Prospect Day: The “Next Five”

It’s prospect day for Cubs fans here at BP, as our friends over at the main site dropped their final top 10 list for the defending top farm system of 2015. You should definitely check out Craig Goldstein and Chris Crawford’s outstanding write-up before reading this piece. In addition to individual assessments of the best prospects in the system, you’ll also get fantasy analysis from Bret Sayre, and a top-10 under-25 list and write-up from our esteemed editor, Rian Watt. I believe you’ll find it all highly enjoyable.

Of course, the folks here at BPWrigleyville aren’t satisfied with just 10 names, so we’ve decided to team up and give you five more prospects for your reading pleasure. A quick recap of the BP top 10 Cubs prospects:

1) SS Gleyber Torres

2) C Willson Contreras

3) OF/2B Ian Happ

4) OF Billy McKinney

5) OF Eddy Julio Martinez

6) RHP Dylan Cease

7) OF Albert Almora

8) RHP Duane Underwood

9) OF Eloy Jimenez

10) RHP Carl Edwards, Jr.

We’ll have plenty of other Wrigleyville content today breaking down and analyzing this list, so I’ll avoid going into too much detail here. One point that is clear is that the dynamics of the system have changed, morphing from a system with brilliant future offensive stars headlining the top of the list, to a system now flush with depth and intriguing pitching in the lower levels. This is no longer the best system in the game—as it likely lacks future stars—but it is certainly one of the deepest. Evidence of this is found in that though this bonus list contains just five names, the Wrigleyville staff submissions consisted of 12 different players receiving votes.

A quick primer of how this list was formed: Each staff member was asked to submit their favorite choices for the 11th-15th prospects based on the same evaluative method used to determine 1-10. These lists were then tallied with five points given for an 11th place vote, four points for a 12th, etc. First place votes are denoted in parentheses. Without further ado, here are your 11th through 15th ranked prospects, brought to you by BPWrigleyville:

11) RHP Pierce Johnson (5)

If this list was purely predicated upon which player was closest to the majors, the 24-year-old Johnson would likely be first overall. Drafted 43rd overall by the Cubs in 2012, the right-handed starter’s talent has never been in question, but his career has been marred by injuries and a lack of overall durability. Johnson’s highest innings-pitched total is 118, which he achieved back in 2013. Injuries cut each of 2014 and 2015 short, in which he totaled just 197 innings combined. He’ll have to improve upon those totals this year, or his chances of becoming a big-league starter will likely fade out. However, even if he never does earn a spot in the rotation, his stuff should translate well into the back end of the bullpen.

Setting aside the durability question, Johnson’s game evolved from a thrower into more of a pitcher last season. It was a necessary progression, as an inability to throw strikes threatened to derail his career. His 2014 mark of 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings pitched showcased his unusual ability, but his five walks per nine highlighted the need for improvement in his command. Johnson made that step forward in 2015, cleaning up his delivery and improving his ability to stay in the zone. The result of these strides was a manageable three walks per nine tally, but the unfortunate side-effect was his strikeout rate dropping below seven for the first time in his career. Johnson will start 2016 at Triple-A Iowa, and he will have every chance to prove that his career 2.50 ERA is repeatable, whether or not he is able to return to the elite strikeout totals that helped make him BP’s 83rd overall prospect before 2015. Given success in his efforts at Iowa this season, Johnson’s presence on the 40-man roster make him a likely late-season call-up in the event of the Cubs needing bullpen reinforcements.

12) 3B Jeimer Candelario (4)

Owner of an 80-grade nickname, the ‘Candy Man’ carried an impressive second-half resurgence in Tennessee last season to vault himself back into prospect relevance. He carried that momentum into a dominant stint in the Arizona Fall League, slashing .329/.371/.610 in 21 games for the Solar Sox. The resurgence came at a crucial time for Jeimer, after his 2014 saw him struggle at High-A before being demoted back to Kane County. Candelario’s calling card has been his patient approach at the plate throughout his career, and this skill was on full display during his successful Double-A stint last year. In 46 games, he walked in 12.1 percent of his plate appearances, while striking out in just 11.5 percent of his chances. Candelario has also continued to prove doubters wrong defensively, showing himself to possess an adequate glove at the hot corner.

Signed three days before his 17th birthday in 2010, Candelario has been young relative to each league he’s played in during his minor-league career. This season is likely to be no different, as Christian Villanueva’s injury opens up the door for Candy to start at third base in Iowa. It will be another aggressive promotion for the 22-year-old Dominican-American, but it is yet another opportunity for the switch-hitting third basemen to prove his mettle against older competition. Because he signed at such a young age, Jeimer is already on the 40-man roster. Despite his presence on the roster—if 2016 proves to be his breakout year as our staff suggests it might be—look for his name to be included in deadline trade talks, as his position is hopelessly blocked in Chicago by some pretty boy that sells clothes.

13) RHP Oscar De La Cruz (3)

Basing my belief far more on projection than actual on-the-field results, De La Cruz is my personal pick for the top of this list. Signed as an 18-year-old shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, his first attempts at pitching came after he was signed as a professional. Pitching last year in short-season Single-A last year, De La Cruz racked up 73 strikeouts in 73 innings, while walking just 17. This performance and his all-around athleticism led to his stock exploding this season, finding himself cracking some top 10 lists in the prospecting world.  It’s pretty heady stuff for the young man, considering he’s pitched less than 200 innings total in his career.

De La Cruz is likely headed to a loaded rotation in South Bend, where he will be able to showcase his skillset to a much broader audience than last year during his time in Eugene. With another year under his belt, a midseason promotion to High-A wouldn’t surprise me in the least, and I expect him to finish the season threatening to become one of the top five prospects in the Cubs system.

14) 1B Dan Vogelbach (0)

Our selection for the 14th overall prospect is a classic example of a player that prognosticators tend to focus on what they cannot do, far more than focusing on what they can do. Here’s what Vogelbach can do: Rake, he can really rake. Long maligned for his inability to contribute in any way other than at the plate, it is possible Vogelbach has become pretty underrated as a victim of being permanently blocked by Anthony Rizzo. However, it would be a mistake to disregard his value simply because of the situation he is currently in. Despite several nagging injuries last year, Kyle Schwarber’s doppelgänger finished with a .403 on-base percentage in Tennessee. No, he doesn’t hit as many home runs as his physique would suggest he might, but the gap-to-gap power is there and there is projection for more in the future.

There’s no hiding the fact that Vogelbach is a future DH. He simply doesn’t have the athleticism or ability defensively to hack it as a long term answer at first base, so this story likely ends with the former second round selection being traded to the American League. My feeling is that he’ll start this season back in Double-A Tennessee, but don’t let his uncertain future distract you from the fact that in all likelihood you’re watching a future major-leaguer.

15) LHP Carson Sands (0)

Drafted in the fourth round of the vaunted 2014 Cubs draft class, Sands was the first high school pitcher selected in the ever-confusing triumvirate of Sands, Justin Steele and Dylan Cease.  Despite this prospect identity crisis, Sands deserves to be recognized on his own merits. Still just 20-years-old, the athletic lefty from Tallahassee dominated short-season competition in 2014, before holding his own in Low-A last season. Possessing a fastball, curveball and changeup, Sands needs to improve his command to continue climbing up the organizational ladder.

With just 14 games started in Eugene last year, he’ll likely head back to Oregon to start this season. However, with solid results, a promotion to join the loaded South Bend rotation is certainly a possibility.

Other players receiving staff votes: Ryan Williams, Bryan Hudson, Mark Zagunis, Justin Steele, Jen-Ho Tseng, Donnie Dewees, Christian Villanueva

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.

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