The Cubs graduated several of the top prospects in baseball last season to the majors. And the young players helped the big league team win 97 games at the highest level.
By promoting Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, the Cubs farm system looks much different than a year ago. Plus players like Willson Contreras, Jeimer Candelario and Oscar De La Cruz put themselves on the prospect map. And the draft added Ian Happ, Bryan Hudson, Donnie Dewees and Darryl Wilson to the organization.
The Cubs system is deeper now than arguably it has ever been in the storied history of the franchise. There is impact talent at each level with players that project as big leaguers.
Baseball fans have a variety of reasons concerning the allure of their favorite sport. But one facet that many can agree upon is the nature and pace of baseball lends itself to healthy debate. Conversations on a number of topics can take place between seasons, games, innings, and even pitches.
However, when it comes to baseball’s upcoming prospects, most fans are contented to visit this subject only once a year. The opinions expressed at that time, usually in the pre-season, remain “etched in stone” until the next set of expert lists comes out. This appears unique to baseball, as other sports seem to revise their thoughts on the subject more frequently.
With that in mind, Chicago Cubs Online is stepping out into the forefront of a new way for Cubs fans to view their top prospects. Starting with this series of reports, the CCO will issue a monthly update of players who can be considered the Cubs top prospects. It is hoped that with these snapshots, fans can see the progression, or regression, of players as the season unfolds. Keep in mind that this is how the CCO sees the Cubs’ prospects for now, and is subject to change.
With the minor league season just around the corner, here are 11 players we think are among the best prospects down on the farm.
The CCO’s Pre-Season Cubs Prospects: Nos. 11-21
Click on the player’s name to go to their page on Baseball-Reference
The Cubs selected the switch-hitting Ian Happ, 21, in the first round of last June’s Draft. The Cubs plan with Happ has been to convert him to a second baseman, and that process started in the Fall Instructional League.
After Happ signed, the Cubs sent him to Short-Season Eugene to hit, play the outfield and adjust to life in pro ball. Happ performed well at the plate. He hit .283/.408/.491 in 29 games with the Emeralds. Happ had eight doubles, a triple and four home runs for a .898 OPS. Happ walked (23) almost as many times as he struck out (28) in 130 plate appearances.
Happ spent the rest of the season with the South Bend Cubs. Happ put together a .241/.315/.448 line in 38 games at the Low-A level with nine doubles, three triples and five home runs for a .763 OPS.
Happ has the ability to barrel up the ball and hit to all fields from both sides of the plate.
The Cubs are happy with the way Happ hit last year and feel he is ready for High-A Myrtle Beach offensively. Happ has made incremental improvements with his full-time transition to second base which could mean a return trip to South Bend for the start of the upcoming season.
Ian Happ projects as a top of the order bat in the big leagues and his versatility could allow him to carve out a career similar to Ben Zobrist.
The Cubs selected Mark Zagunis, 23, in the third round of the 2014 draft as a catcher. And his first full season in professional baseball went extremely well last year.
Zagunis made the conversion to a full-time outfielder. The 23-year old is an on-base machine. Zagunis works counts with seemingly a professional at bat every time he steps to the plate. Zagunis played in a 115 games for High-A Myrtle Beach last season. Zagunis batted .271/.406/.412 for the eventual Carolina League Champions. Zagunis hit at the top of Mark Johnson’s lineup and should again this season for Double-A Tennessee.
Zagunis had 24 doubles, five triples and eight home runs for a .818 OPS last season. Zagunis walked 80 times in 512 plate appearances with 86 strikeouts. And he didn’t stop getting on base during his time with the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League.
In 16 games in the AFL, Zagunis was 11-for-47 with two doubles, a home run, 19 walks and 12 strikeouts (.234/.455/.340/795).
Defensively his days as a catcher are over. Zagunis is an outfielder in the Cubs’ system moving forward. Zagunis projects as a leadoff hitter in the big leagues and a corner outfielder that can provide average defense with an average arm.
Another bargain brought in by the front office, Donnie Dewees was considered by many to be a first round pick when the Cubs plucked him out of the second round in 2015. A three-sport star in high school, Dewees was not considered an elite baseball prospect. However, as a freshman at the University of North Florida, Dewees hit .347 and earned all-conference honors. Dewees missed his sophomore year with a broken wrist, but earned an All-Star selection in the Cape Cod League by batting .340 with 19 stolen bases.
Entering the 2015 season, Dewees was left off of every top prospect list, partly due to his playing in the lightly regarded Atlantic-Sun Conference. Dewees then exploded onto the Division-I scene by leading it in slugging percentage, hits, and runs. The final slash line for Dewees was .422/.483/.749/1.232 with 18 home runs and 22 stolen bases in 251 at bats.
The Cubs selected the 22-year old due to an overall system need for leadoff men. Dewees certainly fit the bill as he swiped 19 bases in his first 66 professional games. The lefty also hit fairly well, batting .266/.306/.376/.682 with 14 doubles, a triple, five home runs, and 30 RBI for Short Season-A Eugene.
But it may be a stretch to put Dewees in centerfield as he lacks top arm strength for the position. Defensively, Dewees fielded only .980 in center, but had a 1.000 average everywhere else. Offensively, Dewees provides in a much needed area for the organization. However, he may have to move to left field in the future.
The 2015 third round selection, Bryan Hudson is at the forefront of the next great wave of pitching that is making their way through the Cubs’ minor league system. At an imposing 6-foot-8, 220 pounds, the 18-year old lefty blossomed into one the country’s top pitchers at Alton High School. Hudson was 10-2 with five shut-outs, a 0.50 ERA, and had 152 strikeouts in 70.1 innings as a senior. Hudson was a three-time all-conference pitcher and was twice selected as All-State, verbally committing to the University of Missouri.
After signing with the Cubs, Hudson was brought along slowly. Hudson did not make his professional debut until mid-August and made only five appearances. Although Hudson had no record, he had a 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and five strikeouts in 6.2 innings.
Currently a two-pitch pitcher with a low-90s fastball and curveball, Hudson also has a changeup that needs a lot of work. Prior to the draft, some scouts believed that Hudson had the best curve in the draft. His high school coach also praised Hudson for his intelligence, competitiveness and even demeanor. While the Cubs do not want to rush Hudson, a good spring means that starting the year at Low-A South Bend is not out of the question, but Short Season-A Eugene is more likely.
Albert Almora Jr., 21, is ready for the big leagues right now defensively. Arguably outside of Jason Heyward, Almora Jr. is the best defensive outfield in the entire organization. Almora Jr. makes it look easy in the outfield. Almora Jr. has struggled offensively, at least until last August.
It appears Almora Jr. listened to what Miguel Montero said during their little conversation last summer. Almora Jr. was drafted in 2012 but he doesn’t turn 22 until April 16.
Albert Almora Jr. reported to camp this spring with a different look than last year. Almora Jr. struggled mightily at the plate in the first half last season. After returning from playing with Team USA and talking to Montero, Almora Jr. batted .352/.413/.504 in 31 games in August. Almora hit 14 doubles, a triple and a home run in 125 at bats.
Overall, Almora Jr. hit .272/.327/.400 in 106 games with Double-A Tennessee last year. Almora Jr. had 26 doubles, four triples and six home runs. The former first round pick has looked good in Spring Training and should patrol center field for Triple-A Iowa this season.
If Albert Almora Jr.’s offense can come close to the defense he provides, the Cubs will have a very good, gold glover patrolling center field for a majority of the next decade.
16) Eddy Julio Martinez, OF
The Cubs signed OF Eddy Julio Martinez, 21, last October for $3 million and if everything goes as planned this spring he could begin the season with the South Bend Cubs in the same outfield as Eloy Jimenez.
Martinez has all the tools according to the scouts that have seen him play. Reports from Mesa have been positive this spring. The Cubs have to get to know the player as he makes the transition to life in the United States.
Martinez has plus speed, above average arm strength and is more than athletic enough to play center field. Martinez can hit the ball to all fields, with line drive pop and has shown the ability to make consistent contact.
As will be the case with the developmental staff and coaches, a lot will be learned about Eddy Julio Martinez as the season progresses.
Considered a work in progress prior to last season, Justin Steele proved to be a quick study.
Pitching for George County High School in Lucedale, MS, Steele was Mississippi 5A Player of the Year as a senior after going 5-1 with a 0.98 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 43 innings. The Cubs made the 6-foot-2, 195-pound left-hander their fifth round selection in the 2014 draft.
The Cubs worked Steele in slowly, assigning him to the rookie league after he signed. Steele appeared in nine games, starting four, and had no record. The final line for the season for Steele was a 2.95 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 18.1 innings.
As part of the Short Season-A Eugene Emeralds last year, Steele initially took a back seat to Opening Day starter and fellow lefty Carson Sands and the hulking right-hander Oscar De La Cruz. But Steele was able to establish himself quickly as one of the best pitchers in the Northwest League. If it had not been for a short stint on the disabled list in the middle of the season, the lefty would have been third in the league with his 2.66 ERA. Steele was able to bounce back following the DL trip, going 3-1 with a 1.30 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 40.2 innings (10 starts).
The key to the 20 year olds’ success was being able to get control of is his slider, curve, and changeup to go along with his low-90s fastball. Steele now figures to be battling De La Cruz for the honor of being Opening Day pitcher for a very talented Low-A South Bend squad.
Jen-Ho Tseng may not be a big time name like many of his contemporaries, but he’s been one of the most consistent pitchers in the Cubs system over the past two years. Last season, was no different as the right-hander went 7-7 in 22 starts, 87 strikeouts in 119 innings, 3.55 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.
Tseng was originally signed out of Taiwan as a teenager and was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2014. He features a fastball in the low-90s, but fools hitters on his velocity due to his release point. He’s fairly polished and very good at locating his fastball on either side of the plate, despite not much movement. He also uses a decent curve and a changeup that some scouts consider the best in the system.
His ERA rose almost a full point from 2014 to 2015, so with a likely promotion to Double-A Tennessee, Tseng is going to have to show he’s ready for stronger competition. The key to the upcoming season will how he can use his smarts to harness his average stuff and eat more innings.
Sometimes, prospects make their ability jump out to scouts. Others have to figuratively hit them over the head with their production to get noticed. The latter is true of Chesny Young.
Drafted in the 14th round out of Mercer College in 2014, Young lit up the scoreboard after a two game warm-up in the rookie league. Assigned to Short-Season A Boise, Young hit .354/.466/.417 with three doubles and nine RBI in 15 games before being bumped up to Low-A Kane County. The quick rise didn’t seem to faze Young, as he went out and batted .324/.348/.419 with six doubles, two triples and nine RBI in 27 games for the Cougars. All combined, Young put together a .327/.384/.409 slash line with nine doubles, two triples, 18 RBI, a .767 OPS and three stolen bases in 44 games.
It was somewhat of a surprise that Young started the year back in Low-A ball with the South Bend Cubs, but that didn’t slow Young down. Young batted .315/.385/.380/.765 with five doubles, a triple, 14 RBI and nine stolen bases in 28 games for the SB Cubs, and was promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach. With the Pelicans, Young really stepped up his game. Moving around the diamond, Young was able to maintain the same level of defensive excellence at each position. Young’s overall fielding percentages at each position: first base – .986; second base – .990; shortstop – .952; third base – .983; left and right fields – 1.000 at each with four outfield assists.
Even with all the position changes, Young was able to maintain his concentration at the plate, winning the Carolina League batting championship. Young outdistanced the league’s number two hitter by 24 points, with his final line in the Carolina League being .321/.394/.388/.782. Those numbers placed Young third in the league in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS. Among his other achievements included a 44-game on-base streak. Overall, Young batted .320/.392/.386/.778 with 23 doubles, four triples, a home run, 44 RBI and 21 stolen bases.
Young was further evaluated in the new Advanced Fall Instructional League, where he worked on driving the ball. A sure bet to open the season with Double-A Tennessee, the organization may not be as conservative with Young if he repeats his success.
The Cubs selected RHP Ryan Williams, 24, in the tenth round of the 2014 draft. Williams went from an under slot draft pick to the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year to earning an invitation to big league Spring Training in less than 24 months.
Williams started last season with Low-A South Bend. The big right hander (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) dominated the Midwest League. Williams was 4-1 in nine appearances, eight starts, with a 1.17 ERA and 0.70 WHIP. Williams earned a promotion to High-A ball, but the Cubs skipped him to Double-A Tennessee.
Williams made 17 appearances, 16 starts, for the Smokies and was 10-2 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Williams finished his first full season in pro ball with a 14-3 record in 26 games, 24 starts, with a 2.16 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. Williams allowed 41 runs, 34 earned, on 109 hits with 18 walks and 98 strikeouts.
Williams is a groundball machine with excellent command and control. In 168 1/3 minor league innings, Williams has allowed four home runs, only two last seasons.
Ryan Williams is not going to light up a radar gun or dazzle scouts (90-91 mph fastball, sits in upper-80s, curveball, slider, changeup and splitter). He is a student of the game that wants to learn and focuses on improving every day. Williams is ticketed for Triple-A Iowa and could make his Major League debut at some point during the season if Joe Maddon needs an arm for his rotation.
At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, the big right hander’s game is all about projection and potential right now. The 12th round draft pick showed some flashes last season and is starting to make some noise as a prospect. Clifton pitched in 23 games last year for Low-A South Bend, starting 22 of them. He had an 8-10 record, 103 strikeouts in 108.2 innings, 3.98 ERA and 1.27 WHIP.
Clifton was drafted mostly due to regular 92-94 mph velocity on fastball that has reached up to 97 at times. He’s been a fast learner recognizing that pitching is less about throwing and has harnessed his curve enough that scouts consider close to a plus pitch. His changeup has a much longer way to go.
At just 20, Clifton has a ways to go still when it comes to refining his control and command. He will likely start the season at High-A Myrtle Beach and continue to hone his craft.
Up next, The CCO’s 2016 Pre-Season Cubs Prospects: The Top 10