Low-Level Prospects Primed for a Breakout

Dakota Mekkes, RHP
2016 level: Arizona (Rookie), Eugene (A-)

Drafted in the 10th round out of Michigan State, Mekkes was one of the better relievers taken in the 2016 draft. At 6’7″ and 250 pounds he’s an absolute monster, and he led the NCAA in K/9 in 2016. He’s all the more interesting because he doesn’t necessarily do it with velocity (He’s typically in the low 90s), but instead with stuff and deception. In addition to the quality fastball, he misses bats primarily with his slider but he also has a usable change-up. Across two levels in 2016, he backed up his reputation by striking out 27 batters in 20 innings against just four walks. In addition to that, he gave up just 12 hits in those 20 innings and was able to manage a 54 percent ground ball rate in his time in Eugene.

He was clearly too advanced for the level, but you always like to see the kind of production you expect anyway. After impressing in instructs as well, I imagine he’ll stay in the bullpen in 2017 and will be given the opportunity to shoot through the system. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ended the 2017 campaign in Tennessee or even Iowa, and I could see him hitting the big leagues as early as the start of 2018.

Chad Hockin, RHP
2016 level: Eugene (A-)

The Cubs actually took quite a few college relievers in the 2016 draft and Hockin was one of those. Taken in the 6th round out of Cal State Fullerton, Hockin is well built at 6’2″ and 200 pounds and features a fastball in the low to mid 90s with a plus slider. His short-arm delivery gives him some deception as well. In his pro debut last year, Hockin gave up some runs, but he also struck out 14 batters in 12 innings compared to just four walks. He is another guy who is great at getting ground balls (Sensing a theme here?), with a 63 percent ground ball rate in his short stint in Eugene.

I’m not sure what the Cubs plans are for Hockin, but he has the stuff to potentially be a starter if that’s what the Cubs wish to do. His ascent through the system could be a bit slower if he heads to the rotation (Where I’d guess he starts at South Bend), but if he stays in the pen I could see him as another fast riser who could potentially start the year in Myrtle Beach.

PJ Higgins, C/IF
2016 level: South Bend (A)

Higgins was taken out of Old Dominion in the 12th round in 2015 and checks a lot boxes that the Cubs typically look for. He provides quite a bit of versatility in addition to high end plate discipline. In his two years in the pros, Higgins has logged innings at first base, second base, third base, shortstop and catcher. In 2016, he primarily caught and got positive reviews for his defense, namely his strong arm and solid receiving skills. At the plate what Higgins lacks in power (He slugged just .355 last year), he makes up for in contact abilities and plate discipline. His strikeout rate was an extremely low 14 percent, and he nearly matched that number with his 13.4 percent walk rate.

I do think there is an argument that with Contreras graduating to the big leagues that Higgins might be best catching prospect the Cubs have. Given his college pedigree, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Higgins reach Tennessee by the end of 2017 and potentially even be a candidate for the backup catcher spot by 2018.

Bailey Clark, RHP
2016 level: Arizona (Rookie), Eugene (A-)

Clark might have the best stuff of any of the arms taken by the Cubs in the 2016 draft. His fastball sits in the low to mid 90s and he has a plus slider, as well as a developing split change-up and curveball. He is long and lean, standing at 6’4″ and weighing 185 pounds. He started and relieved during his senior season at Duke and got in four starts across rookie ball and short season in his pro debut last year. The theme with Clark was the same as a lot of the other Cubs arms drafted last year. He strikes out a good amount of batters (13 in 11 2/3 innings) and gets a fair amount of ground balls (77 percent in five innings in rookie ball and 50 percent in 6 2/3 innings in Eugene).

Though the stuff plays down a bit in the rotation, Clark is another guy that could start for the Cubs moving forward and his prognosis is similar to that of Hockin. Again like Hockin, he should move a bit more slowly if in the rotation and could be a fast riser if he ends up transitioning to the bullpen. The way his stuff plays up in the pen (Velocity can reach the upper 90s in short stints) gives him a really quality fallback option if he struggles in the rotation.

Erling Moreno, RHP
2016 level: Arizona (Rookie), Eugene (A-)

Picking Moreno as a breakout candidate might be cheating a bit, as he put together a really nice 2016 campaign across multiple levels. His stuff is a tick below the other guys on this list with a fastball in the low 90s and a good change-up and developing curveball. He commands the ball well and gets a ton of ground balls thanks to the quality plane he generates with his delivery. The 20 year old who was part of the Cubs big 2013 international class is 6’3″ and 200 pounds and he looks every bit of it. He started the year by striking out 9.2 batters per nine in rookie ball, but that number took a step back to 6.6 batters per nine in Eugene. The ground ball rate rose though, from 57 percent in Arizona to 66 percent in Eugene.

He’s not a high ceiling guy, but there could be a back of the rotation spot in his future if things go right. Look for him to continue his development in his first year in full season ball.

Lead photo courtesy Bruce Thorson—USA Today Sports

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