This was a tough one. At the low end of today’s list are two guys who could be swapped with pretty much anyone on the top half of yesterday’s list, but after that things get really hard. And especially so at the very top.
That very top, this year, is probably the most interesting it has been since the Cubs drafted Bryant. If I looked at the candidates through the lens of age, I got one answer. If I prioritized positional value, I got a different answer. If honed in on my favorite statistics, I got a different answer. Assessments of Projection pointed one way, and of Risk pointed another. No matter how I sliced and diced the data, it was a statistical dead heat.
Almost, anyway. Finally one name did gradually emerge every so slightly above the rest. One name that, if I’m going to stick to my methodologies, I had to rank to number one. I don’t think that any of these very top candidate have the star potential we have gotten used to seeing at the very top of the Cubs’ system in recent years, but all project as quality major league regulars. The new number one wins out not because he will necessarily be a better player than the other options, but because he has a better chance to be a more valuable one.
And for some of you I just gave it away. Sorry.
Well, since the secret it out (or you’ve already scrolled to the bottom anyway), we may as well get on with the show.
If you missed the introduction to this version of the Top 40, you can find it here. Tuesday’s edition, featuring prospects 40 through 31, can be found here. Prospects 30 through 21 were written up on Wednesday, and you can read that here. Numbers 20 through 11 can be found here. And if you want to refer back to the pre-season edition, you can find that one here. All stats were accurate as of Sunday. I updated some if they needed it, but odds are good I missed a few.
[Brett: WOW at the top three. Luke is nothing if not true to his methods and bold.]
10. Christian Villanueva, 3B. Iowa.
Previous Ranking: 26
Villanueva is enjoying something of an offensive renaissance in 2015. His glove has probably been major league ready for a season or two and has been graded as high as plus at third base, but the bat had stalled at Triple A in 2014.
This year, which he began at the of 23, he has raised his OPS back to near .800, is posting quality numbers in the walks and strikeouts department (13.6% is pretty good), and is displaying more power than we have seen from him in his Cubs’ career. Provided the third base glove remains a strong asset, I think he could have a chance to provide a fair bit of value as a defensive minded starting third baseman for the right team.
9. Mark Zagunis, OF. Myrtle Beach.
Previous Ranking: 11
The Cubs drafted Zagunis as a catcher, but he is now a full-time outfielder. It is his bat that earns him this ranking, though, not his glove. In his first full season as a professional he has shown a very well rounded offensive game in High A. His walk rate (15.7%), strikeout rate (16%), ISO (.140), home run totals (7) and stolen base totals (11) are all noteworthy. That line not only suggests he due for a promotion to Tennessee, but that he’ll continue to hit just fine once he gets there.
Long term I do think that Zagunis has the potential to be a solid, all around starting outfielder. I also think that his lowish-strikeout, patient approach at the plate is going to play very nicely in a Cubs’ organization that seems to like guys who understand the strike zone. If things go very right for him, he could emerge as the Cubs’ lead off hitter of the future.
8. Carl Edwards, RHP. Iowa.
Previous Ranking: 5
The Cubs moved Edwards into the bullpen this year, and with one statistical category exception he has been pretty good in that role. That exception is a big one, though. Walks. Edwards is just giving up too many of them right now with a BB/9 of 6.91.
If he can get that back under control, his strikeout-inducing stuff (K/9 of 11.30) gives him late inning potential. Alternatively, the Cubs could move him back into the rotation for 2016 and see if he can reach his ceiling of a Number Two starter. Either way, so long as he can solve control issues and stay healthy, he stands to have a very nice major league career.
7. Jeimer Candelario, 3B. Tennessee.
Previous Ranking: 17
Candelario is a switch hitter, one who has been in the farm system for some time and yet is just 21 years old and playing Double A. He had some offensive struggles last season, but this year he put those behind him and has been hitting well at both Myrtle Beach and Tennessee.
Check that, he has been hitting very well in Tennessee. With nearly one hundred plate appearances under his belt in Double A he is slashing .300/.345/.500. He is hard to strike out (10.3%), draws enough walks (6.9%), and can hit for plenty of power when he does make contact. Basically, he’s doing just about everything we would want to see a young slugger do in Double A, and he’s doing it at a good age. And he even gets love for his glove, too.
6. Ian Happ, INF/OF. South Bend.
Previous Ranking: Not eligible (2015 draftee)
In his very short professional career, Happ has already shown three good offensive traits: speed (9 steals), patience (17.7% walk rate with Eugene) and power (5 home runs). If he can moderate the strikeouts, this switch hitter has a chance to move up the ranks in a hurry.
Right now he is playing center field, but it seems likely the Cubs will look to move him to second for next year. Whether it is as an infielder, outfielder, or utility guy, Happ could be in a position to help out in Chicago in a couple of seasons.
5. Albert Almora, OF. Tennessee.
Previous Ranking: 6
Thanks to his very impressive defense, Almora has a floor of a major league defensive replacement outfielder. He could be a fifth outfielder at the highest level right now.
His development at the plate has lagged a little behind his glove, but now the bat is rounding into a productive form that shows off the tools that the professional scouts had been talking about since he was drafted. He has the potential to be a better than average hitting center fielder with roughly average power, so I think the Cubs will be content to wait to see how his bat shapes up. They may not be waiting much longer.
If Almora’s second half surge is for real, he could exit 2016 Spring Training as that guy the Cubs hated to cut but just could not find room for on the roster.
4. Pierce Johnson, RHP. Tennessee.
Previous Ranking: 7
Johnson has been one of the Cubs’ best pitching prospects since he was drafted, and he may be getting close to showing up in Wrigley. Unfortunately, thanks to an annual supply of nagging injuries, Johnson is still looking for his first season with over one hundred innings pitched. As a result of that curtailed development time, Johnson is probably more raw than most 24 year old Double A pitchers. There may still be a little projection left in him.
Despite the injury-chopped career, though, we are seeing some clear improvements this season over what he did in 2014. The strikeout rate is a little down (now at 7.15 K/9), but so is the walk rate (3.36 BB/9) and the HR rate (0.44 HR/9). If Johnson can string a few healthy months together at the start of next season and further reduce that walk rate, he could be in the back of the Cubs’ rotation before the season ends.
And now we get to the Top Three. All three of these guys are very good prospects and all three have very bright futures. But ties are not allowed, so someone had to be third.
3. Gleyber Torres, SS. South Bend.
Previous Ranking: 9
Believe or not, he winds up third despite his lower level, not because of it. An eighteen year old playing in the Midwest League is very impressive, and his success there (.307/.365/.399) sets him up for a rapid assent through the minors. As a shortstop, with every reason (for now) to think he can stay at shortstop, he also brings a ton of positional value to the table.
To say it differently, the gap between Torres and the guys ranked below him on this list is much larger than the hairsbreadth that separates him from those above. He is a very, very good prospect.
But … he has a strikeout rate of 20.8%. That is by far the highest of the top three despite playing at the lowest level of the three. That rate is perfectly acceptable in a vacuum, but it was a key factor in this comparison. That his walk rate and isolated power were also the lowest of the three did not help. And while he did get credit for his age, almost enough credit to propel him to the top spot, that was mitigated by ….
2. Billy McKinney, OF. Tennessee.
Previous Ranking: 12
Billy McKinney is in his age twenty season and is doing well (.286/.349/.421) in Double A. Assuming that Torres moves up at the rank of a level a year, he will also be in Double A at the age of twenty. In other words, McKinney is doing right now what we hope Torres will be doing in two years.
And it is hard to find fault with what McKinney is doing in Double A. His walk rate is good (8.8%), his strikeout rate is very good (15.0%), and while he has not shown a ton of power, his ISO of .136 is good enough for a hitter who can hit for average and get on base.
Defensively he is reported to be fringe at best in center, but solid in left. We have seen minor league defensive reports prove pessimistic when a player reaches the majors in the recent past (Bryant comes to mind), so I wouldn’t take him out of the center field picture quite yet. Even considering him as a center fielder was not enough to keep him in the top spot. Positional value was the final factor, and with that card in play I had only one viable verdict.
1. Willson Contreras, C. Tennessee.
Previous Ranking: Unranked
When I wrote about the possible candidates to be the Cubs new number one prospect on July 19th, I did not mention Contreras at all. When I wrote the first draft of this Top 40, Contreras was not even in the top five. He quickly moved to three, though, and as the top three continued to separate themselves he stuck around. It was very late in the process before he reached the top slot.
So why Contreras? Walk rate: 10.6%. Strikeout rate 12.5%. ISO .149. In every one of those categories he beats both Torres and McKinney. Even so, that may not have been enough to carry the day. After all, Torres and McKinney are both definitely young for their level whereas Contreras, who started the year at 22, is in the more typical age bracket for Double A.
In the end, two factors carried Contreras to the top.
First, Miguel Montero rehabbed in Tennessee. He then took to Twitter to talk about the talent in the Cubs’ organization, and in the process dropped these lines on Contreras’s possible future:
@2008_nbalottery @coolbearcjs wait until u see his defense and arm
— Miguel Montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
@ronawsumb all star major league catcher
— Miguel Montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
@ronawsumb catch he's going to be one of the best trust me
— Miguel Montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
There might be some hyperbole in that. But Montero is a smart guy who probably has a career as a coach/manager in his future, and he does play the same position. There is probably a grain of truth as well.
I’m not taking Montero’s word for anything, but those tweets did get me to take a closer look at Contreras’s work behind the plate, and I generally liked what I saw. He is a work in progress, but I completely believe he can stick behind the plate and has a chance to be very good.
The second thing that clinched the top spot for Contreras was the concept of positional value. When the question of ‘Who is the better prospect?’ kept me running in circles, I shifted to asking ‘Who will be the more valuable player?’ And as it turns out, catcher is by far the most valuable position on the diamond. At that point it became tough to make a case against Contreras for the top spot.
The one knock on this guy, and it is not minor, is that 2015 is his first really good offensive year. It is possible, despite those excellent supporting strikeout and walk rates, that Contreras is just a flash in the pan. He may fade just as quickly as he emerged.
But I don’t think he will. I think he is for real. And I think he is a very good candidate to take over as the Cubs primary backup catcher in 2017 when Davis Ross is a free agent, and perhaps as the primary non-Schwarber catcher in 2018 when Montero’s contract is up.
As for that All-Star projection from his possible future battery mate? I wouldn’t rule it out.
And that’s the list. Thank you for reading through all five (long) articles, and I hope you enjoyed it.
There will be one more article in this series, an index with all forty names in one place for quick future reference, that will run Monday. Brett and I are also talking about doing a Live Stream on Monday, if Monday stays an off day for the Cubs, and I am sure there will be some prospect talk in that as well. But, for the most part, the Top 40 is complete.
For now. Until we do it again in Spring Training.
[Brett: A huge thanks to Luke for doing the list again, and all of the work he puts into it. Whether you agree or disagree with his perspective, I can tell you that he has a very clear process, and takes it seriously. I’m impressed every time, and it seems to happen every year that I’m shocked when he goes out on a limb on a guy … who emerges as much better than many thought.]