We’re now in the middle of July, which means that you won’t open up your browser much over the next few weeks without seeing trade speculation. Much of this will be wild—hopefully at least some will be measured—but there is no doubt that some trades will be made this month, and there is little doubt that much of the value the Cubs will add to their big league roster for the stretch run will be exchanged for talent from places like Iowa, Tennessee, and South Bend. This can be a bit sobering for prospect aficionados, but there is also something exciting about the prospect you’ve read about for a few years finally being turned into MLB value one way or another. The other side of this, of course, are internal promotions that add to the Cubs’ MLB talent. And even with the promotions of Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras, and Carl Edwards Jr. to the big leagues, there are still a few players in the system who could make a difference down the stretch. With this in mind, let’s mosey* around the minors.
Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) (42-53)
I should be clear here: Joe Nathan only qualifies for Young Cubs by virtue of playing in the minor league system—by any other baseball measure, he is not young. But! The 41-year-old’s recent performance is very much worth mentioning. He started several weeks ago at Tennessee, where he allowed only three hits (two of which were home runs) in 6 and 2/3 innings of work. He has since put up 1 and 1/3 innings of scoreless and hitless ball in Iowa. Reports have his fastball in the mid-90s, which is workable. With some questions in the bullpen, there is now a real chance that Nathan could become a factor for the Cubs down the stretch. Which is kind of cool.
Former Orioles top prospect Brian Matusz debuted as a starter for Iowa on Sunday. The Cubs are searching for starting pitching depth (this is certainly the most injury-susceptible position in the Cubs organization), and Matusz, if healthy, could provide an intriguing option. He was fairly effective in his first action this year—he gave up two runs in five innings, and added five strikeouts to only one walk. The 29-year-old lefty is looking to reclaim a once-promising MLB career, and it would be exciting if the Cubs could find a legitimate 6th starting pitcher option for the stretch run. Just in case.
Another Iowa player who could conceivably help the Cubs for their stretch run is Spring Training star John Andreoli. He hasn’t hit like he did in Mesa this Spring, but there is no doubt that he can run. He’s posted 22 stolen bases on the year (though he has been caught seven times). He could be a September call-up simply for his ability to run, much like Quintin Berry was last year.
Dan Vogelbach is unlikely to make the Cubs’ roster this year, which is somewhat sad because he doing exactly what the Cubs hoped he would continue to do: hit. He’s slashing .310/.420/.535 with 15 homers on the year. His inability to play the field, as always, is the limiting factor on his development in the NL. This is less of a problem in the AL, though, and—stop me if you’ve heard this before—he could add MLB value to the Cubs in a deal with a team, like, say, the Yankees, who happen to have some of the top relievers in the game.
Tennessee Smokies (Double-A) (37-55)
Ian Happ continues to hit no matter where he is in the system. Since arriving at Tennessee, he’s put up a .329/.360/.468 line, and he seems more and more committed to second base (though I’m sure the Cubs will keep him flexible). The dream is a hitter like—again, stop me if you’ve heard this before—Ben Zobrist, who could provide contact and versatility all over the field. There haven’t been any major hiccups in Happ’s development yet, and we could see him as early as mid-season next year.
If you’re looking for some mid-level prospects who the Cubs might be willing to forfeit in a deadline trade, Tennessee might be a good place to look. Billy McKinney, former first-round pick and trade partner of Addison Russell in the Samardzija deal, has struggled in Kodak this year, only hitting .261/.363/.335. The slugging numbers are the most worrisome—he needs to have power to hold down the corner outfield spot that he fits into defensively. It might be selling low if the Cubs were to trade him at this point, but it might also be worth cashing in while he still has some value.
Paul Blackburn and Jen-Ho Tseng are two moderately intriguing pitching prospects that could be dealt as part of a larger deal. Neither has overpowering stuff, but each has been effective at every level throughout their careers. Blackburn, 22, has a 3.36 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and a 65/23 K/BB ratio in 96 innings this year, while Tseng, 21, has a 3.30 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and a 43/20 K/BB in 65 innings.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (48-45)
Gleyber Torres was passed by Eloy Jimenez as the Cubs’ top current minor-leaguer in the recent BP midseason top-50, but that is through no fault of his own. The 19-year-old shortstop has continued to hold his own against much older players this year, slashing .268/.350/.420. The on-base numbers and power numbers are the most encouraging, and, as a shortstop, Torres will continue to hang near the top of prospect lists if he can continue that sort of production throughout the system.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we should check in on older prospects who have disappointed, if just to remind ourselves that it is incredibly hard to make the big leagues. Jeffrey Baez is a good example. He was thought of as long-shot but high-upside guy when brought in several years ago, but he is currently floundering to the tune of a .619 OPS in his age-22 season. He is still young, but the potential that many saw now looks diminished.
Pitching continues to be the story in Myrtle Beach. You don’t hear Zach Hedges and Erick Leal’s names too often, but they have both been excellent this year. Hedges has a 2.78 ERA in 90 and 2/3 innings this year, and an impressive 61/16 K/BB. He isn’t missing a ton of bats, but his control has been excellent, and he is keeping runners off the bases. It’s a similar story for Leal, who has a 3.02 ERA in 86 and 1/3 innings, with a 60/18 K/BB. Each is worth watching, along with the rest of the rotation.
South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (57-36)
The big news in South Bend has been Eloy Jimenez all year. He was a stud again in the Future’s Game, blasting a long home run and making a spectacular catch, each of which you should check out, if you haven’t already watched them fifty or sixty times. The 19-year-old is now perhaps the most exciting player in the minor league system, and that is saying something. .331/.370/.520 is his line.
But there’s another exciting story in South Bend right now, and this one you might have missed: Eddy Julio Martinez is hot. The 21-year-old was the biggest international signing of last year, but had struggled at Low-A until about a month ago. Since then, he’s been hitting .333/.407/.463, with 13 walks. He had a stretch last week in which he had multi-hit games in seven of ten matchups. His .743 season OPS is not overly exciting by itself, but perhaps he is finally adjusting to stateside baseball. The centerfielder is definitely a player to watch.
Another to watch is the latest shortstop prospect to garner attention in the Cubs system: Andruw Monasterio. After slashing .324/.355/.437 in 71 PAs with Eugene, the Venezuelan-born Monasterio has been bumped up to South Bend at the age of 19, an aggressive promotion for this fairly advanced prospect. He could soon be nipping at the heels of Torres as the most exciting shortstop prospect in the system.
Eugene Emeralds (Short Season A) (20-9)
Eugene is exciting because it is often where our new favorite prospects come into focus. We might not have heard these names before they head to Oregon, but if they perform there, they begin to enter the Cubs fan lexicon. This is starting to happen with Monasterio, and it could happen with Jose Paulino, 21, if he continues his crazy early success. Through 28 innings and five starts, Paulino has 30 strikeouts to only two (!) walks, and an ERA of 0.64. This slight-framed Dominican lefty is not a household name, and he is a bit old for the level, but these kinds of results will start to get him noticed if he can keep it up for the hot-starting Emeralds.
The name everyone is keeping an eye on in Eugene is Dylan Cease. The fireballing righty has been good, if not overly dominant so far, putting up a 3.32 ERA and 23 Ks in 21 and 1/3 innings. Cease is only 20, and just getting back into shape after Tommy John, so it will be interesting to see how these numbers change as the season continues. None of these players will add value now (except through trade), but some of them (a select few) certainly will in a few years. The trick is figuring out who.
BP Top 10 Updates (season-to-date performance at current level)
1. Gleyber Torres, SS, High-A – 336 AB, .268 AVG, .770 OPS, 39 BB, 84 K, 9 HR
2. Willson Contreras, C, MLB – 89 AB, .292 AVG, .904 OPS, 9 BB, 28 K, 5 HR
3. Ian Happ, 2B, AA – 79 AB, .329 AVG, .829 OPS, 4 BB, 13 K, 2 HR
4. Billy McKinney, OF, AA – 284 AB, .261 AVG, .698 OPS, 45 BB, 66 K, 1 HR
Still just one home run :(.
5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, Low-A – 312 AB, .266 AVG, .743 OPS, 34 BB, 75 K, 7 HR
6. Dylan Cease, P, Short Season A – 21.1 IP, 3.32 ERA, .241, 1.25 WHIP, 8 BB, 23 K
7. Albert Almora, OF, MLB – 75 AB, .267 AVG, .735 OPS, 3 BB, 15 K, 2 HR
8. Duane Underwood Jr., P, AA – 58.2 IP, 4.91 ERA, .280 AVG, 1.65 WHIP, 31 BB, 46 K
Underwood is currently on the 7-day DL.
9. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Low-A – 323 AB, .331 AVG, .890 OPS, 20 BB, 78 K, 10 HR
10. Carl Edwards, Jr., P, MLB – 11.2 IP, 1.54 ERA, .105 AVG, 0.60 WHIP, 3 BB, 14 K
Edward Jr. has settled in as an important part of the Cubs’ bullpen.
*I live in Texas now, and we say things like this down here.