The top two storylines in 2017 for the Cubs’ minor league system were the trades of top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to the White Sox and Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes to Detroit. As a result, there was a dramatic shift in the tenor of the Cubs’ farm system. Now, the top prospects are mostly pitchers.
When the 2018 season breaks, there will be several new and exciting story lines to follow. The main storyline that I’m going to focus on for next year will be rebuilding of the hitting side of the Cubs’ system. There are several prospects who could begin to fill in what was lost in 2017. It will not happen overnight, but it’ll be a two-to-three-year process with names like Nelson Velazquez, Aramis Ademan, and Jonathan Sierra at the forefront. Next year could also be when outfielders DJ Wilson and Kevonte Mitchell also break out in a big way at Myrtle Beach.
Here are some other top storylines to look forward to next summer.
1. Stepping up at Double-A – It seems to me that this is the level that tests most Cubs prospects the most. Those who succeed here rather quickly tend to make it to Chicago very quickly. Those who get bogged down in Tennessee don’t make it. In 2018, several Cubs prospects will advance from Myrtle Beach, and their talents and abilities will be tested from day one. Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker, Thomas Hatch, Eddy Martinez, Zack Short, Tyler Alamo, and Jesse Hodges all had some form of success in 2017 at High-A. Whether or not they can carry that over to Double-A in Kodak, Tennessee remains to be seen. If they can rise to the occasion, they become legitimate prospects for Chicago.
2. The Continued Return of Will Remillard – If all had gone as planned, he would be on the cusp of playing in Chicago. Instead, he missed 2 and a half seasons due to two Tommy John surgeries. When he returned in August of 2017, the bat looked just like it did in 2014 when he was a Midwest League All-Star. I am wondering just at what level he will be at to begin 2018. While Dillon Maples was the feel-good MiLB story of 2017, Remillard, if all goes well, will be the feel-good story of 2018.
3. 2017 Draft Class Pitching – South Bend will be the affiliate that benefits the most from the 2017 draft with a collection of high profile arms unleashed upon the Midwest League without any inning restrictions. In addition to having Jose Albertos in the rotation, the young Cubs could have top 2017 draft picks Alex Lange, Brandon Little, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson. We will get to truly see them pitch without already being worn out from a college season. And like Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker did in 2017, I am sure there will be a surprise pitcher or two breakout even in a relief role. Relievers Jake Steffens (1.54 ERA in 16 games) and Ricky Tyler Thomas (24 Ks in 19.1 IP) come to mind after outstanding seasons at Eugene.
4. Fernando Kelli – I don’t think there is any question that Fernando put up some amazing numbers in the DSL including a .437 on base percentage and 58 stolen bases. At 19, everyone is going to be focused on him in spring training. I’m a bit unclear on whether or not he is good enough to play at either Mesa, Eugene, or South Bend to begin the 2018 season. Regardless of where he plays, that kind of speed is something the Cubs’ system lacks.
5. Duane Underwood – I know that he is just 23. However, it hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact that he was drafted in 2012. It seems like he has been a Cubs prospect for much longer. Now, he is on the cusp of making it to Chicago. He was pretty solid for most of the second half with a career high 138 innings in 2017. At Triple-A Iowa, he will be one step away. If he can command his 95+ mph fastball, he could be the pitcher the Cubs have hoped for the past 5+ years. The quality of his pitches has never wavered, just his ability to control them in between injuries in 2015 and 2016.
6. Trevor Clifton - At the end of May, Trevor Clifton looked to be close to a promotion to Iowa after posting a 1.84 ERA for the month in 29 innings pitched. He later made the Double-A Southern League All-Star team, but after that, his season unraveled. I tend to think he’ll be back to normal in 2018 after a rough second half in 2017 as he had a 9.89 ERA in just 9 starts. I still believe in him as a prospective starter. Knowing him and his work ethic, he’s doing everything this winter to prepare to get back to where he needs to be both physically and mentally. He should start back at Tennessee to begin 2018 unless he is just phenomenal in spring training. He is still just 22. There is no rush.
I am sure that there will be more surprise storylines next year. There always are in every minor-league baseball season.
Lead Photo of Will Remillard courtesy of the Eugene Emeralds