Jason McLeod, the Cubs Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting, joined Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette during Monday’s Power Alley (MLB Network Radio) to talk about the organization and top prospects.
Jason McLeod went into detail about Gleyber Torres, Willson Contreras, Billy McKinney or ‘Billy Baseball’ as the Cubs call him, Duane Underwood Jr., Dylan Cease, Justin Steele, Carson Sands, Oscar De La Cruz and Jeimer Candelario during an informative interview on the baseball channel.
On the huge year and the contributions the team received from former prospects and usually when a team promotes as many players to the big leagues it takes a hit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Cubs
“Yeah, obviously I don’t know how many times you can expect that many players to get to the big leagues in the same year or right around the same time and impact the Major League team like that. Certainly you don’t replace a [Kris] Bryant, a [Addison] Russell, [Kyle] Schwarber, [Jorge] Soler usually in a farm system but we feel really good about what we have now. The guys that are coming behind those players, some of them are going to be a couple of years behind with Gleyber Torres, but Willson Contreras stepping forward and having the year that he had last year. He’ll start the season in Triple-A and hopefully we’ll see him at some point during the 2016 season. Now it’s time for the other guys, an opportunity for them to step up.”
On the Cubs consensus No. 1 prospect Gleyber Torres, an International signing a couple of years ago, what did they learn about Torres last year that maybe the front office did not know about him when he was first signed?
“I tell ya, it was such an impressive year he had. From the time … from the moment we signed him, I’m taking a quick step back, we felt that this was a kid that was very mature for his age. I think as he went into the Midwest League last year as an 18-year old he probably surprised us even more so with going out playing the shortstop position every single day. Obviously he had a lot of success there and how he dealt with that. He faltered a little bit in August. I think it was a combination of being tired and chasing .300, but really getting to see him go through some of the ups and downs of a long season, first full season, dealing with some cold weather early in the year and then dealing with the dog days in the summer and seeing how he dealt with the mental grind of it as well as the physical grind. I think he probably … a little stronger makeup than we even maybe thought in terms of his maturity level.”
On Gleyber Torres’ position moving forward, does he still profile as a big league shortstop? Or are the Cubs still not sure at this point?
“Today he is a big league shortstop for me. I like how his hands work, definitely has plenty of arm to play the position and he has that internal clock to play the position. He’s a stronger-bodied kid. The foot quickness I think is one thing he’s going to have to work, continuously work on to see if he’s going to have that quickness and the range there. But he’s going to make the routine play for sure and like I said he has plenty of arm. He can make all the throws out there and this is a very mature player with very good instincts. For me right now as a 19-year old going into this year he would still be a Major League shortstop in my opinion.”
On Willson Contreras and what have the Cubs seen in him defensively because the offensive numbers speak for themselves, what else does Contreras need to work on to potentially be a frontline catcher?
“With Willson I think the biggest thing with him is just understanding the mental side, the maturity that you need to carry behind the plate and that really … we saw that big step forward with him last year. He’s a kid who plays with so much passion, a lot of energy. We kid a lot now. That first summer when he transferred behind the plate and made the position change, he was so out of control. It was like a young colt that just was running all over the place, a lot of back picks that were ending up down the right field corner. Just playing with so much energy, wanting it so badly. For him it was more learning how to slow the clock down, really having to work with the pitchers, understanding what they’re trying to do and really what your main job behind the dish is. He’s got tremendous athleticism, so the work ethic is never been in question. He’s worked extremely hard with Tim Cossins, who is our field coordinator, handles all of our catching. And last year I think we saw that first step forward. I think one of the things that we can point to is getting exposure to playing in the Venezuelan Winter League the year prior and being around some of those older players and guys that have been in the big leagues. I saw a different guy when he showed up in Spring Training last year. He talked a lot about the time spent in the Venezuelan Winter League that prior winter and he really carried it into the year. Now, there’s still some polishing up back there that he needs to do. He still gets a little excited. He really likes to show off his arm. So it’s just understanding day in and day out, especially now that he’s going to be in Triple-A, about game planning and what hitters are doing, what the pitcher is trying work with his best stuff on that day and things of that nature.”
On Willson Contreras converting from third base to catcher and being at the upper levels of the system, which makes him a call away from the big leagues, would it be accurate to say he needs a little more time in the minors to work on things, continue his development? Would a realistic timeframe for him be next year as opposed to this season?
“I think a lot depends on how he handles his first big league Spring Training. One of the benefits last fall was Mike Borzello came over, unfortunately … and Mike handles all of our game planning at the big league level works all of our catchers in the Major Leagues, and Mike came over and got to spend a lot of time with him in the Fall League to start that process and certainly Willson will get a crash course of it in Spring Training. Being around David Ross and Miguel Montero, those guys are going to help him quite a bit and we have Henry Blanco on staff, another Venezuelan with plenty of obvious experience in the Major Leagues. I think a lot of it will be there for Willson to absorb and soak up. I think it’s now going into that Triple-A environment and see how he does with the first couple of months of the season.”
On Billy McKinney, how is his development going and how is he recovering from the fracture in the knee cap?
“What a professional hitter. Another guy when you watch the way he goes about his game, looks like a veteran already, polished approach. This was a kid who played at Double-A at 20 years old last year. Gap to gap, very fluid left-handed swing, stays on the ball very well. I think the question will be the ultimate power down the road and what type of power it’s going to be. But I think he is going to be a high-average, high on-base, hit for a lot of doubles. Incredible teammate and just one of those … we call him ‘Billy Baseball.’ Guy that just loves being out there every single day and obviously had a very impressive year hitting in a tough environment first in Myrtle Beach and again moved up to Tennessee. The knee, we’re taking it a little slow with him. He’s not exactly where we hoped he would be right now and that’s meaning he’s not going to show up in Spring Training and we’re just going to throw him into a game. I think by the end of Spring Training we’re hoping that he’ll be full go. But we’re going to take it a little slow with him as we start getting on those hard fields out in Arizona.”
On Duane Underwood Jr., what have the Cubs seen from his development?
“Yeah, Duane [Underwood Jr.] has come a long way. He was a kid in high school, like you mentioned, with a very quick arm, pretty athletic guy with a delivery that had a lot of moving parts in it. He was a lot of effort at the end of it. He kind of almost hopped at the hitter, this is when he was coming out of the draft. He’s done a lot of work to clean that up and obviously the arm strength is still there. He’s anywhere from 93 mph to 96-97 on certain nights and the pitch mix is all there. On any given night you walk in the park, he will show you a plus, both two plus off-speed pitches. He just hasn’t connected them where he’s got them all going at the same time. I think now going into this year with Duane, likely moving into Double-A, is learning how to finish hitters off. Obviously if you look back at his track record with the stuff he has, he hasn’t missed as many bats as you would think he would and he’s got the pitches to do it. Now I think for us one of the things we’ll be working a lot with him on is we always wanted him to maintain that aggressiveness mentality getting ahead of hitters but now it’s what are we going to do to put these guys away? What’s the miss pitch going to be? Because like I said on certain nights it will be his curveball, certain nights it will be a really good changeup. Now I think with Duane it’s just consistency and confidence and using both of those pitches, both ahead and behind in the count.”
On selecting a trio of high school arms in the 2014 draft, what can you say about what the Cubs saw last year from Dylan Cease, Carson Sands and Justin Steele? Where do you see there upside coming?
“First of all, Dylan [Cease] certainly was one of the bigger names that was going into that draft. Had Tommy John that year, he really didn’t pitch much that spring, well-known throughout the scouting community of course. Worked tremendously hard in the rehab process, got on the mound last year. I think he threw 20-25 innings. Just so excited to see where he’s back to now. One of the things as you guys know about the rehab process it really allows you to strengthen your body, get all of your shoulder work in and really do a lot of dry work on flat ground. His delivery and arm swing is so much cleaner now than it was in high school. This kid has just very, very easy velocity. He was up in the upper-90s last summer, pitching at 96 [mph], touching 100 and just doing it very easily, very low effort to generate that kind of velocity. The control/command wasn’t there yet. Showed a power spin on a really, really tight curveball. Now we are looking forward to getting him into now his first full year coming off the TJ [Tommy John surgery], kind of taking the reins off him a little bit and letting him get out there and attack hitters. Really excited about the upside of Dylan Cease, one of the better arms I think you’re going to see around there.”
“Justin Steele, just a very twitchy, athletic left-hander who excites a lot of people. I think scouts and players-only people will like just because he really has an aggressive mentality, good body, reminds me a little bit of a Travis Wood in terms of the athleticism, when you think of that type of athlete on the field. Another guy that shows you a swing-and-miss curveball pitching in the low-90s. He’ll get out and get his first full season under his belt, again a guy that we’re going to hopefully get him up over 100 innings this year.”
“I think Carson [Sands] is just that big-bodied lefty. It’s how you build them, 6-foot-4, 220 [pounds]. Not a huge power guy but a firm fastball in the, probably in more of 90-92 guy with a really good changeup behind it and one that we’ll really try to get our work in and try to stay on top of that curveball and get more snap off it. Obviously now looking two years out from that draft, really, really excited about those three kids and looking forward to them going out to full seasons this year.”
On there being a prospect in the system that may not be getting the attention and recognition he deserves, kind of a sleeper in the system?
“You know there was a kid last year that pitched for us in Eugene and I think you might hear a little more about this year. He’s big, physical. His name is Oscar De La Cruz. Obviously it’s been talked a lot about the pitching in our organization. When’s it coming? When’s it coming? We’ve had a volume of guys, hopefully knock on wood, these guys stay healthy you’ll start to see a few guys popping them. I’m really excited to see what Oscar De La Cruz does this year with a full season. He’s a physical animal. He’s in that 6-foot-5, 230 range. For a 19-20 year old last year, this guy already knows how to pitch with his fastball. He’s ultra-aggressive, really competitive. He’s in that 90-95 range, probably pitch at 92 but just a three-pitch guy. He’s going to be a horse and like I said great work ethic, really good competitor and I think a lot of us here are excited to see what he’s going to do this year.”
On Jeimer Candelario, what’s the next step for him? Candelario worked extremely hard on his defense, what’s his work ethic like because he seems like a really special person?
“He’s a guy that … he’s really been up and down the last few years more than you think. Three years ago coming out of Boise, just so excited to see what he was going to do and then he had a couple of up and down years there in Kane County and he went to Daytona, we had to send him back. A lot of inconsistencies and some maturity I think. He was a younger guy on some of those full-season clubs and I think now he understands what he needs to do. He’s worked hard on his body and the defense. Three years ago I thought he’s probably going to move to first or maybe left and now I would say he could absolutely play third base in the big leagues and I would have no problems saying that. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s always been a guy that really excited about his approach at the plate because he was a younger hitter. He had the high walk-rate, really hunt for pitches and layoff a lot of pitches and now we’re kind of seeing that manifest when he moved to Double-A especially last year and opened up a lot of eyes. I think going into August or July, he was a bubble guy for us to add to the roster and then he made the decision very easy for us the way he finished there in Double-A. Strong, switch-hit, can play at third base, good kid and couldn’t be happier for him and we’re all excited to see what he’s going to do this year.”