In the wake of a World Series victory, Cubs fans are clearly more willing to accept a less star-studded minor league system than the one we’ve watched in recent years. Rizzo, Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, Soler, Baez, Contreras, and even Almora are gone now, replaced by prospects whose stars shine a bit dimmer, at least in reputation. This is expected, and it’s alright for any team who’s major league present is so bright.
But so far in 2017, Cubs prospects haven’t played into that narrative—at all. So, as we’ve done for the last few years at BP Wrigleyville, let’s take a trip around the minors and check in on how some of the Cubs’ future stars—yes, stars—are faring in the early going.
Iowa Cubs (AAA) (6-5)
The most publicized exploits of Cubs prospects so far have come from Iowa, and for good reason. Ian Happ and Jeimer Candelario (the Cubs’ number two and five prospects, respectively) have been on an absolute tear. In Happ’s case, this has been a continuation of a sparkling Spring Training in which he hit five homers and impressed across the board with his advanced approach. And, as of Sunday, Happ now has six home runs in his first 11 games in Triple-A, which leads all of MiLB. In his first 49 plate appearances, he also has only six strikeouts and is carrying a 1.101 OPS. Eleven games at Triple-A isn’t enough, but Happ is proving why the Cubs considered him an advanced talent out of college, and if anything close to this keeps up, he’ll be an option to fill in at the major league level. Just yesterday, Iowa announced that Happ would get time at third base, increasing his versatility in case a jump to the next level is needed. Here is an opposite field shot from Happ:
But, by OPS, Happ hasn’t even been the best player for Iowa in the early going. Candelario is OPSing 1.172, supported by a .409 OBP, two homers, seven doubles, and two triples. This means that he is averaging one extra-base hit per game so far. Candelario is blocked at third base by Kris Bryant, so it wouldn’t surprising to see the Cubs try to move him around the field a bit in the near future as well.
However, besides Happ and Candelario, no one on Iowa’s roster has homered even once except catcher Taylor Davis. Prospects Victor Caratini, Chesny Young, and Mark Zagunis have struggled out of the gate, though that won’t necessarily last long.
Iowa is also housing much of the Cubs’ starting pitching depth, and there are some interesting options. Eddie Butler’s early results are solid (1.45 ERA in 18.2 innings), but he only has 10 strikeouts, and he has seven walks. This doesn’t indicate that the former top prospect is in any way “fixed” yet, but it’ll be interesting to see how he does as the season goes on. Alec Mills has pitched 11 strong innings in his first two starts, with an early 0.91 WHIP and only one walk. And lefty Rob Zastryzny has struggled out of the ‘pen in the early going, allowing seven earned in 7 and 2/3 innings.
Tennessee Smokies (AA) (4-5)
For at least the early part of the season, Tennessee might be the least prospect-laden of the Cubs’ squads. But as they wait for reinforcements from Myrtle Beach, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of storylines. Their most interesting prospect is pitcher Trevor Clifton, who BP ranked number four heading into the year. Clifton has proved an ability to avoid hard contact so far, allowing only a .121 batting average against. He’s allowed five walks in ten innings (with ten strikeouts), but this is such a small sample that it’s hard to draw many conclusions.
Eighth-round pick Preston Morrison has so far continued his excellent minor league career. Through two starts and ten and 2/3 innings, he has allowed just two solo homers and pitched to a 1.69 ERA. In his minor league career, he’s pitched to a 1.90 ERA in, now, a 161 inning sample size. Morrison isn’t a top prospect, and he’s already 23, but the results he’s gotten suggest that he could be viable pitching depth in this organization.
The Smokies did have probably the most fun game for an affiliate yet this year, erasing a 7-0 deficit in the ninth inning to walk it off. Here is Carlos Penalver capping the comeback:
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (5-5)
Right-handed pitchers Oscar De La Cruz and Thomas Hatch are the biggest draws for Myrtle Beach. The 6’4″ De La Cruz, 22, has the stuff to be a top-end prospect, and is main issues are 1) control and 2) health. In the early going, he’s pitched ten innings to the tune of a 1.80 ERA and nine strikeouts to three walks.
Hatch, also 22, was the Cubs’ first draft pick (in the third round) last year. We’ve written him up before at BP Wrigleyville, and the Cubs have made it clear that they’re high on his potential. Just the fact that he’s starting this season at High-A after not pitching any professional innings last season is an indication that they will be aggressive with his promotions as long as he performs. So far, he’s pitched nine and 2/3 innings, with a .171 average against, but he’s walked five to only seven strikeouts in that time.
On the positional side, Eddy Julio Martinez, the Cubs biggest international signing of last winter out of Cuba, has struggled in the early going, OPSing only .427 through 32 at-bats. Martinez struggled early last year before turning it around a bit in the second half, but if 22-year-old wants to maintain his prospect status, he’ll have to start hitting soon.
Eloy Jimenez is battling a shoulder injury and hasn’t started the season yet, but when he does he is expected to start at Myrtle Beach.
South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (5-5)
It does feel that the system’s strength has swung from offense to pitching over the last year, and South Bend is another example of an affiliate with intriguing young pitching. The biggest name is Dylan Cease, the right-hander with a big curve who has been sitting 96-98, and who has struck out 15 in just nine innings. Early returns this season are very gratifying—Cease has overcome injuries (Tommy John and others) early in his career, so hopefully 2017 can give him some smoother sailing for his development. If he can improve his efficiency and cut down on walks (five in nine innings), he could rise quickly through the system. Cease has the highest upside of any current Cubs pitching prospect; he could be the top of the rotation guy they’ve had so much trouble developing in recent history.
There are other interesting pitchers as well. Manuel Rondon, 22, broke out with an excellent performance at Eugene last year and continued it down the stretch after being promoted to South Bend. The righty has allowed four runs in nine and 2/3 so far, but he has 13 strikeouts in that time, which is an excellent rate. And Tyson Miller, the Cubs’ fourth-round draft pick last year, has started his career with no runs allowed in nine and 2/3rds. He too has struck out 13 in that time, which already shows an impressive ability to miss bats.
South Bend’s offense hasn’t been outstanding so far; they’ve only hit three homers in their first ten games, and no one’s performance has stood out as particularly interesting.
Eugene Emeralds (Short Season A)
The Emeralds’ season hasn’t started yet, but we’ll update you when it does.
BP Top 10 Updates (season-to-date performance at current level)
1. Eloy Jimenez, OF, High-A – n/a
Jimenez is battling a shoulder injury and hasn’t started his season yet.
2. Ian Happ, 2B/OF, AAA – 45 AB, .311 AVG, 1.102 OPS, 4 BB, 6 K, 6 HR
Six homers is a lot of homers.
3. Albert Almora Jr., OF, MLB – 14 AB, .429 AVG, 1.000 OPS, 2 BB, 2 K, 0 HR
4. Trevor Clifton, SP, AA – 10 IP, 4.50 ERA, .121 AVG, 0.90 WHIP, 5 BB, 10 K
5. Jeimer Candelario, 3B, AAA – 38 AB, .316 AVG, 1.172 OPS, 6 BB, 15 K, 2 HR
Last 7 ab's for candelario:
— Jeff Lamb (@Jefflamb21) April 13, 2017
6. Jose Albertos, P, AZL Rookie – n/a (No stats available yet)
7. Dylan Cease, P, Low-A – 9 IP, 1.00 ERA, .194 oppAVG, 1.17 WHIP, 5 BB, 15 K
8. Oscar De La Cruz, P, High-A – 10 IP, 1.80 ERA, .282 AVG, 1.40 WHIP, 3 BB, 9 K
9. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, High-A – 32 AB, .156 AVG, .427 OPS, 5 BB, 3 K, 0 HR
10. Thomas Hatch, P, High-A – 9.2 IP, 2.79 ERA, .171 AVG, 1.14 WHIP, 5 BB, 7 K