The big-league Cubs have largely struggled since I last wrote, but things are still looking very good down on the farm. A few big name prospects have made some big strides in recent weeks, while some have simply continued to play well. Let’s take a spin around the minors and catch up.
Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) (19-25)
Iowa’s first half record isn’t great, but the Cubs are seeing some exciting offensive performances in Des Moines. There isn’t much more to say about these guys: Willson Contreras and Dan Vogelbach can hit. They both are OPSing over .900 on the season (which is no longer quite as young). Contreras has as many walks as strikeouts (22), and now has five homers on the year. He only had eight total homers in 2015, when he won the Cubs minor league organizational Player of the Year award, so the power he is showing is all the more promising.
Albert Almora, Jr. has now hit consistently well for about five full months, going back to the second half of last year. This isn’t a blip; it’s a new norm. He still doesn’t walk—he only has six free passes on the season—but he also strikes out at an impressively low 12.9 percent rate. His .815 OPS would more than play at the MLB level, heck, a .715 OPS would be awesome if paired with Almora’s defense.
Arismendy Alcantara has shown some signs of life lately—he now has five home runs and a decent if unspectacular .763 OPS. He has a 26.7 percent strikeout rate, though, which he’ll need to get down if he wants to reenter the conversation as a useful bench piece.
I wrote that the pitching hasn’t been great at Iowa, but there have been two interesting bright spots as of late. First, Gerardo Concepion, a long-ago disregarded international signing out of Cuba, has been lights out as a reliever this year. He hasn’t allowed a run in 24 innings yet to begin the year, with 22 strikeouts and only 7 walks. There isn’t much of a track record of success with Concepcion, but if he keeps pitching like this, he’ll get another chance at an MLB career.
Secondly, 2014 second-round pick Rob Zastrynsky made his Iowa debut on Tuesday night and went seven strong innings, allowing just two earned runs. He’s had a bit of a rocky road to this point in the minors, so it will be interesting to see if he sinks or swims at Triple-A.
Finally, the Cubs released outfielder Shane Victorino this week, after he spent the beginning of the season in Iowa. We’ll see if he latches on somewhere else to give it another try, but if not, he still had a pretty fantastic MLB career.
Tennessee Smokies (Double-A) (21-24)
Here is a fun #spreadsheet that Keith Law tweeted this weekend:
Top K% – BB% for minor league hitters in 2016, min 100 PA. Top 100 prospects in bold. pic.twitter.com/aOvLqMnpuB
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) May 21, 2016
It is no longer totally up-to-date, but it shows a pretty incredible feat through a quarter of the season: Bijan Rademacher and Chesny Young—both members of the Smokies—are leading all of MiLB in their BB%-K%. It is rare enough to see a player who walks more than he strikes out, but it is rarer still to see multiple players who are so good at this in one organization. The Cubs certainly do have a type, and it seems clear that this is a skill they look for in the later rounds of the draft. South Bend Cub P.J. Higgins (a twelfth-rounder last year) also makes an appearance further down the list.
Young has come down to earth a bit after his hot April—his OPS is now just .782. Rademacher continues to rake and take his walks; he has homered four times and has a .458 OBP.
Mark Zagunis has walked ten times in as many games and continues to show elite strike zone skills as he progresses through the minors. He has moved from catcher to full-time outfield, though, and he’ll need to show more power (he has only two home runs) if he wants to keep moving up.
Paul Blackburn continues to be the story on the pitching side. He has a 0.96 ERA through 56 innings and a 0.890 WHIP that suggests the success is at least somewhat sustainable. He only has 30 strikeouts, however.
Billy McKinney had a walk-off single on Monday night, but continues to struggle on the season. The Cubs’ number four prospect has only a .619 OPS to this point, and has yet to hit a home run.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (25-19)
The offensive stats for the Pelicans are pretty lacking, so the 25-19 record is, at first blush, surprising. Ian Happ (.840) is the only player with an OPS over .800, and we’re now a quarter of the way through the season. But a fivesome of very solid starters has propelled the Pelicans in the early going. So we should start paying some attention to these names: Trevor Clifton (2.25 ERA), Zach Hedges (2.70), Jake Stinnett (3.18), Jonathan Martinez (3.35), and Erik Leal (3.93).
Stinnett is still the most heralded of the bunch because of his draft position (second-round last year), but each of these players has pitched at least 36 innings, and produced extremely strong results. Clifton, 21, has been the most dominant: he has 45 strikeouts in 40 innings, showing he has the stuff to miss bats consistently. Jonathan Martinez doesn’t have that sort of stuff, but he has been incredibly stingy with walks to this point: only ten through 48 innings. Leal and Hedges have each been solid if not spectacular, but that can be very valuable in its own right. We’ll see who the Cubs promote this year, but for the time being you can be sure that tuning into Myrtle Beach is a good bet if you want to see some intriguing young pitching every single night.
South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (28-16)
Eloy Jimenez has officially busted out at Low-A. The 19-year-old behemoth now has six home runs in the last twelve games, a power surge that has bumped his OPS on the season up to .927. We’ve written about Jimenez’s potential here before, but a .335 average and .376 OBP at this point exceed anything we could have imagined. He’s unlikely to keep it up, but if he does, he’ll join fellow 19-year-old Gleyber Torres near the top of Cubs prospect lists sooner than you think. Now watch this drive:
Donnie Dewees continues to show off his well-rounded skill set this year: he now has 11 steals and a very solid .290/.342/.473 slash line.
Eddy Julio Martinez has not gotten off to a great stateside start, with a .662 OPS over the course of 167 plate appearances. He’s got time to develop, but it would be good to see the 21-year-old international signee start hitting soon.
Lefty Carson Sands has settled in a bit at South Bend—he’s now got a 3.38 ERA through 37.1 innings. He’s been a bit too wild so far though (15 walks), and he hasn’t missed the bats that the Cubs were hoping he’d be able to (20 strikeouts).
The other lefty from the 2014 draft, Justin Steele, has continued to struggle. He holds a 6.19 ERA on the season. There have been flashes—he struck out 10 on May 18th, for example—but it’s been way too inconsistent so far for the 20-year-old.
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 – 163 AB, .245 AVG, .728 OPS, 16 BB, 43 K, 3 HR
His offensive numbers haven’t been fantastic in the early going, but he is a 19-year-old shortstop at High-A. Because of this, Keith Law ranked him the #15 overall prospect in his quarter season update.
2. Willson Contreras, C, AAA – 141 AB, .326 AVG, .933 OPS, 22 BB, 22 K, 5 HR
Contreras’ OBP has remained above .400 all year—it is currently .423. He vaulted into Keith Law’s top-25—up to number 18—in his updated rankings this week.
3. Ian Happ, 2B, High-A – 160 AB, 281. AVG, .840 OPS, 27 BB, 49 K, 5 HR
4. Billy McKinney, OF, AA – 137 AB, .234 AVG, .619 OPS, 21 BB, 29 K, 0 HR
5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, Low-A – 153 AB, .229 AVG, .662 OPS, 13 BB, 42 K, 5 HR
Martinez continues to struggle at the plate, but he has shown better discipline of late, walking five times over his past ten games.
6. Dylan Cease, P, Arizona League – No stats available
Read this eyewitness report from Arizona Phil at The Cubs Reporter: Cease is sitting at 98-99 with his fastball and seems to be mixing in a very solid curve in his time at Arizona. I’d expect that we’ll see him in Eugene at some point this season, and we’ll hear a lot more about him as his stuff moves through the minors. Right now, Cease is probably the Cubs best chance at having a top-of-the-rotation pitching prospect.
7. Albert Almora, OF, AAA – 172 AB, .326 AVG, .815 OPS, 6 BB, 23 K, 3 HR
8. Duane Underwood Jr., P, AA – 22 IP, 4.91 ERA, .264 AVG, 1.59 WHIP, 12 BB, 15 K
The season is young, but Underwood has yet to go more than five innings in any start. This is partially due to a pitch count, but you’d still like to see him working more efficiently more often as Double-A.
9. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Low-A – 167 AB, .335 AVG, .927 OPS, 11 BB, 43 K, 7 HR
If you had to nitpick, you’d point to the 43 strikeouts. But, then again, the kid is 19-years-old.
10. Carl Edwards, Jr., P, AAA – 16.1 IP, 2.20 ERA, .167 AVG, 1.16 WHIP, 9 BB, 25 K
The longer Edwards keeps up a solid K/BB rate and a reasonable WHIP, the more he looks like a viable MLB bullpen option.