The Top 10 prospects in the Cubs’ system looks a lot different from last spring.
A 19-year old shortstop has replaced the National League Rookie of the Year at the top spot. A sweet swinging outfielder is now the second best prospect in the system instead of a smooth fielding shortstop. The top pitching prospect is a 20-year old flame-thrower. And two previously unranked players cracked the top 10.
The Cubs no longer have the top farm system in the game. While opinions vary as to how the Cubs stack up with the rest of baseball, over the last four-plus years, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod have built one of the deepest organizations in the game.
The position-player talent sticks out when looking at the entire organization with Gleyber Torres, Willson Contreras, Billy McKinney, Jeimer Candelario, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. considered among the top prospects at their respective positions. There is more projectable pitching talent in the organization than is recognized by most publications.
The Cubs have a wave a pitching talent headlined by Dylan Cease, Duane Underwood Jr., Oscar De La Cruz, Justin Steele, Ryan Williams and Bryan Hudson that should be ready for The Show around the time there are spots open in the big league rotation. And there are power arms from the right and left side that could help field a bullpen.
While the focus is back on the Major League team and reaching the ultimate goal, the front office will continue adding talent to the organization through the draft and international signings. Player development has been one of the Cubs strengths under the current regime and will continue to be a point of emphasis moving forward.
Without further delay, here’s our annual top 21 prospect list and how Tom, Chris and I think the talent stacks up going into the 2016 season.
The CCO’s Pre-Season Top 21 Cubs Prospects for 2016
2015 CCO Ranking in Parenthesis (NA – Not Available, NR – Not Ranked)
- Gleyber Torres, SS (9)
- Billy McKinney, OF (7)
- Dylan Cease, RHP (NR)
- Willson Contreras, C (NR)
- Duane Underwood Jr., RHP (10)
- Eloy Jimenez, OF (14)
- Oscar De La Cruz, RHP (NR)
- Pierce Johnson, RHP (8)
- Jeimer Candelario, 3B (20)
- Carl Edwards Jr., RHP (5)
- Ian Happ, 2B/OF (NA)
- Mark Zagunis, OF (NR)
- Donnie Dewees, OF (NA)
- Bryan Hudson, LHP (NA)
- Albert Almora Jr., OF (6)
- Eddy Julio Martinez, OF (NA)
- Justin Steele, LHP (NR)
- Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP (11)
- Chesny Young, INF/OF (NR)
- Ryan Williams, RHP (NR)
- Trevor Clifton, RHP (NR)
Click on the player’s name to go to their page on Baseball-Reference
It’s no real surprise that the top prospect in the Cubs system is a hitter. What is surprising is that prospect is as far away from the majors as Gleyber Torres is. Torres was signed as a 16-year old in 2013 out of Venezuela for $1.7 million as part of a major international spending spree that also includes top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Jen-Ho Tseng. Since then, Torres has been slowly rocketing up prospect lists across the country, including our own as he gained eight spots from last year.
At just 19 years of age, Torres has shown advanced skills by hitting to all fields and understanding the strike zone. Those skills paid off as he batted .293/.353/.386 with 24 doubles, five triples, three home runs, 62 RBI and 22 stolen bases at Low-A South Bend. He earned a short promotion to High-A Myrtle Beach at the end of the season, he added four hits in 23 at bats, a run scored and two RBI. Overall, he ended up with a .287/.346/.376 slash line.
At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, the right handed Torres is probably still filling out. Scouts believe that as Torres matures the power will come and end up being about average. He’s still relatively raw when it comes to his speed and defense as well. His average speed netted 22 stolen bases, but he was also caught 13 times. He’s still learning on the base paths, but has shown a good feel and probably could steal 10-15 bases a year.
On defense, there’s question if he has enough range to stay at the position long term, but has showed good instincts at the position. In 126 games, he fielded a .949 with 27 errors, but the year before made 19 errors in about a 75 less games, so he is improving. His strong arm and quick release could continue to serve him well at short or if he’s moved to second or third down the line.
Gleyber Torres will start the year at High-A Myrtle Beach and will likely continue to stay patient with the young hitter, but if he continues to hit as he has, a promotion to Double-A Tennessee could be in the works at some point later in the season.
Completing a journey in 2015 that both began and ended oddly, Billy McKinney goes into the season as the second best prospect in the Cubs’ system. Drafted by Oakland with the 24th selection of the first round in 2013, McKinney enjoyed a meteoric rise through the A’s system, beginning his first full season with High-A Stockton. With the Ports, McKinney batted .241/.330/.400/.730 with 12 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs, 33 RBI, and five stolen bases.
After being acquired in a major mid-season deal in 2014 from the Oakland A’s, the now 20-year old hit .301/.390/.432/.822 with 12 doubles, four triples, a home run, and 36 RBI in 51 games for High-A Daytona. It was then somewhat a surprise that McKinney opened this season back in High-A, this time with Myrtle Beach. It was then learned that the Cubs were not satisfied with McKinney’s defensive effort during Spring Training, and were not willing to advance him until it improved. In 29 games, McKinney torched Carolina League pitching for a .340 average while posting a perfect 1.000 fielding average.
Promoted to Double-A Tennessee, McKinney outperformed more ballyhooed prospects Albert Almora Jr. and Jacob Hannemann by hitting .285 with 39 RBI in 77 games. Overall, McKinney batted .300/.371/.454/.825 with 31 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, and 64 RBI in 106 games. With a little more than two weeks left in the season, McKinney was shut down with a seemingly minor leg injury. That injury turned out to be a hairline fracture of his kneecap. McKinney now appears to be fully recovered and ready for the season.
Critics complain that McKinney’s off-balance swing negates his power. However, McKinney hit 10 home runs at High-A prior to the trade, but batted 48 points lower than his career average; and his 31 doubles show that he does have power potential. His flaws are correctable, especially at his young age, but it may not be wise to emphasize power hitting. While he primarily played right field with the Smokies, McKinney profiles better both offensively and defensively in left field.
The was pretty much a consensus coming in to the 2014 draft that Dylan Cease was the top high school pitcher. Reports varied as to whether his fastball topped out between 94 and 98 mph, and could not agree whether his curve or changeup was his next best pitch. But the Milton, GA prep star suffered an elbow injury in his senior season that kept him off the mound from March on. Cease suffered a partial tear of his UCL, and opted for platelet therapy prior to the June draft.
But the injury, along with a strong commitment to Vanderbilt University, scared Major League teams away from Cease. Once considered a Top 15 draft selection, Cease drifted down to the sixth round before being tapped by the Cubs. In order to entice Cease to break his commitment and sign, the front office offered him an over-slot deal. Cease agreed and the Cubs sent the 6-foot-1, 175-pounder for Tommy John surgery.
Coming off the surgery shortly for the 2015, Cease showed he was physically sound and the sky was the limit. Easing his way back in with the AZL Cubs in the rookie league, the 20-year old was only 1-2 in 11 appearances (eight starts), but had a 2.62 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 25 strikeouts in 24 innings. Cease has a fastball in the mid-90s that clocked in triple digits in Arizona. Presently, Cease’s changeup is his best secondary pitch, as his curve will need refinement. Cease should have no problems skipping Short Season-A and moving directly to Low-A South Bend. However, a conservative approach may still be in order, and Cease could see some time in extended Spring Training before receiving his 2016 assignment.
A breakout season for Willson Contreras did wonders for his career as he is now considered among the top catching prospects in all of baseball. In 126 games, Contreras slashed an impressive .333/.413/.478 with 34 doubles, four triples, eight home runs, 75 RBI and four stolen bases.
He ended up leading the Southern League in batting average thanks to much improved plate discipline where he cut his strikeout rate in half. Of course, there is also some speculation on if Contreras can keep it up. Despite a solid mental approach, he can look raw at the plate at times. He was able to stay consistent in an invite to the Arizona Fall League where he kept on hitting, batting .283/.361/.547 with five doubles, three home runs and eight RBI in 53 at-bats. The hope among scouts is that if he can keep up his change in approach, he can use his raw power to translate to more home runs and bat around .270 in the majors.
Although Contreras was signed out of Venezuela back in 2009 as a 17-year old, he did not convert to catching until 2012. His strong arm, athleticism and lack of decent catching prospects led to the change, but the three year loss of development shows in his defense. While he’s strong and quick in his throws behind the plate, his footwork needs improvement in order for him to be more accurate. His receiving and blocking also need refinement and he’s benefited this spring with instruction from Miguel Montero and David Ross.
With Ross retiring after this year, the door is probably open for Contreras to win a job next season. He’s going to have to prove that his breakout was not an aberration in Triple-A Iowa and that he’s a quick study to make big leaps on defense.
With Dylan Cease our top pitching prospect, Duane Underwood Jr. is not far behind. He made 16 starts last year at High-A Myrtle Beach with a 6-3 record, 54 strikeouts in 78.1 innings, 2.99 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. A sore elbow knocked out two months, but he came back to make six starts without any complications.
Underwood Jr.’s fastball sits in 92-95 mph range and could rise as he gets stronger. His secondary pitches are a curve and change that have flashed as plus pitches, but are largely inconsistent. Underwood Jr. spent much of last year working on the change-up, as it was the weakest of the three. Both offerings are going to have to make large gains for Underwood Jr. to continue to dominate as he ascends through the system. It also bears watching if his violent delivery will lead to more arm troubles.
He also continued to improve with his control, command and maturity last season. It earned him an invite to Spring Training. It’ll be an important year for Underwood Jr. as he’ll start the season at Double-A Tennessee and see if he can continue building momentum.
The consensus top international prospect in 2013, most scouts agreed that Eloy Jimenez was a major coup for the Cubs when he was signed along with Gleyber Torres. The scouts loved Jimenez’s raw power, ability to use the middle of the field, and above average arm. Signed late in the season, the front office decided to make 2013 a wash and get Jimenez ready for the following year.
At only 17 years old at the time, most expected Jimenez to play in the Dominican Summer League in 2014 to ease his entry into professional baseball. But Jimenez had other ideas as his play in extended Spring Training got him assigned to the Arizona rookie league. In 42 games for the AZL Cubs, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jimenez had the typical ups-and-downs of a first year professional. Jimenez hit .227/.268/.367/.635 with eight doubles, two triples, three home runs, 27 RBI, and three stolen bases.
It was a little surprising to see Jimenez lining up in left field for the Eugene Emeralds this past season. Jimenez had played right field in the rookie league, and was considered to be prototypical for right field due to his size, arm strength, and run-producing ability. For whatever reason, player development felt it best to have Jimenez play left field, which he fielded a room-for-improvement .983. At the plate, Jimenez was able to deliver as he hit .284/.328/.418/.746 with 10 doubles, seven home runs, 33 RBI, and three stolen bases in 57 games in Short Season-A.
Jimenez was very impressive during his time in the Fall Instructional League in October. The 19-year old not only displayed his power, but demonstrated some leadership to younger players. A lot will depend on roster make-up as to whether Jimenez plays mostly in left or right field as he progresses, most likely to Low-A South Bend in 2016.
Considered by scouts to have taken a leap forward last season was 21-year old right-hander Oscar De La Cruz. A robust teen at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, De La Cruz was signed by the Cubs at 18 years old for the 2013 season. That year, De La Cruz was 1-0 with a 6.55 ERA, 1.90 WHIP, and 12 strikeouts in 11 innings for the Cubs team in the Dominican Summer League.
Returning to the DSL for the 2014 season, De La Cruz was given an increased workload, tossing 75 innings in 14 games. De La Cruz ended up tied for second in the league for victories with an 8-1 record. His other numbers were also impressive as De La Cruz had a 1.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 64 strikeouts against 19 walks.
Moving to the Short Season-A Eugene Emeralds for the 2015 season, De La Cruz became one of the most dominant pitchers of the Northwest League. De La Cruz had a WHIP of 1.00, which led the league while his 73 strikeouts were second and his ERA of 2.84 ranked third in the league. After an outing on Aug. 26 when De La Cruz struck out 13 batters, he was named the Northwest League Pitcher of the Week. The Cubs’ organization also named De La Cruz its Pitcher of the Month for August.
De La Cruz is said to have a fastball/curve combination reminiscent of current Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. Reports have De La Cruz’s fastball sitting in the 92-93 mph range which has reached up to 97 mph, while his curve is also considered a plus-pitch.
Pierce Johnson is probably the most advanced pitching prospect in the Cubs system, but a long list of injuries have kept the right-hander from a breakout season. A lat injury caused him to miss time last year and he only made 16 starts at Double-A Tennessee. In those starts, he had a 6-2 record, 72 strikeouts in 95 innings, 2.08 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. To make up for the time he missed, the Cubs sent Johnson to the Arizona Fall League where his good results didn’t carry over. In seven starts, he was 1-2, with 21 strikeouts in 24.2 innings, 5.47 ERA and 1.66 WHIP.
The former 43rd overall pick of 2012 has four pitches to get the job done. His fastball is generally in the 92-94 mph range, but touches 96 at times. He has a knee-bending curve in the low-80s and uses a changeup and cutter at times to give hitters different looks.
Johnson’s results have been uneven this spring and he needs to refine his command to make the jump to the next level. He figures to start the year at Triple-A Iowa and could get a spot start if he can get back to where he has been over the past couple of seasons.
The ascension of Kris Bryant to the majors and the loss of Christian Villanueva to injury has given Jeimer Candelario the title of “third baseman of the future.” He’s received a long look this spring and held his own against tough competition.
Candelario was signed out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager in 2010. Last season he split the year between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee and probably had his best overall season. In 128 games, the switch-hitter batted .277/.339/.431 with 35 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs and 64 RBI. The Cubs sent Candelario for more work in the Arizona Fall League and he fared even better, hitting .329/.371/.610 with eight doubles, five home runs and 15 RBI in 21 games.
Scouts say Candelario has a good swing and makes consistent contact from both sides of the plate. He shows the ability to develop into the rare hitter who hits for average and power. On the defensive side, he’s shown below average speed and quickness, but has soft hands, a strong arm and good instincts to make up for it.
Jeimer Candelario will likely start the year at Tennessee with a promotion to Triple-A Iowa mid-season if he continues to hit.
Carl Edwards Jr., 24, not only changed his name last spring, his role moving forward with the organization also went in a different direction. Since the Cubs acquired him from the Rangers there have been questions about what his future role would be. The Cubs answered those questions last spring. The front office moved Edwards Jr. from the starting rotation to the bullpen.
Edwards Jr. spent last season learning how to prepare as a reliever. After beginning the season with Double-A Tennessee and posting a 2-2 record in 13 appearances with a 2.66 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, the Cubs bumped him up to Triple-A Iowa.
Edwards Jr. continued his transition and was 3-1 in 23 games with a 2.84 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Edwards Jr. walked more batters (23) than he gave up hits (15) over 31.2 innings. Edwards Jr. was called up when rosters expanded in September. In five appearances for Joe Maddon, Edwards Jr. allowed three runs, two earned, on three hits with three walks and four strikeouts (3.86 ERA, 1.28 WHIP).
Carl Edwards Jr. has great stuff (94-95 mph fastball with late movement, curveball and changeup that has flashed as above-average pitches) with a smooth, repeatable delivery. Edwards Jr. throws free and easy and when he is on, it looks like he is just playing catch. Edwards Jr. has struggled with fastball command. If Edwards Jr. can throw strikes consistently, he could have an impact at the backend of the Cubs bullpen. While there are doubts he can hold up physically to the demands of a closer, a late-inning reliever is not out of the question.
- The CCO’s 2016 Pre-Season Top Cubs Prospects: Nos. 11-21
- The CCO’s 2016 Pre-Season Top Cubs Prospects: Best Tools, Outside the Top 21