Cubs fans had to be thrilled with how the 2015 season played out, as many of the top prospects in their system decided they didn’t need an adjustment period and sprinted out of the gates. Looking at the number of young players contributing to the playoff run, you could assume the minor league pipeline would take a step back after graduating so many high-level players. Fortunately for Cubs fans, there is still a wealth of both high-floor and high-upside talent under team control.
There is a strong mix of pitching and hitting assets. Most of the top offensive reinforcements will be knocking on the big league door within a year or two, while the higher-ceiling pitchers may take another year to show up. The overall quantity of guys who were in the conversation for this list was itself an impressive compliment to the Cubs’ scouting and player development efforts.
For the hitters, I’m a little higher on Billy McKinney and Dan Vogelbach and lower on Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario than you might see elsewhere. None of them grade out poorly in my opinion, but it may be a different ranking than even some Cubs officials would prefer. Pitchers Dylan Cease and Jake Stinnett are ranked favorably, especially in comparison to CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson for reasons that are explained in each respective player’s report.
Here’s the primer for the series and my scouting thoughts in general. The grades I put on players heavily weight the functionality of each tool in game situations, rather than just pure tool grades. Here is a table to understand the position player grades:
|Grade||Tool Is Called||Batting Average||HR||ISO||Baserunning Runs||Fielding Runs|
As well as one to understand what the overall grades approximate:
|Grade||Hitter||Starting Pitcher||Relief Pitcher||WAR|
|80||Top 1-2||#1 Starter||—-||7|
|55||Above Avg||#3/4||Mid Closer||2.5|
|50||Avg Regular||#4||Low CL/High SU||2|
|40||Bench||Swing/Spot SP||Middle RP||1|
|35||Emergency Call-Up||Emergency Call-Up||Emergency Call-Up||0|
One other difference for the way I’ll be communicating scouting grades to you is the presence of three numbers on each tool instead of just two. The first number is the current grade. The second number is the likely future grade; or, if you prefer percentiles, call this the 50th percentile projection. The third number is the ceiling grade, or 90th percentile projection, to help demonstrate the volatility and raw potential of a tool. I feel this gives readers a better sense of the possible outcomes a player could achieve, and more information to understand my thoughts on the likelihood of reaching those levels.
In the biographical information, level refers to where they finished the year, unless they were sent down for injury rehab or other extraneous reasons. Ages are listed as of April 1, 2016. You can also find each player’s previous rank from Kiley’s list last year. Below, Dave Cameron shares his thoughts on the general state of the organization. Returning for his popular cameo, Carson Cistulli picks his favorite fringe prospect toward the end of the list. Next up will be the Chicago White Sox.
Video courtesy of 2080 Baseball
1. Gleyber Torres, SS
Current Level/Age: High-A/19.1, 6’1/175, R/R
Acquired: Signed in 2013 out of Venezuela by CHC for $1.7 million bonus
Previous Rank: 9
Torres has a great all-around profile, with all but his power projecting to be at least average. Defensively he doesn’t have prototypical shortstop range, but controls his body extremely well with excellent footwork. If he loses a step as he matures, he would be a great fit at second or third, as well, but I like him at short. He has plus arm strength with the ability to get rid of the ball quickly. His average speed could fade, but he has the instincts to create opportunities on the bases regardless.
In the box, Torres has a line drive swing with a lot of athletic moves. He makes plenty of hard contact, though his strength and level swing plane hint at a power ceiling around average. His batting practice swings show some better lift, but reaching it against live pitching would likely require some conscious effort to enact, made unnecessary by his raw ability to hit.
He has excellent balance and a strong lower half, with smooth hands and a selective approach in game. There is work to do on pitch recognition, but that is likely to come with more repetitions rather than being an innate problem. Torres looks to me like an elite major league hitter who will have situational power, making pitchers pay for mistakes left up in the zone.
Hit: 40/60/70 Power: 25/40/50 Run: 50/50/55 Field: 55/55/60 Throw: 55/60/60
Overall (Current, Likely Future, Ceiling): 35/60/70
2. Ian Happ, OF
Current Level/Age: A/21.7, 6’0/205, B/R
Acquired: Drafted 9th overall (1st round) in 2015 out of U of Cincinnati by CHC for $3 million bonus
Previous Rank: NA
Happ broke out in a big way this year at Cincinnati after two strong summers in the Cape Cod League, offering an intriguing power-speed combination on offense. His defensive skills were deemed by the Cubs to be better suited for the outfield, an understandable tactic to allow his bat to get him to the big leagues as quickly as possible.
In the outfield, he has fast footwork and a quick release, though his body control is a bit below average. Attempting to make difficult plays in the infield is a tall order, but in the outfield he has more time to work around balls and get into good position to make plays. It’s possible he’s at best an average fielder, but I think he projects well enough to play a passable center field or a good corner. His above-average arm plays up due to his quick release time.
Happ’s lefty swing has more power potential than his right, with tons of natural lift and bat speed. From the right, he swings downward or level more often, but he should still do enough damage from his lesser side. The only questionable part of his hitting is his contact. Happ has some issues barreling up balls when he gets too pushy with his hands, leading to poor barreling. He swings and misses at a lot of pitches, often enough that his strikeout rate may continue to rise as he climbs levels.
Despite some reservations on his hit tool, he has sufficient positives to outweigh any negatives that remain after more repetitions and development. The contact he does make will be hard enough to make it work, and he’s shown the ability to take his walks when given nothing to drive. Even if Happ ends up in a corner outfield spot, he can produce enough with the bat and on the bases to be a valuable starting player.
Hit: 40/50/55 Power: 45/55/65 Run: 55/55/60 Field: 45/50/55 Throw: 55/55/60
Video courtesy of Baseball America
3. Duane Underwood, RHP
Current Level/Age: High-A/21.7, 6’2/215, R/R
Acquired: Drafted 67th overall (2st round) in 2012 out of Georgia HS by CHC for $1.05 million bonus
Previous Rank: 7
Underwood continued building on his solid 2014 this season at High-A Myrtle Beach, until an elbow injury forced him to miss two months of the season. He came back in August to make six starts and pitched well to close out the year. Though concerns about his makeup and maturity are still fresh in evaluator’s minds, he has done well to stay in shape and improve his command the past two seasons.
He throws a mid-90s fastball with room for more when he reaches back, and gets excellent running action. Though his curveball is his best secondary pitch, he spent much of 2015 working on his changeup, which remains a work in progress. The curve flashes better than plus, but it still has inconsistent tilt depending on his release.
Underwood almost jumps toward the plate in his delivery, but does a great job repeating his delivery and maintaining balance. There is a lot of momentum left over in his arm at his finish, and his arm recoils pretty hard after release. If he’s truly grown up now, the elbow injury and extra reliance on his arm in the delivery are really the only blemishes in projecting Underwood.
Assuming good health, he has the ceiling of a number two or three starter, likely settling into the middle of a rotation if his changeup doesn’t develop enough.
Fastball: 50/60/65 Curveball: 55/65/70 Changeup: 40/45/55 Command: 50/55/60
Video courtesy of Tanner Shurtz
4. Dylan Cease, RHP
Current Level/Age: R/20.3, 6’1/175, R/R
Acquired: Drafted 169th overall (6th round) in 2014 out of Georgia HS by CHC for $1.5 million bonus
Previous Rank: 20
As one of the hardest-throwing high school pitchers in the draft, Cease’s elbow injury was the only reason he was available after the first round. The elbow injury led to Tommy John surgery, and it wasn’t until 2015 that he was able to throw his first professional pitch. Reports of his stuff in the rookie Arizona League this year had him sitting 95-96 with his fastball, an uptick from his high school days pre-surgery.
Before the draft, Cease had some obvious mechanical issues that put undue stress on his quick arm. He literally jumped toward the plate, and his hips slid out from under him toward first base, rendering his arm as the only means of propelling and controlling his offerings to the plate. He had enough lower body strength to hold his balance despite the rough directional issues. His finish was different every pitch, and there was a noticeable arm “clang” as his follow through slammed into the left side of his body.
Fast forward to 2015, and he has considerably improved from a mechanical aspect. Gone is the hip slide, with Cease now finding much better footing and an ability to use the ground to support his arm. His command sharpened, particularly with his fastball, and his delivery has a more repeatable look than previously observed.
He throws a curveball and a changeup to round out his arsenal. The curveball has flashed better than plus in the past, though its shape and command still need work. His changeup is a serviceable third pitch, but its projection really depends on his other two offerings reaching their potential to be better than average.
Seeing him as an amateur, I would agree with most scouts who believe he may end up in the bullpen to protect his arm and hide the command issues he had. With 2015 in the books, Cease took such big steps forward in his recovery and first outings in the Cubs system that I believe he continues developing into a starter. A number three or four role is a likely outcome even if his curve and command do not reach their ceilings.
His ceiling is even higher, with an improved delivery boding well for the progress of his curveball consistency. I hedged a little bit with his ceiling grade on account of his limited experience and the elbow injury, but Cease has the potential to be at the top of a big league rotation. His 2016 season should give us a better idea of how good he actually will be, as he learns to pitch rather than blowing hitters away with his velocity. His overall command and his curveball consistency being the biggest things to watch.
Fastball: 55/65/70 Curveball: 40/55/65 Changeup: 35/45/55 Command: 40/50/60
5. Billy McKinney, OF
Current Level/Age: AA/21.6, 6’1/205, L/L
Acquired: Drafted 24th overall (1st round) in 2013 out of Texas HS by OAK for $1.8 million bonus, traded to CHC 7/2014
Previous Rank: 10
McKinney came to the Cubs along with Addison Russell in the 2014 Jeff Samardzija trade, and he hasn’t stopped hitting since. He’s a big guy with obvious strength, though the power has been slow to develop. Regardless, he makes up for it with his ability to hit and get on base at a high level.
He projects well in a corner outfield spot with average speed and good instincts, though his defense will be around average to a bit below there. He draws positive reviews for his instincts, allowing for the possibility of his tools playing up a bit on defense. Though he has average speed, stealing bases isn’t a big part of his game. He will likely continue using good baseball sense to be a decent contributor as a baserunner overall.
At the plate, McKinney really shines. He makes a lot of contact and has a consistent, selective approach. His swing path gives him a lot of room for error on off speed pitches, and he creates enough lift to drive a ton of balls in the gaps. There is not much torque in his swing; instead, McKinney settles for squaring balls up and doing more work with his upper body in a smooth, athletic motion. His actions suggest some added strength or an attempt to create more lift might raise his power ceiling quickly, but I’ll settle for likely average power.
McKinney has a high floor on account of his hit tool alone, and he’s good enough in the rest of his game to project easily as a starter in the big leagues. He looks more like a dangerous doubles hitter than homer threat, but those play at any level, too.
Hit: 50/65/70 Power: 40/50/55+ Run: 45/45/50 Field: 45/50/55 Throw: 45/45/45
6. Dan Vogelbach, 1B
Current Level/Age: AA/23.3, 6’0/250, L/R
Acquired: Drafted 68th overall (2nd round) in 2011 out of Florida HS by CHC for $1.6 million bonus
Previous Rank: 11
Vogelbach struggled with hamstring and oblique injuries in 2015, limiting his total at-bats and power numbers in Double-A. His swing was noticeably affected by the maladies, and he was forced to hit without much use of his lower half the entire year. Despite the limitation, Vogelbach posted impressive marks in the on-base department, maintaining stellar walk rates in a down year.
His defense and running speed leave him almost assuredly in a DH role, but the bat is worth a starting role in the future. His swing is built for loads of line drives and fly balls, and he has enough contact ability to make his bat profile at a high level. When healthy, he shows great athleticism at the plate, with exceptional sequencing throughout his swing, great balance, and a hand path that stays on the ball as long as physically possible.
I think it’s too easy to look for a reason why Vogelbach won’t succeed given his body type, and his fall in other rankings is a mistake on account of his bat. This guy is an excellent hitter in the making that had injuries sap his power, not a fringy power hitter who had a setback year. Just look at two of the greatest hitters on the planet who dealt with nagging injuries, Miguel Cabrera (ankle/calf in 2014-15) and Joey Votto (quad in 2014), for how much a lower half injury can affect power output. Team officials say he should be 100% healthy for 2016.
His ranking here might be going out on the limb that he can keep his body in check, which I believe is directly tied to his ability to stay on the field. His total value is limited by the lack of position, but he has the ceiling of a feared power hitter in the middle of any order. The on-base skills bump his hit tool up half a grade across the board.
With first base locked up by Anthony Rizzo, it’s easy to envision Vogelbach excelling in the minors to start the year before being dealt to an American League team for major league reinforcements, where he can really flourish. Cubs sources applauded his serious approach to his conditioning, and they believe he may end up being serviceable at first.
Hit: 50/60/65 Power: 50/55-60/65 Run: 20/20/25 Field: 30/30/35 Throw: 40/40/40
Video courtesy of Chicago Cubs Online
7. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP
Current Level/Age: Low-A/21.1, 6’2/180, R/R
Acquired: Signed in 2012 out of Dominican Republic by CHC for $85,000 bonus
Previous Rank: NA
De La Cruz has only been pitching since he was signed in October 2012, with the Cubs converting him from his natural shortstop position as a professional. He has made the decision look genius so far, spending the 2015 season in Low-A Eugene with excellent results. He boasted a 73:17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 73 innings. Multiple team sources had him close to their personal top-five lists, but I would like to see more development of his offspeed before going too crazy on him.
Commanding the fastball is his best asset on the mound, able to keep it in the zone with low to mid-90s velocity and decent life. He’s developing his secondary pitches, which will be essential for when he starts facing better overall hitters. He should continue getting lower minors hitters out by attacking them with fastballs, but look for his curve and change to step forward for him to see his ceiling.
He is a big, athletic pitcher who the Cubs believe will be a very durable rotation member as he continues building up innings. De La Cruz gets high marks as a great competitor, and 2016 should be an exciting year to see how well he improves his offspeed pitches as the competition gets better. Having such great command of the fastball at a young age makes his floor pretty high, though I want to see where his other offerings go over the next 12-24 months before buying in as a frontline starter.
Fastball: 45/55/65 Curveball: 40/50/55 Changeup: 35/45/50 Command: 40/50/60
Video courtesy of Shaun P Kernahan
8. Mark Zagunis, OF
Current Level/Age: A+/23.2, 6’0/205, R/R
Acquired: Drafted 78th overall (3rd round) in 2014 out of Virginia Tech by CHC for $615,000 bonus
Previous Rank: NA
Zagunis has surprising athleticism in the outfield, having been converted to the outfield as a former catcher. The Cubs valued his unique on-base abilities too much to let the defensive work slow down his progression. Zagunis still has interest in catching, and Cubs management has left the door open to coming back to it at some point.
He demonstrates solid-average speed and is aggressive on the bases, leading team sources to believe he can handle all three outfield spots. He likely fits best in the corner positions. He may not steal for a ton of bases but shows enough instincts to be about average or a bit below as a baserunner.
Zagunis is an interesting hitter to project as a big leaguer. He has a superb eye at the plate, makes plenty of contact and has a swing path conducive to hitting balls in the air. It’s tempting to believe he just needs to grow into some man strength for the power to come, though he doesn’t have much physical projection left in his frame.
Also complicating his power prospects are minor swing issues. His swing path does hint at consistently hitting balls over the outfielders and sometimes the fence, but his swing as a whole lacks the torque and explosiveness you’d like to see from a power prospect. Oftentimes he gets stuck on his back leg when he reaches out with the front foot rather than taking a true stride. This unbalanced landing position makes his hips spin rather than really drive into the pitch.
Despite the power questions, his hit tool should carry him into a starting role with close to average tools across the rest of the board. His discerning eye gives him a sizable bump to his hit tool. Zagunis should develop just enough power for pitchers to have to work around him, giving him plenty of value in the outfield. The Cubs believe in his power coming around, though most sources I spoke with wouldn’t have him this high in the rankings.
Hit: 50/60/65+ Power: 35/40/45 Run: 45/45/50 Field: 50/55/55 Throw: 50/50/50
Video courtesy of Eric Longenhagen
9. Willson Contreras, C
Current Level/Age: AA/23.9, 6’1/175, R/R
Acquired: Signed in 2009 out of Venezuela by CHC for $850,000 bonus
Previous Rank: NA
The big improvement in Contreras’ development this year was his plate discipline, cutting his strikeout rate nearly in half after graduating to Double-A. With his mastery of the strike zone came a ton of walks and an equal increase in opportunities to drive the ball, leading to a .333 and .413 batting average and on-base percentage, respectively. Still developing defensively, he has enough positive traits to look like a big league catcher, but I have some minor doubts about him becoming an average producer overall at the position.
Though Contreras has a strong arm, his pop times can be inconsistent due to fast but shaky footwork. Some of the throws I saw from him in the Arizona Fall League featured plus times with good accuracy, while many others ended with the ball fading off toward the first base side of the bag at below-average times. He has the upside to be an above-average defender, but it will take more work cleaning up his receiving and solidifying his footwork to reach his ceiling. Club sources were higher on his defense, believing in his arm as a consistent weapon on defense.
In the batter’s box, he demonstrates well above-average exit speeds with a big, fast swing, which I found surprising given the contact ability he proved this year. He can look rather raw at the plate despite a solid mental approach, with his hand movements occasionally getting too big and his swing having an all-at-once look that could get exploited by big league pitchers. He showed how smooth he can be when everything was timed up, but the inconsistency makes his likely future hitting grade a tick or two lower than what it can be at his best.
Catchers are supposed to take the longest to develop fully, and Contreras’ chances of reaching his ceiling as a plus catching option will be a test of that received wisdom. That he performs at a high level only in flashes, and is likely to end up at Triple-A this year (thus shortening the window on his development time), probably mean that he’s less likely to reach his full defensive potential. I can’t help shake the feeling he ends up slightly below average overall, but his potential makes it difficult to put him lower on this list. Team sources put him in their top five, citing his Double-A batting title as a huge reason for optimism.
Hit: 45/50/60 Power: 35/40/50 Run: 40/40/45 Field: 45/50/50 Throw: 45/50/60
Video courtesy of Christopher Blessing
10. Albert Almora, CF
Current Level/Age: AA/22.0, 6’2/180, R/R
Acquired: Drafted 6th overall (1st round) in 2012 out of Florida HS by CHC for $3.9 million bonus
Previous Rank: 5
Almora is one of the few upper-level prospects in the system that didn’t take a huge step forward in 2015, but still made improvements that keep him on track for a shot in the big leagues. He’s a pretty safe bet for plus production on defense as a true center fielder with excellent range and a strong arm. He possesses above-average raw speed, but hasn’t taken any strides to convert it into usable ability on the basepaths, at least in terms of stolen bases, but he will still be at least an average baserunner.
At the plate, Almora has an aggressive approach that leads to a lot of contact with raw power that hasn’t translated to the game side. He has a level to choppy bat path, and he has had issues with barreling the ball up at times, but he does enough well in the box to project as at least an above-average bat in the big leagues. I haven’t seen anything in his swings to expect much more than below-average power, especially since it’s unlikely he gains enough raw strength to drive the ball in the air with his swing path.
He deserves a lot of credit for improving his approach in 2015, and even if he hit for no power he is still viable as a big league option on account of his hit tool and defense. If he can further hone his plan at the plate and consistently pick out good pitches to drive, Almora could be a legitimate top-of-the-order hitter while playing great defense. He still has some rawness to work out, but I see no reason not to expect Almora in a major league outfield in a year or two.
Hit: 45/55/60 Power: 35/40/45 Run: 50/50/55 Field: 60/60/65 Throw: 60/60/60
11. Ryan Williams, RHP, VIDEO
Drafted out of Eastern Carolina as an under-slot sign to accommodate other picks in his class, Williams has put up awesome numbers in his first 168 innings across four minor league levels. He doesn’t have a definitive strikeout pitch, but his command and control both could be plus, making him an option for the Cubs staff as soon as this year. Matched with elite makeup and an advanced comfort with properly executing game plans, Williams has some sleeper potential as a mid-rotation starter.
There is nothing flashy about his actions on the mound, which features a consistent, simple delivery. He doesn’t have the loosest arm action in the world, but it is low stress enough that his future command and health outlooks are good. His best pitch is a heavy sinking fastball that sits 88-91, which he commands well in the bottom of the zone. His repertoire includes a curveball, slider, and changeup that all have fringy movement but are spotted very well, making them all potentially play up to at least average.
He pitched mostly in long relief in college, and it’s possible his stuff relegates him there in the big leagues. I think his pitching skill makes him a solid bet for at least a back-end rotation role with underappreciated upside. The Cubs will obviously keep him in the rotation as long as possible, and sources offer praise for Williams consistency going deep into games with low pitch counts.
I was really tempted to bump him higher on this list, but I would like to see one of his secondary pitches show enough movement to get swings and misses before going crazy. Williams is likely to find himself in Triple-A to face hitters who are better able to stick to their own plans, so 2016 should give us a good look at what his future holds.
Fastball: 50/55/60 Curveball: 45/50/55 Slider: 45/45/50 Changeup: 45/45/50 Command: 50/55/60
Candelario had a huge bounceback year in High-A and Double-A after some struggles in 2014. He showed some of the best power of his minor league career, driving doubles from both sides of the plate. He excelled against Arizona Fall League competition, taking his hard-hitting ways to another level.
At third, he has improved enough to have no problem sticking at the position in the future. He won’t be much of a contributor on the bases, and is likely to continue slowing down as he fills out his frame some more.
Candelario may end up being a better hitter overall on the right side of the plate, though most of his power has come from the left. He has a very quick bat on both sides, though he tends to roll his barrel through the ball, particularly on the left side. When he catches the ball on the barrel, it really jumps off the bat to his pull side, but he will need to show more feel at the plate to tap into his raw strength consistently. His swings on both sides are built for line drives and gappers, though he may naturally add some power as he matures physically.
When things go right, he has the tools to be an exciting above-average big league player. Lingering approach concerns and some swing issues cloud his future as a trusted starting option for me, but I think his bat speed and contact will keep his batted ball quality high enough to be close to an average regular.
Hit: 40/50/60 Power: 40/45/55 Run: 35/35/40 Field: 45/50/50 Throw: 55/55/55
Stinnett had a respectable first full year in pro ball, though by the standards he set with his college and pro performances in 2014 it was something of a letdown. He had trouble getting his delivery working for most of the year, and his command suffered as result. His power stuff still made regular appearances in his starts, particularly toward the end of the year, and the Cubs are looking forward to Stinnett having a year where expectations won’t be as high.
His fastball works in the low to mid-90s with great run and some sink, though he can reach up to 97 with a flatter offering. He throws a slider that can be almost unhittable down in the zone, and a changeup that should end up working for him as a close to average pitch. Despite having trouble with his rhythm this year, Stinnett has a great frame with really athletic actions on the mound. He has a super clean arm and delivery when he’s right.
Already 23 years old, it’s important to point out he’s only been pitching since his junior year of college in 2013, so needing to develop some of the finer skill work is completely expected. In his case, I really believe in the athlete and the stuff working out in the end.
This season will give us a better picture of what he can be, but I think he ends up jumping up prospect lists in short order by next offseason. He won’t be rushed through the system despite his age, being treated as a younger arm due to lack of experience. I am holding his middle projection down a bit for now, but his ceiling may be as high as the top pitchers in the system.
Fastball: 45/55/60 Slider: 45/55/65 Changeup: 40/45/50 Command: 40/50/60
After spending much of 2014 on the shelf with shoulder inflammation and fatigue, Edwards transitioned to a bullpen role full-time in 2015 with mixed results. Spending time in Double-A, Triple-A and the majors, his strikeout rate jumped to well over a batter per inning, but his walk rate also climbed to dangerous levels. He continued his impressive record of limiting home runs, only giving up one in 60 innings, just his third allowed in his professional career.
Edwards brings a hard fastball with cutting action and a sharp-breaking curveball to the mound. His changeup showed some signs of being close to an average pitch, but he mostly focused on his best two offerings in the pen last year. The fastball has the ceiling of a plus or better pitch, with the natural cut making it very difficult to square up. His curve has similar potential, though his fastball is his bread and butter.
What limited him in 2015 was his command and control, particularly with the fastball. He struggled to find the zone, but was effective enough in the strikeout and homer departments to post solid run prevention numbers. I want to see how his command looks in 2016 before really buying into his future as a shutdown reliever.
I worry some about his shoulder issue from 2014, since he has a very abbreviated follow through that relies a lot on the muscles in his upper back to decelerate his arm, rather than a more relaxed, full-body finish. While he had a healthy season, I will be really interested to see if his control and command come back in 2016, or if he’s lost some feel after relying on an inefficient mechanism to slow down his arm for so long.
While there is still some talk of him returning to the rotation, the Cubs plan to keep him in the bullpen, where they really liked what he showed late in the year. Until he can show improvements in his control, his likely future takes a step back for me, though his ceiling remains unchanged. Big league hitters will be able to hit more of his mistakes and lay off pitches out of the zone, but there’s a chance 2015 was just a blip in an otherwise extremely promising pitcher’s young career.
Fastball: 50/55/65 Curveball: 45/50/60 Command: 40/45/50
Johnson’s biggest accomplishment this year was cutting down on his walk rate in Double-A, though his strikeouts dipped below seven per nine in 2015 for the first time in his professional career. His season got a late start because of a lat strain suffered in spring training, and he has had elbow issues in his past. While he has the raw stuff to be a mid-rotation starter, I have questions about his command and injury history that may relegate him to the bullpen long-term.
My concerns over his future command and injuries relate to his delivery. He has an easy-going approach with fairly repeatable mechanics, but he has inconsistent arm actions at and after release that affect his location and stress on the arm. Instead of a clean transfer of rotation from the shoulder down through the forearm into pronation, Johnson cuts off his finish right after release, particularly on his breaking ball. I worry about his ability to continue developing feel for his arsenal, which would conceivably limit him to bullpen duty.
To his credit, Johnson has improved his strike-throwing, and may end up keeping enough pitches in the zone to stay in the rotation. Strikeouts may only show up after transitioning to the pen unless his decent control progresses into above-average or better command. Right now, I think he comes a bit short, but his pure stuff gives him potential in the late innings out of the bullpen, or as a back-end starter.
Fastball: 50/55/60 Curveball: 50/55/60 Cutter: 40/45/50 Changeup: 40/45/50 Command: 40/45/45-50
Zastryzny can be feast or famine depending on the day, with his stuff and command fluctuating from below-average to plus. I saw him in Arizona on one of the good days, coming away very impressed with his arsenal and command. He looked like a future mid-rotation starter, though his historical inconsistency makes it less likely he reaches that ceiling.
On the mound, he had a real fluid arm with a solid base and loose, athletic actions. All four of his pitches showed at least average potential and the command to match. His fastball sat in the low-90s, complemented by a changeup and slider in the high-80s and curveball just under 80 mph. In the past, Zastryzny has gotten too cross-fire with his stride, leading to pitches left up in the zone. He showed that tendency on a few pitches in Arizona, but they were rare.
I split the difference on his likely future role, since it’s hard to ignore what he showed in the fall. Whether his performances will continue to be up and down or if he’s cleaned up the direction in his delivery as a more permanent change will have to be monitored in 2016. He still projects as a back-end starter with his longer track record weighing heavily, but his ceiling may put him solidly in the middle of a rotation with continued development.
Fastball: 45/50/60 Curveball: 40/45/55 Slider: 40/45/50 Changeup: 45/55/60 Command: 45/50/60
17. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, VIDEO
Martinez was picked up out of Cuba for $3 million after some runaround with the Giants, Cubs and Jimenez’ Dominican and American representatives. He was rated the top international prospect by many outlets before officially signing. Martinez shows some natural ability to lift the ball to all fields, but his swing looks to be geared toward more line drives and gap shots at present.
The Cubs believe he has usable tools across the board with strength and say he has solid-average running speed. Other opinions have him a bit higher on his running ability, and you can also hear scouts say he projects for home run power to all fields. This year will help parse things out, and we can see a bit more of where he really is tool-wise. The team is in no rush to push him developmentally, and will likely let him start in Low-A Euguene to get acclimated.
Hit: 45/50/60 Power: 35/45/55 Run: 55/55/60 Field: 50/55/55 Throw: 60/60/60
Drafted in the third round this past June, Hudson is a towering lefty, standing at 6-foot-7. He gets good reviews for his curveball, showing a better feel for it than even his fastball. He’s more projection right now than product as a multi-sport athlete in high school, and the Cubs will be counting on him learning to use his long frame to create more velocity and command the ball. Team sources say he has gained 20 pounds since signing.
His fastball sat in the upper-80s for most of his senior year in high school, but reports from the team have him 91-93 in instructs. Though his ceiling is pretty high, he has a lot of work to do on his delivery, command, and changeup to dream of reaching it. His command is iffy at best, and he doesn’t have the cleanest mechanics on the mound, with a very arm-dominant delivery. While he’s an athletic guy overall, his sequencing and direction are not where they need to be yet, though pitchers of his size should be given a bit of leeway since it can take longer to figure things out.
For now, he settles in with a back-of-the-rotation projection, though it very easily could go up or down after seeing how his maturation goes the next few years. I’m tempted to take the under on it already, simply because the projection is more based on his size than his actions, but recent reports point to a legitimate upside.
Fastball: 45/50/60 Curveball: 45/50/65 Changeup: 35/40/50 Command: 40/45/50
While still raw two seasons into his minor league career, Jimenez profiles as a solid offensive outfielder given enough time to develop. He received the highest bonus from the Cubs during their 2013 international shopping spree, then produced two impressive platform years in the low minors as a teenager. The biggest thing the Cubs were happy about this year was him staying healthy and playing everyday, allowing him to get into a routine that will help his skill work on both sides of the ball.
An average runner, baserunning is not likely to be a big part of his game as he fills out. He won’t hurt you on the bases, but it will be put to better use on defense. Team sources think he’ll be an average left fielder as he fills out physically, though his arm should be strong enough to help in either corner.
In his swing, his bat flattens out as his swing starts, which he manages by running his hands across his body toward the left side to get the barrel to the ball. He also has a tendency to be choppy and dive for the ball with his upper body slightly, especially when fooled. At his experience level, repetitions against professional pitching should make him more comfortable and able to create more consistent lift.
Jimenez has also shown impressive contact and strikeout rates at a young age, boding well for his future power and general hitting development. He has some work to do to turn the corner as a complete hitter, but he’s shown impressive strikeout rates in the early going to pair with his power potential. He has plenty of time to develop, and his trajectory to the big leagues will be determined by learning to hit without being too “wristy,” and trust his bat. He should start the 2016 season in Low-A Eugene.
Hit: 30/50/55 Power: 30/50/60 Run: 45/45/45 Field: 45/50/50 Throw: 50/55/60
Wilson was a high-bonus fourth round pick in 2015 with a fast-twitch body and plus speed. He uses that speed very well in center field, getting good reads and projecting to stay at the position long-term with at least plus upside. He also runs the bases well and should contribute plenty of value taking extra bases.
Everyone I talked to in the organization came away from instructional league talking about his surprising pop. He does have well above-average bat speed, though in game situations he has more of a contact approach that won’t offer much power. He doesn’t have much lift to his swing path, though he is young enough that he may be able to tap into his raw strength over the next few development years. His game is good enough overall that he probably won’t need to hit for power to be a useful big league player.
Hit: 35/50/55 Power: 20/30/35 Run: 55/60/65 Field: 60/60/65 Throw: 50/50/55
Villanueva put together a decent year in his second season with Triple-A Iowa, cutting down on his strikeouts and knocking 18 homers. He boasts pull-side power that won’t quite carry him into a starting role offensively, but he shows promise as a utility guy with a bat that may play very well against lefties. Watching him hit, he looks anxious to put a charge into the ball, which gets him in trouble against decent right-handed breaking balls. He is caught between not having enough power to make his contact quality work, and vice-versa. Luckily, his defense will get him a spot in the majors shortly.
At third base, he has very soft hands and a solid-average arm that plays up with good actions. One Cubs official put a plus grade on his defense at third, while another offered he has the ability to play second and first at an above-average level as well. With how teams value defensive versatility, Villanueva has a chance to play a utility role, or even work his way into semi-regular at-bats if he can continue showing progress with his plate discipline.
Hit: 40/40/45 Power: 40/45/45 Run: 40/40/45 Field: 55/55/60 Throw: 55/55/55
22. Donnie Dewees, OF, VIDEO
Dewees’ power production jumped in his 2015 college season, propelling him into the second round this June. He possesses better than plus raw speed, and has already shown the aptitude to strongly impact the game on the base paths. Despite the statistical breakout in college, his other four tools are unlikely to be better than average, with his arm being a liability in the outfield.
He has a level swing path that gets in the zone deep, more likely to produce line drives and grounders than many fly balls. He also tends to release the barrel around his hands early, making him have to catch the ball out in front to square it up consistently as he hooks around it. His home run power is likely only to the pull side, but his speed gives him a chance to turn many of his sprayed line drives into extra-base hits.
He makes contact at a good rate, but his power and defensive value limit him to a likely bench role in the future. If he can smooth out his swing to create more consistent contact, he has a chance to be a starting player, but an employing team will have to put up with his liabilities in the field. The Cubs are higher on his defense despite his arm, believing he can stick in center field, though his speed will have to turn into better functional range for that to happen.
Hit: 35/45/55 Power: 30/40/45 Run: 60/65/65 Field: 45/50/55+ Throw: 30/30/35
Steele was a high-bonus fifth-round pick out of high school in 2014, and has put up nothing but great numbers in his first two professional seasons. There are concerns about his command, but at least control-wise he has done an impressive job in the low minors. He is an athletic guy in general, with the Cubs attributing his rawness — and subsequent expectations for improvement — to having been a multi-sport athlete in high school.
His fastball resides in the low 90s, with a curveball and changeup that show flashes of being average pitches but are not consistent. His curve has the best chance of becoming an average offering, with team officials giving it as high as a plus grade. He doesn’t show much feel for his changeup currently, and has to slow things down to get a speed difference. Steele can miss bats on occasion and does keep the ball on the ground, both qualities that will need to be continue moving forward.
As an amateur, he had some issues with his stride that led to some extra effort heaped on his arm, and he could get too cross-fire at times. His command issues are still present, but his ability to throw strikes will afford him more opportunities to improve. Steele missed some time with an arm tweak this year, though multiple sources said it was completely cautionary with no ramifications for the future. All reports say his arm is great and they have no worries going forward.
The Cubs trust Steele’s athleticism and makeup/work ethic to carry him further than his initial showings may indicate. He is recognized as an exceptionally great competitor, and they believe he has enough feel for his three pitches to develop favorably as he matures. One official put him right behind Oscar De La Cruz as his favorite low-minors pitcher in the organization. Look for him to slow himself down and trust his stuff as he progresses.
Fastball: 40/50/55 Curveball: 35/45/55 Changeup: 35/40/45 Command: 40/45/50
Young is an versatile defender that can play all over the field, including shortstop in a pinch. He has at least above-average potential on the bases and truly elite contact skills. In 2015, Young set a Carolina League record by reaching base safely in 44 straight games. He doesn’t have much power, and none of his tools really scream at you, but Young could fill a super utility role with a big league club while still providing value at the plate.
His swing is relaxed and compact with solid sequencing making up for his lack of raw bat speed and strength. Young shows the ability to lift the ball into the outfield with regularity, though he won’t hit for much if any home run power. He should continue spraying line drives around the field as the pitching he faces gets tougher, and reports out of advanced instructs were that he has started driving the ball in the gaps with more frequency.
I am really interested to see how Young’s 2016 season progresses, particularly how his on-base abilities will be tested as he sees more difficult pitches regularly. So far he’s done nothing but hit, enough that I believe he’s at least a solid bench piece. I like his bat’s chances of carrying him through the upper minors into a big league uniform, and I wonder how much the finished product resembles someone like Marco Scutaro.
Hit: 50/55/60 Power: 25/30/35 Run: 55/60/65 Field: 50/55/60 Throw: 50/50/55
Another member of the Cubs’ 2013 international class, Tseng draws praise for his pitching feel and usable three-pitch mix. He has done well to limit the free passes so far, but will have to find some growth in his command or stuff to project as more than a back-end starter or reliever. His build is already pretty maxed out, so his potential will have to come from sharpening his command well beyond where it is now.
Tseng has a drop-and-drive delivery that gets him throwing uphill to varying degrees. The delivery itself can look very good, with great use of his hips and a smooth, quick sequence of his body. The issue is with consistency, especially regarding how far he sinks into his back leg as he strides forward. He misses in dangerous parts of the zone as a result of throwing uphill, which will be a problem against better hitters if not tightened up.
His fastball sits in the low-90s at his best, and his curve and change both show above-average potential in small samples. His command of his arsenal is subpar despite his ability to throw strikes, and in my opinion is the biggest reason he maxes out developmentally, rather than his smallish frame.
Fastball: 40/45/50 Curveball: 40/45/50 Changeup: 40/45/50 Command: 40/45/45+
A Cubs official I communicated with was very happy with Sands’ 2015 season for development purposes, getting tested by better hitters and learning to do deal with struggles. His overall numbers were held down by a couple bad outings, and he still managed almost a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first taste of full-season ball. He holds the honor of giving up no home runs in his first 76.1 professional innings through Low-A.
He has a big body and throws enough strikes that the Cubs believe he ends up in the back of the rotation, with innings and durability being a greater contribution than his stuff. His fastball, curve and change all look like average pitches at best, but his consistency pounding the zone will be the key for him going forward. I think he needs a slight uptick in stuff or command to get there, but at 20 years old he has time to work things out.
Fastball: 45/50/50 Curveball: 40/45/50 Changeup: 40/45/50 Command: 40/45/50
Caratini has improved his catching chops to the point he can stick there, but he’s rough enough that his bat will have to carry him into a starting role. He has the potential to be an average hitter with a solid eye and good contact skills, but his fringy power will require some conscious changes to ever be realized in full.
He is a legitimate switch-hitter, with positive contributions looking to come from both sides of the plate. While he has more power projection on the left side, his hips tend to leak toward the pitcher and he is forced to hook pitches as his balance teeters. His right-handed swing is more balanced, but his hand path on that side looks to have less lift than the other.
Hit: 35/50/55 Power: 25/35/40 Run: 30/30/35 Field: 40/45/50 Throw: 45/50/55
After spending the first three years of his professional career in the rotation, Black transitioned to a bullpen role in 2015 with mixed results. Despite being a shade under six feet tall, his stuff has been money, but he has limited command and hasn’t found a a good routine coming out of the pen. He has a mid-90s fastball with some effort and crossfire direction, which seems to help him get on guys quicker than they anticipate. On pure stuff, he has a plus split-change and at times a plus curveball.
Black has a chance to see appreciable time with the big league team in 2016, but team sources say he needs to embrace his new bullpen role to see the results his stuff warrants. While it’s possible he ends up a late-innings guy, his command is too unreliable to count on him as more than a middle relief pitcher. Still, his upside is undeniable. He may be one of those guys who is lights out in a setup role for a couple years, but for now I’m hedging my bet.
Fastball: 50/50/55 Curveball: 45/45/50 Changeup: 45/50/55 Command: 40/40/45
Clifton came into the system very raw out of high school, but has come a long way since then. He made a lot of improvements to his delivery in 2015, tapping into his raw athleticism on the mound. His fastball may be enough to get him to the big leagues, but he will have to improve his secondary stuff and/or his command to remain a viable starting prospect.
He has a great pitcher’s frame with a quick arm, and is really aggressive going after hitters. He shows the makings of a consistent delivery, but it’s often limited by strong-arming his pitches with a stiff follow through. Clifton may be too raw with his pitchability to stay in the rotation, but will remain there for now to see if he can continue coming around. I see him as a likely bullpen arm in the end, with his fastball playing a bigger role in getting hitters out over short stints.
Possessing plus velocity and excellent life at times, his fastball is by far his most projectable pitch. He throws both a curve and a slider that can look average at their best, but they have inconsistent looks and can be difficult for him to spot. A below-average changeup rounds out his arsenal. A move to the bullpen may help isolate one or two offspeed pitches to focus on, where he may have setup potential as a power reliever.
Fastball: 50/55/60 Curveball: 40/45/45 Slider: 40/45/50 Changeup: 35/40/40 Command: 40/40/45
Still very raw for his age, Hannemann can look like the best player on the field at times with all five tools showing potential. Team sources attest to his improvements on defense and believe he is a solid bet for plus defense in center field with an equal grade on the bases. You can’t blame anyone for believing in his athleticism to carry him into a starting role, but his approach and swing will really have to improve to project higher than an interesting part-time outfielder.
He is still learning to utilize what may be the best wheels in the system by developing his instincts on the bases. There is enough speed and ability there to see at least a plus runner in the future. At the plate, he can get too choppy and force the barrel through while yanking his front shoulder off the ball, and his approach likely means a higher strikeout rate against major league pitchers. His swing path and inconsistent hit tool make it likely he won’t tap into his average raw power.
Hit: 30/35/40 Power: 35/40/40 Run: 55/60/65 Field: 60/60/65 Throw: 45/50/55
Torrez has a live arm with velocity up to 95 mph with heavy sink that he throws for strikes. He slings the ball with effort from a low-3/4 slot that can be difficult for right-handers to pick up, but he hasn’t found a go-to pitch for swinging strikes. His low walk rates will afford him plenty of innings to find consistency with his secondary stuff, but his most likely destination remains in the bullpen.
His slider has the best chance of giving him an average offspeed pitch. He throws a changeup as well, but really lacks a feel for it. As a hard-throwing guy who throws strikes, he’s a safe bet for seeing big league time, but his slider or changeup will have to step up for him to be a reliable late-innings reliever. He spots the fastball decently, but his overall command is behind his ability to throw strikes.
Fastball: 45/50/60 Slider: 40/45/50 Changeup: 30/35/40 Command: 40/45/45+
Blackburn’s stuff still isn’t quite starter material, with his curveball and changeup only showing flashes of being average pitches. Both have good arm action consistent with his fastball release, but neither seem to be sharp enough to get major league hitters out multiple times through an order. At his best he can look like a back-end starter who sequences his pitches well and limits his walk totals.
His command gets out of whack due to changes in his release, leading to hittable pitches up in the zone. He looks more like a middle reliever to me, though hopefully his pitchability develops into true command of his arsenal and he can remain in the rotation.
Fastball: 45/50/50 Curveball: 35/40/45 Changeup: 40/45/50 Command: 40/45/50
Higgins surprised a lot of the Cubs higher-ups in his first taste of minor league ball, particularly with his smooth actions and defensive IQ. He has the ability to play well anywhere in the infield, though one team official wondered what he could do behind the plate. He has caught in the past and looked great receiving according to the source.
He was a good contact hitter at Old Dominion before turning pro with limited power, so his slugging stats in Rookie ball may be misleading. He has some length to his swing that may hurt him as he faces better pitching, but his approach is geared more toward barreling the ball up for line drives around the diamond. The 2016 season will provide more information regarding his future, though for now his history of making contact and playing good defense get him on the list.
Hit: 30/45/50 Power: 25/30/35 Run: 40/40/40 Field: 55/60/65 Throw: 50/50/55
Baez has legitimate raw power, but stiff actions and a choppy swing path limit its usefulness. His strikeout rate was great to see in A-Ball in 2015, but his contact ability and approach are both underwhelming. He runs surprisingly well for his build, racking up 36 stolen bases across two levels. However, without another projectable tool, I don’t see him making a lot of headway without a big development shift.
Hit: 30/35/40 Power: 35/40/45 Run: 55/50/55 Field: 45/45/45 Throw: 45/45/45
OF Bijan Rademacher (VIDEO) has the potential to play a reserve corner outfield role in the future. His plate discipline numbers have been good throughout his minor league career, but he doesn’t have enough power or the batted ball profile to hit for a serviceable average, likely taking away from his on-base production against more advanced pitchers. C Cael Brockmeyer (VIDEO) has solid raw power, but it’s mostly limited to driving mistake pitches up in the zone. He strikes out a bit too much and hits too many ground balls to profile as better than a fringe backup option.
RHP Jonathan Martinez shows good pitchability with a solid changeup and developing breaking ball. He’ll need to continue solidifying his command to make his OK stuff translate to a big league mound. LHP Jose Paulino (VIDEO) has a live arm that may end up being useful out of the pen, with breaking ball consistency and command being the biggest needs for improvement.
Jason Vosler, 3B
In terms of performance relative to age relative to level, Vosler is roughly the equal of Mark Zagunis, ranked ninth in the organization by Farnsworth. Both recorded roughly equal walk and strikeout rates this past year at High-A Myrtle Beach. Both exhibited at least average power at that level. Both enter their age-22 seasons in 2016. In fact, Vosler likely has the advantage defensively: while Zagunis recorded the majority of his starts in an outfield corner, Vosler occupied third base almost exclusively.
The difference, mostly? Pedigree. Zagunis was selected in the third round of the 2014 draft out of Virginia Tech; Vosler, in the 16th round of that same draft, out of Northeastern in Boston. Nor is that something one ought to ignore entirely — and Zagunis does possess greater speed and athleticsm. Still, with regard to those traits which both (a) can be captured by numbers and (b) translate most directly to wins, Vosler is well-acquitted.
Here, by way of conclusion, is a 20-plus second video of Vosler homering on August 29th:
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