I had given up on him, but Hidalgo did not share that outlook. Hidalgo began to hit as the season progressed and never stopped, not even after he arrived in Mesa. Hidalgo will be an interesting follow in 2018, especially if they try to push him to South Bend to begin the season.
Panama proved fruitful for the Cubs in 2015 when they snagged top catching prospect Miguel Amaya with a modest signing bonus. They may have found another diamond in the rough in 2016 with left handed starter Didier Vargas. Secured with a $60K signing bonus, Vargas is good athlete who throws in the low-90s, and made an immediate impact in the DSL. As we have discussed throughout the season DSL numbers are not always indicative of future success, so enthusiasm should remain tempered, but a 0.99 ERA is a 0.99 ERA regardless of what level it came at.
A couple of hard throwers to point out are Danis Correa and Yunior Perez. Both are capable of reaching the upper 90s but at this point are little more than arm strength prospects still in need of rounding out the rest of their repertoire. Eury Ramos has drawn some praise as potential bullpen piece down the road as well.
Yonathan Perlaza was a high profile member of the 2015 IFA class that so far has been outshined by many in that group. There is still good bat speed and strength that could one day translate into increased offense though. He is and example of the type of player that would have benefited from the extra playing offered by a second AZL team. I am glad the Cubs have taken the steps to remedy the situation beginning this year and hopefully will continue to field two teams in that league every year moving forward.
Other infielders to keep an eye on include Christopher Morel, a player who missed his first season after a household accident, but caught John's eye leading up to last season. His pro debut proved inconsistent but he still managed to flash statistically at times. After being selected in the 14th round of last year's draft, 18-year old Luis Vazquez debuted in Mesa down the stretch, showing some slick hands at shortstop. Orian Nunez is undersized, and isn't considered a great defender, but his bat might put him on the map one day.
Finally, a handful of 2017 IFA signings round out the list. Despite still being in the penalty phase after their 2015 IFA splurge, and thus limited to signing bonuses of no more than $300K, the front office still managed to reel in a pair of Top 40 talents from the class. And they did it by dipping once again into a non-traditional market, Mexico, where the players are already property of a professional league. MLB teams must compensate the Mexican club on top of the signing bonus required in order to sign a player. This fact keeps some competing teams away, despite those funds not counting against the IFA spending limits, because it in essence means you get less bang for the buck. But for a club like the Cubs with plenty of cash and looking to restock the farm with as much talent as possible it has proven an attractive "loophole." It has yielded in recent years not only my top prospect in the system, Jose Albertos, but also Isaac Paredes, a key trade piece at last year's deadline.
Hopefully athletic shortstop Luis Verdugo and right handed starter Florencio Serrano can follow in their footsteps this coming season. The pair were considered the top two prospects from Mexico and the Cubs secured both. Verdugo is a bit undersized at this point, without much speed or power, but according to Baseball America is instinctive, with a strong arm and smooth hands in the field, and possesses some upside with his hit tool. Already fluent in English, Serrano's traits include a fastball that has touched 94, some feel for a changeup, but most exciting is the potential for a plus power curveball.
The Cubs continued to look to other non-traditional markets as well. They committed a maximum bonus to Colombian SS Fabian Pertuz. Cuba would likely be considered a traditional market along with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but due to the nature of players needing to defect, and like Mexico the prospects getting exposure to a professional league before departing, the route many of the players take is certainly not traditional. Such is the case with 20-year old catcher Alexander Guerra. He began playing in the Serie Nacional as a 17-year old in 2015 (.152/.219/.248 in 49 games) before making big strides at the plate as an 18-year old the following year (.267/.375/.465). He sat out last season after defecting. Given his age and prior experience it seems possible that Guerra will begin next year with a full season affiliate despite his time away, but if he requires time to adjust to the language and/or culture we may see him begin the season in extended spring training.