Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

gleyber torres cubsIf we eliminate all those who are in the majors today, who is the Cubs’ current top prospect? This is a question I have been giving a lot of thought to lately as I work on the mid-season re-ranking of the Bleacher Nation Top 40. After our weekly survey of the standings I’ll propose a few candidates for consideration.

Standings Watch

Iowa : 50-43, 2nd place (tie).

Iowa has played very well to start their second half, and thanks to their four game win streak they are back into a tie for second place with Omaha. Oklahoma City’s lead is down to nine games, but the best team in the Pacific Coast League shows little sign of slowing down. Gaining ground will not be easy.

The Cubs will attempt to complete the sweep of Memphis today, and on Monday they open a four game home set with Round Rock. Starting on July 24, though, Iowa hits the road on a three city road trip that does not return them to Iowa until August 5.

Tennessee : 8-13, 3rd place.

The Smokies have now lost five consecutive games, have become the first team in the league to lose ten road games in the second half, and despite sitting in third place are already eight games back in the division. It is currently looking very unlikely that the Smokies will return to the playoffs this season.

They will get a short two game series at home against Birmingham starting to Monday as they try to right the ship, and then they head to Chattanooga for two followed by three more at home against those same Lookouts. Fortunately Chattanooga is off to an even worse start to the second half than Tennessee.

Myrtle Beach : 12-11, 2nd place.

The Pelicans have already shaken off their slow start to the second half and rattled off five straight wins. In the span of a week the Cubs High A affiliate has moved from the basement to second place; they now lurk just one game back of first place Winston-Salem.

This week the Pelicans come home, starting today, to face Salem for three. That is followed by a three game midweek series in Lynchburg, and then back to the South Carolina coast to welcome Carolina and Potomac next week.

South Bend : 13-10, 4th place.

A three game win streak has the Cubs right in the thick of division contention. Despite sitting in fourth place, South Bend is just a game and a half behind division leader West Michigan. They just beat West Michigan yesterday, and five of their next eight games are against that same team. The Cubs have the potential to reshape this division race in a hurry.

Fortunately they are not in the same division as Kane County. The Cougars, last year’s Cubs’ affiliate in the Midwest League and defending league champions, once again find themselves in possession of a juggernaut of a team. Kane County has a second half record of 20-3, including 12 road wins, and have already opened up a six game lead. If the Cubs were in that division, they would be staring at a seven game deficit.

Eugene : 16-14, 3rd place

The Northwest League is nearing the end of the first half of the season, and the South division has turned into a three team race. Right now Eugene is in third, but they are just two games behind Hillsboro for the top spot.

Also ahead of the Emeralds is Salem-Keizer, and Eugene will host the Volcanoes starting Thursday of this week. That series could wind up deciding the division title, given that the first half ends next Sunday, and it could wind up being meaningless. Either way, this should be an interesting week in Short Season A.

Arizona : 12-8, 2nd place

The Angels still hold a lead over the Cubs, but that lead is just one game. This league is also quickly coming up on the end of their first half, but the only game the Cubs have against the Angels before the first half concludes is today. With a win today, in other words, the Cubs will enter the final week in a first place tie.

Cubs Top Prospect?

Let’s start by running down the top of the 2015 pre-season Top 40.

1. Kris Bryant. Majors.
2. Jorge Soler. Majors.
3. Addison Russell. Majors.
4. Kyle Schwarber. Majors.

Ok, before we keep going, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. The Cubs did not just graduate four top prospects this year, they graduated their four very top guys, and all four had appeared on at least one Top 50 list for all of baseball before arriving in the majors. This wave of young offensive talent is pretty much as unprecedented as it is awesome.

But the best part is that there is still talent in the farm system. What there isn’t, though, is a clear choice as the new number one. In fact, the next four on the Top 40 are all pretty much out of contention for one reason or another.

5. Carl Edwards. He has most pitched well this year, but it has been as a reliever. I still think that is a move to preserve his arm after an injury shortened 2014 campaign, but until I know he is going to return to the rotation and can stay there long term I have a hard time considering him for the top spot.

6. Albert Almora. Almora is coming along in Tennessee, but remains a work in progress. He’s an easy choice for the top ten again, but he’s not number one.

7. Pierce Johnson. Had he not gotten injured and had a few more innings under his belt he might just win this thing by default. He didn’t, though, so he doesn’t.

8. Jake Stinnett. I still like Stinnett’s stuff, but the results haven’t been there. To top the list in this deep organization, the tools and results have to both be evident.

So who does that leave?

The consensus candidate (number nine on the pre-season list) is probably South Bend shortstop Gleyber Torres. As an eighteen year old in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, Torres has hit a very healthy .313/.378/.403 with 14 steals. He doesn’t strike out a lot (20.4%), walks more often than most (9.4%), and has the plate discipline and polish we expect from hitters with three or four more years of experience. He is a very strong candidate to be the Cubs’ new top prospect and may well top the next edition of the Top 40.

But I’m not completely sold that he should be the new number one yet.

After all, we still have Billy McKinney to talk about. McKinney is also young for his level (20 years old in Double A) and he is hitting .286/.348/.422. McKinney is also walking more than most (9.1%), but where he significantly surpasses Torres is in strikeout rate. Torres had a good one. McKinney, facing some of the best pitching in the minors, has a great strikeout rate of just 12.4%.

If McKinney were just little bit faster (and therefor viable as a center fielder) or had just a little more power at the plate I think he would be the clear choice as the Cubs’ best prospect. But he doesn’t. He is playing great baseball at a young age in a tough league, but in the Cubs’ organization that may not be enough to brand him the best.

We should probably throw Ian Happ‘s name in the ring. Happ has the speed that McKinney lacks, has the added versatility of being able to play on the infield as well, and is a switch hitter. His current Short-Season A strikeout rate is inflated a bit at 22.5%, but his walk rate is an absurd 18.3% and his slash line reads .278/.408/.485. He is also just starting out his professional career.

Unfortunately the lack of experience against tougher competition makes it difficult to take Happ over McKinney or Torres right now, even though that is not at all Happ’s fault. He has met the challenge the Cubs gave him, but that challenge is an order of magnitude below what McKinney is facing in Double A. Happ will probably be at that level sometime next season, but he isn’t yet. That makes declaring him the top guy a bit of a harder sell.

Dylan Cease could be a candidate. So far it looks like he is rebounding nicely from his arm surgery, and that means he may yet wind up as the best pitching prospect in the organization when I finish the re-ranking. He comes with a lot of additional risk that is not shared by Torres or McKinney, though, and that is probably enough to keep him a step below those two. At least for now.

Happ’s teammate Eloy Jimenez deserves consideration. Jimenez might have more raw upside than any hitter in the entire minor league system, and that potential is starting to show with Eugene. His numbers aren’t as gaudy as Happ’s, but given that Jimenez is just 18 a line of .291/.341/.380 is solid. If I were ranking purely on ceiling I’d probably put Jimenez on the top of the heap without a second thought, but I don’t rank purely on ceiling. And, when I really dive into things, I feel pretty confident saying that Jimenez isn’t even the Cubs’ best outfield prospect right now, let alone the best overall.

There are a number of other names that could compete for the top spot in the 2016 list, but who I don’t think have shown enough to be a candidate just yet. I love what 18 year old Wladimir Galindo is doing in the Arizona Rookie League, (.348/.392/.500 as a third baseman), for example, but I think there are too many questions about him to push him above Torres. Andruw Monasterio, who is even younger than Jimenez and Torres, has shown signs of a great deal of promise already, but for now he is definitely a few notches below the South Bend shortstop. Justin Steele is pitching extremely well in the Northwest League and may very well crack the top ten, but the huge risk that comes with pitching prospects this deep in the minors keeps him out of the top spot for now. Ryan Williams is having a fantastic breakout season, one that includes success in Double A, but the only way I can rank him at the top of the system is if I can convince myself he can recreate the success that Kyle Hendricks is having in the majors now. I’m not there yet.

So where does that leave us? For now, probably with a choice between Torres and McKinney. And a lot more studying to do before I can make that choice.

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