Prospect Day: The “Next Five”

To complement the main site releasing the Cubs’ top 10 prospects, the staff here has once again collaborated to bring you the 11th-15th best prospects in the Cubs’ system. Before you check out our conclusions below, head over to the main site to read Jeffrey Paternostro’s top 10 write-up  of the best prospects in the system. You’ll also find plenty of other prospect coverage, including a deep look at some sleepers in the system from our own Tommy Meyers coming tomorrow.

Before we go any further, here is a quick look at BP’s top 10 Cubs prospects:

1. Eloy Jimenez, OF
2. Ian Happ, 2B/OF
3. Albert Almora, OF
4. Trevor Clifton, RHP
5. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
6. Jose Albertos, RHP
7. Dylan Cease, RHP
8. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP
9. Eddie Julio Martinez, OF
10. Thomas Hatch, RHP

Be sure to read Paternostro’s informative write-up, but let’s take a look at what looks similar, and also what may be new territory for the system. Right at the top, we find familiarity with three high-floor, exciting offensive prospects. Cubs fans have come to expect this in the last five years, as the Cubs’ brass has used high draft pick after high draft pick on predictable offensive talent. In Jimenez, Happ and Almora, they have three guys who are almost certainly going to be big-league regulars at some point.

It’s at number four that things start to look different. Trevor Clifton rocketed up prospect lists by dominating Carolina league hitters all season in his first stop at Myrtle Beach—peaking at number four here on BP’s list, after not making the top 15 in our 2016 version. Four of the last six are also pitching prospects, a marked detraction from previous iterations. The system is no longer great, but it still features a potential future star at the top, two to four more potential regulars, and a bevy of interesting pitching prospects. Do not be surprised if this group ranks outside the top 15 systems when overall rankings come out, but then greatly surpasses expectations as things play out.

A quick recap of how the staff did last year choosing the next five. Our writers chose Pierce Johnson, Jeimer Candelario, Oscar De La Cruz, Dan Vogelbach and Carson Sands to round out the top 15. Johnson had a forgettable 2016, struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness. He drops off the list entirely this year, and failed to garner a single vote. Candelario had the opposite experience in Iowa, steamrolling the Pacific Coast League (.959 OPS) before getting a cup of coffee in Chicago. He retains his eligibility and now finds himself in the top five. We also did well pegging De La Cruz as a fast riser, as he had a successful season across two levels and settles in at number eight overall. Vogelbach continued to rake in Iowa, and was eventually traded along with Paul Blackburn for Mike Montgomery, who eventually got the final out in the World Series. We’ll chalk that one up as another win for the staff. Carson Sands rounded out last year’s list, but his struggles in South Bend led him to only get a few down the ballot votes this year. Three-for-five, not bad.

The same rules apply this year as last year. This list calls out who we feel are the best remaining prospects, rather than who we feel will get to Chicago the quickest. First place votes are denoted in parenthesis. Here are your 11th-15th best Cubs prospects, brought to you by the staff of BP Wrigleyville:

11. Mark Zagunis, OF (2)

The right-handed outfielder was a relatively surprising omission from the top 10, but the presence of so many young pitching prospects kept the steady Zagunis just outside the list. Our staff jumped all over the opportunity, giving him 50 percent more voting tallies than the number 12 prospect. He still tallied just two first place votes, despite showing up on every single ballot. He is my personal selection for number 11, and would have also been squarely in my top eight.

The burly outfielder is not an easy player to evaluate, as his physical presence doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of his game. A bit of a defensive tweener, many pundits believe his only future home is as a corner outfielder (which I agree with), but aren’t certain his bat can play as a major-league corner (which I strongly disagree with) because of a lack of in-game power.

What I see is a player with a special ability to work the count and draw walks, as he has walked (174) almost as much as he has struck out (206) in his career. He carries a .401 career on-base percentage, and profiles like a future major-league leadoff hitter. However, this is all plain to see through scouting his stat line, but what I’ve seen in person is even more intriguing. Despite the relative lack of home runs, he hits the ball harder and is more athletic than you might think. His swing is short and compact—which is part of why he rarely strikes out—but he’s a physical specimen that certainly doesn’t lack in the strength department. Despite being consistently knocked for a lack of power, he still collected 40 extra-base hits last season in just 101 games. With continued development and major-league coaching, I believe his swing can generate a bit more loft and turn some of those 25 doubles into home runs.

This is where things probably differ with the main site’s evaluation, but with a squint, I can see in Zagunis a player with 15-20 home run potential, and 55-60 total extra-base hits. Pair that with a .360-.380 on-base profile, and that leaves you with a severely underrated prospect that is perhaps being viewed too much for his shortcomings than all of the wonderful abilities he brings to the plate.

12. Duane Underwood, RHP (2)

Coming in next is Underwood, who collected as many first place votes as Zagunis, but only showed up on half  as many ballots. This is probably because we’ve been hearing about the big righty for so long, but the results on the field never seem to equal the hype. The main problem isn’t talent, but rather a simple inability to stay healthy. 2016 was more of the same, as he pitched just 73 innings across four levels.

Underwood’s 13 starts in Double-A Tennessee were a mixed bag, as at times he looked like the solid mid-rotation starter he’s been projected as for so long, while at others looking like a guy without enough command to make it as a starter at all. 2017 is a critical season for Underwood, as a durable and successful stint in Tennessee could put him in Iowa by the end of the year and on the precipice of the major-leagues.

For my money, I think the Cubs should give Underwood two months to see if he has what it takes to stay on the mound as a starter and consistently get hitters out. If the results continue to be so-so or injuries take hold, it’s time to put him in the bullpen and see if his highly touted stuff can play up.

13. Donnie Dewees, OF (0)

The young man from Florida comes in at number 13, benefitting from graduating all of the way to High-A Myrtle Beach in his first full professional season. After spending 94 games in South Bend and collecting 30 extra-base hits (12 triples!) en route to a .751 OPS, the Cubs rewarded him by sending him to the Carolina League to finish out the season. His time in the tough hitters environment went similarly to South Bend, as he smacked 14 extra-base knocks in just 35 games.

Dewees’ main calling card is his speed and athleticism, which has led him to 50 stolen bases in his 195 game minor-league career. A line drive hitter with limited power, Dewees has a gap-to-gap approach that plays to his speed and allows him to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. He already has a decent approach and will likely always hit for a high average, but he’ll need to refine this even further to avoid being exposed by more experienced pitching as he climbs the organizational latter. Dewees will need to stay in center field to have any chance at becoming a major-league regular. A more likely landing spot for him will be as a versatile fourth or fifth outfielder and a lefty spark off the bench.

14. Rob Zastryzny, LHP (2)

Coming up next is the man with a delightful Scrabble name, with Zastryzny appearing as the first and only lefty pitcher on the list. His vote totals were the most polarizing of any player mentioned by the writers, as he showed up on just three ballots but was on top of two of the three. His 2016 season didn’t start as auspiciously as he would have liked, as he saw his strikeout rate drop significantly in nine starts with Tennessee. Despite this, he was promoted to Iowa midseason and saw his strikeout rate climb back to 8.6 per nine innings pitched.

His relative success at Triple-A and a shortage of available lefties at the major-league level led to a late August call up for Zastryzny, primarily to get left-handed hitters out in a LOOGY role. He acquitted himself successfully in this role, dominating lefties to the tune of an OPS-against of .331 in a small sample. He managed to get righties out at a decent clip as well, allowing an OPS-against of .653. It is his success against lefties that caused folks to start paying more attention to him, as his prospect status changed from “back-end depth starter” to “possibly dominant bullpen lefty.”

While his upside is limited when compared to someone like Mike Montgomery, his floor suddenly appears to be that of at least a regular left-handed bullpen option that can consistently get lefties out. Look for the Cubs to exercise one of his minor-league options to start the year, sending him to Iowa to gain more seasoning in a bullpen role. Beyond that, expect to see Zastryzny getting lefties out while a member of the big-league bullpen for the majority of the summer.

15. D.J. Wilson, OF (0)

Wrapping up the list we have speedy center fielder Darryl James Wilson. More projection than polish, the slight outfielder spent his first full season playing center field for the Eugene Emeralds in the Northwest League. He brings an exciting skill set to the diamond with speed and defense as his primary calling cards.

While his athletic ability has yet to really translate to the batters box, Baseball America thought highly enough of him to rank him ninth overall in the system. This ranking feels a bit premature to me, as I believe Wilson needs to develop his excellent raw tools further before being ranked so far ahead of polished hitters like Dewees and Victor Caratini. This isn’t to take away from Wilson, who probably has the most potential for upward movement of anyone on our list.

Look for the Cubs to challenge Wilson by starting him in South Bend this season. He’ll likely spend the entire season there working on refining his approach at the plate. If he can figure out how to handle better pitching, Wilson’s ceiling is that of a starting center fielder in the major-leagues. However, unlike most the rest of this list, his floor is probably one that could stall out in the mid levels of the minor-leagues if he never takes major strides in the box.

Other players receiving staff votes: Jen-Ho Tseng, Victor Caratini, Carson Sands, Chesny Young, Justin Steele, Jake Stinnett, Corey Black

Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports

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