We may never again see a Major League team receive the sort of impact from rookies that the 2015 Chicago Cubs received from Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, and Kyle Schwarber. In fact, it may be a very long time before we see a collection of minor league bats that potent emerge together from the same farm system in a single season, anywhere. That is just one of many ways in which this past season was something awesomely special.
And, to a lesser degree, 2016 may be more of the same. While I do not expect the group of prospects arriving in 2016 to have the same impact as that incredible 2015 crop, there Cubs should still benefit from another infusion of young talent. I’ll take a closer look at each of these prospects (and more!) individually as the winter progresses, so for now just consider this a quick introduction to the minor league side of the 2016 roster improvements possibilities.
Let’s start with the three most likely to be able to carve out a regular role for themselves on the Cubs next season.
The Most Likely
Carl Edwards, Jr., RHP.
I don’t think Edwards picked up enough innings in 2015 to be viewed as a viable full season starter candidate in 2016, so his most likely role will be in the bullpen (at least for part of the year). He has the stuff to be very good in a relief role, but he also had some issues with walks. Where he spends the most time in 2016 may come down to how fast he can cut back on the free passes, and how he commands his fastball early in the count.
Albert Almora, OF
I’ve said it for over a year, and I’ll keep saying: Almora’s glove is ready for the Major Leagues right now. On the majority of teams in baseball, including, I think, the 2015 Cubs, he would be the best defensive center fielder from the minute he set foot in the ball park. Despite his lack of elite speed, his defense is pretty much everything you want in center and then some.
And in the second half, it was hard to argue with his bat. The problem is that the first half also counts, and that half was not so good. We’ll get more into how to read the split season of Almora later this winter, but for now I have no problem listing him as a guy who could impact 2016. His bat only needs to be good enough to keep him in the lineup as a nine hitter, and I think he can hit that bar as soon as this year. His glove will add plenty of value by itself.
I don’t look for Almora to open the season with the Cubs, but he could be up early. That too will be something we discuss more later this winter.
Speaking of players who could play their way onto the roster, no list of potential impact prospects for 2016 would be complete without mentioning Contreras. In one season he went from a fringe guy virtually no one had heard of to a legitimate threat at the plate who looks like a quality defender behind it. As they did with Russell and Schwarber, the Cubs will bring Contreras along as slowly as they need to. If he is ready for the majors by June, he may may very well be up in June, but if he needs more time he may not reach the majors at all. The debates over when the Cubs should call him up could easily be one of the hottest topics of 2016.
We should not expect Contreras to be a Bryant-style instant impact guy, but he is a guy who could definitely help the Cubs sooner rather than later. Keep a very close eye on him in spring training.
Additional Prospect Possibilities
Corey Black, RHP
Black spent much of 2015 working out of the bullpen, and it is a reliever that he has a chance to reach Wrigley in 2016. His best weapon is his fastball, and thanks to that fastball he rung up plenty of Double A strikeouts (10.57 K/9). Like Edwards, though, he gave up more walks than we’d really like to see.
Black will almost certainly open the season in Iowa, but if he can harness his control issues he could be a potent late season addition to the bullpen for the stretch run. His progress in Triple A will be worth monitoring.
Ryan Williams, RHP
Even though 2015 was his first full season a professional, and even though not much was expected of him prior to the season, and even though he began the year in Low A South Bend, Williams finished the 2015 campaign in Double A as one of the best starting pitching prospects in the Cubs’ upper minors. I have no doubt that the Cubs will do their best this winter to load up on rotation depth to stash in Iowa, but no matter how many options they sign we should keep the name Ryan Williams on the list. As a low-contact, low-strikeout, crafty-righty type, Williams could be in contention for a back of the rotation slot as soon as a slot opens up.
Armando Rivero, RHP
I expected to see Rivero in the majors in 2015, but it was not to be. At times he looked like a shut down, back of the bullpen type of reliever, and at times he gave up way too many walks and sabotaged his own success. Like Edwards and Black, his path to the Wrigley Field bullpen relies on him limiting the walks.
The upside here is large enough to keep him on the list, but he is probably the riskiest of this group of pitchers. If he gets back to his very high strikeout rate ways of 2014, he could fight his way into the Cubs bullpen in Mesa. If the high walk rate guy of 2015 is back, he may be in for a rough year.
Billy McKinney, OF
Like Almora, McKinney finished in Double A Tennessee, but unlike Almora the lefty hitting McKinney is not so good in the field that his glove could carry him to Wrigley. His impact will come from his bat. The Cubs would probably need an injury to open up a spot for a left handed hitting outfielder in order for McKinney to get a chance, but if that were to happen his patient, low strikeout approach could find a home on the Cubs bench.
Barring that injury, McKinney is probably a September call up at best… but then again we said the same about Schwarber last winter. I’m not expecting huge things from McKinney, but I’ll not be surprised if he proves me wrong.
Some wild cards, in no particular order
Rob Zastryzny, LHP. If his Mesa Solar Sox small sample size numbers hold up next season, he could become a rotation option in a hurry.
Dave Berg, RHP. Another reliever, this submariner is already tough to square up. He needs testing against the upper minors, but he could be a middle reliever option by season’s end.
Bijan Rademacher, OF. I think Rademacher is underrated as a hitter, but he still looks like a fourth outfielder and a pinch hitter to me. As a late season bench reinforcement, though, he could be an asset.
Ian Happ, INF/OF. I would be very surprised if Happ shot to the majors as fast as Schwarber did, but I can’t rule it out, so here he is. A defensively versatile switch hitter, Happ would be a very useful guy to have on the roster if he shows he can hit enough to handle it. Given his 2015 strike out numbers, though, this is a very long shot.
Jeimer Candelario, 3B. Another switch hitter, Candelario has a bat to watch. I’m not sure where the glove fits in, but with a very strong start to the year he could hit his way into call up consideration.
Pierce Johnson, RHP. I wanted to list Johnson up with Black, but the limited innings and shaky-at-times control gave me pause. I think the Cubs are more likely to keep Johnson starting rather than rush him up as a reliever, and as a starter I think he’d be a late season call up at best. He still has a very bright future, but I think he needs a full healthy season before the Cubs can bank on him.
Christian Villanueva, 3B. Villanueva quietly had a good year in 2015, but he has nowhere to play. Should the Cubs lose an infielder two to an injury, though, Villanueva could be an essential and capable insurance policy.
There is another way in which many of these players (as well as a few others) could help the 2016 Cubs: as players who could be included in various trades. But that’s another article, which you may have missed yesterday.