Clifton and Albertos Are Signs of a Healthy System with Depth, Upside

Earlier this week, Jeff Paternostro released BP’s top-10 Cubs prospects, and many of the expected players peppered the list. At the top were Eloy Jimenez, Ian Happ, and Albert Almora (who has not yet lost prospect status), further down we saw Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, Oscar de la Cruz, and Eddy Julio Martinez. There were a trio of pitchers, however, who filled out the list, and with whom Cubs fans (including myself) are sure to be less familiar. Trevor Clifton, who spent last season at High-A Myrtle Beach, clocked in at number four; at number seven was Jose Albertos, an international signee from Mexico, who, at age 17, began his professional career at instructs in Arizona; and finishing the list at ten was Thomas Hatch, a 2016 draftee out of Oklahoma State, who missed his 2015 college season with an elbow injury, and who has not yet made his pro debut.

With the dearth of available information on Hatch, I’m going to focus on the former two pitchers, and hopefully gain some insight as to who exactly these two guys are, and why they made BP’s list.

Three players from the Cubs’ 2013 draft have played at the major-league level so far: Kris Bryant, Rob Zastryzny, and Zack Godley (who spells his first name very correctly, but was sent to Arizona for Miguel Montero). Clifton, selected in the 12th round that year, could be the fourth as he’ll almost certainly begin the year at Double-A Tennessee. That’s still a year or two away from Chicago, of course, but all indications are that he’s climbing the ladder as steadily as a pitching prospect can.

Clifton’s best pitch is by far his fastball, which has good run, topping out in the mid-’90s but more comfortably sitting 92-94. He’s gained height and thickness since becoming a professional, now 6’4” and close to 220 pounds, as opposed to his stringbean 6’1”, 170 listing. He wields a prototypical “heavy” sinker, and he rode that pitch to a Carolina League Pitcher of the Year honor, and an All-Star selection with Myrtle Beach teammates Jake Stinnett and Zach Hedges (who should take some spelling notes from Godfrey, in my humble opinion). Unlike many recent Cubs system starting pitching graduates, who are generally command and movement guys like Clifton, Clifton flings his fastball from a low-three-quarters arm slot. His now-sizable frame makes his delivery fairly low-effort, a good indication that he could stick as a starter. Other good signs are his durability, having upped his innings totals in each of his professional seasons and suffered no major injuries, and his age, which, at 21, will be considerably younger than the median Southern League player. Last year’s youngest players in the Southern League featured only one pitcher, the Cubs’ Jen-Ho Tseng, at 21 ½ years of age; Clifton is slightly older, but still considerably on the young side for the league.

Unfortunately, Clifton does have his warts, and some might not be fixable. For instance, Clifton pitches exclusively from the stretch, which is unusual for a starter. According to one BP player evaluation report from this past season, that could stop Clifton from “finishing” his pitches, which leaves fastballs up in the zone. For a sinkerball pitcher, that’s a bad sign.

If Clifton doesn’t fill his command obligations with his fastball, he could be up the creek: his secondary offerings need quite a bit of polishing. Paternostro calls Clifton’s changeup a “non-factor,” and, while his curveball is better, it’s still not an average pitch due to command issues stemming from his low arm slot. All together, this pitch mix (or lack thereof) could ticket Clifton for the bullpen. While a bullpen role would likely bump up Clifton’s velocity, as he can expend more energy in shorter bursts, that’s not exactly what a sinkerball pitcher needs. It might be rotation or bust for him.

That being said, Clifton hasn’t shown signs of slowing his ascent, and he has shown signs of brilliance, like when he twirled a no-hitter into the eighth last season. The guy can be fairly dominant when he’s at the top of his game, and the Carolina League features fairly average run-scoring environments, so the stats he posted on his way to his nice hardware in 2016 aren’t flukes. He’ll have an opportunity to prove himself against the top prospects of the Southern League in 2017, with an eye to Iowa—or Chicago—in 2018.

Nearly four years Clifton’s younger is Jose Albertos, a righty about whom we have significantly less information due to his youth. He’s a tad bit more exciting than the fairly chaste Clifton, and he just turned 18 in November 2016. The Cubs gave Albertos $1.5 million in the summer of 2015, a part of their significant push to sign Mexican amateurs that period, and that he has already made it to Arizona is a testament to his ability.

Albertos can dial up his fastball already, despite his slighter frame (6’1”, 185 pounds). Reports are that he sits mid-90s with the pitch, an impressive mark for a pitcher his age with little pro experience. And, as Paternostro noted, Albertos has the potential for a very good changeup, again slightly unusual for a pitcher his age. That he can throw a fine changeup implies good “feel” and pitching maturity, although that’s not something I can confirm (please don’t take me to task, I am but a mere writer).

We don’t know much more about Albertos. Please don’t look at his stat line, I’m begging you! Arizona instructional games are meant for exactly that: instruction. And you shouldn’t scout stat lines, anyway, as even I, your humble and very green writer on prospects, can tell you. The other folks at BP who are tasked with evaluating such things have deemed Albertos as safe a bet to start as any teenager with his experience could be, for what it’s worth. That Albertos ranked sixth in the top 10 is no mistake, though, and the young righty could be electric. Or he could never reach low-A ball. You know, pitchers.

With all the recent graduations, the Cubs’ farm system is a bit depleted, but that’s not a bad thing. They did win the World Series with many of those recent prospects on their roster. Clifton and Albertos are indicators that the system isn’t barren, even when only considering pitchers. On both ends of the development spectrum—prospects major-league ready within a year or two, and those at least a half-decade out—the Cubs have some depth and some upside.

Lead photo courtesy Joe Camporeale—USA Today Sports

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