The big league Cubs are struggling and banged up, and so we’ve seen—sooner than we’d hoped—the callups of Iowa’s most interesting prospects. Jeimer Candelario, Eddie Butler, and Ian Happ all made their 2017 debuts last week, and each immediately afforded the reeling Cubs some much-needed support. Each, perhaps with the exception of Butler, will likely end up back in the minors sooner rather later, but for now, we once again get to witness the advantages of a deep system.
The players who are “next up” after this wave are somewhat less obvious though, so, more than a month into the season, let’s check in on who is performing down on the farm.
Iowa Cubs (AAA) (14-20)
Let’s first take a look at how the Cubs’ callups were faring at AAA. In 115 plate appearances, the switch-hitting Candelario had an OPS of 1.093, good for the team lead. Happ was close behind him at .977, and he led Iowa with nine home runs in the early going. He homered in his debut in St. Louis, and his ten combined home runs are by far the most of anyone in the Cubs organization so far this year. Both of these players seem ready offensively, and there is little question that the only reason they weren’t already in the majors is that they were blocked by the Cubs’ major league talent. With a call-up clearly in mind, Happ moved to the outfield for half of his starts in Iowa, and that’s where he played in St. Louis this weekend.
Eddie Butler’s results in Iowa were fantastic, though it was less clear how he got there. Through 30 and 2/3 innings, he had a 1.17 ERA that was supported by only five strikeouts per nine innings and a non-exciting 2.13 K/BB ratio. His six inning start in St. Louis on Friday had six strikeouts though, and loads of weak contact, so if that is something he can keep up going forward, he just might be a solution at the back of the rotation.
Catcher Victor Caratini, acquired from the Braves for Emilio Bonifacio in 2014, has been the best offensive player not named Happ or Candelario. He is slashing .342/.385/.517, which, for a switch-hitting catcher at Triple-A, is very good. He is not a power hitter, but he hits for enough average to be a valuable depth piece and prospect, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in Chicago at some point this summer if Contreras or Montero gets banged up.
Outfielder Mark Zagunis, a third-round pick in 2014, continues to move through the system on the back of his 80-grade batting eye. In his minor league career, he has an OBP of exactly .400, .125 higher than his batting average of .275. This year, he is hitting only .218, but he has six home runs and an OBP of .385, which will play at any level if he can keep it up. He’s not a great defender, but it will be surprising if the 24-year-old does not find his way into a major league lineup some day.
On the pitching side, there haven’t been too many standouts. Aaron Brooks, for example, who the Cubs acquired from Kansas City as a depth piece before the season, has struggled in his first seven starts in the Cubs’ organization. His peripherals look very similar to Butler’s but his results are much worse: he’s got a 6.50 ERA and only 19 strikeouts in 36 innings. Brooks is not a power pitcher and needs to limit hard contact to be effective. So far, he has not.
Tennessee Smokies (AA) (22-14)
The Smokies are light on big names, but they’ve been playing well behind the excellent performances of some interesting players. Outfielder Charcer Burks—a 22-year-old at Double-A—is raking to the effect of a .302/.411/.444 line. Burks has been in the Cubs system since 2013, and he’s always shown an ability to get on base, so if more extra base power starts to come around, he could become an interesting prospect as a depth outfielder. Catcher/First baseman Ian Rice isn’t super exciting from a defensive perspective, but he is OPSing .959 with four homers so far this year after hitting similarly well at South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. The 23-year-old is another depth catcher, which is something you can never have too many of.
The pitching is the most exciting part of Tennessee’s early season, however. Number four prospect Trevor Clifton is living up to expectations, with a 2.25 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 32 innings. The righty is still only 22 and is perhaps the Cubs best chance at a homegrown starter short of Dylan Cease. It feels like Jen-Ho Tseng has been in the Cubs organization forever, but he is still only 22 and producing solid results: a 3.15 ERA in 40 innings so far on the year. Even more impressive is his 6.2 K/BB ratio. Control has always been Tseng’s game, and if he keeps it up, he still has the potential to be a solid MLB starter.
24-year-old Zach Hedges has produced nothing but solid results since being drafted in 2014 as a 26th round pick. Again, the upside isn’t high, but his 2.59 ERA and hair are extremely good. Daury Torrez is another guy who seems like he’s been around forever (he was an international signing from the Dominican Republic back in 2011), but he is only 23, and recently switched the bullpen, where he has only allowed one run in 17 and 2/3 innings so far this year. His 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings also make him an intriguing bullpen prospect for the future.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A) (19-16)
No. 8 prospect Oscar de la Cruz keeps, ahem, cruising along. On Sunday, he put together a complete game shutout win, and dropped his ERA to 2.97 on the year. He only had one strikeout yesterday, which was different than his norm, but it allowed him to go deep into the game, which is a very good sign.
Lefty Justin Steele is notable because of his age (21) and his draft status (a 5th round pick in 2014). He has a very good 2.87 ERA this year so far at High-A, but his WHIP, as it has been for most of his career so far, is an ugly 1.69. He’s young, but the walks and hits will need to get under control if he wants to push much farther up the system.
Outfielder Daniel Spingola, 24, is hitting very well so far this year: he’s shown lots of extra base power and it’s led to a slash line of .340/.422/.580. He’s another player who has consistently hit as he moved up, but his age makes him more of an organizational type. Still, the line is impressive and we could see him in Tennessee later this summer.
South Bend Cubs (Low-A) (23-12)
With Eloy Jimenez injured, Dylan Cease’s name has been the biggest in the lower minors this year. It makes sense too: Cease is currently striking out 1.5 batters per inning that he pitches and already has 50 on the young season. This is approximately the rate at which Chris Sale is currently striking people out for the Red Sox.
But Cease still has a long, long way to go. He biggest problem is efficiency: he’s averaging under five innings per start and walking more than half a batter an inning. His WHIP stands at an OK, but less-than-impressive 1.24. In short, he’s still very much developing and despite his standout stuff and tools, it’s going to take a while. Here’s a long video of him striking someone out, though:
Duncan Robinson, a ninth-round pick last year, has been good between starting and the ‘pen in the early season. In 29 and 2/3 innings, he has a 1.52 ERA and a 3.6 K/BB ratio. I interviewed Robinson when he was drafted out of Dartmouth last year, and it seems that, so far, his minor league experience has started about as well as it could have.
On the offensive side, 22-year-old utility infielder Zack Short has been the SB Cubs’ best player. He has a .917 OPS over his first 152 plate appearances and has shown surprising power in hitting four home runs to this point. He was the Cubs’ 17th round draft pick last year, so not much is expected, but his age will allow him to advance quickly if he keeps hitting.
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 – 3 PA, 2-for-3 on Sunday
Jimenez made his first start of the season on Sunday, and went 2-for-3 right out of the gate.
2. Ian Happ, 2B/OF, MLB – 8 PA, .429 AVG, 1.500 OPS, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 HR
3. Albert Almora Jr., OF, MLB – 91 PA, .262 AVG, .712 OPS, 7 BB, 15 K, 2 HR
4. Trevor Clifton, SP, AA – 32 IP, 2.25 ERA, 7.9 H/9, 1.22 WHIP, 11 BB, 28 K
5. Jeimer Candelario, 3B, MLB – 18 PA, .059 AVG, .170 OPS, 1 BB, 6 K, 0 HR
6. Jose Albertos, P, AZL Rookie – n/a (No stats available yet)
7. Dylan Cease, P, Low-A – 32.1 IP, 2.23 ERA, 6.4 H/9, 1.24 WHIP, 17 BB, 50 K
8. Oscar De La Cruz, P, High-A – 36.1 IP, 2.97 ERA, 9.7 H/9, 1.33 WHIP, 8 BB, 27 K
9. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF, High-A – 122 PA, .232 AVG, .617 OPS, 10 BB, 14 K, 3 HR
10. Thomas Hatch, P, High-A – 28 IP, 6.11 ERA, 9.6 H/9, 1.71 WHIP, 18 BB, 27 K