marquee young cubs

Young Cubs: The Next Wave Approaches

When the major league team was still in the throes of the rebuild, many die-hard Cubs fans found daily solace in minor league box scores. As the big leaguers struggled, there were often glimpses of hope as players like Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Kyle Schwarber lit up the box scores from Kane County (later South Bend) to Iowa and all the stops in between. When he took over in 2012, Theo Epstein declared that the Cubs’ goal was to have “waves and waves” of talent coming up through their minor league system, and so far, he has delivered. But the waves don’t stop when the major league team gets good, and the future of the Cubs organization still rests, in large part, in the system which the Cubs have so caringly nurtured over the last five years. At BP Wrigleyville, we want to make sure that we keep highlighting minor league happenings, so we plan on bringing you updates and storylines from across the minors throughout the season. The farm system is still good, and the next wave is coming, so let’s get ready.

Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) (6-9)

Iowa’s win-loss record so far is not suggestive of the potential impact talent on their roster. Albert Almora, Jr. and Willson Contreras are the headliners, but prospects like Dan Vogelbach, Carl Edwards, Jr., Ryan Williams, and Pierce Johnson also make this an interesting team to watch. Old friends like Matt Murton and Ryan Kalish are even making cameos on the roster. That said, Almora and Contreras have been the most productive players so far, and this is most interesting storyline out of Des Moines in the early going.

There is no question about Almora’s glove; the bat has been (and will be) the biggest question mark going forward. In past years, he has struggled after promotion—he sputtered out of the gate at both High-A and Double-A over the past two years. This year, though, he has gotten off to a hot start with the bat: he is OPSing .900 through 14 games, and perhaps most encouragingly, he has walked six times in 58 plate appearances. This ten percent walk rate would be middling for most players, but for someone with Almora’s contact skills, it is very exciting. He has only struck out seven times, a (small sample) example of why the Cubs were so intrigued with his bat when they drafted him sixth overall in 2012. He also has homered twice in the past several days, including this moonshot:

This is all in a small sample, but if Almora keeps this up, his glove and contact ability could make a strong impact on the Cubs as early as this summer.

Contreras has also gotten off to an excellent start, showing off the offensive skills (excluding power) that got him noticed as a top catching prospect in the game last year. He is OPSing .872 with only seven strikeouts, and his OBP is still above .400. He is already a viable major league catcher offensively, so watch out for reports on how his defense is progressing as the season goes on.

Vogelbach has only one home run so far, but he is getting on base at a consistently high rate (.418). Alcantara has continued his struggles from last year in the early going; he has an OPS of only .650, and he has struck out 13 times in 51 at bats. Johnson has allowed only one run (with 11 strikeouts!) in eight early season innings of work. Reliever depth piece Spencer Patton has yet to allow a run; watch for him to be a possible callup if the Cubs need some bullpen help later this year.

Tennessee Smokies (Double-A) (8-9)

The early season story in Tennessee has been outfielder Bijan Rademacher, whose budding prospecthood we have profiled previously here at BP Wrigleyville. Often described as a “tweener,” whose ceiling might be as a fourth or fifth MLB outfielder, his production (so far) has been anything but. He is OPSing 1.251 with four homers and ten walks to seven strikeouts through his first 16 games. Rademacher, 24, is regarded as a solid defensive outfielder, so if he can maintain a high level of offensive production he could quickly rise to Iowa and beyond.

His counterpart in the corner outfield is much-more-highly-touted prospect Billy McKinney, whose profile is actually similar to Rademacher, but whose younger age and higher draft profile has led to much more attention. So far, though, he has struggled in Double-A, with an OPS of only .561. It is still very early, of course, but McKinney must convince scouts and front office officials that he will be able to hit like a corner outfielder if he is to advance much farther. The good news: he is still only 21, he has great contact skills, and he has plenty of time to figure things out.

Pitching prospect Paul Blackburn has been getting fantastic results in the early going for Tennessee allowing only one earned run in 26 innings through four starts. The righty has always had potential, but getting results like this will open some eyes across the organization. The only downside of his performance is that he has struck out only 11 batters so far, but his four walks show that his command of the strikezone is very real. Keep an eye on Blackburn as the season progresses.

Mark Zagunis, Jacob Hanneman, and Jeimer Candelario have all struggled early on; none of them have shown both slugging and on-base skills consistenly yet. Chesny Young continues to get on base at a high rate (.449), continuing a trend he has shown at every stop through the minors so far. He doesn’t have much power to speak of, but his on-base skills will continue to get him looks.

2014 second-round pick Rob Zastryzny has struck out 19 and walked eight in 23 innings of work, to the tune of a 3.52 ERA.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (9-8)

Number one Cubs prospect Gleyber Torres is calling Myrtle Beach his home for the year, but he has struggled so far. It is very early, but the most concerning trend is 21 strikeouts in 71 plate appearances, (29 percent). Torres is not known for his power either, so a high strikeout rate in the low minors is concerning, even in a small sample. It is still extremely early, though, and Torres is a 19-year-old playing in High-A.

Ian Happ, on the other hand, is continuing the legacy of Cubs’ first-round college batters mashing in the minors. Much like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber before him, Happ is OPSing .990 with three homers through 17 games. Happ’s power is not as quite as prolific as Bryant or Schwarber, but as a second baseman, his .317 AVG and .434 OBP will more than play. If he continues to hit like this, we could see a relatively quick rise through the minors—it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see a midseason promotion to Tennessee.

Shortstop Jason Vosler continues to hit wherever he goes, slashing a .351/.433/.456 through 17 games. He has walked nine times to only eight strikeouts.

Pitchers Jonathan Martinez and Jake Stinnett have pitched very well for the Pelicans in the early going, accumulating a 2.50 and 2.55 ERA through three starts each, respectively. Stinnett (14 Ks and four BBs, 0.79 WHIP) struggled after the hype of being a second-round pick last year, so the fast start is encouraging. He could move quickly if he keeps this performance up.

South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (10-6)

South Bend is a fun team to watch this year. We are getting our first full-season looks at two very intriguing prospects: Eddy Julio Martinez, and Eloy Jimenez. We have written about the mystery of Martinez, the Cubs big Cuban outfield signing this offseason before, so the opportunity to see him play stateside (and not far from Chicago!) is exciting. So far, he has homered twice, but his grand total of zero walks is a little worrisome. He is 21, so watching his progression will be exciting and (hopefully) fairly quick.

Jimenez has shown off some of his predigious power already, blasting a walk-off homer in one of South Bend’s first games. Since then, though, he has struggled a bit, OPS’ing only .693 through 15 games. We have heard about him for a while now, but he is still only 19 and he has plenty of time to grow into his potential.

Carson Sands, left-handed pitching prospect and fourth-round pick of two years ago, has put up solid numbers early on in South Bend: a 3.60 ERA in 10 innings. Justin Steele, another 2014 draftee, has struggled, allowing 10 runs in 10 and 2/3 innings. His 12 strikeouts, though, suggest that his underlying “stuff” is still intriguing enough to make him worth watching.

Donnie Dewees, a third rounder from a year ago, has been the most impressive player early on for South Bend, posting a 1.028 OPS over 60 at bats. He hasn’t homered, but he has shown an incredible penchant for finding the gaps: he has a slugging percentage of .617. He is also speedy: he has stolen six bases in the early going, and his low strikeout rate (12 percent) suggests that his contact skills will let his speed play. Keep an eye on Dewees’ progression this year—he could be a very exciting player.

Eugene Emeralds (Short Season A)

The Emeralds don’t begin their season until June 17, but Eugene is often the place where we get our first look at new draft picks and international signees. We’ll cover them as soon as their season gets going this summer.

BP Top 10 Updates (season-to-date performance)

1. Gleyber Torres, SS, High-A – 60 AB, .167 AVG, .606 OPS, 11 BB, 21 K, 1 HR

2. Willson Contreras, C, AAA – 51 AB, .373 AVG, .872 OPS, 4 BB, 7 K, 0 HR

Contreras is hitting .444 against lefties so far this year.

3. Ian Happ, 2B, High-A – 63 AB, .317 AVG, .990 OPS, 12 BB, 18 K, 3 HR

4. Billy McKinney, OF, AA – 51 AB, .218 AVG, .561 OPS, 7 BB, 15 K, 0 HR

5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, Low-A – 63 AB, .238 AVG, .615 OPS, 0 BB, 15 K, 2 HR

The walk and strikeout rates are worrisome, but it is still very early.

6. Dylan Cease, P, Arizona League – No stats

Cease has been pitching for the Cubs in extended Spring Training. Reports say that his fastball is sitting at 97-99 mph.

7. Albert Almora, OF, AAA – 51 AB, .333 AVG, .900 OPS, 6 BB, 7 K, 2 HR

These stats look even better after you watch some defensive highlights of Almora.

8. Duane Underwood, P – No stats

Underwood has been battling right elbow tenderness since Spring Training and has not yet been assigned to a team. He is expected to pitch this year, but he is still in Arizona for now.

9. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Low-A – 59 AB, .254 AVG, .693 OPS, 5 BB, 19 K, 1 HR

10. Carl Edwards, Jr., P, AAA – 6 IP, 3.00 ERA, .217 AVG, 1.50 WHIP, 4 BB, 8 K 

Edwards Jr. could be an option for the big league ‘pen later in the year if he can reign in his walk rate.

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