The Cubs received a mixed bag of results from this group in 2017 but significant upside still exists. Kyle Schwarber rebounded with a strong second half. The departure of Jon Jay means Ian Happ should receive a bump in playing time which should help him become more comfortable and take better routes on baseballs in CF. It was another year and another Gold Glove for Jason Heyward. We are also entering another spring training with Heyward sporting another new swing. Hopefully, this latest iteration bears fruit.
Non-Roster Invites: Peter Bourjos
It is difficult to see a path for long time MLB veteran Peter Bourjos to earn a spot on the 25-man roster this spring barring injury. That doesn't mean he isn't solid insurance should an injury occur. He is still an above average defender at all three outfield spots. He can also chip in a few hits against left handed pitching but he at this point he is a legitimate liability without the platoon advantage. There is an opt out in his Minor League deal that allows him to become a free agent if he isn't added to the roster by June 1st. Given the Cubs propensity to add an outfielder to serve as a defensive replacement each September, Bourjos may stick around beyond June 1st if he believes that becomes his best path back to the Majors.
An experienced group of outfielders will battle it out for playing time in Des Moines once the season begins. Bourjos will challenge returning Iowa starting center fielder Jacob Hannemann. Hannemann finished 2017 with a cup of coffee in Seattle after the Mariners claimed him on waivers. The Cubs reclaimed him this offseason then dropped him from the 40-man roster again. This time Hannemann went unclaimed. He is unlikely to ever help much with the bat, but he is coming off a 29 steal season which also saw him earn a Minor League Gold Glove.
Also returning to Iowa are corner outfielders Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher. Both regularly put together quality at bats. Zagunis in particular boasts excellent plate discipline while Rademacher is earning a reputation as a clutch hitter in a starting role or as a bat off the bench. Joining the corner outfield mix this season, Charcer Burks is another hitter capable of working counts while offering enough of a threat to pitchers with his solid gap power. His arm limits him to LF for the most part so he really needs to hit if he hopes to break through at the MLB level.
Depth options: Wynton Bernard
Even if Bourjos chooses to move on and look for better MLB opportunities, Hannemann will have his work cut out for him fending off another highly athletic player. Minor League free agent signing Wynton Bernard runs as well as anyone in the system, and has put up impressive numbers as a top of the order hitter at AA and below, but has yet to see his talent translate at the AAA level up to this point.
While the outfield roster in Iowa is deep with experience, and players still possessing a bit of upside, the situation in Tennessee is less hopeful. Only corner outfielder Eddy Julio Martinez qualifies as much of a prospect. But even he has battled maddening inconsistency at the plate in his first two years since joining the Cubs organization out of Cuba.
There are flashes of the plus power and athleticism that made him a high profile signing but we have yet to see an extended stretch of play when everything lines up for Martinez. This will be an important season for Martinez. The time has come for the production to begin matching the tools more frequently.
The rest of the Smokies outfielders have all flashed intriguing skills in the past that made them sleeper prospects but to date none have managed to take that next step. Trey Martin is an excellent defender in center but his funky swing still holds him back. Above average power, speed and arm strength carried Jeffrey Baez to stretches of success in the lower levels of the system but his approach remains unrefined and he is coming off a 2017 campaign ruined by nagging injury. Daniel Spingola's offense profiles better in center but he lacks the range to play there. Bat speed is not an issue for Robert Garcia but his offensive (and defensive) approach remains rough.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
In Myrtle Beach things get more interesting and the competition for playing time becomes fierce once again. D.J. Wilson is a twitchy athlete with potentially average or better tools across the board. His defense, base running and plate discipline improved throughout 2017 even as he missed time with a shin injury. The one issue holding him back right now is his hit tool. His swing is complicated, with lots of moving parts in his load, and it leads to inconsistencies. When locked in the ball jumps off his bat.
Flanking him in left is another plus athlete with 20/20 potential, Kevonte Mitchell. While Wilson is a compact 5'8", Mitchell is long and lithe, built similarly to Kris Bryant. His acceleration is better than many players his size and in combination with his long strides eating up plenty of ground it has led to lots of success on the bases (68 SB / 10 CS in career). His raw power is beginning to emerge at the plate as well. He has always shown a decent eye at the plate, but he is now learning to lift the ball, and it is translating into production as he posted his first double digit homer (11) season in 2017. There is still more upside remaining though. His K rates have steadily dropped and there is still room for growth in terms of learning when to let it fly and attack pitches in good hitter's counts.
With Mitchell and Wilson playing every day, it will be challenging to get enough playing time for another pair of athletic outfielders, Luis Ayala and Chris Pieters. It worked out in South Bend last year because Wilson and Pieters spent chunks of the season on the disabled list but if everyone remains healthy in 2018 there will need to be a lot of rotating these players through the DH spot. Pieters also has some experience at 1B that could prove useful. Both need work on their routes in the outfield though so I'm curious to see how it will play out. I don't really consider any of these four players ready to make the jump to Tennessee until the second half at the earliest.
Depth options: Roberto Caro, Connor Myers
Roberto Caro filled in at Tennessee for a short stint last year and the club may push him there again in 2018, just to see if they can get him a bit of playing time. It wouldn't shock me to see him spend time at both levels of A ball and AA, just as he did last season. He takes his share of walks and is quick on the bases. Another stolen base threat the Pelicans can deploy is Connor Myers. Or at least he would be if he could hit a little. It really is unfortunate, because the speedy CF is fun to watch on defense. He covers a ton of ground and throws his body around with abandon.
South Bend Cubs
South Bend will feature an interesting mix of potential late bloomers. All three offer exciting athletic tools that the club hopes can one day translate on the field more regularly. The most familiar name to Cubs fans is former Boise State football player Joe Martarano. Dedicating himself full time to baseball for the first time last season, Martarano made strides in terms of plate discipline and contact rates as he split the season between Eugene and South Bend. Next on the development agenda is for the powerful Martarano to learn how to lift the ball more frequently. Too many of the balls he puts in play end up as grounders which does not take advantage of his raw strength which is among the best in the system.
For those that love a great late round underdog player to follow, I'd suggest the speedy Zach Davis. He took up switch hitting for the first time in spring training last year then proceeded to post a respectable .252/.362/.361 line from the left side of the plate at Eugene (.348/.415/.370 as a right handed hitter). If he can continue to progress and put the ball in play a little more in order to take full advantage of his running ability (23 SB in 56 games) he just might start to make his way into prospect talk down the road.
Another athletic switch hitter to keep an eye on is 16th round pick Brandon Hughes. An above average runner with above average size, Hughes finished 7th in Division I baseball in stolen bases last season. His bat speed is nothing special so I wouldn't expect a big power spike despite his size but if he can learn to put the ball in play while continuing to offer great range as a corner outfielder he too could force his way into greater consideration in the coming years.
Depth options: Chris Singleton, Jose Gonzalez, Chris Carrier
You aren't going to find a more inspiring player to root for than Chris Singleton (ESPN, USA Today, NBC Sports). He is a good defender but his bat will hold him back. Similarly, Jose Gonzalez is an athletic OF that has struggled to hit at every level. Chris Carrier was a collegiate slugger the Cubs drafted in the 9th round last season but he struggled mightily at the plate when given reps in Mesa and Eugene. He struck out in nearly half of his plate appearances.