2018 should be an interesting year when it comes to the Cubs’ farm system. The Cubs have five selections in the first 100 picks in the upcoming draft and should able to remake the system quickly. In addition, the Cubs will not have any signing limits when it comes to international free agents, other than their overall bonus pool. They can now sign a player for more than $300,000.
While the Cubs currently lack a “Top 100 Prospect,” they do have several who could be close in Adbert Alzolay, Jose Albertos, Alex Lange, and Aramis Ademan. The Cubs’ system, however, is more than just a collection of so-called top prospects. There are several players who could really change their fortunes this summer through development. They may not be in the Baseball Prospectus Top 10 list for the Cubs, but they do have value for the future. Here are five names to keep an eye on this spring.
1. Dakota Mekkes – While Dillon Maples may drive all the headlines in the prospect reliever category, Mekkes is a prospect who could actually be there pretty quick, too. At 6’7″ tall, Mekkes has a very deceptive delivery that turns his 91 to 93 mile an hour fastball into something that looks more like 96 to 97 to the hitter. He gets a lot of ugly swings. At one point in 2017, he did not give up a run for over two months (May 10 – August 1) and finished the season with a 0.98 ERA while whiffing 92 batters in 73.1 IP. Opponents only hit .155 against him. I thought for sure he was going to get promoted to Double-A Tennessee from Myrtle Beach in July. His only issue last year were his 34 walks. While he will start in Tennessee in 2018, don’t look for him be there very long.
2. Austin Upshaw – The 2017 draft pick was probably one of the quietest movers in the system last summer: playing in Mesa, skipping Eugene, and doing very well in South Bend. I used to joke that Chesny Young could fall out of bed and hit a single to right, but Upshaw is not far from that himself. In fact, Upshaw’s would more likely hit a double off the top of the wall or down the line. He is not going to hit a lot of home runs, although he does have some power. He is one of those guys that just eats, lives, and breaths hitting. In talking with him last year, I could easily tell that he is an artist at the plate. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in the Carolina League this summer.
3. Michael Rucker – He could start in the rotation at Tennessee this spring or he could relieve. Either way, he is going to throw strikes. Theo Epstein called for strike throwers at the end of his postmortem press conference last fall, and Rucker is the type of pitcher Theo salivates about. Rucker began last year as a reliever in South Bend and finished the season as a starter at Myrtle Beach. His strike ratio was almost at 70 percent, an amazing rate, and something the Cubs now seem to covet.
4. Luis Vazquez – He is only 18 years old and, just based on a few perceptions, he is easily the best defensive shortstop in the Cubs’ system. He’s tall, rangy, and very fluid, like a giant panther prowling the left side of the infield. Even though he’s most likely to spend this spring in extended spring training, his bat still lags behind his fielding. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly the 6’2″ shortstop can rectify that situation.
5. PJ Higgins – He may not be destined to be a star in the major leagues, but he definitely could have a role as a backup catcher. In his second full season as a pro at Myrtle Beach, Higgins was very good behind the plate, but his bat and approach seemed to falter a little bit from the 2016, when his OBP was at or near .400 all summer. While Victor Caratini is situated in front of him at catcher, Caratini is not a backup catcher—Victor seems destined to start every day in the majors. As a result, Higgins’s role in the system as a possible backup to Willson Contreras is something worth watching. Higgins is not going to be ready this year, but he could be halfway through 2019. Then, Higgins could be a backup for a long time.
There are several other prospects who should be worth watching throughout the spring. Keep an eye on Kevonte Mitchell, D.J. Wilson, Jesse Hodges, and Austin Filiere. In a system without a lot of elite hitting prospects, they are a few who could break through this year.
Lead photo of Luis Vazquez by Rikk Carlson