marquee young cubs

Young Cubs: Taking Stock

As farm systems are wont to do, the Cubs farm system has undergone several facelifts over the past few years. The face of the system has moved in quick succession from Javier Baez to Albert Almora to Kris Bryant to Kyle Schwarber to Willson Contreras (with Jorge Soler and Addison Russell nestled in between). This was Theo Epstein’s first (and maybe second and third, depending on how you want to parse it) wave of talent. The players were largely recognizable and flashy, and they were stars in Chicago long before they ever got to the North Side.

The next wave—until last week—was headed (or perceived to be headed) by standout 19-year-old shortstop Gleyber Torres. But in a trade that has already been dissected from nearly every possible angle, Torres is now gone, and that means it is time to take stock of what and who is left. This is still an intriguing system, but, for the first time in while, the identity of the next hotshot prospect isn’t entirely obvious. So we are left to take stock, to reimmerse ourselves in the reeds of the system, and, hopefully, to find the budding stars that will reinforce the extant core in the years to come. The talent is still there, but we might now have to look a little deeper to find it.

Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) (46-63)

The biggest prospects in Iowa are a trio of offensive players: Jeimer Candelario, Albert Almora Jr., and Mark Zagunis. Candelario struggled in a brief MLB audition, but he has been excellent in Iowa, slashing .299/.401/.515 with five homers in his first 134 Triple-A at-bats. The switch-hitting third baseman has acquitted himself well enough to be considered a surefire top five Cubs prospect down the stretch, and he is still only 22.

Almora Jr. could well be a defensive substitute in the major league playoffs this season,  but he continues to hit well against minor league pitching as well. Since returning to the minors last week, he’s hit safely in each of six games (with a homer on Saturday). He’ll be back up in the big leagues in September, if not sooner.

Mark Zagunis flies under the radar as a prospect a bit, perhaps because none of his tools leap off the charts. We usually look for power production from our corner outfielders, but Zagunis’ bread and butter is his approach. In his minor league career, he has 174 walks to 206 strikeouts, underscoring the skill that has launched this 23-year-old to Triple-A. He is OPSing .853 in Iowa, and has actually shown some increased power numbers since his promotion, homering six times in 179 at-bats. There is value there, and Zagunis is now producing close enough to the majors where he is a legitimate top ten prospect in the system.

Pierce Johnson is a long-time pitching prospect in the system, but his star has really fallen this year. The now-25-year-old has a 7.60 ERA/1.84 WHIP through 45 innings this year and hasn’t gotten through five innings in any appearance since early June. Pitching has been the Iowa roster’s weak spot all year, and Johnson has unfortunately been a big part of that.

Tennessee Smokies (Double-A) (42-63)

Ian Happ is the last first-round Epstein draft pick in the system right now, and he continues to produce solid, if unspectacular, numbers at every place he stops. The second baseman is OPSing .713 in 125 Double-A at-bats (still a small sample). Happ’s versatility will carry him to the majors before long, one way or another, and he’ll be a top-five prospect for a while to come.

Victor Caratini and Bijan Rademacher are often overlooked, but each still has an MLB future very much within their sights. Caratini offers offensive upside as a switch-hitting catcher (slashline .289/.378/.399), and his approach is strong (42 walks to 65 strikeouts on the year). Rademacher, 25, is a bit older, but he continues to hit. He’s hitting .421 in his last ten games, and he has raised his OPS to a very strong .872 on the year. As a fourth outfielder, many MLB teams could do worse. I think we’ll see Rademacher in Iowa before long, with Caratini to follow.

Tennessee’s best pitcher (results-wise, at least), Paul Blackburn, was traded along with Dan Vogelbach for Mike Montgomery last week, and Zach Hedges was promoted to fill the gap. Hedges, 23, was a 26th round pick two years ago, but had a standout first half with Myrtle Beach, pitching to a 2.89 ERA and allowing only 18 walks in 16 starts. He has gone five or more innings in eleven straight starts; let’s hope he can continue this success in Kodak.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (56-51)

With Torres gone, newly-promoted Donnie Dewees is now the biggest name in Myrtle Beach, and early on, he’s living up to the reputation. The 22-year-old 2nd round pick is 9-for-20 in his first five games with Myrtle Beach, and he’s already homered and stolen four bases without being caught. He’s got some very intriguing tools, and if he keeps hitting, he could be an intriguing prospect/trade piece in the near future.

21-year-old Trevor Clifton has been a name to watch in the Cubs system since they drafted him out of high school in 2013. He has never fully broken out, but he has pitched six solid inning in his last three starts and lowered his High-A ERA to 3.40 on the season. He is still young enough that he could develop into a strong prospect, and his strong strikeout numbers (95 in 87.1 innings) belie the potential that is still very much there. His upside is a solid backend starter, and you will see him in some prospect lists heading into next year.

The best pitcher of South Bend’s first half, Preston Morrison, was promoted last week and threw six scoreless innings for Myrtle Beach on Friday. He was an eighth round pick last year, but he is 23, so he will have to rise quickly to be considered a prospect. So far, so good; we’ll keep an eye on him during the second half.

South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (64-41)

Eloy Jimenez has been the biggest storyline in the Cubs minors this year, and seems best poised to be the next face of the system. The 19-year-old hasn’t slowed down recently, either. He’s hitting .432 with in his last ten games, was named the Midwest League Player of the Week again, and hit this long home run (almost into the parking lot) last week:

He’s positioning himself to be at least one of the top three (if not the top) prospects in the system, and he could potentially see Myrtle Beach before the end of the year, especially if they can get back in the playoff picture.

He’s not the only exciting prospect in Low-A, though. Eddy Julio Martinez got off to a very discouraging start this year, which makes it all the more impressive that he now has his line up to .266/.346/.413 on the year. The Cuban centerfielder is hitting .294 with two homers in his last ten, and he could stick around the lower half of top ten lists if he continues to improve at this pace.

Andruw Monasterio, 19, might be the next shortstop to watch. He was already playing stateside at age 18 last year, and a hot start with Eugene rocketed him up to South Bend early this month. He has struggled through his first 70 at-bats, (to the tune of a .483 OPS), but he is a 19 shortstop playing at Low-A, so he has plenty of slack.

The most exciting news of the last week in South Bend, though, has to be the 2016 debut of Oscar De La Cruz in Low-A. Touted as perhaps the highest-upside pitcher in the system (Dylan Cease might contest that) headed into the year, he missed the first half with a right elbow injury. But in two starts with Eugene and one on Saturday with South Bend, De La Cruz has allowed only one run with 21 (!) Ks to three walks in 13 innings pitched. Even with injuries the 21-year-old still has plenty of time to put it together, and he could emerge as a top prospect soon if he finishes this year strong.

Jose Paulino, 21, also opened some eyes at Eugene and has now been promoted to South Bend. The lefty pitched 35 innings of 0.51 ERA baseball in Eugene, posting 37 strikeouts to three walks. He isn’t well-known as a prospect, but if he keeps this up at South Bend, he will be soon.

Eugene Emeralds (Short Season A) (30-14)

The Emeralds have a commanding 6.0 game lead in the standings as they head down the stretch. Much of their early success has come on the backs of pitchers like Paulino, but there are a few hitters I should highlight. Robert Garcia, 22, is the team’s early OPS leader at .861, though his age makes this a little bit less exciting than it would be otherwise. Wladimir Galindo, 19, is a toolsy third base prospect, and he leads the team with five homers to this point. He’s struck out 48 times in 133 at-bats, though, which tempers the excitement a little bit. Still, a 19-year-old in A ball is always fun to watch.

Dylan Cease left a game with an undisclosed injury on July 11, missed two weeks, and then pitched only a third of an inning before leaving with four walks on his ledger. Clearly, something is wrong—hopefully, it isn’t something major.

BP Top 10 Updates (season-to-date performance at current level)

1. Gleyber Torres (traded)

2. Willson Contreras, C, MLB – 125 AB, .264 AVG, .800 OPS, 14 BB, 36 K, 5 HR

3. Ian Happ, 2B, AA – 125 AB, .280 AVG, .713 OPS, 6 BB, 26 K, 2 HR

4. Billy McKinney (traded)

I’m very OK with trading McKinney—he’s lost a lot of his upside as a prospect over the last year.

5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, Low-A – 349 AB, .266 AVG, .759 OPS, 41 BB, 86 K, 9 HR

6. Dylan Cease, P, Short Season A – 22 IP, 3.68 ERA, .238 AVG, 1.41 WHIP, 12 BB, 24 K

7. Albert Almora, OF, AAA – 242 AB, .318 AVG, .785 OPS, 8 BB, 33 K, 4 HR

8. Duane Underwood Jr., P, AA – 58.2 IP, 4.91 ERA, .280 AVG, 1.65 WHIP, 31 BB, 46 K

Underwood is battling an injury and hasn’t pitched since July 5.

9. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Low-A – 356 AB, .343 AVG, .927 OPS, 22 BB, 81 K, 12 HR

10. Carl Edwards, Jr., P, MLB – 14.2 IP, 1.84 ERA, .125 AVG, 0.75 WHIP, 5 BB, 17 K 

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