Player graduations, trades and a focus on acquiring pitching depth during the 2016 and 2017 drafts has thinned the upper levels of the Cubs Minor League system to the point that among the four full season affiliates there are only a four bats I currently consider to have a good shot at becoming full-time starters and that includes recent 1st round pick Nico Hoerner, who just joined South Bend, and could already make a case for being the system's top position player prospect. There are then another handful that project to fill bench roles.
Potential Starters: David Bote (AAA), Aramis Ademan (A+), Miguel Amaya (A), Nico Hoerner (A)
Potential Full-Time Bench or Semi-Regulars: Zack Short (AA), Jhonny Pereda (A+), D.J. Wilson (A+), Jared Young (A+)
Wild Cards and Tweeners: Jason Vosler (AAA), Mark Zagunis (AAA), Trent Giambrone (AA), Ian Rice (AA), Wladimir Galindo (A+), Kevonte Mitchell (A+)
The future begins to look brighter once you pull your focus to the team's short season affiliates. . There is also a great abundance of toolsy outfielders (Brennen Davis, Fernando Kelli, Cole Roederer, Jonathan Sierra, Nelson Velazquez, etc.) and athletic infielders (Christopher Morel, Luis Vazquez, Luis Verdugo, etc.) courtesy of the recent drafts and IFA classes.
Below is a full breakdown, level-by-level of the system's hitting prospects as I currently project them.
Potential Starters: David Bote (ETA: 2018)
I struggled regarding which category to place David Bote in. There is certainly enough power to project him as a starter at either 2B, 3B or LF. Bote can drive the ball out to all fields and while he may not make many highlight reel plays, his defensive versatility gives him the opportunity to earn a full-time gig at multiple spots should opportunities arise. There is some swing-and-miss and not a ton of walks in his offensive game though, and his defense will not keep him in a MLB lineup on its own, so he has to hit, and do so with power against both righties and lefties. That is a tall order, but I do think he could keep his head above water, even if I believe his best role is as a semi-regular/matchup bat off the bench.
Potential Full-Time Bench or Semi-Regulars: None
Wild Cards and Tweeners: Jason Vosler / Mark Zagunis
Vosler has legit 20-homer power, has a decent eye at the plate and is a left-handed hitter to boot. This should make him a potential starting 3B or at least a bench bat/platoon player, but I question whether he can make enough contact against advanced pitching given his uppercut swing. There isn't a ton of bat speed and he isn't a particularly good defender either. Like Bote he would need to hit with power on a consistent basis to remain in a lineup, but his power and hit tools are a notch below Bote's. Vosler should have a long career as a AAA power hitter that could get a couple shots at a MLB gig if/when injuries arise.
I've talked about this many times in the past, first in regard to John Andreoli, and now with Zagunis. Major League teams do not value right-handed hitting corner outfielders as bench players right now. If you do not hit enough to be a starter at one of those spots you better be a left-handed hitter that provides utility as a pinch hitter otherwise you are going to be stuck in AAA barring injuries. That said, there may be enough to Zagunis's game to warrant a look as a starter, albeit for a second division club rather than a team looking to compete like the Cubs. Zagunis has proven capable of getting on-base at every level of the Minors. His best route to the Majors is to hope for a trade to a rebuilding team.
Minor League Depth: Chesny Young
Young does do a couple of things well. He has good contact skills and he is a good second baseman, while also being capable at multiple other defensive spots. The issue is, there is little else to his game. He doesn't draw walks, he hits for zero power, and his two worst positions (SS, CF) are the two spots that he needs to play well in order for his bat to have any chance to carry in the Majors.
Potential Starters: None
Potential Full-Time Bench or Semi-Regulars: Zack Short
The same contact and uppercut swing concerns that follow Vosler also do so for Zack Short. The dividing line between the two is Short possesses the athleticism to handle both middle infield spots and if given the opportunity could likely hold his own in CF. Short also has a plus batting eye that helps him remain somewhat useful even when he slumps. There may be a few too many dry spells at the plate, especially against RHP for him to nail down a starting gig, but as a SS-capable utility man with pop and good plate discipline there should be plenty of opportunities for him to secure a utility role in the bigs.
Wild Cards and Tweeners: Trent Giambrone / Ian Rice
One sleeper in the Cubs system is Trent Giambrone. He does nothing special, but he possesses above average speed and power that he is beginning to tap into on a more regular basis. He also has experience at multiple positions including SS, although I wouldn't want to count on him there for any extended period of time. He has remained a streaky hitter throughout his Minor League career, and his plate discipline has yet to advance beyond fringy. Unless he improves his SS defense or his ability to get on base with greater frequency he could fall just short of a full time MLB utility role, but figures to continue receiving cracks at one, at least as long as remains capable of playing short.
Ian Rice has made strides defensively behind the plate. His calling card will always be his bat however. A catcher with above average power and patience should get a few looks as a Major Leaguer. But he'll need to take quick advantage of any chances he receives, otherwise he could slip quickly into a AAA C/1B/DH depth role.
Minor League Depth: Jeffrey Baez / Charcer Burks / Vimael Machin / Eddy Martinez
The same bench construction methodology that plagues Zagunis does the same for Baez, Burks and Martinez. They are all above average athletes for the corner outfield positions, but none play center at an adequate level, and it is doubtful they ever hit enough to earn a starting gig in the Majors. Machin has developed impressive plate discipline, among the best in the system, and is a left handed hitting utility man, so an opportunity could come his way at some point. But even more so than Giambrone, I question whether he could handle SS, which makes a full time bench role unlikely.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Potential Starters: Aramis Ademan (ETA: 2021-22)
The Cubs were aggressive with their posting of 19-year old Aramis Ademan to Myrtle Beach. The good news is, he hasn't looked completely out of place despite every pitcher he'as faced this season being older that him. He still possesses enough pull-side pop for 12-15 homers down the line, and he still shows the smooth actions at SS that lead many to believe he will be an average or better defender there. Once he learns to lock in the all-fields approach at the plate that he only flashes right now Ademan could settle in as a .270-.290 hitter.
Potential Full-Time Bench or Semi-Regulars: Jhonny Pereda / D.J. Wilson / Jared Young
The strong-armed Pereda has learned to drive the ball to left field when the opportunity presents itself, instead of settling for the RCF gap at all times, which has made him a consistent offensive threat for the Pelicans. As a line drive hitter he'll likely never manage much sustained HR power with his current approach and swing. The changes have been enough to up his offensive ceiling to the point that a backup catcher role in the Majors could be within his grasp in a few years.
There aren't many twitchier athletes in the Cubs system than Wilson, and the speedster as already flashed the potential impact he can have roaming center field. Wilson has also made tremendous strides with his plate discipline in each season of his pro career. The hit tool remains the open question. He has become more of an opposite field hitter this season, but his average continues to drag. His defense and flash plays on offense will get him to the upper Minors. Improvements making contact could take him further.
Drafted as a 2B, Young is a bit tall and angular for the position and concerns about his arm strength and potential to outgrow the position saw him moved to 1B/LF this season. The transition places greater burden on his bat, but Young has proven quite capable in that regard so far. He hits to all fields and displays average power already. As he continues to fill out there is a chance for more.
Wild Cards and Tweeners: Wladimir Galindo / Kevonte Mitchell
Wladimir Galindo possesses some of the best raw power with the Cubs full-season affiliates, but he is an extremely raw hitter right now. He has not learned to lift the ball or wait for pitches to drive. His defense is rough at 3B as well, which could force him across the diamond. There is still a ton of work to do, but he is still young for his level, and if it does click he could hit his way into a MLB lineup in some capacity. Mitchell is a tall, rangy athlete with 20/20 potential but like Galindo his offensive game remains raw and inconsistent.
Minor League Depth: Luis Ayala / P.J. Higgins / Andruw Monasterio / Yeiler Peguero / Carlos Sepulveda (DL - shoulder surgery)
This list is a collection of up-middle-athletes who have flashed enough of a hit tool or defensive chops to remain on the radar for utility or 4th outfielder roles down the line, but with limited upside for each, upper level depth is more likely outcome.
South Bend Cubs
Potential Starters: Miguel Amaya (ETA: 2022-23), Nico Hoerner (ETA: 2021)
Behind the plate Amaya shows soft hands, above average quickness and arm strength. It isn't an elite physical package like Willson Contreras but he has all the characteristics you look for in the position. At the plate, he's made strides with plate discipline and has learned to lift the ball to take advantage of his average power this season. I wouldn't expect an impact hitter in the future, rather a league-average one, but to get that from a potential above-average defender at a premium position like catcher, makes Amaya a valuable asset and potential future starter.
Some pre-draft profiles of Nico Hoerner pegged him as a high-contact hitter with above average speed. What has surprised me is just how ripped Hoerner is physically and how hard he is capable of hitting the ball. His power numbers have never been impressive, but with some tweaks to his approach and swing, there is definite untapped power potential there.
Potential Full-Time Bench or Semi-Regulars: None
Wild Cards and Tweeners: None
Minor League Depth: Jhonny Bethencourt / Austin Filiere / Brandon Hughes / Austin Upshaw
Bethencourt struggles defensively, especially on the left side of the infield, but there is good bat-to-ball skills, so if he irons out his defensive issues there is a potential utility man there. Filiere has also struggled on the infield, which could force him to the corner outfield in the future, but there have been enough flashes of pop and patience from him as a hitter where that path could work out. A 6'2" 215 pound switch-hitter with surprising speed, Hughes has not managed to hit for power as of yet, but if he ever taps into that aspect he could have 4th outfielder upside.
Higher Upside: Fernando Kelli / Christopher Morel / Jonathan Sierra / Jonathan Soto / Luis Vazquez / Nelson Velazquez
With the look of a no-doubt shortstop, Luis Vazquez shows smooth actions, quick feet and plus range. I don't have a read on his arm yet, but assuming that is good, he is the best defender at that position in the top five levels of the system. He is still very lean, but the 19-year old has room to grow, and that should unlock greater production at the plate once it occurs.
Fernando Kelli is as advertised. A speedster that is perhaps the most aggressive base stealer I have ever witnessed in the Cubs system. Though, the question of will he hit enough to reach 1st base is likely to linger for a while. Aggressive also describes the approach Christopher Morel currently employs at the plate, but when he does wait for a good pitch to drive he has some of the most effortless power in the system, and like Vazquez his frame lends itself to further growth down the line. Sierra and Velazquez are already impressive physical specimens at a young age. Both are potential power-hitting corner outfielders. I haven't gotten much of a look at Soto as of yet, but AZ Phil was high on him during the spring, labeling Soto as the 2nd best catching prospect in the system behind Amaya.
Lower Upside: Luis Diaz / Tyler Durna / Jake Slaughter
Diaz has a good hit tool, but with average power at best it is a tough climb to the Majors as a 2B/3B. Tyler Durna is a good glove man with a well rounded offensive game, but he lacks much power, and as a first baseman that is another tough climb. A former top recruit, Slaughter struggled to make an offensive breakthrough at LSU, but the 3B does have untapped power and athleticism to play multiple spots that the Cubs hope to take advantage of.
Rookie Levels, Recent Draft Picks & IFA
Previous Draft Picks & IFA Signings: Yovanny Cuevas / Reivaj Garcia / Josue Huma / Kevin Moreno / Alexander Ovalles / Henderson Perez / Fabian Pertuz / Luis Verdugo
Luis Verdugo (2017 IFA, Mexico) appears to be the top player from the group of IFA and drafted players who began the year with the club's short season affiliates. Like Vazquez, he is projected as a no doubt shortstop. His offensive game is limited by a lack of power right now, but that could change as he grows, and he apparently possesses the contact skills to take advantage if/when it does.
16-year old Reivaj Garcia is currently manning 2B as he yields time to older prospects at SS, but the skills are supposedly there for him to play the more demanding position. He has also shown a knack already for making contact and playing with baseball instincts honed well beyond his years.
2018 Draft Picks: Edmond Americaan / D.J. Artis / Brennen Davis / Jimmy Herron / Ezequiel Pagan / Luke Reynolds / Cole Roederer / Andy Weber
The Cubs focus on acquiring dynamic outfielders is apparent by this list of drafted players. Second round pick Brennen Davis comps himself to Lorenzo Cain. Cole Roederer is a potential 5-tool centerfielder that received the second largest signing bonus in the Cubs draft class behind Hoerner. An arm injury that likely requires eventual TJS pushed Jimmy Herron to LF at Duke, but once resolved he should be able to move back to the middle of the diamond. As a hitter he has not posted an average under .300 in any of his 3 seasons at Duke or in his time in the wood bat Cape Code League.
The two infielders on this list have intriguing profiles. Weber is a left handed hitting 2B that flashes good range and a sweet swing in the video I have seen. I am anxiously awaiting getting a longer look at him. Reynolds is an older corner infielder that missed two seasons due to transfer issues, but once he got on the field last year he raked like few in collegiate ball. He may have been taking advantage of younger competition or maybe the Cubs identified a late bloomer.
2018-19 IFA: Jose Lopez / Rafael Morel / Yohendrick Pinango
Three more dynamic center fielders. Jose Lopez received the highest bonus among the Cubs IFA signings this year. Rafael Morel is the younger brother of Emeralds infielder Christopher Morel. He was a middle infielder as an amateur, but there is speculation the Cubs signed him to play CF.