Halfway through the summer of 2013, the big-league Cubs were in full-blown rebuild mode, stumbling through a summer schedule that contributed mightily to the team’s 96 losses that season. It wasn’t a pretty time in Chicago, and it was stuck smack dab in the middle of a series of seasons that, at least at Wrigley, featured little to get excited about.
But in the backfields of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, big things were happening. That same summer of 2013, the Cubs signed two top young players—Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez—for a combined $4.5 million (plus associated taxes), and the chance to be a part of what was, even then, well on its way to becoming the best farm system in baseball. Two years later, although graduations have dropped the Cubs’ system out of the top spot (this, of course, is by far the best way for a system to drop) Torres and Jimenez have played a big role in keeping Chicago’s minor-league talent an organizational strength and point of pride.
Just last week, BP ranked Torres the 41st-best prospect in baseball, on the strength of a 2015 campaign that saw him triple-slash .293/.353/.386 over 500+ plate appearances at Low-A South Bend, and end the year with a brief taste of High-A Myrtle Beach. Jimenez had a quieter season at Short-Season Eugene, slashing .284/.328/.418 over 250 plate appearances, but the Cubs are still very happy with what they’ve seen from both through one professional season, and are ready to watch them further develop their talents in 2016.
“In the case of Gleyber and Eloy, as is the case with most teenagers, you are seeing their frames fill into what they could be in the future,” Cubs’ Assistant Director of Player Development & International Scouting Alex Suarez told me. “With that said, the biggest change to their skill sets [since they came into the organization] has been at the plate with their bat speed and the way the ball comes off the bat. In terms of the skill profile, they seem to settling into their positions defensively, but the skill sets they showed as amateurs [at the plate] have been almost the same.”
That’s good news for the Cubs, and a credit to the strength and conditioning staff they’ve brought on board, because the skill sets these players showed as amateurs were very, very tempting. Jimenez is a big 6-foot-4, and makes Manny Ramirez (who he worked with in Arizona) look like a small man. Ramirez is manifestly not small—I’ve stood beside him, and felt as if I needed a footstool—but Jimenez is in a different category. When he gets his arms extended, he can already do some major damage. But big men often have trouble staying inside the ball and driving it the other way, and that’s something Jimenez is still working on, albeit from a high baseline.
“In Eloy’s case his power is certainly his biggest strength right now,” said Suarez. “As he continues learning the strike zone and his body with regards to his setup, you could see his frequency of hard contact going up as well his average. The swing path and his natural ability to drive balls to the right-center-field/right field is well advanced for his age.”
Advanced is a word that comes up a lot with both these players, but especially so with Torres. Suarez notes that “in Gleyber’s case [his strength is] definitely his hand-eye coordination coupled with an advanced understanding of the strike zone and what he can handle. His ability to stay behind the ball and make hard contact to all fields is really advanced for his age and level he played at.”
That said, in a perfect world, Torres wouldn’t have struck out 21 percent of the time at Low-A. Cutting down on strikeouts is thus something he’ll have to work on this season, but his makeup and preparation should help him get to a point where the problem is either solved or integrated into his game in such a way that it’s cancelled out by other strengths. You could argue (though I wouldn’t go that far, yet) that he’s already done that, given his age relative to the league and his strength defensively up the middle. For now, it’s just something to keep an eye on. If it persists higher up the organizational ladder, it’ll be worth revisiting with a bit more of a critical eye.
Both players, actually, have the makeup they’ll need to get to the highest level, which isn’t surprising, as makeup is something the Cubs have prioritized in all their amateur acquisitions since the current leadership team took over. Suarez notes that both are outstanding teammates and highly coachable (Torres, in particular, has developed a strong reputation for his makeup and leadership ability, both on and off the field), although “like most kids their age the daily grind of professional baseball is something they are still learning.” As someone who started a new job last week, I can sympathize.
Over the last few years, the Cubs have invested heavily in training and development programs for their young international talent. Those programs are starting to bear fruit in the form of international players who are more comfortable than ever making the transition to a foreign country—the U.S.—whilst simultaneously honing their craft at the highest level and against the best competition. The minor leagues are hard enough to get used to as it is, and the Cubs are doing everything they can to make things easier for those in their organization to acclimate, especially those coming into the system from abroad.
So, where can you expect to see the two young stars play in 2016? According to Suarez, the hope is that Jimenez will start with South Bend, and Torres with Myrtle Beach, but how they look in spring training—and the degree to which both players take and have taken ownership of their development—will matter a great deal as the Cubs make determinations about level in the next month or so. And by the end of the year? If Torres succeeds the way he can in 2016, he’ll be in position for a late-season call-up in 2017, just four years after signing out of Venezuela. Jimenez, too, might now be just a few years shy of his big-league debut.
Whatever happens this year, though, both young men will join a legion of other young talent—Ian Happ, Billy McKinney, Willson Contreras, Eddy Julio Martinez, and many more—in a still-ascendant system. And that’s hard not to get excited about.
Lead photo courtesy Aaron Doster—USA Today Sports.