By now, I think we can safely say that most Cubs fans know about the Cubs major prospects. Barring those brand new to the bandwagon or coming out of a multi-year hibernation, the names Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber are very, very familiar to us.
And because we’re awesome and devour all the Cubs’ news we can get, we are also fairly familiar with the second tier of Cubs prospects. And the third tier. And the probably fourth. Even the more expected sleepers have been pretty thoroughly discussed by this point (not that that is a bad thing…).
So let’s dig deeper.
There is a lot of talent in the Cubs’ system that remains largely unknown but has the potential to emerge as quality prospects. It isn’t likely that any of these players will one day become major league stars, or even every day regulars, but then again it wasn’t all that long ago we watched Arismendy Alcantara morph from a mostly unknown shortstop into one of the Cubs more interesting offensive prospects in the span of a single season. Sometimes, even in the more prospect-aware fandom that exists today, prospects do creep up on us.
This list is by no means all inclusive of the large number potential sleepers in the Cubs system, nor it is even covering all the lesser known prospects that are likely to break out. These are names worth remembering, though, and worth keeping an eye on during the 2015 season.
Charcer Burks, OF
Expected 2015: South Bend
In an organization with less elite talent and overall depth I think Burks would draw a little more attention than he has with the Cubs, but, thanks (perhaps) to the strength of the organization, he is flying well under the radar.
Burks should start 2015 for South Bend about a month after his 20th birthday. He isn’t showing very much power yet (just one home run in nearly 350 career plate appearances), but his on base percentage has been very nice. The Northwest League can be rough on young hitters at times, but Burks still produced an OBP .416 for Boise last summer. His game on the base paths needs work, but he has the potential to develop into at least a moderate threat to steal with refinement.
Burks almost certainly needs to show more power if he is going to gain much notice is a Cubs’ system that is crowded with outfield talent, but he appears to already have the patience necessary to succeed (13.5% walk rate for Boise). We will gain a much better idea of his defensive capabilities when we can watch him regularly on MiLB.TV this season, but right now I am not seeing any serious warning signs in that department.
Burks is moving up the farm system at a steady level-per-year pace and will be entering his third year with the Cubs this spring. Look for him to get regular at bats as an outfielder for the Low A South Bend Cubs this season.
Justin Marra, C
Expected 2015: South Bend
A few seasons ago we were talking about Marra as a promising member of the group of catchers the Cubs drafted in 2011. As we enter the 2015 season Marra has yet to play higher than Short Season A.
Now 22, Marra may have a tougher time finding at bats behind the plate given the recent influx of catching talent into the Cubs organization, but he has shown enough with the bat to warrant a look. His strikeout rate remains a concern (28.8% last season, down from 31.3% in more limited action in Boise in 2013), but in 2014 his walk rate (10.6%) and ISO (.212) were both in very good shape. Given that he produces that mix of patience and power from the left side of the plate, I think it likely the Cubs will be watching his progress this season with interest.
That said, this will be his fourth season in the organization. If Marra does not break out in a notable fashion during 2015, he may not last in the organization a whole lot longer.
Tim Saunders, Inf
Expected 2015: Myrtle Beach
Saunders has not played a game of baseball in the month of August since 2012. He hasn’t played a game of baseball in July since 2013. His career so far has been notable more for injuries than upside.
When he has been healthy, though, some of the upside has shown through. The Cubs drafted Saunders out of college in 2012 and he quickly rose to High A Daytona. The Cubs returned him to Daytona to start the 2013 season, but he only lasted into July before being shut down. In 2014 he played just 37 games (all but one with Daytona) before being derailed by injuries again.
If he is healthy for 2015, Saunders will try to build on the flashes of promise that we have glimpsed over the past three years. Drafted as a shortstop, Saunders has played all over the diamond for the Cubs and is likely to continue to fill a utility role as he moves up the system. Reports on his defense are not common, but speak well of his athleticism, speed, and arm. As with Burks, we should get a better idea via MiLB.TV this season.
At the plate Saunders has consistently shown a higher strikeout rate than we would like. However, given the start-and-stop nature of his career so far, I think it is likely that his K% will settle down somewhat from the high 20s once he has had a chance to stay active long enough to learn how pitchers are attacking him and start making adjustments to that. His speed is likely to be a bigger part of his game than his power, given that he already has 48 career steals in just 148 games, but it remains to be seen if he can make enough contact and get on base frequently enough to take full advantage of that speed.
I expect that he will return to High A for the third time to start the season. If he can stay healthy for a full year, I would not be surprised to see Saunders emerge as one of the surprises of the summer.
Tommy Thorpe, LHP
Expected 2015: South Bend
The Cubs drafted Thorpe, a college junior, in the eighth round, a place in the draft where many teams consider drafting seniors for signability and budget reasons. Despite that draft slot, Thorpe probably should not be seen as a financially motivated pick (at least, not entirely). This guy was actually the Friday night starter for Oregon, and a fairly successful one at that.
After he signed, the Cubs sent the left hander to the Northwest League, and he did exactly what you would expect a former collegiate ace to do in Short-Season A: he dominated. The sample size is small (18.1 innings with Boise), but the numbers are very nice. 10.3 K/9. 5.9 H/9. The walks were a touch elevated at 3.4 BB/9, but well within an acceptable range for a guy just starting his professional career.
We know Thorpe has three pitches he can throw for strikes, but we don’t yet know whether that will be enough for the Cubs to groom him as a starter, or if they will move him into the bullpen. A move to the bullpen could play up his strike out capacity and accelerate him up the farm system, but I suspect the Cubs will keep him in the rotation in South Bend at least for a time. Regardless, I think he has a very good chance to finish the year in High A Myrtle Beach.
Jeremy Null, RHP
Expected 2015: South Bend
The first thing you need to know about Jeremy Null is that he stands 6’8″ tall. Height, according to some schools of thought, can be an asset for a pitcher because it can result in the ball approaching the plate on a somewhat steeper plane. That can make the ball a little tougher for the hitter to square up, and that in turn makes life just a tad easier for the pitcher.
The second thing you need to know about Null is that, in the Prospect Handbook, Baseball America said that Null slid in the draft due to some declining velocity and back issues, but that after the draft he bounced back and was throwing in the low to mid nineties with the Cubs. The Cubs may have taken a bit of a gamble when they took Null in the 15th round, but so far that gamble appears to be paying off.
Null pitched 14 innings for Boise last summer, and the numbers are quite encouraging (sample size alert). He struck out 11 over those 14 innings while walking just a pair. That’s good for a K/BB ratio of 5.50. That’s a nice number. He was stingy with the hits as well, allowing just 7.7 H/9 (none of them for homers).
The Cubs worked him primarily in relief, and in his case I do expect that to continue to be the plan as he opens 2015. Null doesn’t have the greatest stuff, but with his height and his ability to get ground balls (GO/AO of 1.42 with Boise) he has the potential to move quickly as a middle reliever. I think the Cubs will be working primarily on his secondary pitches this season and will likely keep him somewhere in A ball until they are happy with the secondary stuff, but if he maintains the control he has shown so far in his short career he could have a promising future.