We are finally here. After several delays (health, weather, MiLB's frustrating decision to take down their 2018 video archive for maintenance) I am finally ready to begin unveiling the annual Cubs Den prospect rankings.
It is also time for my annual disclaimer: I abhor prospect rankings. The reason I spent so much time and effort editing video for twitter threads and writing up in depth overviews all offseason is because I feel it is a far more enlightening method of presenting these prospects. Numerical rankings on the other hand create false equivalences and narratives in the minds of readers.
I also understand that my rankings this week will be far more widely read than perhaps anything else I write this season. It is part of the prospect writing game that I have voluntarily signed up to participate in. If forced to group players I prefer to work with tiers, and the way I have broken up the list into chunks as part of the roll out this wee, is my way of taking a bit of a hybrid approach.
So... before anyone gets all bent out of shape regarding one prospect being higher in the list than another, let me say this in bold with big font:
Very little separates the prospects in this portion of the rankings
I would even go so far as to say they are interchangeable.
They all possess the ability to reach AAA and potentially receive a shot at a Major League career. Some already have. But each also has an aspect of their game that puts their ability to break through as full-time Major Leaguers in doubt. In some cases they have the stuff but haven't shown the necessary control, in others the opposite. Some of the hitters have a great idea of the strike zone but lack power or may be an awkward defensive fit.
In many cases it is a "simple" matter of consistency. Consistency is often overlooked but it is the determining factor for most prospects. On their best days every one of the guys could produce against MLB competition. While all performance fluctuates, the ceilings for many we are about to discuss do not exceed the MLB threshold by a great deal, so their ability to perform near their highest level becomes vital.
This season will be a big test for just how effective the Cubs draft and development strategies have been for pitchers. The reason it becomes so vitally important is the contract situation in the Chicago bullpen beyond this season. Most of the relievers the team has counted on the past couple of years will be free agents at the conclusion of this season. In addition, there is likely to be one, and potentially two rotation spots up for grabs next spring.
Given the money the team needs to start re-directing to lock up their young hitters, and the number of draft picks the Cubs have spent on pitchers in recent years, it will be a massive failure if the Cubs are not able to fill at least a couple of those upcoming holes with internal solutions. I choose that word carefully: it would be a MASSIVE failure.
The good news is, eleven of the sixteen players detailed below are pitchers. This grouping is comprised of a few full-time relievers as well as a large contingent of right-handers that the Cubs have developed as starters, and they do still have a chance to succeed as back-of-the-rotation types if they hit their ceiling, but their path to the Majors likely leads to the bullpen (at least initially).
25. Duane Underwood, Jr.
The Cubs have indicated they will continue to groom the talented Duane Underwood, Jr. as a starter this spring. He did rebound to put up solid numbers and make his first Major League start in 2018 but this is also his final option year, and though there does project to be at least one opening in the Chicago starting rotation next year, there will be plenty of competition for any job. Which means the most likely path for entry into a full-time MLB gig is likely through the bullpen. Thankfully for Underwood, he has the tools to succeed in that role, and the Cubs did give him several relief appearances in Iowa at the end of last season.
His command and control suffered when he worked out of the pen, but it was a tough ask to have Underwood establish himself in that role so late in the season. His velocity did jump as hoped and although he struggled to throw his secondary pitches for strikes they did flash the same movement at their new velocities as well. Many fans have grown impatient with Underwood's development as he has seemingly been around forever, but keep in mind that he was 17 years old when this front office chose him in the 2nd round of their first draft class. He is only a few months older than Dakota Mekkes and Thomas Hatch, and is still younger than many of the college arms the Cubs drafted in recent years including Iowa teammates Duncan Robinson and James Norwood, and even some Tennessee arms like Michael Rucker and Matt Swarmer. So, his ascent through the ranks may have seemed slow, but in reality Underwood is right on track.
Underwood worked out of the pen for a handful of games at the end of 2018. His velo ticked up to 94-95 (T97), but his command suffered further, especially with his secondaries. Keep in mind though that this came at the end of a long season where he already threw 100+ innings.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) January 30, 2019
26. Oscar de la Cruz
It was not a great season by Oscar de la Cruz, but prior to his suspension he was taking his turn in the rotation every five days for the first time, well... ever. Unfortunately, the suspension essentially amounted to the same thing as another injury. It could have been a make or break year for determining whether to view him as a starter or strictly as a reliever moving forward. The most important thing, regardless of his ultimate role, is getting the high-end stuff and solid command de la Cruz showed in 2016-17 to return on a more consistent basis. This is a guy that used to sit 93-94 and touch 97 who could follow it up with a hammer curve while spotting in a decent changeup. At the end of 2017 and throughout the first half of 2018 his fastball was down a peg and his curve lacked the same bite.
Given he will miss the first month of the season serving the remainder of his suspension it might best for the Cubs to transition him to a relief role where it may be easier for him to regain his previous stuff and command without the toll of a starter's workload. They can always reconsider their options down the road if de la Cruz pitches well enough out of the pen to demand a larger role.
W/ a SP's frame and 3 potential above avg pitches, he continues to tantalize, but all the lost development time puts his future in doubt. They could accelerate his progress by transitioning him to a relief where he possesses late inning potential w/o the strain over heavy innings. pic.twitter.com/KV9wCJkEjT
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 2, 2019
27. Thomas Hatch
Thomas Hatch answered a lot of questions I had regarding durability and stamina in 2018. He held up across the length of the season while also pitching deeper into ballgames. What holds me back from rating him higher at this point is Hatch did not seem to make any progress with his command. His stuf is good but not great and I just don't know if he can hold up multiple times through a MLB lineup walking as many guys as he does and then missing over the plate as well. His upside remains that of a back-of-the-rotation starter, but his stuff should also play better out of the pen than some of the Cubs other starter candidates, so he does have more avenues open to him.
Known for his slider coming out of the 2016 draft, the pitch remains a vital part of his arsenal, but it has probably backed up a notch from the plus potential it showed in college. He can still snap off some good ones though.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) January 27, 2019
28. Paul Richan
This is one of the rankings I am least certain about. Paul Richan overwhelmed the majority of NWL hitters he faced last year despite not appearing to have a true plus pitch. Command was certainly a big part of it, as was his ability to change speeds and the hitters eye level. He was certainly too advanced for the level. But it is still a little early for me to make any sweeping proclamations regarding Richan. He shows better command and the same type of pitchability as Keegan Thompson so I expect Richan will quickly ascend these rankings in 2019, but until I see how his stuff plays against better hitters multiple times through a batting order I am going to remain conservative.
National pubs are all over the map w/Richan. BA rates him 7th in system, FG outside the top 30. With his ability to miss bats and limit walks, along w/potential for 4 avg or better pitches in a starter's frame, I lean closer to BA's assessment but admit my looks have been limited pic.twitter.com/4TC5o2jwJz
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 15, 2019
29. Trent Giambrone
A little guy that packs a punch and hustles all over the field. Trent Giambrone is definitely positioned to become a fan favorite over the next few years. More importantly, he could function as a valuable 26th-man riding the Des Moines shuttle, even if he never grabs a full-time bench role in Chicago. With the athleticism to play multiple infield and outfield spots, as well as his ability to impact games with his bat and feet, Giambrone is an ideal candidate to fill in at the MLB level whenever injuries occur outside the catcher position.
Packs a punch from a relatively small frame as he puts his all into most swings. Giambrone is developing 15-20 HR power as he learns to lift the ball with greater frequency. Not limited to pull side either, Giambrone is strong enough to go oppo.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) January 27, 2019
An above average runner, Giambrone actually put up solid 2018 SB totals. I wouldn't expect it to be a huge part of his game in the majors, but he can absolutely take advantage if pitchers aren't careful. Takes aggressive slides but does need to work on not over-sliding the bag.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) January 27, 2019
30. Jhonny Pereda
I seem to be on the high end when it comes to future projections for Jhonny Pereda. Some have him pegged as no more than a 3rd catcher, but I think that is more likely his floor, with a semi-regular role at the MLB level a possibility. There is still untapped potential in his bat with a high probability he captures it. Pereda is one of the better contact hitters in the system and is just beginning to tap into a bit of power. He possesses all the necessary MLB caliber tools (hands, feet, arm) behind the plate. Plus, the catching position is currently an offensive wasteland in the Majors so it isn't a high bar to clear.
Pereda threw out 37.8% of runners despite working w/inexperienced staff who didn't hold runners well. With the athleticism and ability to throw from multiple platforms, plus awareness to catch trailing runners or delayed steals, has the raw tools/instincts to impact a run game
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) December 31, 2018
#Cubs rewarded Pereda's breakout 2018 w/ invitation to AZ Fall League (.276/.344/.345). He will head to AA Tennessee in 2019, where he will likely split time with fellow prospect P.J. Higgins, but I expect Pereda will earn the lion's share of the work by end of season.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) December 31, 2018
31. James Norwood
James Norwood has the stuff to miss bats and become a high leverage reliever in the Majors. In terms of pure stuff, perhaps only Dillon Maples can rival him. His high effort delivery leads to abundant control and command issues however. They are not as pronounced as what we see from Maples, but they have held Norwood back just the same. It won't take a major leap for Norwood to grab a full-time role in Chicago. With the majority of the contracts in the Cubs bullpen coming up at the end of the year, Norwood is well positioned to take up one of the vacancies in 2020, if not before.
Norwood will be jockeying for position with a number of hard throwing RHRPs in Iowa who likewise battle control problems. At this point it seems that whoever gets locked into the strike zone early in the year will get first crack at ant opening in the Chicago pen. pic.twitter.com/kKYWfJql0e
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 24, 2019
32. Erich Uelmen
This guy is still a bit of an enigma to me. He definitely has Major League caliber stuff, especially his heavy, low-90s sinker. It all comes down to consistency for Erich Uelmen. If he can develop more consistency with his two secondaries he has a chance to stick in a big league rotation as a groundball pitcher capable of missing a few bats as well. If his changeup doesn't become a threat, Uelmen's 3/4 arm slot will make him susceptible against left-handed hitters, and Uelmen will be forced to the pen in a specialist role.
Uelmen features a heavy low-90s sinker that can touch 94. Gets arm side run as well thanks to his 3/4 delivery. On his best days he is tough for hitters to get anything in the air off the pitch. 3/ pic.twitter.com/rMclY5cYk5
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 20, 2019
33. Duncan Robinson
This is a guy who has exceeded expectations his entire career. I've always projected Robinson as a swingman rather than a starting pitcher because I question whether his stuff will play multiple times through a MLB lineup but he does possess a starter's frame and a starter's command. His delivery is low effort Robinson strikes me as a guy that could function as a versatile rubber arm capable of filling any role on any given day. And his managers will love him because he can be counted on to throw strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark.
Curve has been his go to secondary previously, but he began throwing it a bit less this year as the rest of his arsenal developed. Not a chase pitch. It is a solid upper-70s offering that often freezes hitters when in the zone.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) January 31, 2019
34. Trevor Clifton
Trevor Clifton re-established himself as a legitimate prospect after a tumultuous 2017 campaign. His stuff has backed up a bit and due to lacking a consistent out pitch he struggles at times to put hitters away. It forces Clifton to throw extra pitches and leads to higher walk totals. He is profiling more as a potential back-of-the-rotation or long reliever than the potential middle-of-the-rotation or late inning reliever he appeared to be back in 2016. A move to the could help him regain a bit of juice and lessen the burden on being as precise and efficient.
Mostly 89-91, Clifton is still able to run it up at 93 when necessary, but has transitioned from thrower to pitcher. He'll add/subtract, letting the movement he generates do most of the work. He's an extreme FB pitcher but hitters struggle to square him up. pic.twitter.com/zgvdVsxpqJ
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) November 11, 2018
35. Matt Swarmer
Matt Swarmer came out of nowhere to put together an incredible season that culminated in being named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Now, there are some caveats to that. Swarmer was old for the High-A level that he dominated at the start of 2018, as his effectiveness did lessen with the step up in competition at AA. His funky delivery and over-the-top throwing motion gives hitters a very different look, but it could also leave him susceptible to left-handed hitters, at least multiple times through an order. He reminds me of Luke Farrell in a number of ways, but with a greater degree of control and consistency. At 25 years old, he needs to follow up his successful 2018 with another in 2019, because he has little time to lose if he wants to forge a long MLB career.
A Bronson Arroyo leg kick combined with an extreme over-the-top arm slot from 6'5" height gives hitters an unusual look. It's a complicated delivery but he repeats it well to maintain good control. Swarmer's pitches tunnel well which makes his average three pitch mix play up.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 3, 2019
36. Jimmy Herron
Jimmy Herron has hit everywhere he has gone. He hit .300 in each of his three seasons at Duke. He hit .300 in his summer on the Cape. Not only does he have the hand-eye coordination to consistently make contact, Herron also has a keen eye at the plate. He walked more than he struck out in his college career. There were some pre-draft concerns regarding an elbow injury that could require TJS and prevent him from playing centerfield, but from what I've managed to gather Herron avoided the knife this offseason. It is obviously early in the process but my first impressions are Herron could eventually break through where several similar Cubs prospects (Mark Zagunis, Charcer Burks, John Andreoli, etc) failed because he may just be able to stick in centerfield. If he can't then he'll likely fall into the same trap as the others because Major League teams rarely give out bench spots to right-handed corner outfielders with limited power.
His profile is similar to that of the Cubs 1st round pick Nico Hoerner, but Herron is just a step down in terms of explosiveness and strength. He adjusts well to offspeed pitches and is able to control the barrel to get good wood on the ball to all fields.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) January 21, 2019
37. Andy Weber
My favorite under-the-radar selection the Cubs made in the 2018 draft. Andy Weber possesses the arm, hands and athleticism to handle all four infield positions and probably the outfield corners if given the opportunity. Combine that with a solid approach and the potential for extra base and maybe even a little home run power from the left side of the plate and Weber profiles as a valuable bench piece on a first division team, or potentially even a starter in some situations.
Pegged more as offense-first 2B in pre-draft reports but in limited college video I saw his combo of athleticism, arm and soft hands were apparent. My first thought was "I'ld love to see if he can play SS." Sure enough, Cubs played him more at SS than 2B, and gave him looks at 3B pic.twitter.com/Tlg9tHR2VS
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 10, 2019
38. Bailey Clark
Bailey Clark has all the makings of a power reliever. He can work up in the zone with a fastball that can touch 97, and also get good downward plane on the ball from his 6'4" frame as he pounds the bottom of the zone. When on top of his game he also features an above average slider alongside a solid changeup, which gives him the ability to work effectively against hitters from both sides of the plate, and multiple innings if necessary. What Clark hasn't managed to do is show he can remain healthy and consistent. Injuries have plagued him stretching back to his days at Duke. He has avoided anything major, but multiple times per season he has been forced to reset and it has effected the consistency of his stuff throughout the course of the year.
One of the best outings by a Cub prospect all year was Bailey Clark on April 19 in Dayton. 12 batters faced, 44 pitches, 13 whiffs. This is Clark at his best, a multi-inning modern reliever with a heavy fastball and wipeout slider. Here are 12 of those swings and misses. pic.twitter.com/TJ0HLWTP0W
— Cubs Prospects - Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) February 15, 2019
Zagunis made some positive adjustments last season. He got himself into great shape, showing more speed and athleticism. It helped him in the field and on the bases. At the plate he made more contact and seemed willing to sacrifice a bit of power. Since Zagunis is unlikely to ever hit many home runs I'm not sure it was a bad trade off. We know Zagunis has the plate discipline to draw walks at the big league level. But he remains stuck in the outfield corners as a right-handed hitter in an organization with a plethora of options ahead of him to fill that role, and he also got hurt at the end of the year, which has been a common occurrence during his career. Zagunis is in his final option year so his days of riding the Des Moines-Chicago shuttle are numbered. If he isn't traded during the year there is a good chance Zagunis will get exposed to waivers prior to next season.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 9, 2018
40. Michael Rucker
A pleasant surprise as an 11th round pick in 2016. Rucker has been one of the better strike throwers among starters in the system the past two years. The step up to AA saw a significant drop in his ability to miss bats. His fastball, which was so effective in 2017, was still difficult to for hitters to square up but he wasn't able to throw it by them as much. As a flyball pitcher it is tough to get by at the highest levels relying heavily on weak contact. The starting experience allowed Rucker to expand the use of his curve and changeup, which he can utilize to keep hitters honest, but I expect him to begin transitioning back to a relief role at some point this season in order to regain some velocity and maximize the effectiveness of his fastball-slider combination.
Relies on above avg command of low-90s FB that touches mid-90s. It doesn't stand out at first glance, and don't have spin rate/movement data, but hitters haven't squared it up at any level. It's clearly effective. If transitioned to pen would likely sit 93-94 and touch higher. pic.twitter.com/1z04LooIFl
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 24, 2019