Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

cubs prospect top 40[This is part four of the BN Top 40 Cubs Prospects list for 2015. If you missed any of the first three installments, correct that mistake by reading them here, here, and here. They include not only prospects 17 through 40, but also introductory discussions about prospecting, rankings, etc.]

One important thing to remember about prospect rankings is that, even though the ranking may change, that doesn’t mean the player being ranked has changed. These rankings are ultimately comparative, not absolute. That means that the Number Fourteen prospect in one year is not necessarily the same caliber as the Number Fourteen prospect in another year, or on another team in the same year. It also means that a player might slide up or down the rankings a few slots without the opinion on that particular player having changed significantly.

If you read yesterday’s edition of the Top 40, you may have noticed that I sounded a little more positive about some of those players than you would expect for prospects sitting right around Number Twenty on a team list. Typically by the time a prospect list gets down around twenty the pickings have thinned substantially, but the Cubs still have very high ceiling pitchers like Carson Sands and Trevor Clifton, not to mention potential impact bats like Jeimer Candelario and Dan Vogelbach showing up in that vicinity.  That is both unusual and very awesome.

The Cubs really are that deep. The amount of talent for the Cubs is so impressive that the guy with possibly the single best pitch in the farm system is ranked at Number 13, one slot ahead of the outfielder with perhaps the highest overall ceiling of any outfielder outside the top four.

That reminds me – if you did the outfield ranking exercise in yesterday’s article, now is the time to pull out your answers and see if your order matches up with mine. Before we get to those outfielders, though, there are a couple of pitchers we need to discuss.

16. Corey Black, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs traded for Black in 2013.
ETA: 2016
Notable because: Black is a slightly undersized pitcher with a very good fastball.
2015: Iowa and Tennessee, depending on his role and where there is room.

The knock on Black is that he only stands 5’11”. That immediately calls into question, for some folks, whether or not he’ll have the stamina to succeed as a starting pitcher long term. His delivery is also not the smoothest, and that causes more questions regarding whether or not he’ll eventually wind up in a bullpen.

His stuff would work in the pen, if the Cubs chose to move him in that direction, and as part of the bullpen he could make it to Chicago as soon as this year. That stuff is headlined by an impressive fastball that grades out as high as a 65 and has been clocked consistently in the mid 90s and occasionally near triple digits. If he picked up the velocity boost so common when pitchers transition from starting to relieving, Black could be a set-up man with a vicious high-90s fastball that has some late movement.

The catch, and the reason in my opinion that he will likely move away from starting later if not sooner, is his control. Sometimes Black can miss the strike zone a little too often (as shown by his 5.14 BB/9 in Tennessee) with his main pitch as well as his change up and breaking stuff. Cutting back on the walks would give him improved efficiency and set him up as a potential mid-rotation starter one day, but I think it more likely that the Cubs move him to the pen, polish one or two of his pitches until they shine, and then see if he can take over the set up or closer job in Wrigley.

15. Paul Blackburn, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Blackburn in the 1st round (supplemental) in 2012.
ETA: 2018
Notable because: Most of his 2014 season was ok, and then he got to the playoffs …
2015: Myrtle Beach

The minors are not just a place for prospects to bide their time and wear awesome jerseys while waiting for a major league job to open up. They are also a place where prospects are taught, work constantly to improve their game, and hopefully take significant strides forward. Sometimes those strides are easy to recognize because they show up on tape and on the stat sheet. And sometimes we are left wondering what it is we just saw. For example: September 7, 2014.

Paul Blackburn finished his first taste of a full season league with some good, but not especially great numbers. He didn’t strike out too many (5.77 K/9), but he did well enough limiting the walks (2.38 BB/9), generally avoided the long ball, and finished with a decent FIP of 3.84 and an ERA of 3.23. All in all, not bad. But also not really good enough to justify ranking him this high.

On September 7th Blackburn took the mound in a playoff game for the Cougars and struck out 7 over 5 innings while giving up just one hit. It was an absolutely brilliant pitching performance that, according to reliable reports, came at the same time as an uptick in velocity from the high 80s to the low/mid 90s. Add to that one great start several other very promising appearances earlier in the season, and Blackburn becomes a hard pitcher to project.

For now, I see him as a potential mid-rotation starter. He had some control issues during the 2014 campaign (sign of mechanical work?), but ultimately did a nice job getting weak contact and avoiding base runners. In short, he looked like a back of the rotation guy. But if we add in some additional velocity and, possibly, a corresponding uptick in strikeout rate? In that scenario Blackburn becomes more interesting.

I freely admit that I’m on thin ice with this one, but for now at least I am buying into Blackburn. His starts in Myrtle Beach will be closely watched.

14. Eloy Jimenez, OF
Acquired: The Cubs signed Jimenez prior to the 2014 season as an International Free Agent.
ETA: 2018+
Notable because: He’s big. He’s strong. He’s talented. And he needs a lot of work.
2015: Hopefully South Bend, but it could be Eugene.

Meet the highest upside hitter we will discuss until the final eight are revealed. Jimenez has some of the best power in the system, power that he is still learning to tap into, and the potential to hit for average as well. In his injury-slowed start to his professional career in the Arizona Rookie League he demonstrated good strike zone judgement for a slugger, walking at a 6.1% rate and striking out just 19.5% of the time. His swing is fairly basic and could use some work, but there are not a lot of bad habits to break here. Once the Cubs coaches have some time to work with him … like they will have had this spring … he could be in a position to break out offensively. Best of all, he didn’t turn 18 until November.

I have no concerns about his glove for now, and he certainly appears to have the arm strength needed to stay in right field. The bat, should he develop fairly normally, would fit nicely anywhere on the diamond.

There is a lot of work to be done here, though, and while the upside is immense and the power potential ranks just a step behind Soler and Schwarber, the risk is real as well. That said, I would not be at all surprised to see him appearing on some over all Top 100 lists this fall.

13. Duane Underwood, RHP.
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Underwood in the 2nd round in 2012.
ETA: 2017
Notable because: He may yet turn out to be the best pitching prospect in the system.
2015: Myrtle Beach

Underwood may have turned a corner last season, and if he continues in High A on the track he appeared to be on in Low A, he could finish 2015 as the best pitching prospect in the system and an easy pick for many Top 100 lists. His fastball, which hangs out in the mid 90s and can run up as high as 98 with plenty of movement, may very well be the single best pitch in the organization. He pairs it with a quality change up and a curve that has been graded well above average. The command still needs some work, though. A 3.22 BB/9 in the Midwest League isn’t the sort of figure we like to see from a guy with ace potential.

Yes, ace potential. He also has a fair bit of bust potential, though, so caution is still in order. On the upside, Underwood will head to High A at age 20 with two plus pitches and a third showing real promise. On the downside, he ran into problems with walks and gave up a few more long balls than I’d like to see (0.89 HR/9). I need to see more control and some more overall consistency before I move him up the list, but if all the pieces come together Underwood could finish the year as a Top 5 prospect in the system.

12. Billy McKinney, OF
Acquired: The Cubs traded for McKinney in 2014.
ETA: 2016
Notable because: He projects to be a good left-handed hitter.
2015: Tennessee

The best word to summarize McKinney is “but”.

He is a good defender in left and right, but he likely lacks the overall range to handle center on a regular basis.
He is a good left-handed hitter, but he lacks the power to profile well offensively except as a center fielder.
He runs the bases well, but lacks the speed to be a true base-stealing threat.
He has a lot of good tools, but lacks any one standout tool that would propel him up the charts.
He may be sounding like a prospect who just doesn’t fit, but he may be exactly the guy the Cubs need in a year or so.

McKinney has a relatively high floor thanks to his strong understanding of the strike zone. After ‘The Trade’ that brought him over from Oakland he proceeded to hit .301/.390/.432 with a walk rate of 11.9% and a strikeout rate of 20%. Keep in mind that those are Florida State League numbers. This is a guy who knows how to hit, when to hit, and looks like he will turn out to be pretty good at hitting.

He is also a left-handed hitter, and that adds to his value. The Cubs appear likely to have a pair of massive right-handed power bats in the two outfield corners in the majors one day soon, and it is not hard to imagine Manager Maddon finding plenty of use for more of an OBP oriented left handed hitter to back them up. McKinney seems like an ideal fit for that sort of a role.

If he is going to claim a starting assignment, though, he’ll need to improve in one of two areas. Either the defense needs to improve to the point that he can play center field consistently (unlikely, I think), or he needs to unlock enough power in his swing to become at least an average hitter for left or right field. I don’t think we can rule that later scenario out entirely, but his ranking here is based more on his high floor and OBP friendly approach than on the hope that more home runs may emerge.

It is also worth noting that in many other farm systems McKinney would be an easy choice as a top five guy.

11. Mark Zagunis, OF/C
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Zagunis in the 3rd round in 2014.
ETA: Maybe late 2016
Notable because: He’s a combination catcher/outfielder who gets on base. A lot.
2015: Myrtle Beach, and possibly Tennessee.

In 41 games with Boise, Zagunis walked AND struck out 31 times each while on his way to a line of .299/.429/.422. He followed that up with 14 games with South Bend that saw him total 10 walks versus just 9 strikeouts and a final line of .280/.419/.440. Between those two stops he spent 19 games behind the plate, 16 playing left field, and 6 playing right.

The biggest criticism of Zagunis is probably in the power department. He posted some decent ISOs last year, and given that he was just drafted last summer it is reasonable to project some additional power developing, but at the end of the day I doubt he has much more to offer than McKinney. He makes up for that lack with some unexpected abilities on the base paths. He isn’t the fastest guy on the diamond, but he’s a great athlete, and still managed to steal 16 bases in 18 tries in his short time as a professional.

Combine that base-stealing capacity with his very low strikeout rates, very high walk rates, and wonderfully high on base percentages, and Zagunis starts to look like a guy who could stake a claim to a position near the top of a batting order. That is good, but from a potential catcher it is also rare.

Even though it now appears that the Cubs are content to develop Zagunis primarily as an outfielder with enough catching work to keep him viable as a backup, his capacity to slide behind the plate is ultimately the factor that gives him the edge over McKinney in these rankings. Jimenez has the highest upside, but comes in third thanks to his higher amounts of risk. Zagunis and McKinney profile similarly at the plate (although I do like Zagunis a little more), but the added defensive flexibility clinches it.

10. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs signed Tseng as an IFA prior to the 2014 season.
ETA: 2018
Notable because: At age 19 he posted one of the best pitching performances in the minors.
2015: Myrtle Beach

The job of the pitcher is to keep batters from getting on base and scoring runs, and in 2014 there were very few pitchers anywhere in the minors better at doing that job than Tseng. Over 105 innings he allowed just 6.5 hits per nine innings, 1.3 walks per nine innings, only 7 home runs, and also totaled a respectable 7.29 K/9.

Tseng’s weakest pitch is his fastball, but he has the same excellent control with that fastball, as he does with the rest of his arsenal. His change up is already drawing plus grades, and some drop that tag on his curve as well. Two potential plus pitches with excellent command lines him up for a number three starter projection, and that is exactly how I rank him. Given that control is often one of the last skills to truly be mastered by a young pitcher and that lack of control has tanked more than one career, it is also very encouraging that Tseng at just 19 is already showing excellence in this area. He may not have the upside of a few of the guys below him on this list, but he also comes with much, much less risk.

The catch with Tseng is that fastball. He needs to locate it to succeed with it and set up his change up, and how confident analysts are in his future seems to be directly tied to whether or not they think his fastball is good enough to get the job done at higher levels. That will be a key factor to watch as he moves up to Myrtle Beach.

One final note on Tseng, and this is purely speculation, that may be worth considering: Given that he is well ahead of the curve with the control and that his three main pitches are shaping up well (particularly the curve and the change up), I wonder if the Cubs will have him add another pitch to his mix. I like the idea of Tseng adding another low-nineties pitch, maybe a sinker, to help set up his good off speed stuff. I have no knowledge one way or the other, but it would not surprise me.

9. Gleyber Torres, SS
Acquired: The Cubs signed Torres prior to the 2014 season.
ETA: 2018
Notable because: Torres is the best shortstop in the system not named Addison Russell.
2015: South Bend

I am really looking forward to watching this guy on MiLB.TV this year.

Torres is the best shortstop prospect in the low minors, and so far I have no reason to think he won’t remain at that position. He has the arm to stay at short, and so far he looks like he may have the rest of the defensive package as well. If he has to move, he should be just fine at either second or third.

Offensively, he has already shown the ability to draw walks (13.7% in 183 PA with Arizona) and avoid strikeouts (18.0%), and I suspect that his eye and discipline will translate into a high average as he continues to move up the system. It is hard to say right now how much power he will wind up with given that he still has room to add muscle, but some are projecting average.

Torres is likely to draw comparisons to Starlin Castro as he progresses, but we are a long way from knowing if he going to have that bright of a future. Like Castro, though, Torres has a chance to move up the system quickly. If he is as advanced at the plate as some scouting reports are indicating, then I would not be at all surprised to see him finish the year in Myrtle Beach. He’s 18 years old.

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