The days of occult-like fan-following of the Cubs’ minor-league system have ended. It was a mania brought about by multiple factors, the greatest of which were a miserable on-field product at the major-league level, and arguably more importantly a historically* brilliant collection of talent in their minor-league system. In the span of just over one year, they graduated Kris Bryant, currently the best player in the National League; Javier Baez, a former top 10 prospect in all of baseball; Addison Russell, the starting shortstop for the NL All-Star team this year; Kyle Schwarber, he of the scoreboard-topping, hulk-mania creating, playoff-hero fame; and Jorge Soler; receiver of a massive $30 million payday as a tender 19-year-old out of Cuba. You’re forgiven if the MiLB app on your iPhone isn’t responsible for draining quite as much battery this year as it was last.
That doesn’t mean your waning attention is justified, however, as Epstein’s assertion that “waves and waves” of talent flowing through the system were needed for sustained success is proving prescient, as injuries have taken their toll on what appeared to be a stacked 25-man roster. Already this season, Carl Edwards Jr. (former top 100 prospect), Willson Contreras (number 57 on BP’s 2016 top 101), Albert Almora (former top 20 prospect, number 83 on BP’s 2016 top 101) and Jeimer Candelario (former top 100 prospect) have all spent time on the big-league roster, making them ineligible for BP’s midseason top 50 list. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine different promotions of players in the last 16 months that have been top 100 prospects, each impacting the major-league roster to varying degrees this season. With four of those major-league promotions happening already this year, it’s tempting to think that this latest crashing wave may have exhausted the upper-tier talent in the system, but you’d be dead wrong.
For proof of your wrongness, should you believe such, I present to you BP’s midseason Top 50 prospects list (insert link). Despite the recent graduations, the Cubs still managed to have three players garner enough favor in Mr. Goldstein’s eyes to merit selection for the list. Here are those selections and my thoughts on why each player ascended, with Goldstein’s reasoning in italics, from lowest to highest ranking:
#50 – Ian Happ, 2B
Why He’ll Succeed: When he finds a long-term defensive home he’ll be a solid, well-rounded regular with quality makeup and clubhouse contributions. Does a little bit of everything offensively, hitting for average, some power, and putting up double-digit stolen base totals.
Why He Might Fail: His longer swing and high strikeout totals could get exposed against big-league competition, and the unusual tool set might never quite fit an everyday profile, in which case Happ would ultimately have more of a utility future.
Following the draft last month, I wrote the following regarding Happ, which I believe still applies wholly:
The weight of expectation on young Mr. Happ is quite unfair. The Cubs’ previous four top-10 first round picks are all currently in the major-leagues enjoying various levels of success, and Cubs’ fans expectations are that Happ will be among the next wave of home-grown contributors. The stoic former Bearcat has responded in kind, quietly wearing down pitchers with a mature approach and quickly earning promotions all of the way to High-A Myrtle Beach. A combo second basemen and outfielder in college, Happ did not play second base at all in his professional debut in 2015. This led many observers to assume the Cubs had drafted him primarily as a bat-first outfielder, and didn’t believe in his ability to play second base in the majors. In an interesting twist, in 2016 he has played all but five games at second base with at least serviceable results, completely changing the narrative as to what he could be in the future. In 125 games, the 21-year-old Happ has smacked 48 extra-base hits, while walking an eye-popping 83 times. He strikes out too much—126 times in those 125 games—but the combination of power and patience has the Cubs (and other teams) salivating at his ceiling of potential production from a second basemen. His advanced approach at the plate has not gone unnoticed, as he has landed in the top five of every Cubs top-10 prospects list, and slotted in nicely at number 67 on BP’s latest top 100. Prepare yourself to hear Happ’s name mentioned on a regular basis as the trade deadline draws near, but don’t expect Theo Epstein to let him go without a fight.
This was written immediately before Happ’s promotion to Double-A Tennessee, where he exploded into action, slashing .351/.391/.532 in 17 games. I can’t help but think this scorching hot stretch tipped the scales to get him into the final spot on this list, and continuing to get starts at second base probably didn’t hurt, either. Now, Happ’s mere presence at the keystone does not necessarily mean he’s solved the first piece of Goldstein’s puzzle, but it does show that the Cubs are committed to giving him every chance to succeed in the middle infield. He’ll likely always be a bat-first prospect, but that’s not such a terrible quality, is it?
While his time at Double-A is not sufficient for analyzing Happ’s season, his combined 362 plate appearances between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee can tell us a lot about the type of player he is becoming. In short, you should be impressed. A massive 14 percent walk rate is the place to start, and his .406 on-base percentage thanks him for his patience. His approach does not sacrifice his bat-to-ball ability, as his .308 average in generally pitching-friendly leagues is quite impressive. With young players in the minor-leagues, you have to be careful when assessing walk rates, as they can often be the focal point for a player, rather than the byproduct of an efficient approach. This is generally true of prospects with minimal power who are simply finding a way to get on base. These players have a tendency to begin to get exposed at higher levels, as more experienced pitchers with better command refuse to give in to their stinginess. Such is not the case with Happ, as the 33 extra-base hits and healthy .179 ISO point to a player deliberately only looking for pitches he can hammer, and letting the rest pass as they may. This approach also unquestionably leads to high strikeout totals (22 percent for Happ this season), but so far he’s managed to keep the whiffs in a reasonable range. It may be getting overlooked just how young Happ still is, as he is playing in Double-A as a 21-year-old, more than three years younger than the average prospect. His advanced approach at a young age leads me to believe that what we have on our hands is a dangerous, under-appreciated hitting prospect. If he continues to embarrass Double-A pitching, look for him to start next season in Iowa, right on the cusp of crashing onto Wrigley Field’s friendly shores.
#34 – Gleyber Torres, SS
Why He’ll Succeed: There’s no real weakness to Torres’ game. Everything but the power flashes above-average to plus, and his instincts both at the plate and in the field are impressive for any age, much less a 19-year-old.
Why He Might Fail: If he doesn’t stick at shortstop, he doesn’t have the offensive skill set to be a first-division regular. That’s all I got.
Torres has always been a bit difficult for me to pinpoint my thoughts on, as his game is obviously precocious in nature, but lacks the flash of some prospects with a higher ceiling. This is probably an overly disparaging way to describe a 19-year-old shortstop holding his own in High-A, but it is where I am at the moment. Goldstein seems to agree, as he notes his game is solid and impressive, yet still comments on his biggest calling-card being a lack of glaring weaknesses, rather than pointing out any specific strengths. He also notes that if he doesn’t stick at shortstop, he’s likely not a first-division player, meaning Torres’ floor is something resembling a utility infielder. This is most certainly not meant as an insult, as the floor of almost every other 19-year-old prospect is far from the major-leagues.
Torres jumped seven spots from BP’s top 101 to the midseason top 50, which means his ranking is essentially static when considering major-league promotions. While I find this to be fair, I am actually more encouraged by Torres than I ever have been. After starting slowly in Myrtle Beach (.113/.266/.226 through April 21st), he’s been outstanding since, slashing .301/.366/.462. The most encouraging part of that line is the healthy eight percent walk rate, but the impressive .161 ISO is something to keep in mind as well, especially considering how high his batting average is during the streak. Torres is playing in the tough Carolina League as a 19-year-old—not turning 20 until December—which makes him 3.5 years younger than average. If his second half resembles his May-July production of his first half, look for an end to the static nature of his prospect ranking, with the possibility of climbing into the top 20 by the beginning of next season.
#28 – Eloy Jimenez, OF
Why He’ll Succeed: One of the two or three best young hitters in the minors, Jimenez has the size, bat speed, and hitting ability to develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter. If his approach matures, 30-homer seasons with a .300 average and a good OBP aren’t out of the question.
Why He Might Fail: His aggressive approach could get exploited as his moves up the organizational ladder and down the defensive spectrum, making the bat less palatable, though still playable.
Did you catch that? I assume you did, since I added every emphasis WordPress allows. Goldstein believes Jimenez is already one of the two or three best young hitters in the game. To which I have just one thing to add:
This at bat tells you about everything you need to know about Jimenez. The first thing that jumps out, he’s huge. Beyond that, the simplicity with which he uses his hulking frame is absolutely stunning for such a young prospect, as there is almost nothing to analyze in his swing. His hands are quiet, smooth and incredibly short to the ball despite his height, showing a refinement I had absolutely no clue existed until this year. If it sounds like I am gushing like a new father, so be it. He was firmly on my prospect radar before this season, but it’s fair to say the brilliance of his ascension has caused my to drop my…shades.
I’m not the only that was caught slightly off guard by Jimenez, as he didn’t even make BP’s top 101 at the beginning of the year, meaning he leapt some 70-90 spots in the season’s first three months in the eyes of the BP prospect team. For a 19-year-old in Low-A, it takes a seriously head-turning performance to make such a gigantic leap. If the above video didn’t convince you why this happened, perhaps his Low-A season slash line of .332/.372/.527 will do the trick. Among the many impressive things I could point out, my favorite is the 40 extra-base hits he collected in the season’s first 80 games. You don’t need a calculator to extrapolate out what that could look like over a full major-league season.
His game isn’t perfect—he could walk more and strikeout less, but I believe with coaching and experience he’ll smooth out those offensive wrinkles. You can also bet that as his doubles power turns into home run power, pitchers won’t want to throw him strikes, leading to an increase in free passes. I also reached out to Craig to ask him about his “moving down the defensive spectrum” comment, to which he responded that he isn’t particularly bearish on Jimenez’s defense, but rather included that bit as a caution for how his frame could fill out in the future, which makes perfect sense to me given its hulking nature. However, I do feel it’s pertinent to give you a quick look at his current athleticism, as he is clearly not a player who lacks the ability to do amazing things even on defense (fast forward to 10 second mark):
To say the least, the future for Jimenez could be as bright as just about anyone’s. He is still young and has many tests to pass, but the ability is quite clearly there. I will leave you by whetting your appetite with a few comments from a generally rather reserved prospect analyst:
– Keith Law, ESPN
*I understand fully that this statement should really only be used with about a decade’s worth of hindsight. I don’t care.