A Breakdown of the Cubs Prospect Pipeline

Nico Hoerner (photo by Rikk Carlson)

Nico Hoerner (photo by Rikk Carlson)

The Top Tier

Is empty.

The organization doesn't have a high profile prospect with a sustained track record wrecking the Collegiate or the Minor League ranks the way Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber did. They do have some talents capable of building themselves into a prospect of this caliber, something we recently saw Willson Contreras accomplish, but as of yet those projects are still works in progress.

Potential Starters

They may not become stars but there are a handful of potential above average everyday players or middle of the rotation starting pitchers in the system:

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Can Nico Hoerner eventually contribute at a similar level to an Addison Russell or Ben Zobrist, and can Miguel Amaya offer a potential blending of the skills provided by former catching tandem Miguel Montero and David Ross?

Yes, that is a reasonable expectation.

Brailyn Marquez (photo by Rikk Carlson)

Brailyn Marquez (photo by Rikk Carlson)

The question most Cubs fans are interested in though, is whether Adbert Alzolay or Brailyn Marquez are potential future replacements for the likes of Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana in the middle of the rotation? Again, I do believe that is a reasonable outcome given their talent levels. Even if they come up short of reaching their full potential, each offers a fall back option as potential impact relievers.

One concern is the lack of experience with this group. Alzolay offers the most certainty in that regard, but even he missed several months due to injury in 2018. Three of these guys played the entire 2018 season at 19-years old. We saw a perfect example of the fall young prospects can take last year. Jose Albertos was in a similar situation at this time in 2017, showing flashes of greatness as a 19-year old, and we all remember how 2018 ended up playing out for him.

Potential MLB Contributors

The Cubs may currently lack sure things in their system, but one thing they don't lack is maybes:

middle25

This is where the strength of the Cubs system lies: their depth. A recent Fangraphs article breaking down the future value of farm systems ranked the Cubs just 25th in baseball. It was not an unreasonable conclusion given the lack of high end prospects, but there was an interesting bit of info buried in that table which could offer the organization hidden value. The total number of prospects (27) the Cubs had ranked by Fangraphs was tied for 12th overall. Still modest, and a great distance from the terrific depth belonging to San Diego at the top, but with a talented core of still relatively young players in place on offense, the Cubs have compiled plenty of internal options to function as stopgaps and potential cheap filler for the bottom of the roster that will allow them to direct funds toward the rising salaries of their arbitration eligible players in the future.

Justin Steele (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Justin Steele (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

And hey, some prospects exceed expectations, so amassing as many maybes as possible increases your odds of such an occurrence. Just because a position player may appear to top out as a platoon option doesn't mean he can't provide a team a significant boost in that role. And some pitchers that project as fifth starters eventually become more. You never know what can happen if someone develops a new pitch or tweaks their delivery.

I'm also beginning to wonder if the baseball may be heading toward scenarios where a team carries 3 or 4 top starters capable of working deep into games, and then instead of trying to stretch a 5th starter incapable of running through a MLB order multiple times, they will instead employ a piggyback approach. We saw the Cubs run with a setup like this for a while back in 2017. Eddie Butler worked through the first 3 to 4 innings before handing the game over to Mike Montgomery for the next 3 to 4. The Cubs have a ton of guys in their pipeline nearing the Major Leagues that could thrive in that sort of role.

Wild Cards

Great athletes or great arms who have not managed to stay healthy, and/or consistent and/or productive:

wildcards

I won't dive too deeply into this group of players. Often discussed in the Minor League Recaps throughout the year, each has at least one plus tool, but also at least one major concern that could hold them back from achieving their full potential. This is the boom-or-bust crowd.

Jose Albertos (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Jose Albertos (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

There are a couple fairly new names some fans may not know. Riley Thompson ($200K) was the Cubs 11th round pick this past summer. A 1st round caliber arm, he is a big and talented righty capable of mid-90s or better velocity along with the ability to spin quality breaking balls. Injury and inconsistent control held him back as a collegian but he already showed some progress and production in his brief stint with Eugene after signing. Lefty Chris Allen ($150K) and outfielder Edmond Americaan ($208K) are a pair of JUCO draftees the Cubs directed some of their left over slot money toward in the bottom half of the draft. Each put up strong numbers in the AZL and could see time with South Bend next season.

The Next Wave

Let's call this the Under-20 Top 20 group:

nextwave

The Cubs went above slot in the second round of the draft to land a pair of toolsy prep outfielders. Cole Roederer provides a well-rounded set of above-average tools and already put each on display in his pro debut this summer. Brennen Davis offers a little more risk, but potentially higher upside. The former two-sport prep star has yet to tap into his raw power during games as his swing is currently geared toward line drives but he showed off plate discipline and speed in abundance playing alongside Roederer in Arizona.

He may not offer the athletic profile of Roederer or Davis, but middle infielder Reivaj Garcia put his impressive hit tool (.302/.365/.355) and instincts on display in Arizona as well, and did so as a 16-year old for most of the summer. It is a notable accomplishment to produce at such an age at that level. Not to compare the two prospects, but just to give some perspective, Gleyber Torres was several months older when he made his AZL debut (.279/.372/.377) back in 2014. He doesn't come with the same IFA pedigree or upside, and may be limited to 2B, but the Cubs may have unearthed a hidden gem, or at least a prospect worth keeping a keen eye on moving forward.

Yovanny Cruz broke out in the Arizona Rookie League before seeing a late season promotion to Eugene. Kohl Franklin is the nephew of former MLB closer Ryan Franklin and represents the Cubs above slot expenditure on the pitching side in the 2018 draft. The big prep righty out of Oklahoma missed time due to injury which kept his pre-draft hype to a minimum but the Cubs speak in glowing terms in regards to him.

The final five names in the list above represent the Cubs big ticket items in the current IFA class. Jose Lopez ($1.5M) is an athletic center fielder with wiry strength. Although Lopez received the largest bonus, RHP Richard Gallardo ($1M) is potentially the better prospect. He is rated as the top starting pitcher in the 2018-19 class by MLB Pipeline and second best by Baseball America. Joel Machado and Rafael Morel are both seen as Top 50 prospects in the class as well.

 

Filed under: Minor Leagues, prospects

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  • The first sentence says much. While there are a lot of positives in the system, there isn't much immediate help and (shudder) not much to trade. If the Cubs were to sign a top-tier FA, it might free up someone on the current roster who could be traded for a near-ready prospect or two, but with budget constraints it doesn't seem a likely scenario. Maybe Caratini for a backup catcher plus a prospect? The current roster might need to get the message that the Calvary isn't coming to the rescue - they're going to need to man up in 2019.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    I would argue against the immediate help portion. Bote and Caratini began providing a boost from the farm last year and figure to do so again in 2019. The team will also have a few young infielders (Short/Giambrone/Vosler) hanging out in Iowa this year ready to contribute if needed.

    We saw only a couple of young arms get opportunities last year, but that number will increase in 2019. Alzolay will be healthy and should be joined in the Iowa rotation by several 23-25 year old prospects, each with the potential to help out in the rotation or pen if needed. Mekkes, Underwood and others could provide a boost to the pen.

    I'm actually fairly confident in the depth the Cubs have amassed for Iowa this coming season. There may not be one or two specific guys banging down the MLB door demanding that room be made for them, but if the Cubs run into injury issues at the MLB level again like they did in 2018, I don't think they will need to make desperate trades to plug holes. The system can offer solutions on both the pitching and position player side.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Micheal, are there any left handed hitting leadoff hitting prospects that play second or centerfield that might be ready by 2021?

  • Thanks for putting this together Michael.

    We all got a bit spoiled watching Bryant, Schwarber, Almora, Baez, Contreras and Happ appear in such short order out of that Farm system. And yes - players like Caratini, Bote and maybe Zagunis can help fill the roster if gaps fill for the next season or two.

    But I do get concerned when I see essentially no 'home-grown' SP arms yet filling a defined MLB role. Maybe we see something from Alzolay, Marquez or Tseng, possibly Hatch during the next season or two? And that would make me feel a bit more comfortable with filling in post-2019 as Lester continues to age, Hamels hits his late 30s, and before Quintana potentially hits Free Agency.

    Assuming that the Cubs don't do some sort of 'fire sale' and shed a lot of the arbitration-eligible bats for some youth and rebuilding again, they are going to need some affordable and dependable pitching for 2020 and beyond.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    I'll have something on the pitching later this week. But essentially, I am envisioning Alzolay and Steele getting their feet wet in the pen in the 2nd half of 2019. And then they can take over the swing roles from Monty and Chatwood in 2020 if they aren't ready or needed to take over a full-time rotation slot. I also expect Mekkes to take on a regular role in the Chicago pen by the end of 2019 and then become a key cog in 2020.

    Those are the most versatile and near-MLB ready arms that can have an impact.

    That large group of RHP matriculating to the AA/AAA level in 2019 that includes Lange, Abbott, Underwood, Swarmer, Robinson, Clifton, Hatch, Miller, Thompson, Clark, Rucker, among others should produce at least 1 other regular contributor, if not more. It really is a deep stable and while many could top out as AAAA players, I have faith that a couple of guys break through as MLB pitchers.

  • Wow. The farm has an incredible amount of depth. No close superstars like Bryant/Schwarber/Baez but massive depth. Thanks Michael, great article.

  • Trade veterans for top prospects. Only trade our prospects for a
    good player. Will loose draft pick if they sign a top FA

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Why would the Cubs lose draft picks if they sign a FA? i am confused.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Only if they sign one of the 6(?) players that turned down qualifying offers.

    Also, if they go over a certain payroll threshold they won't necessarily lose draft picks, but their spots are moved down in the draft, and could also be penalized IFA money.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Yes Michael i understand. Thank you for explaining.

  • Great work Michael...I appreciate you putting this together for us. I really enjoy these types of minor league articles and keeping track of how they do as they move through the system wouldn't be possible without your informed input and hard work.

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    Thank you Michael. It is disappointing (but not surprising) that we have no top tier talent. We do need baseball players though, the nitty-gritty players that do what they're supposed to do. I would put a Mark DeRosa in that category--he wasn't a superstar but did enough to be valuable to the team. It seems like we have a number of DeRosa's in our system and that's not a bad thing, but we still need top tier talent, and we do have that in the Majors and for the most part they're still young.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    If memory serves, I think DeRosa led one of those abysmal Cub teams in WAR one year. A bit more than nitty-gritty.

  • I think there is a good chance the farm system gets worse before it gets better. Nico and Alzolay seem like the most tradable commodities for a team with limited payroll flexibility and a desire to win another World Series.

  • In reply to Cubs09:

    Those two are probably the top pitcher and top positional player in the system. IMO those are the last guys you trade. You need young players from your farm to compete long term. Competing long term is how you get the most championships.

  • In reply to John57:

    I can see that argument. But as Michael points out, those players aren’t elite. Sure, they could help someday. But a team with a $200m payroll is about winning right now. I suspect there will come a season when the team will have to sell and that’s how they will (partially) restock their farm system. Increasingly, teams are either tanking or pushing in their chips.

  • In reply to Cubs09:

    The Cubs are not going to tank again. They also don't have to push all their chips in because they can have a 200+ million payroll to keep them contenders in perpetuity with a good farm. See the Yankees, they are not trading all of their good prospects.

  • In reply to John57:

    They're not going strip it all down again, but there will come a year where injuries or poor play make them sellers at the deadline. That will trigger a retool and tough decisions will be made. The tough part about that is that with no elite prospects, and poor draft position they'll have to rely on prospects from trade.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Yeah, I think the only way they strip it all down again is if all of their core indicates they won't re-sign long term or if a rash of career-ending injuries occur. Those scenarios could trigger the need for a full rebuild, but both scenarios seem unlikely.

  • Great read, Michael. You hit many nails on the head.

    I feel this year’s draft is our best shot for “developing” the impact position player from within besides Amaya/Ademan & the jury is still out on them. I think Hoerner & Roederer are the best shot, w/Davis right behind them. The latter 2 came out of high school, so it’ll take a little more time before we “know”. But I’ve liked what I’ve read on those 2 guys. I feel like in 3 years they would’ve been minimum late first rounders if they devoloped further, or better.

    Pitchers? Yeah, they are such a roll of the dice, even for the highly touted (Mark Appel)...

  • Should I consider closing the Fernando Kelli fan club?

    (He did not make the lists).
    :(

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    In reply to DropThePuck:

    I see that. I've been a big Kelli fan from the time I checked the DL. He's still young, but it is disappointing that he didn't even get a mention.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Still young. Still fast. Still some hope.

    Big questions about the bat though. He is a fringe prospect. I'll still be keeping an eye on him, but he needs to make a lot of strides with his approach and his swing. Still a bit rough in the OF as well.

    He'll likely repeat the NWL. Could get a look in MWL though. He takes a pretty big swing, causing a lot of whiffs, with little payoff in terms of power. Until he adds strength to improve power or cuts down on his swing to improve contact he is going to struggle.

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    I hate to be the debbie downer on this subject,but this is probably the worst farm system since Theo arrived. Looking at our top prospects with Hoerner and Alzolay as the top two, I don't think we could expect to get much for them in a deal, you have to remember our last two high draft picks whom we really depended on , Schwarber and Happ, these two don 't come close to in comparison. they torched the minors in higher competition and still are flaming out.
    For the cubs to get better they have to be able to get some hitters to put the ball in play and strike out less, and don't give me Hoerner's ability to do this, he has played what one year of low A ball at the most,don't pimp these players before they actually do something, same goes for most of the players on your list.

  • In reply to tater:

    Have you even looked at Hoemer's stats for this year?
    BB% 15.0
    SO% 6.7
    AVE .327
    OBA .450
    SLG .571
    OPS 1.021
    SB 6
    CS 1
    I will take a strike out rate of 6.7% any day and the on base % of .450 is pretty good for me too. What in the world are you looking for?

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    In reply to John57:

    You are the one looking at a very SSS, he played how many games, he was a 3 year college player playing against mostly 18 year olds with hardly any experience, he did well, but are you saying he's as good a prospect as Schwarbs or Happ, who played AA and AAA competition and raked .
    Been a cub fan my whole life and refuse to get giddy on someone with maybe 250 at bats, that's what I'm looking at.
    Should have been a third round pick in the draft , cubs could have used their 1st, second and compensatory picks on pitching( high risk ) but so are the other players we drafted(high school outfielders)

  • In reply to tater:

    You're assuming Hoerner would have still been around to pick in the 3rd round of the draft. He wouldn't have. The kid has great tools and will be a great Cub one day.

  • In reply to tater:

    Farm system was worse last year. This is an improvement. There is talent, but a lot of it is 21 or younger and a good distance away from the Majors.

    What they have in the upper levels is depth. Plenty of arms capable of plugging holes, several position players capable of filling in for injuries. The question is whether a couple of them reach or exceed their potential and become more than bottom of the roster players. I actually feel this will happen with a couple guys. I don't necessarily know which, and wouldn't put money on any particular one, but because they have such a wide array of options I think as a whole it is a solid bet that somebody breaks through.

  • Given that we are in the middle of our competitive window (before Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Hendricks, ... hit FA), I do not expect we will be trading useful veterans for top MiLB prospects anytime soon.

    And since we will be WS champs the next 3 years :), we will always be picking at the bottom of the draft :(.

    And given the struggles of Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber after being rushed through the minors, I would hope the Cubs make sure Nic Hoerner is READY before being called up and having to learn at the MLB level.

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    I would like to see them be a little more patient this season with their top prospects. I think they pushed Ademan a level too far last year. I'm not sure we can say that Albertos was mishandled as his issues seem to be more mental, but his struggles made an already thin crop of potential impact prospects even thinner.

    Rather than focus completely on college players this year, the team brought in a bunch of prep and JUCO talent in the draft. Combined with the IFA class and handful of existing top talents who also happen to be teenagers, the Cubs seem to be accepting that there is no quick fix to the farm system. They'll get some useful players as the guys from their past college heavy drafts as the next couple of years progress, but they have gone ahead and focused heavily on injecting teenage talent in behind them that will serve as the next wave.

    It'll take time. Remember, Almora and Underwood were a couple of early draft choices for this FO and they are still developing. Drafting preps and building through IFA takes a lot of time and patience (from fans and FO).

  • Thanks, Michael for this very helpful summary.

    I've been a fan of the bull-pen approach for many years, but I wonder if it could really be sustained without an expansion of rosters. I'm surprised that some teams lower in the standings haven't really accelerated their attempts at more bull-pen games..

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