Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

cubs prospect top 40In the first installment of the 2015 Edition of the Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects List, I gave a brief glimpse into the thinking behind prospect rankings in general, and in this list in particular.

There is one final aspect of my ranking methods that I did not note in that first episode, though: I don’t rank players who haven’t appeared professionally in a real game in the United States*. That means I did not consider any of the very talented Cubs who spent last season in the Venezuelan or Dominican Summer Leagues. There was some notable talent in those leagues that we will be talking about later this summer as those players start to appear in the Arizona Rookie League, but, for now, they are not part of the Top 40 equation.

It also means I did not consider Dylan Cease. Cease, a talented high school right hander that the Cubs drafted this past summer, has not yet played in a real game as he recovers from arm surgery. If I were to rank him, he would likely appear in the same vicinity as Trevor Clifton (based entirely on pre-draft scouting reports). But, since he has not pitched a game yet, he wasn’t eligible.

*(Ok, yes, I did break this rule one time a couple years ago when I ranked Juan Paniagua despite the fact that he had yet to appear in a game that counted. And I may break it again in the future. But not this year.)

The reason I don’t rank players in that category is simple: lack of quality data. I use a mix of scouting reports, video, and stats when compiling my rankings (not to mention first-hand observations when I have them), and it is tough to translate statistics compiled against amateur talent or against the vast range of talent levels in the DSL or VSL into something I can use with any kind of reliability. Once a player reaches the Arizona Rookie League, though, the quality of the available data tends to go up.

Fortunately there is no shortage of data available for Number 32. So, without further ado…

32. Stephen Bruno, Inf
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Bruno in the 7th round in 2012.
ETA: Maybe late 2015 in the right situation.
Notable because: Bruno combines useful versatility with a fairly nice bat.
2015: Iowa is crowded, so Bruno may open back in Tennessee. He should be in Iowa by the end of the year, though.

Bruno jumped from Short Season A Boise to High A Daytona in 2013, but his season was stopped by injury after just 19 (very promising) games. That did not stop the Cubs from pushing Bruno up to Tennessee in 2014 though, and in his 105 games we finally got to see how this right handed hitter measures up against the upper levels of the minors. As it turns out, he measured up nicely. A very healthy 17.8% strikeout rate helped propel him to a .276/.346/.393 line as the Smokies’ regular second baseman for much of the season.

In fact, Bruno already projects to be a replacement level player in the major league according to ZiPS (.251/.306/.343 with a WAR of 0.1). That’s not a bad foundation, but unfortunately it is also just about all Bruno offers. He doesn’t have much speed (10 career steals), or much power (6 career homers), and while his walk rate has been extremely consistent as a professional, it is only about 6.3%. That’s a solid number, but not high enough to drive a super high OBP at the highest levels.

What Bruno does offer, though, is some versatility. Lately he’s been just a second baseman, but he has a little experience at short and third on his resume. As a pure second baseman his future with the Cubs may be limited, but if he can emerge as a utility guy he could find a place in a reserve role. It is also possible, though, that his smarter financial play may be to see if anyone in Japan needs a second baseman.

31. Matt Szczur, OF
Acquired: Szczur was drafted in the 5th round in 2010.
ETA: Whenever there is an opening.
Notable because: Defense is his calling card, and it is good enough to keep him employed.
2015: Look for Szczur to bounce between Iowa and Chicago, depending on the needs of the latter.

Watching Szczur play outfield defense is not an experience to be missed. He will get to balls that looked out of reach and make catches that most outfielders can only dream of. With the exceptions of Albert Almora and, possibly, Trey Martin, Szczur is probably the best defensive center fielder in the organization. Combine the excellent glove with some real value as a base runner (120 steals as a professional) and Szczur looks like he fits the description of a quality major league fifth outfielder.

Or that was the story, anyway. Then Szczur came to spring training with a new swing and in just 44 trips to the plate proceeded to hit nearly as many home runs (4) as he did in 2013 and 2014 combined (6) [Ed. … and that’s now up to 5 homers.]. All the caveats about spring training performances apply, but so does the fact that Szczur’s swing is altered. If he can add even a touch more power to his already good walk and strikeout rates (in both Iowa and Chicago) when the games actually mean something, we could be looking at a potential platoon / fringe starter type.

But spring training stats are spring training stats, and that increase is power remains, for me, for now, little more than a hope. The projection here is as a fifth outfielder with a great glove, and should he prove me wrong (and I hope he does!), then he probably won’t qualify for this list anymore when it comes time to do a re-ranking anyway.

30. Armando Rivero, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs signed Rivero out of Cuba in time for the 2013 season.
ETA: As soon as he is needed.
Notable because: If you like high velocity late inning relievers, you might love Rivero.
2015: He’ll open in Iowa, but he could get the call if the Cubs need some bullpen help.

Rivero features an excellent fastball and a pretty good slider, but lacks a bit in additional supporting pitches. That lack, combined with some less than stellar control (3.56 BB/9 in Iowa last year), essentially locks him in to a bullpen role.

Not that keeping him in the bullpen is bad thing. He struck out more than 13 batters per nine innings in both Double A and Triple A last summer, and I see no reason to think he won’t keep mowing hitters down when he reaches the majors (if not, perhaps, at quite that rate). He is a touch prone to the long ball (1.19 HR/9 with Iowa), but he also has the ability to pitch himself out of jams should he walk himself into one. The total package, which you can see here, could probably walk into the Chicago bullpen next week and not really miss a beat.

Unfortunately, he will be 27 this season; what we see is likely the best we’ll see. And while the strikeouts are great, the walks and homers make him a bit of risky character for a closing assignment. As a key member of a hard throwing bullpen, though, I like Rivero quite a bit.

29. Daury Torrez, RHP
Acquired: Torrez was signed as an International Free Agent prior to the 2011 season.
ETA: 2018
Notable because: A plus pitch and good control are paired with improving additional stuff.
2015: Myrtle Beach

Torrez was not one of the more heralded prospects in the Kane County rotation when the 2014 season opened, but before the season ended this right hander was picking up quite a bit more attention. He did not get a lot of strikeouts, just 5.6 per nine innings, but he was so successful at avoiding walks (1.4 BB/9) that he finished the season with a very healthy 3.86 K/BB ratio. He also did a nice job keeping the ball on the ground (1.15 GO/AO) and in the ballpark (just 8 home runs in 23 starts), all of which led up to Torrez being arguably the second most consistent starter for the championship Cougars’ rotation (the most consistent was a guy named Tseng we’ll talk about in a later article).

FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline both grade his fastball at a 60 (it has nice, hard sink), but the secondary stuff still needs work. Add two average secondary pitches to his arsenal and he may yet turn into a possible mid rotation starter candidate one day. More likely, though, he develops into a back of the rotation or a bullpen/rotation swing man type.

28. Bijan Rademacher, OF
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Rademacher in the 13th round of the 2012 draft.
ETA: Late 2016.
Notable because: An all around left handed hitter who compliments the current Cubs nicely.
2015: Tennessee

This time last year Rademacher was arguably the best left handing hitting outfielder in the Cubs farm system, but thanks to a good draft and a great trade he now finishes third on that list. And in 2015 he’ll be sharing time with the two guys above him (Kyle Schwarber (who is a part time outfielder) and Billy McKinney) in Double A Tennessee. That doesn’t mean Rademacher should be over looked, though. The ceiling here isn’t super high and I think he projects best in a platoon role or as a fourth outfielder, but there is still a lot to like.

Rademacher posted healthy ISOs with both Daytona (.167) and Mesa of the Arizona Fall League (.175) last season, and I would not be surprised to see those ISO figures tick up a little as he moves full time into the more hitter friendly confines of Smokey Stadium. The walk rate tracked right around 10% (which is very good), and his strikeout rate was more than acceptable at 19.9% with Daytona. He also drilled 10 home runs in the Florida State League while stealing 4 bases.

His glove is limited to the outfield corners, but his bat profiles well enough that that shouldn’t be a problem. He will be in for his first true test as a hitter when he faces Southern League pitching this season, but barring an unexpected collapse at that level I suspect he’ll put himself in line for September call up consideration in 2016. As a left handed hitter, he could be a useful compliment to the right handed hitting Soler and (possibly) Bryant in Chicago when that time comes.

Oh, and he was a pitcher in college and has three professional appearances under his belt already.

27. Justin Steele, LHP
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Steele in the 5th round in 2014.
ETA: 2018+
Notable because: Steele is a member of a strong class of arms the Cubs drafted in 2014.
2015: Eugene or South Bend

Steele is a tough pitcher to rank right now. His velocity wandered from high 80s to mid 90s during the amateur season and after the draft, and his secondary pitches ranged from very promising to, well, not so much. On the high side Steele projects as a mid-rotation starter with a good mix of three or four pitches, and on the low side he may be a better fit in a relief role where his left handed velocity can play up a bit.

In 2014 he pitched 18.2 innings for Arizona and struck out hitters at a 12.05 K/9 pace. The walk rate was somewhat higher than we’d like to see (3.86 BB/9), but given reports of inconsistency I’m not too surprised by that. At the end of the day, though, he posted a very promising FIP of 2.80. For a teenager just out of high school, that’s not bad.

There is some undeniable upside here, but the inconsistency adds to the risk and pushes him down the rankings a little. Should he turn in a strong 2015 he could move up ten spots in a hurry.

26. Christian Villanueva, 3B
Acquired: The Cubs traded for Villanueva in 2012.
ETA: Late 2015
Notable because: His third base defense is as good as any.
2015: Mostly Iowa, but could see Chicago late in the season or in the event of an injury.

Christian Villanueva is an excellent third baseman who snuck into the lower end of some Top 100 lists before coming over to the Cubs from Texas. After clubbing 19 home runs as a Tennessee Smokies in 2013, he looked poised to make a case for September call up in 2014. Instead, he fizzled. His ugly Iowa line read just .211/.283/.372, and a stint in Tennessee didn’t go a lot better (.248/.310/.385). He improved his walk rate over his 2013 figure, but pretty much every other number went in the wrong direction.

The nice part, though, is that even if what we see now is all Villanueva is likely to be he is still a valuable guy to have in Iowa. The ZiPS projection system brands him a replacement level player thanks to quality defense and a projected line of .232/.283/.374. If his ISO kicks back up to what we saw in 2013, however, it isn’t hard to imagine that line reading closer to .245/.300/.400, and those numbers from a very good defender make up a nice fall back plan for third base (or maybe second base if the need arose).

Unfortunately, Villanueva finds himself in a system crowded with elite infield talent. With names like Bryant, Olt, and Russell ahead of him as third base options it is tough to see this guy getting much of a chance at the highest level, even if he does turn his offensive fortunes around in Iowa. Still, a strong start to the season could elevate his trade stock markedly, and if disaster strikes the Cubs infield (perish the thought) he may get a chance to claim job in Wrigley after all.

25. Rob Zastryzny, LHP
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Zastryzny in the 2nd round in 2013.
ETA: 2016
Notable because: A left handed start with mid-rotation upside who could be ready to help fairly soon.
2015: Tennessee

In his first full season a professional the Cubs challenged Zastryzny with an assignment to Daytona, and he responded by struggling badly through the first part of the season. An 8.46 April ERA (in the pitcher friendly Florida State League!) turned into a 6.08 May ERA before something finally clicked in June and he cruised to a 1.90 ERA for the month. He wasn’t quite that effective the rest of the way, but his second half was consistently better than his first half, and by the end of the season even his early season doubters were starting to warm back up to the big lefty.

Even though Zastryzny finished up his Daytona campaign with a healthy K/9 of 9.00, I don’t think strikeouts are likely to be the key to his future. Instead, I see Zastryzny as a guy who gets outs by mixing up the speed and location of his fastball to get weak contact. The results, if it all works out, could be similar to a Kyle Hendricks (only as a lefty). It is a risky path to success for a pitcher, but it is a path that could turn Zastryzny into a number four starter in a major league rotation one day. If he can improve on his secondary offerings during the 2015 season his stock will almost certainly improve as well.

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