I’m not a fan of entitling articles by asking a question, but I promise you my intention behind the choice was not meant as click bait. There is competition playing out in Minor League camp among some of the Cubs young prospects for an opportunity to skip a level in the system and put themselves on the fast track and I don’t know which will end up earning it, if any. Had I been interested in the most click baity title I would have gone with “who’s the next Gleyber Torres?” But none of the players involved this year have quite the same pedigree, so I prefer to set expectations properly with the more realistic (and recent) example, Issac Paredes.
If a position player shows an advanced feel at a young age, the Cubs have shown no hesitation in challenging them. Torres not only skipped the Dominican Summer League completely, but he essentially skipped the Northwest League as well, appearing in just 7 games at the level near the end of 2014 after spending most of his first professional season in the Arizona League. He began the following year in the full season Midwest League as an 18-year old. Eloy Jimenez did spend one season each in Mesa and Eugene, but like Torres he never toiled in the DSL, and despite his one extra year in short season, still debuted in the MWL as a teenager in 2016.
The trend extends beyond just their high profile signings. Carlos Sepulveda went from the AZL in 2015, to the MWL in 2016 at the age of 19. Yeiler Peguero made the same transition in 2017. Paredes also debuted in South Bend last year, but as an 18-year old. While he did play for Eugene the year before, he did so because he skipped over the AZL in 2016.
Last season saw two other prime examples. A pair of 18-year olds, Aramis Ademan and Miguel Amaya, both debuted stateside in Eugene after spending the previous summer in the DSL. Ademan showed enough in his short time there to earn a promotion to South Bend for the final month and is even being given the opportunity to start 2018 with Myrtle Beach. It is a good bet that Amaya will spend most, if not all of 2018 in South Bend at age 19.
There are fewer examples of high school draft picks, given the Cubs emphasis on drafting collegiate position players with their premium picks, but they did handle their most advanced prep pick in the same manner as their international signings. Albert Almora Jr. split his only short season campaign between Mesa and Boise after signing in 2012, before beginning his first full season as a pro in the Midwest League at 19-years old.
So which teenagers in the system should we expect to skip a level this season, or to debut in April when South Bend begins their 2018 schedule?
The most likely candidates appear to be 19-year old outfielders Nelson Velazquez and Jonathan Sierra. Both were key players in Mesa as the AZL club captured the league title last fall and are receiving first team reps with South Bend this spring. I find it unlikely the Cubs would open the season with both players on the roster, as South Bend does have several older prospects competing for time in the outfield corners as well, but when your high ceiling prospects show they are ready, you make room for them.
Velazquez is raw, but a potential five-tool player who already flashed plus power last season (.236/.333/.536 with 8 HR, 5 SB), even if it is was combined with scary strikeout rates (31.0%). Still, it proved an impressive debut for the 2017 5th round pick. If Velazquez shows he is ready to make more frequent contact the club will undoubtedly want to see his dynamic abilities play out over the course of a full season.
Receiving a $2.5M bonus as part of the 2015 IFA class, Sierra was expected to be a long term project, but one that could eventually pay off with a premier left handed power hitter. He was a lanky 16-year old at the time of his signing with natural pop that reminded some of Darryl Strawberry. Over the past two years, Sierra has filled out his frame and is now built more like a bull than a beanpole.
While he possesses impressive batting practice power he has been unable to translate that raw strength into game situations due to issues identifying breaking balls away and a swing featuring long levers that might remind some of Jason Heyward. There is a ton of upside though if he can get everything straightened out. Once it clicks for Sierra he’s the type of athlete that could move quickly. Whether that time is now is the open question. Extended spring training and then Eugene may be the better course.
Breakout DSL star Fernando Kelli is also a good bet to debut stateside in Eugene rather than the AZL, but as a player turning 20 at midseason, it isn’t as much of a leap. There is the possibility that the Emeralds end up with an exciting outfield containing all three players but I believe it is becoming more likely that Kelli but only one or neither of the two corner guys play there.
Turning our attention to the infield, an assignment to South Bend is likely a bridge too far for 18-year old infielder Luis Diaz, but he is participating with that group this spring. Undersized, but possessing a polished bat, Diaz made a significant leap at the plate (.273/.374/.466 with 8 HR) in his second DSL campaign in 2017. It seems a good bet he will skip the AZL and fill either the starting 2B or 3B job at Eugene.
Keep a close eye on Christopher Morel as well. He won’t turn 19 until June, and the SS/3B spent 2017 in the DSL (.220/332/.359 with 7 HRs) after he missed the entire 2016 season recovering from a household accident, so you would expect the Cubs to be taking a slower approach with his development. However, like Sierra he is another player that could be poised for breakout now that his body is maturing.
Despite his wiry frame, the way the ball jumped off his bat intrigued John immensely last spring. Given the first team reps Morel is receiving with South Bend it seems quite possible John identified one final under-the-radar prospect with big upside for us to observe moving forward. His usage indicates he will at the very least skip over the AZL and join Diaz with Eugene, with the potential to see the MWL in the final month, just as Ademan did. But it is not out of the realm of possibility Morel cracks the South Bend lineup come April, especially if Ademan jumps to Myrtle Beach.