marquee young cubs

Young Cubs: Oscar De La Cruz-ing

We’ve had some great prospect coverage at BP Wrigleyville recently, so I encourage you to check out Ryan Davis on Albert Almora Jr. and Pierce Johnson, and Carlos Portocarrero on Jack Leathersich. Now, let’s check in on some happenings from the farm.

Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) (54-69)

Almora Jr. is hitless in his last three games in Iowa, but since returning to the minors last month, he has still managed to raise his overall line to .309/.323/.429. He’s not walking (only eight on the season), but he doesn’t strike out either—he’s K’d only 13 percent of the time in Triple-A. He hit the Disabled List with a thumb contusion on Friday, but as long as it isn’t serious, he should be in line for a September 1st call up, where his defense and contact skills could play up down the stretch.

The most impressive hitter in Iowa currently is Jeimer Candelario, the switch-hitting third baseman. Still only 22, he now has six homers and a .912 OPS in Triple-A through 189 at-bats. Even more impressive is his approach—he’s walked 15 percent of the time, which is a Zobristesque-type number.

Longtime Cubs farmhand Bijan Rademacher, 25, finally got the call up to Iowa two weeks ago. He’s struggled so far in a very small sample, but his overall numbers still suggest a player who could be a solid fourth outfielder at the next level. The lefty OPSed .879 in 256 Double-A at-bats this year with a little home run power (nine homers). It wouldn’t be surprising to see him on someone’s  40-man roster as soon as next season.

On the pitching side, left-handed starter Rob Zastrynsky hadn’t allowed a run in three consecutive starts until he gave up five earned in five innings on Saturday. He’s been showing flashes of potential recently, though, and even on Saturday the former second-rounder managed to strike out nine against only one walk. With a very solid swing-and-miss curveball, he could still have a future as a backend starter or a lefty reliever in the MLB, and is by far the most intriguing starting pitching piece currently in Iowa.

After showing a brief flash of excellence early in the season, lefty reliever Gerardo Concepcion has fallen harshly back into mediocrity in Iowa. I could give you lots of stats, but suffice it to say that in his last ten appearances he owns a 12.41 ERA. Hopefully, he’ll get another crack at the majors someday, but now he’s once again looking like What If guy than a legitimate prospect.

Tennessee Smokies (Double-A) (48-71)

It’s been a disappointing season in Tennessee from a win-loss perspective, and with the promotion of Candelario, Ian Happ is now the last big name prospect on the roster. He now has 186 at-bats in Kodak, and is slashing an unspectacular .264/.310/.390. We’ve gotten used to Cubs first-round picks rocketing through the system, but Happ deserves the time that most prospects get to marinate before we start to get worried. Those numbers are still solid for a 22-year-old in Double-A, and he has shown the ability to hit everywhere he’s been in the past.

RHP Zach Hedges was called up to Double-A to replace the traded Paul Blackburn, and he has continued pitching just as well as he did in Myrtle Beach. Through four starts, he’s thrown 30 innings of 1.50 ERA ball, including back-to-back-to-back scoreless starts in his last three outings. The strikeouts aren’t high for Hedges, but neither are the walks, and his 1.10 season WHIP will play at any level if he can keep it up.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (68-53)

Myrtle Beach leads its division by 2.5 games right now for the second half, and most of this success has stemmed from its rotation. But recent promotee Donnie Dewees has sparked the offense a bit in recent weeks. He’s posted an .819 OPS through 79 at-bats, with two homers and nine steals without being caught. Dewees, last year’s second-round pick, continues to demonstrate an intriguing mix of top end speed and just-enough power, and is the type of guy who could move quickly if he continues on the same trajectory.

The largely unheralded pitching staff in Myrtle Beach just keeps producing. As a team, they have a league-leading 3.61 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. A solid combination of Jake Stinnett, Jonathan Martinez, Tommy Thorpe, and the aforementioned Hedges have been produced fairly solid numbers all year, but the most impressive has been 21-year-old Trevor Clifton. The 6’1″ righty has gotten even better in his last six starts, posting at least six strikeouts and six innings in five of them, and dropping his ERA to 2.96 in the process. He’s averaging over a strikeout an inning on the season (106 K’s in 100 and 1/3), and he is looking more and more like the prospect he’s been seen as since the Cubs signed him out of high school in 2013.

Also providing a recent boost is Preston Morrison, an eighth round pick last year, who has now produced excellent results across three levels. In his first three starts in High-A, Morrison has pitched to a 1.37 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP in three consecutive innings of at least six innings. There are very few walks and just enough K’s in Morrison’s game for his success to be intriguing. At age 23, he’ll get a chance to prove his success at higher levels sooner rather than later.

South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (73-44)

My current favorite prospect to watch is Oscar de la Cruz. Despite their nearly unprecedented farm system success over the past few years, the Cubs still haven’t managed to produce a truly exciting starter. De la Cruz is no guarantee, but right now, excluding perhaps Dylan Cease, he is the next pitcher to dream on. He returned in July from an injury that stunted the beginning of his year, but in his first three starts at Single-A, he’s been nothing short of brilliant. In 14 2/3 innings, he has 22 strikeouts, three walks, and a WHIP of 0.55. Here he is, showing some easy heat (he tends to sit 92-94 mph, but can touch 97) as he finishes off five no-hit innings on Thursday:

Coming off the injury, the Cubs will likely won’t be aggressive with him until next year, but the 6’4″ righty is overpowering Single-A bats right now, and he has some seriously high upside. He won Midwest League Player of the Week honors on Monday.

Jose Paulino, a 21-year-old lefty, might be another pitcher close to breaking out. He started the season with six starts in Eugene, and now has four starts on the ledger in South Bend. The results are pretty staggering: 60 IP, a 1.20 ERA, and 54 strikeouts to only 10 walks. He’s going deep into games, too; he’s gone at least 6 and 1/3 innings in each of his last two starts in South Bend. Paulino is not a well-known prospect, but he will be soon if he maintains any semblance of this sort of dominance.

Eloy Jimenez, deservedly, is getting a ton of attention for his performance as a 19-year-old in Single-A, and though he hasn’t homered since July 29, his OPS still sits at .908 in mid-August. Indeed, it might be only the non-guaranteed playoff appearance of Myrtle Beach that is keeping him in South Bend for the time being. But the recovery of Eddy Julio Martinez might be equally worthy of attention. After two truly abysmal months to start the season, Martinez has raised his line to .261/.339/.393, including a .362/.446/.564 in July. He’s cooling off a bit over the last week, but he’s kept himself very much on the prospect radar as we head into next year.

Eugene Emeralds (Short Season A) (39-15)

The Cubs suddenly lack the big-name prospects they’ve been known for over the past few years, but the records of their lower level affiliates might reflect some unrecognized potential, and hopefully, the next few waves of talent that will be hitting the North Side over the next few years. This is especially true at Eugene, where the team long ago locked up their division race and a playoff spot, and, as of Tuesday, is on an 11-game winning streak.

Third baseman Wladimir Galindo has been the most impressive hitter for the Ems, blasting eight homers, OPSing .853, and collecting this weeks Player of the Week honors in the Northwest League as a 19-year-old. Speedster D.J. Wilson, a 5’8″ round-four draft pick last year, has hit three homers of his own, and has twelve steals in 44 games.

Dylan Cease, the biggest name in Eugene, has been good so far, posting a 3.33 ERA in 27 innings of work. He recently returned from an undisclosed injury, and the Cubs are taking it easy on him; he worked only 3 and 1/3 innings in his last start, but he struck out six and allowed no runs in that time. Beside the promoted Paulino, Manuel Rondon has been the most impressive starter at Eugene, posting a 1.27 ERA over 42 innings. Rondon, 21, has a little swing-and-miss in his game (39 K’s to 15 walks), but the WHIP of 1.22 suggests some regression to come. Still, he’s another name worth keeping an eye on in the lower levels.

And, finally, Duncan Robinson, the Cubs ninth-round pick this year who I caught up with earlier this summer, has now debuted in Eugene with 12 and 2/3 innings of 2.31 ERA, 11 strikeout, four walk relief. He’s one more pitcher to keep an eye on as he tries to grab a foothold on the unforgiving climb to the majors.

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

1. Gleyber Torres (traded)

2. Willson Contreras, C, MLB – 166 AB, .265 AVG, .797 OPS, 19 BB, 46 K, 7 HR

3. Ian Happ, 2B, AA – 182 AB, .264 AVG, .700 OPS, 12 BB, 43 K, 4 HR

4. Billy McKinney (traded)

5. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, Low-A – 394 AB, .261 AVG, .733 OPS, 45 BB, 100 K, 9 HR

6. Dylan Cease, P, Short Season A – 27 IP, 3.33 ERA, .235 AVG, 1.44 WHIP, 16 BB, 33 K

7. Albert Almora, OF, AAA – 282 AB, .309 AVG, .752 OPS, 8 BB, 39 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 – 405 AB, .336 AVG, .908 OPS, 25 BB, 87 K, 12 HR

10. Carl Edwards, Jr., P, MLB – 19.2 IP, 3.66 ERA, .109 AVG, 0.81 WHIP, 9 BB, 27 K

Saturday’s appearance against the Cardinals raised Edwards’ ERA by more than two runs, but his peripherals are still excellent. He should be good, as long as he maintains the control he’s shown for most of the season.

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