marquee young cubs

Young Cubs: Almora Rising

It was a cold and windy week in Chicago, but some Cubs prospects are hot. Let’s recap this week in the minors.

Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) (9-12)

Albert Almora was the biggest story in the farm system this week, as he continued his torrid start to the season. He hit two more homers, and bumped his line up to .351/.390/.527 through 80 plate appearances. Almora has now hit well for half a season if you go back and include his excellent second half (.301/.370/.464) at Tennessee last year. The brilliant contact skills that Epstein & Co. recognized in the 2012 draft are producing their best results since the 22-year-old centerfielder torched Low-A Kane County in 2013. After struggling offensively for almost two full seasons, Almora could be knocking on the door of Wrigley Field if he maintains anything close to this pace into the summer.

Dan Vogelbach provided the most impressive highlight of the week when he powered one off the ‘A’ on the Principal Park display in Des Moines. Iowa later realized that the ‘A’ was broken when they went to turn on the sign.

It should be no surprise that Vogelbach (.343/.443/.507) is raking—he’s an MLB-ready hitter right now, and the only things holding him back are his limited defense and the lack of DH in the National League. Barring an extremely unfortunate Anthony Rizzo injury, it’s unlikely we see him in the majors with the Cubs any time soon, but watch for his name to (continue to) come up in trade discussions this summer.

The Iowa pitching staff has struggled in the early going, with the notable exceptions of Spencer Patton (no runs allowed) and Felix Pena (0.82 ERA), who are both pitching out of the bullpen. Patton especially, and perhaps Pena, could be bullpen fodder at the MLB level as the season wears on.

Pierce Johnson has an ERA of 3.55 through three starts, but he has only gotten through 12 and 2/3 innings, and his WHIP is an ugly 1.74 to this point. It’s early, but he’ll have to reign in his command if he wants to become the reliable back end starter that he could be.

Tennessee Smokies (Double-A) (12-11)

The Southern League named Chesny Young and Paul Blackburn the Players of the Week for April 18-24 on Tuesday, the first time that two Smokies had won the award in the same week since 2011. Young kept right on hitting after winning the award, and he is now hitting .550 over his last 10 games. The second baseman from Mercer University is now up to an unbelievable .402/.505/.524 on the season through 98 plate appearances. Since the Cubs drafted him in the 14th round in 2014, all he’s done is hit; he has a .330 career minor league batting average. His two homers are two more than you’d expect from him, and his 11 stolen bases are also exciting. This production from a flyer draft pick was mildly interesting when he played at lower levels; now that he’s at Double-A, it’s exciting. The Cubs are deep at the keystone position, with Ian Happ also playing extremely well at High-A.

Blackburn, for his part, has now allowed one (1) run through 31 innings of work in five starts, for an ERA of 0.29. He has been a sleeper prospect in the Cubs’ system for years now, since they drafted him with a compensation pick in 2012. The only downside of his season so far is that he has only struck out 15 batters, but still, the results are hard to argue with at this point.

After battling elbow tightness, top pitching prospect Duane Underwood debuted for the Smokies this week, pitching four innings of one-run ball.

Jeimer Candelario was off to a slow start after his impressive Spring Training, but he turned it around this week, blasting two home runs for the Smokies. Bijan Rademacher is still hot; his OPS is 1.107 on the season. And Cuban signee Gerardo Concepcion has now pitched twelve innings of scoreless relief on the year as he tries to salvage a career in baseball.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (11-11)

The aforementioned Ian Happ won the Carolina League Player of the Week honors last week, and his line continues to look impressive at .313/.427/.550. He has four homers in the early going, and he’s drawing walks at an encouraging 15.7 percent rate. There is no need for the Cubs to rush him, but we could see him rise relatively quickly through the system.

Top shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres, on the other hand, is really struggling early on. He’s now hitting just .179 on the season, with only one homer and a .597 OPS. He’s still very young for his league at age 19, so there is plenty of time to be patient and wait for Torres to make adjustments. A positive: he’s only struck out twice in his last seven games.

There haven’t been any standout performances on the pitching side yet this year, but Jonathan Martinez, Jake Stinnett, and Tommy Thorpe have all gotten off to solid starts. James Ferris has been excellent out of the ‘pen, allowing only two runs and striking out 17 in 14 innings of work, with a WHIP of 0.71.

South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (13-9)

The South Bend verion of the Cubs finished this week with a four-game sweep of the Fort Wayne TinCaps, making their record the best in the system. Donnie Dewees, last year’s second-rounder, has been a revelation early on, OPSing .977 with some impressive contact ability, gaps power, and speed. Outfielder Daniel Spingola (a 31st round pick a year ago) has also gotten off to a fast start, with a line of .403/.452/.493 in the early going. The South Bend team has four home runs—fewer than the Atlanta Braves, somehow—but has still managed to consistently put up runs.

Eddy Julio Martinez walked three times this week, which is three more than he had ever had in a week previously. He is struggling, but should be given plenty of time to make adjustments. Eloy Jimenez has hit .317 over his past ten days, but he has only one home run so far this year. He did have a walk-off hit to seal the series sweep yesterday, however:

Pitching prospects Carson Sands and Justin Steele have both struggled early on. Each has posted an ERA of 6+ through three starts. The lefty Sands has only seven strikeouts, which is worrisome for somebody with his stuff. Look for these two to make adjustments.

Last year’s fifth-round pick Ryan Kellogg has been very good (2.95 ERA, 18 K, 4 BB) through four starts. He is a 22-year-old out of college, so we could see him promoted fairly quickly if he continues to have success. Overall, though, the pitching results are mostly too small of a sample to read too much into this early.

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 – 78 AB, .179 AVG, .597 OPS, 11 BB, 23 K, 1 HR

2. Willson Contreras, C, AAA – 64 AB, .359 AVG, .886 OPS, 8 BB, 8 K, 0 HR

3. Ian Happ, 2B, High-A – 80 AB, .313 AVG, .977 OPS, 15 BB, 23 K, 4 HR

Happ has made six errors in the early-going, but he has three stolen bases without being caught.

4. Billy McKinney, OF, AA – 68 AB, .206 AVG, .525 OPS, 7 BB, 18 K, 0 HR

McKinney is struggling in Tennessee, but he is still young for the league at age 21.

5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, Low-A – 85 AB, .235 AVG, .623 OPS, 3 BB, 21 K, 2 HR

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

Cease has been pitching for the Cubs in extended Spring Training.

7. Albert Almora, OF, AAA – 74 AB, .351 AVG, .917 OPS, 6 BB, 9 K, 3 HR

8. Duane Underwood, P, AA – 4 IP, 2.25 ERA, .267 AVG, 1.25 WHIP, 1 BB, 2 K

Underwood debuted this week after elbow tightness, but the Cubs will look to limit his innings for the time being.

9. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Low-A – 81 AB, .284 AVG, .746 OPS, 6 BB, 25 K, 1 HR

10. Carl Edwards, Jr., P, AAA – 8 IP, 3.38 ERA, .200 AVG, 1.63 WHIP, 7 BB, 11 K 

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