If you are just now noticing that the Top 40 is underway, you have some catching up to do. This is the fifth article in the series, and you can find the first four (in order) here, here, here, and here.
Today we move into the top half of the list, and along the way we’ll come across some very tough rankings. What do you do with a guy when one particular part of a line makes little sense given the context? How do you handle a guy coming off a season wrecked by injury? How do you rank a player with one elite level tool, but a limited game in every other area? Those are some of the tricky cases that hang out around the middle of the list.
24. Brad Markey, RHP
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee
Acquired:The Cubs drafted Markey in the 19th round in 2014.
Notable Stat: As a starter in High A, he had a WHIP of just 0.745.
Markey had a very unusual season, and as a result he is a little tough to rank. He opened the season as a reliever in South Bend, and in that role he pitched pretty well. His ERA was 2.48, he walked just 1.24 per nine innings, was stingy with the hits (7.4 H/9) and did not allow a single home run. By any measure it was a pretty good season.
Then the Cubs turned him into a starter and promoted him to High A Myrtle Beach where he made ten starts. In five of them he didn’t give up an earned run. On July 26, his fourth start, he pitched 7 innings of 3 hit ball while striking out 10. In his final regular season start (Sept 4) he pitched seven innings, allowed just 3 hits, and struck out 6. His best start he saved for the playoffs (Sept 10): 8 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 8 K. For the season as a starter he gave up walks at the absurdly low rate of 0.98 BB/9. He did allow one home run, but held opposing hitters to an average of just .186. And, somehow, he did all this without an elite ground ball rate (GO/AO was a mediocre 0.97) or very many strikeouts. His K/9 was just 6.55. And yet his ERA was a mere 1.15 (and the FIP a solid 2.36).
Long term, I’m not quite sure what to make of him. The fastball and the command hint strongly at a Major League future, and the numbers (with the exception of the strikeout rate) are consistent with a mid-rotation projection. The strikeout rate can’t be ignored, though, nor can the lack of a prototypical starter’s size. For now I’ll call him a high floor reliever candidate with back end starter potential, but a few months in Tennessee could cause that projection to be revised in a hurry.
23. Rob Zastryzny, LHP
Age: 24 (by a few days)
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee and Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Zastryzny in the 2nd round in 2013.
Notable Stat: The 7.12 K/9 was the least ugly, so let’s go with that.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: 2015 was an absolutely brutal year for Zastryzny. He was placed on the disabled list three times by May, and from that last trip he did not make it back to Tennessee until nearly July. August saw another DL stint. As a result of all the injury time, he only pitched 60.2 innings for the Smokies. They were not good innings. His ERA was 6.23, his FIP was 5.03, his HR/9 was 1.34, his walk rate was 4.15 BB/9, and batters hit .310 off him.
The Cubs did get him an extra 26 innings in the Arizona Fall League, and it seemed like he was benefiting from the more regular work. The K/9 jumped to 9.69 and the BB/9 fell to 2.08, but 26 innings is not a lot from which to draw any conclusions. About all we can say with confidence about Zastryzny’s season is that he was injured a lot and had some struggles.
The scouts say that Zastryzny has a mix of three average or better pitches and, when healthy, the control to use them effectively. He profiles as a textbook left-handed back-end starter prospect, and the results when he was definitely healthy in Arizona generally support that story. Despite the rough 2016, I don’t see any reason to give up on him quite yet.
The Cubs will likely send Zastryzny back to Double A to start the season, and if he can stay healthy I suspect we will not see a repeat of his struggles from last summer. Depending on how fast he can establish himself in Double A, promotion to Iowa is not out of the question. Whatever the level, the important part is that he stays healthy.
22. Chesny Young, SS/2B/3B/LF/RF/1B
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Young in the 14th round in 2014.
Notable Stat: .321/.394/.388.
Young is a hitter, and he is really good at hitting. He might be the best pure hitter in the organization. Unfortunately, he has one home run in 755 career professional plate appearances, and only 24 stolen bases. A hitter he is, but not a slugger or a speedster.
Fortunately, he adds some value with his versatility. Young has spent of his glove time at second base, and he does a nice job there. He can also handle third, both corner outfield slots, and can even fill in at short in a pinch. His defense is not standout at any position, but he could have a future as either an everyday second baseman or a super-sub.
Offensively, there is a little more to his game than just his hitting. There is also his walking (10.0% rate in High A) and his not striking out (9.7% rate). So how far can a high average, low power, on base machine make it in baseball? We have a front row seat to finding out. He reminds me of D.J. LeMahieu at a similar stage of his career (although LeMahieu never walked this much in the minors, and he had more power projection than Young, so … yeah, not all that similar. See why I don’t like player comps?), but Young is going to have a much harder time finding playing time at second base in Chicago than LeMahieu did in Colorado. That means Young’s best path to Wrigley probably is as a utility player.
I think he will go to Tennessee, if not to start the year than fairly quickly, and I suspect he will have little trouble with Double A pitching. A late season promotion to Iowa isn’t out of the question. His bat is already advanced, so the Cubs will likely let him hit his way up the ladder as fast as he can. If all goes well he could be ready for a major league call up by midsummer next year.
21. Bijan Rademacher, OF
Likely 2016 Team: Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Rademacher in the 13th round in 2012.
Notable Stat: 433 PA, 67 BB, 60 K
This is about as high as you are going to see anyone rank Rademacher. Just among outfielders, I have only four ranked over him. The consensus on Rademacher seems to be that he is a pretty good bet to make it as a backup outfielder, and that fairly high floor certainly helps his ranking here. But, ultimately, I have him at 21 because I suspect he can start.
Rademacher, a former college pitcher, has a cannon for an arm and plays good enough defense in right field. He isn’t a fast guy, but he has the range to cover center field in a pinch. He’s of starting caliber with the glove, and as a left-handed hitter he can pick up the majority of the starts in any platoon arrangement.
His walk rate is among the best in the system (15.5%), and I can’t argue with a guy who walks more than he strikes out (strikeout rate was just 13.9%). His .109 ISO was suspiciously weak (more on that in a second) and his 4 home runs are not the mark of a slugger. He isn’t a base clogger, but with just 7 steals last season he isn’t exactly a weapon on the base paths either. The profile adds up to a guy who hits for a decent average, gets on base a lot, and does not give away at bats, but who doesn’t have any other dimensions to his offensive game. In other words, the profile of a backup outfielder.
Here’s the problem – I’m very suspicious of that ISO. Currently, the best ISO of Rademacher’s career (limited to stops where he had at least 100 PA) came in 2014 in the Florida State League. The FSL is notorious for sapping power, not augmenting it, but Rademacher hit 10 homers and slashed .281/.363/.448 there in 2014. Compare that to his 2015 line of .261/.379/.370, and the drop in SLG sort of stands out.
Now I could explain the drop in power as the result of facing more advance pitching in Double A (after all, prospects have to struggle at some point), except for the fact that there are no other signs of struggle in his numbers. His walk rate improved from 9.6% to 15.5%. His strikeout rate went down from 19.9% to 13.9%. His BABIP declined from .338 to .302, but a slight down tick in luck would not explain that sort of a loss in power. Making weaker contact in general could account for it, but the few metrics we have regarding line drive and ground ball rates among minor league hitters (which are, admittedly, not very good or reliable numbers) do not support the idea that he was making generally weaker contact.
This ranking projects Rademacher as a high floor guy with fringe starting potential as a right fielder. There are players below him with a higher ceiling, but I don’t rank purely on ceiling. If the lack of power continues into his Pacific Coast League play this year then Rademacher is probably going to fall off this list by midseason. If the power returns, though, and I think it will, then there will probably be talk about Rademacher’s breakout season by the end of the summer.
20. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee
Acquired: The Cubs signed Tseng as an IFA prior to the 2014 season.
Notable Stat: Tseng finished with an ERA of 2.78 and a WHIP of 1.03 in his last 11 starts.
Tseng features three pitches that grade as average or better, pretty good control, and velocity that hangs out in the low 90s. He is not an overpowering guy, but he is effective at getting outs. I don’t think his projection is any higher than that of a number three or four starter at best, but I think he is more likely than any A ball starting pitcher on this list to make it to the majors. The risk with Tseng is about as low as we are likely to see from a starter at this level.
At a glance, it looks like Tseng’s numbers declined a bit in 2015, but that would be misleading. He did struggle a little as he made some mechanical adjustments at the start of the 2015 season, but by the second half he as back to his old self again. For example, although his season strikeout rate of 6.58 K/9 is quite a bit below his 2014 figure of 7.29, his second half 2015 number was 7.28. He was, by the end of the year, about as effective as he was when he dominated the Midwest League the year before.
I would like to see him add something that he can use to more generate a few more ground ball outs before he gets to Triple A, and an improving change up might be just the ticket. Mainly, though, Tseng just needs to stay healthy, increase his innings total, and continue adapting to hitters just like he did in 2015. If he does that we could be seeing him at the back of the rotation in Wrigley (should an opening appear) sometime in 2017. Alternatively, the Cubs may be tempted to see how large of a velocity bump he would get with a move to the bullpen and eye him as a Travis Wood replacement in the super utility pitcher role. He should start for most or all of 2016 regardless, but it will be interesting to see how the Cubs handle him long term.
19. Dan Vogelbach, DH
Likely 2016 Team: Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Vogelbach in the 2nd round in 2011.
Notable Stat: In Double A he posted a walk rate of 18.2%. That’s nuts.
I cannot wait to see what Vogelbach does in the happy hitting grounds of the Pacific Coast League. I thought 2015 would be the year his power showed up in a big way, but a series of nagging injuries derailed that plan and left him with only 7 home runs and an ISO of just .154. Not to worry. The power is legitimate and it will show.
But Vogelbach is not just a one dimensional slugger. He is also a very selective hitter who almost never swings at a bad pitch. His walk rate in Tennessee was crazy high and helped him to a good slash line of .272/.403/.425 despite the injuries that limited his swing. When healthy Vogelbach does a nice job of taking what the pitcher offers him, driving line drives to all fields, and letting his natural power do the work for him. As a hitter, he has just about everything you could ask for.
Except a position. While he has worked hard on his defense at first, it is doubtful that he will ever be average there. His quest to move his defense out of the ‘liability’ category is ongoing, but I suspect he will always provide some degree of negative value with the glove. His bat will have to produce enough to outweigh that deficit.
If the NL had a designated hitter, then we could safely pencil Vogelbach in as the six hitter in the Cubs’ lineup starting sometime in the middle of the summer. As it is, unless he is traded first, I think we will see him up in September for pinch hit duties and to help rest Rizzo down the stretch. But since the NL remains (for now) a DH-free league, Vogelbach’s future with the Cubs remains hard to define. He is not a candidate to move to the outfield, and he is not going to supplant Rizzo at first. Barring a miracle in the CBA negotiations, that probably means Vogelbach is a trade waiting to happen.
18. Justin Steele, LHP
Likely 2016 Team: South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Steele in the 5th round in 2014.
Notable Stat: Through 59 career innings, Steele has allowed exactly zero homers.
Steele projects solidly as a mid-rotation starter, but there is front of the rotation upside here if things break just right. His mid-90s fastball and changeup both grade as plus, and he has a couple of breaking pitches that are developing nicely. Steele is still building his consistency and learning how to use his pitches to best attack hitters, so while the numbers he produces are good, we can safely expect them to get somewhat better.
Steele should head to South Bend as one of the members of a stacked starting rotation that will include Carson Sands (No. 28 on this list) as well as a couple of guys we haven’t talked about yet. The transition to full season baseball is not always an easy one for a high school draft pick, so don’t be surprised to see Steele struggle early or wear out late in the season. He has the stuff he needs to have a bright future.
17. Trevor Clifton, RHP
Likely 2016 Team: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Clifton in the 12th round in 2013.
Notable Stat: Clifton got better as the season wore on, posting a 2.37 ERA in August.
I have loved Clifton’s fastball for awhile now, but we’ve spent two seasons waiting for the rest of his game to catch up to that mid-90s plus pitch. We might be there. He still needs to show improvement in his offspeed and breaking stuff, but it looks like they are to the point where we can project them to be at least average. Pair that with his plus fastball and his willingness to attack hitters, and we have the raw ingredients for a pretty decent No. 3 starter. If one of those second pitches moves into plus category (which is certainly possible), he may yet exceed that projection.
Clifton did a nice job of adapting to the Midwest League in 2015. He started ok, but struggled badly in June (ERA 5.94, 16.2 IP) and July (ERA 7.00, 18.0 IP) before rebounding very strongly in August (ERA 2.37, 30.1 IP) and September (ERA 0.00, 6.1 IP). That’s the success he’ll be trying to build on in Myrtle Beach this summer (hopefully while taking a big chunk out of that 3.89 BB/9).
This may be the first season in which don’t have to list Clifton as a ‘raw but with potential’ sort of prospect. After a full season in South Bend, we might get to see just what this guy is capable of. Until he proves more consistent control and sufficient improvement in his secondary pitches, though, I don’t think we can put him on the fast track; late 2018 is probably the earliest we can expect to see him in Wrigley for now.