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Burkhart: Chicago Cubs Top 15 Prospects in 2017

Jesse Burkhart

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13 October 2016: Outside of Wrigley Field prior to the NLCS with the Chicago Cubs against the Washington Nationals or the Los Angeles Dodgers in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

It took just two years for the Cubs to go from the basement of the National League Central to World Series champions. The foundation of that rebuild was a series of scouting and player-development successes that formed a young core, and the pipeline includes reinforcements.

To say the Cubs have had tremendous success taking hitters early in recent drafts is an understatement, though things haven’t worked out as well with the pitchers they’ve selected in that time. They’re hoping that tune changes with their most recent draft, having mostly eschewed high school pitchers in favor of college hurlers, whom they selected with 16 of their first 18 picks.

An active player on the international scene, the Cubs have six players on this list from parts abroad. And that’s after the notable subtraction of Venezuela-born Gleyber Torres, who would have topped this list if he hadn’t been shipped to the Yankees shortly before the trade deadline.

Here’s a brief intro to the series that explains how these lists are made and includes some thoughts about my personal approach to ranking prospects. We’re going in alphabetical order here in the NL Central, so the Cincinnati Reds are up next:

 

1. Eloy Jimenez, OF

 

DOB: 11/27/96         Height/Weight: 6’ 4”/205         B/T: R/R         Signed: 2013, Dominican Republic

Hit: 55          Game Power: 65          Run: 50          Throw: 55         Field: 50         Overall: 65

Jimenez lifted his prospect stock into elite territory this year, his first full pro season since he signed for $2.8 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2013 when he was widely considered the best prospect in that year’s July 2 class. He earned the MVP award of the low Class A Midwest League this year, posting a .329/.369/.532 line with 57 extra-base hits as a 19-year-old. He also made a strong impression on both sides of the ball at the Futures Game.

Light-tower raw power is Jimenez’s calling card, which currently grades to 70 at the minimum. That power comes from exceptional strength and bat speed in his fluid, right-handed swing, and he’s only getting stronger with the prototypical body that’s built for bulk. He’s also uncommonly balanced for a power hitter and has the ability to tuck his hands inside the barrel, enabling his power to play through the middle.

Jimenez’s natural hitting ability gives the Cubs’ front office confidence that he’ll continue converting his raw power to games as he ascends the minor-league ladder. For one, he doesn’t swing and miss a lot, especially for a teenager who’s faced older competition for much of his career. And unlike many power hitters, he doesn’t sacrifice contact efficiency in order to drive the ball. A team official says that Jimenez’s next step is to learn to control the strike zone better. Right now, he’s too aggressive early in the count, and the Cubs want to see more patience and higher walk rates.

Equipped with the tools of a cleanup-hitting corner outfielder, Jimenez has All-Star upside. Reaching it depends on how well he can make adjustments as he encounters more advanced pitching. He’ll begin next year at high Class-A Myrtle Beach.

 

2. Ian Happ, 2B/OF

 

DOB: 08/12/94         Height/Weight: 6’ 0”/205         B/T: S/R         Drafted: 2015, 1st Round – Cincinnati

Hit: 55         Game Power: 50         Run: 55         Throw: 50         Field: 45         Overall: 55

Happ began the year with high Class-A and reached Double-A Tennessee at about the midway point, performing well at both levels. The Cubs then sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where the fatigue of a long first full pro season began setting in, though the switch-hitter finished strong by homering from both sides of the plate in the championship game.

Combining on-base skills with 55 raw power, Happ has the hitting tools to develop into one of the game’s most offensive middle infielders, though the strikeout rates are going to be higher than what you’d typically expect from that position group. A team official notes that Happ recently made an adjustment to his swing plane, paying more attention to how his hands are loading in order to create a more optimal path. He earns praise for his aptitude, being credited for understanding how pitchers are trying to get him out and being able to identify what his own weaknesses are.

Happ played the outfield exclusively in 2015, but his primary position this year was second base, which he played intermittently throughout his college career. He doesn’t have natural infield actions and faces an uphill climb to become an average defender, though the Cubs say they’ve seen gradual improvement, noting the progress he’s made with his body control and movements around the bag.

The strikeout rates mean risk, but I still view Happ as a medium-floor prospect who’s more likely than not to become an above-average big leaguer. He’s proven capable of hitting for power from both sides and has above-average speed, which I’m expecting will translate to multiple 15-15 seasons through his peak years.

 

3. Dylan Cease, RHP

 

DOB: 12/28/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 2”/190         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2014, 6th Round – Milton HS (GA)

Fastball: 65         Curveball: 60         Changeup: 50         Command: 45         Overall: 55

The Cubs gave Cease $1.5 million out of the draft even knowing that he needed Tommy John surgery, and the gamble is looking worthwhile now that he has taken big steps forward in his second year removed from the operation. He began the year in extended spring training and then turned in an impressive 12-start campaign in the Northwest League as the organization gave him more rope coming off his rehab from the year prior.

There were games this year when Cease was simply dominant, routinely sitting 96-98 mph and reaching 101 mph with a swing-and-miss curveball. The Cubs say they’ve seen more development with the power-spinning hook, though it’s still lagging in terms of shape consistency and command. His changeup is still rudimentary, but as can be said for most young pitchers, he’ll improve it simply by throwing it more often.

Mechanically, Cease has made some positive adjustments since he came into the organization. His arm stroke is more compact than it used to be, and he’s continuing to work on his timing while finding a consistent release point. The control and command aren’t where they need to be, but that’s expected considering where he is in the post-op timeline.

Cease’s power repertoire could land him in the front-end of a rotation, but projecting him there requires a leap of faith with the command. Alternative and more likely outcomes include mid-rotation starter or the back end of the bullpen, where his stuff might play up a half grade. The Cubs say they will take the reins off of him next year, when he’ll likely receive a full-season assignment to South Bend.

 

4. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP

 

DOB: 03/04/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 4”/200         B/T: R/R         Signed: 2012, Dominican Republic

Fastball: 60         Curveball: 60         Slider: 50        Changeup: 50         Command: 55         Overall: 55

A sore elbow caused De La Cruz to miss the first three months of the season, but he was pitching in low Class-A by late July and posted impressive numbers in six Midwest League starts without allowing a home run. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 for a mere $85,000, the Cubs appear to have found a bargain.

De La Cruz is bigger than his listed weight and looks like a workhorse in the making. There are a lot of things to like about his delivery, which he’s learned to repeat as his body has grown over the past few years. The motion is about as low-effort as it gets and features a clean, flowing arm action with extension from his mid-three-quarters release point. His timing was mostly good in my look, and though his arm can drag when pitching out of the windup, he shows above-average command more often than he doesn’t.

The fastball merges riding life with plane, peaking at 97 before settling into the low-to-mid-90s. His 12-to-6 curveball is his go-to secondary pitch, a deep breaker that was regularly plus at the end of the season. The changeup has improved since last year, and he’s recently added a slider, which is better at inducing weak contact than missing bats.

The fact that De La Cruz was able to return from the sore elbow and look as strong as he did to end last season is obviously a really good sign. The goal next year is to play a full, healthy season and refine the tools that could make him a mid-rotation starter someday.

 

5. Jeimer Candelario, 3B

 

DOB: 11/24/93         Height/Weight: 6’ 1”/210         B/T: S/R         Signed: 2010, Dominican Republic

Hit: 55         Game Power: 50         Run: 40         Throw: 55         Field: 45         Overall: 50

After a good showing at Triple-A Iowa, Candelario earned a cup of coffee with the big club at the end of last season. He’s nearly ready for a regular role, but Joe Maddon would have to exercise some creativity to get his bat into the lineup, as his primary position is presently occupied by Kris Bryant.

Candelario is a switch-hitter with a feel for hitting and a similar swing from both sides. He has good bat speed that helps generate above-average raw power, and the lift in both of his strokes could equal 15-plus home runs annually. The notable offensive development for him this season was his improved patience at the plate, seen in the significantly-increased walk rate from the year prior.

He has adequate hands and above-average arm strength at third base, though his limited athleticism makes him better suited for an outfield corner. He profiles as a solid-average regular whose bat will provide most of the value.

6. Mark Zagunis, OF

 

DOB: 02/05/93         Height/Weight: 6’ 0”/205         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2014, 3rd Round – Virginia Tech

Hit: 55         Game Power: 45         Run: 50         Throw: 50         Field: 50         Overall: 50

Zagunis continued his rapid advancement through the Cubs’ system, making quick work of Double-A hurlers to start the year before advancing to Triple-A Iowa and missing the final two months of the year with a broken big toe. It won’t be long before he’s ready for the big leagues, though the logjam in Chicago’s outfield is clogging the path forward.

An on-base maven, Zagunis wins with pitch recognition and an aptitude for getting himself into hitter’s counts, and the hit tool gets a half-grade boost because of that. He creates an efficient path that’s conducive for hitting line drives, loading his hands downward to get his bat into the zone early and then remaining short to the ball. Earlier in his career, his average raw power showed up mostly in the gaps, but it seems he learned to clear the fences with greater frequency this year.

Zagunis was drafted as a catcher but never was a natural fit behind the plate, so he shed the tools of ignorance before the 2015 season and now offers a corner profile with average arm strength. He doesn’t have an explosive or standout tool that will get anyone excited, but I think the on-base skills and total package are enough to project him as an average regular, with the possibility that his power production exceeds expectations.

 

7. Thomas Hatch, RHP

 

DOB: 09/29/94         Height/Weight: 6’ 1”/190         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2016, 3rd Round – Oklahoma State

Fastball: 60         Slider: 60         Changeup: 50         Command: 50         Overall: 50

After missing all of 2015 with a sprained elbow ligament, Hatch logged 130 innings at Oklahoma State last spring and convinced the Cubs to make him their top draft pick in the third round. The organization decided that he needed time to rest and recover from the heavy workload, not allowing him to pitch until instructs this fall.

Hatch is built strongly for his dimensions and is described by one team official as a bulldog with a fierce competitive spirit. He’s shown the stuff to match, sitting 94-96 mph with life and sink at instructs while flashing a plus slider as he consistently overmatched the younger hitters he was facing.

Coming at hitters from a low slot, the Cubs believe that Hatch has the delivery to start, and that if not for the injury in 2015, he may have been a first-round pick. Given his current feel for pitching, there’s at least an outside chance that he’ll go straight to high Class-A in his first full pro season next year.

 

8. Duane Underwood, RHP

 

DOB: 07/20/94         Height/Weight: 6’ 2”/210         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2012, 2nd Round – Pope HS (GA)

Fastball: 60         Curveball: 55         Changeup: 50         Command: 45         Overall: 45

It was a disappointing year for Underwood, who again was plagued by injuries that led to inconsistency in performance. He began the season in Double-A and appeared to be righting the ship there before he came down with forearm inflammation in July, then spent the rest of the year at lower levels getting back up to speed.

When he’s right, Underwood will show three above-average-to-plus pitches. This was the case in a mid-season Double-A start at Jacksonville, during which he sat 93-97 and mixed his power curveball with an effective changeup. When he’s not right, he loses his fastball command – which showed up in the elevated walk rate this year – and the secondaries grade closer to average.

Now three full seasons into his career, the Cubs just want to see Underwood remain healthy so he at least has a fair opportunity to put it all together. If he can, there’s a mid-rotation starter here, though that’s more of a ceiling than a likely outcome at this point. A move to the bullpen might be the best way to navigate his volatility and keep him healthy. He’ll likely return to Double-A to begin next year.

 

9. Bryan Hudson, LHP

 

DOB: 05/08/97         Height/Weight: 6’ 8”/220         B/T: L/L         Drafted: 2015, 3rd Round – Alton HS (IL)

Fastball: 50         Curveball: 65         Changeup: 50         Command: 45         Overall: 45

One of three prep lefties the Cubs gave at least $1 million to in the 2015 draft, Hudson was hit-or-miss this year at short-season Eugene. Poor control was the culprit behind most of the miss, as the 6-foot-8 southpaw walked 41 batters in 58 innings and turned in a few clunkers along the way.

Hudson pitches in the low-90s with his sinking fastball, generating plenty of groundouts even though he pitches on a straighter plane than someone you’d expect of his size because of a drop-down release point. There’s power behind his low-80s curveball, a true swing-and-miss pitch that might be the best breaking ball in the system. The changeup needs more reps, but it should develop into something that can stave off right-handed bats.

Command is the biggest hurdle that Hudson must clear, and it looks like a tall one right now. There are games when he struggles to throw even half of his pitches for strikes, but the good news is that he has surprising athleticism for his size, so if he can use that to get to even just fringe command, that would be enough to keep him in the rotation given the emerging strength of his three-pitch repertoire.

 

10. Donnie Dewees, CF

 

DOB: 09/29/93         Height/Weight: 5’ 11”/180         B/T: L/L         Drafted: 2015, 2nd Round – North Florida

Hit: 55        Game Power: 40        Run: 60        Throw: 30        Field: 50        Overall: 45

Dewees was a standout in the 2014 Cape Cod League and then hit an absurd .422/.483/.749 the following spring at North Florida, establishing himself as one of the top pure hitters available in the 2015 draft class. He’s looked as such in pro ball so far and posted strong numbers across two Class-A levels this year.

Along with Zagunis and Chesny Young, Dewees is among the best pure hitters in the Cubs’ system. He makes a lot of contact with a quick, level swing that stays inside the ball and features some whip to drive the gaps, though the raw power doesn’t grade beyond fringe. For good or for bad, the approach is tailored to what he does best, as he prefers to knock his way on base rather than work deep counts and draw walks. His plus speed is an asset in center field, but his arm strength is a liability.

After closing the year at Myrtle Beach, Dewees should zip through the remaining levels in short order. The bat is advanced enough that he probably needs fewer than 500 more plate appearances in the minor leagues before he’s ready to contribute offensively with the big club, most likely as a bottom-of-the-order sparkplug.

 

11. Trevor Clifton, RHP

 

DOB: 05/11/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 4”/170         B/T: R/R  Drafted: 2013, 12th Round – Heritage HS (TN)

Fastball: 55         Curveball: 60         Changeup: 50         Command: 50         Overall: 45

Clifton has been gradually making the thrower-to-pitcher transformation since he entered pro ball with the $375,000 bonus he got as a 12th-round pick. He took another step in that direction this year at Myrtle Beach, sharpening his stuff while making yet another improvement in command.

Though his listed weight doesn’t reflect the bulk he’s added since high school, the velocity hasn’t changed much, with his heater sitting in the low-to-mid-90s with occasional late wiggle. His three-quarters curveball was flashing plus at the end of the year, though his feel for the pitch comes and goes. He can fade his changeup away from left-handed batters, but he drops his arm slot to do so.

There’s still some natural stiffness to Clifton’s delivery, but he recently smoothed out his mechanics and has become more efficient in his motion, which accounts for the strides he’s made with his location in the past three years. His three average-or-better pitches would fit in the back end of a rotation if the command comes along a bit further, though his fastball-curveball combo gives the Cubs a Plan B as a set-up man.

 

12. Jose Albertos, RHP

 

DOB: 11/07/98         Height/Weight: 6’ 1”/185         B/T: R/R         Signed: 2015, Mexico

Fastball: 60         Curveball: 50         Changeup: 55         Command: 50         Overall: 45

One of the headliners of the Cubs’ 2015 international class, Albertos signed for $1.5 million as a 17-year-old from the Mexican League. He made his pro debut in the Arizona League this summer before he was shut down with arm soreness.

Albertos stood out for his pitchability when he was an amateur, and the stuff has caught up to the feel since he signed. The velocity has increased over the last year, with his fastball now sitting in the mid-90s and peaking at 98. His low-80s changeup is ahead of the curveball, with the former having a chance to be a plus pitch.

He draws praise for his maturity, which contributed to the Cubs’ belief that he could bypass the Dominican Summer League and handle the immediate transition stateside. With his physically mature frame and having already made a velocity jump, he’s probably close to what he’ll always be in terms of stuff, though it might be enough to play in the back of a rotation one day.

 

13. Eddy Martinez, OF

 

DOB: 01/18/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 1”/195         B/T: R/R         Signed: 2015, Cuba

Hit: 45         Game Power: 45         Run: 60         Throw: 55         Field: 55         Overall: 40

After defecting from Cuba in 2014, Martinez nearly signed with the Giants before the $2.5 million deal fell through because he wanted more money. He ultimately got it from the Cubs, signing for $3 million last year and then spending his first full pro season at low Class-A this year.

Martinez has a chance to develop average-or-better tools across the board, with his ultimate role hinging on how much progress he can make at the plate. The swing is more timing-dependent than you’d like, though there’s some incipient contact ability and a general idea of the zone. He’s also begun hitting for more in-game power than what scouts reported they saw when he was an amateur.

An above-average runner with above-average arm strength, he offers some defensive versatility with sufficient tools for all three outfield spots. He’s got a ways to go with the bat before he can be projected as an average regular, but if the hit tool stops short of average, the total package could still get him to the big leagues as a fourth outfielder.

 

14. Wladimir Galindo, OF/3B

 

DOB: 11/06/96         Height/Weight: 6’ 3”/210         B/T: R/R         Signed: 2013, Venezuela

Hit: 45         Game Power: 50         Run: 40         Throw: 60         Field: 40         Overall: 40

Part of the Cubs’ loaded 2013 international free-agent class, Galindo debuted in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2014 and led the circuit in home runs as a 17-year-old, but then missed most of 2015 with wrist and hand injuries. He stayed healthy this year though, ripping up extended spring training before going to the Northwest League and leading all participants with 32 extra-base hits.

Plus raw power is Galindo’s carrying tool, which has been showing up in games ever since he signed. With that power comes a fair share of strikeouts, as the approach is predictably raw for a young hitter whose injuries put him slightly behind the developmental curve.

Playing third base at extended spring training was an adventure for Galindo, who struggled with every phase of fielding the position and will only get bigger and slower from this point forward. It’s likely that he moves to a corner outfield spot, where his plus arm strength can still be put to good use.

 

15. D.J. Wilson, CF

 

DOB: 10/08/96         Height/Weight: 5’ 8”/177         B/T: L/L         Drafted: 2015, 4th Round – Canton South (OH)

Hit: 45         Game Power: 40         Run: 60         Throw: 50         Field: 60         Overall: 40

Wilson endeared himself to Cubs’ evaluators with an outstanding pre-draft workout, prompting the team to select him two rounds after Dewees and buy him out of his Vanderbilt commitment with a $1.3 million bonus. He’s been solid in his first two pro seasons between the Rookie-level Arizona League and the short-season Northwest League.

One of the system’s best athletes, Wilson combines plus speed with surprising pop. He’s deceptively strong for his compact build, showing an ability to drive the ball with a short, albeit flat, left-handed swing. The plate approach is currently too ambitious, but he’s credited for being an instinctual player and should be able to tame himself with experience.

Wilson can cover a lot of ground in center field and already looks like an advanced defender there. An everyday role depends on how far the bat comes along, but at the least, his speed gives him the chance to make a situational impact on both sides of the ball.

Jesse Burkhart is the senior prospect analyst for Today’s Knuckleball. Prior to joining FanRag Sports, he was a contributor to FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline, providing mainly draft coverage. After graduating with a journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2009, he served as an associate scout for an American League team. When he’s not watching baseball or writing about it, you might find him behind his other keyboard, clumsily imitating his favorite musicians to the great despair of the neighbor below his third-story apartment in Raleigh, N.C. You can contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jesseburkhart.

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