There should be very few surprises on this list. At the very top of the charts, the Cubs’ farm system is stratified into a couple of pretty clear tiers, and while we can quibble about the order of the prospects in each tier, the tiers themselves are fairly well defined.
After today there is one more Top 40 article go, a summary and wrap up that will have the entire list in one place for easy reference. Today marks the last of the analysis, though, or at least of the longer in depth style analysis. To catch up on the previous articles in the series, just click here, here, here, here, here, and here.
8. Pierce Johnson, RHP
Likely 2016 Team: Iowa and Chicago
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Johnson in the supplemental first round in 2012.
Notable Stat: His Double A ERA was just 2.08.
When reading descriptions of Johnson, he is often listed as having a three pitch mix (although the three may not all be the same). I’m pretty sure he actually has four, and his not-great numbers in 2015 are tied up in that.
In 2014 one of his out pitches was his slider. In 2015, he dropped the slider (sometimes called his cutter) to concentrate on his changeup. Now he should be putting both those pitches together, along with his fastball and curve which both grade at plus, into a finished package.
2014 Johnson had a K/9 of 8.93, but that dropped to 6.82 in 2015. One thing to look for early in 2016 is Johnson’s K rate. With all his pitches in action it should rebound to something approaching his 2014 levels. If it doesn’t, that will bear closer scrutiny.
The other thing to watch will be Johnson’s health. He has been plagued with minor injuries, but as a professional his arm has stayed fairly clean. Injuries equal lost innings, though, and Johnson really needs to put together a full season on the mound at some point.
7. Billy McKinney, OF
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee and Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs acquired McKinney from Oakland in 2014 as part of the Russell trade.
Notable Stat: An 8.8% strikeout rate in Double A is impressive.
McKinney does a lot of things very well, and most of it starts with his swing. It is geared more for line drives than fly balls, but he hits those line drives in bunches. There are very few holes in the swing, at least that pitchers have found so far. Combine that ability to cover the strike zone with his plate discipline and excellent eye, and you have a guy who is going to draw plenty of walks (see that 8.8% walk rate) and is hard to strike out (15.3% rate in Double A).
Really, the only flaw in McKinney is either his position or his power, depending on how you look at it. So far he just hasn’t shown the power that is generally expected from a corner outfield slot, and he hasn’t shown the range to demonstrate that he could handle center on a daily basis. His high average and high on base approach is going to make him valuable in the corner outfield slots, even if he never manages better than average power, but it remains to be seen if his power is even going to hit average.
The floor, then is a very good offensive fourth outfielder with fringe starting potential. The ceiling is harder to define. Because he could be major league ready any day now, that ceiling could boil down to how much power he’ll add over the next couple of years. I’m projecting him as a starting left fielder who will provide slightly over average total production with the bat while playing solid defense, and with a risk factor about as close to zero as you’ll find on this chart. If the Cubs suddenly needed a left handed outfield bat for tonight’s game, I think McKinney could just about step up and handle it without issue. He is that close to being major league ready.
He may return to Double A (where he has just 77 games under his belt) for a bit of additional seasoning, but I think the majority of his season will be in Iowa. It will be interesting to see how he produces in the Pacific Coast League.
6. Dylan Cease, RHP
Likely 2016 Team: Eugene, South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Cease in the 6th round in 2014.
Notable Stat: In his first season, he struck out 9.38 K/9.
Excitement about Cease hit a fever pitch this spring with reports that he was throwing an easy 100 MPH. And while Cease is legitimately the best pitching prospect in the system today, it would be good to temper the excitement for a year or two. Throwing triple digits in short outings in spring training is one thing; throwing triple digits in your 24th start of the season is quite another. Besides, he missed all of 2014 as a result of post-draft arm surgery and entered spring training with just 24 professional innings under his belt. For the time being, we should be more cautious than excited.
You all just saw that I said that we should temper excitement, right? That we should be cautious, yes? You saw it? Good.
Because Cease probably has the highest upside of any pitching prospect the Cubs have had in years. Even with the limited experience, even with the rust that showed up in his 6.00 BB/9 in the Arizona Rookie League, even with the fact that he really doesn’t have a third pitch yet, it is very understandable to look at Cease and think ‘future ace’.
And I haven’t even mentioned the ground ball rate yet. In addition to striking folks out at better than a batter an inning, Cease posted a mindbogglingly insane GO/AO with Mesa of 3.18. Anything over 1.50 is generally pretty good, and 2.00 is the mark of a very good ground ball pitcher. What Cease is doing would make him an excellent prospect as a ground ball pitcher alone. Pair it with the strikeouts, and, well, we need to remember to start tempering excitement again.
Every 20-year-old pitching prospect comes with some risk, and Cease is no exception. He needs to regain the feel for his curve, polish up the changeup, cut down on the walks, build up his durability, prove he can maintain his velocity and his stuff over the course of a long start and a long season, and stay healthy while doing it. Any one of those things could relegate him to a bullpen career.
Of course, a 100+ MPH fastball with a plus curve that piles up strikeouts and induces plenty of weak grounders to the infield isn’t exactly a terrible resume for a closer. It is a pretty awesome thing, actually. If Cease doesn’t cut it as a starter, the Cubs will probably look to steer him in that direction.
The Cubs will be monitoring Cease’s workload closely this season, but I expect him to head to South Bend – eventually (he may be held back a bit at the start of the season to limit his innings) – despite that. There he will likely headline a prospect heavy rotation that should also feature, at some point, De La Cruz, Steele, and Sands. If he handles the level well, we’ll probably start seeing his name pop up in Top 100 lists next winter. It is very possible that he’ll contend for top overall honors on the Top 40 as soon as mid-season.
But, for now, I still have five guys ranked ahead of him.
5. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee and Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs signed Candelario as an IFA prior to the 2011 season.
Notable Stat: In Double A: 182 PA, 21 K, 22 BB
It feels like we’ve been waiting on Candelario for a long time now, but in 2015 this switch-hitting third baseman finally delivered the breakout performance we’ve been waiting for. He hit pretty well in Myrtle Beach prior to his promotion, but his work in Tennessee was on another level.
The cutoff line for statistical significance varies from statistic to statistic, but I’ve found that 100 PA is a pretty good rule of thumb for initial reactions. When a player hits his hundredth plate appearance at a level, in other words, we can take his stats at that level more seriously.
Candelario’s 182 PA (significant) looked like this: .291/.379/.462, 5 HR, 12.1% walk rate, 11.5% strikeout rate. He followed that up with 89 PA in the Arizona Fall League: .329/.371/.610, 5 HR, 6.7% walk rate, 11.2% strikeout rate. There is some variance in the walk rate, but the rest of the numbers are fairly consistent (once we account for the power boost of the AFL, anyway). Then he crushed it in Spring Training.
Defensively, Candelario has looked better at third every time I have watched him. I have no doubts that he can handle third base on a regular basis in the major leagues, and that he can be no worse than average there. With Kris Bryant at third, though, Candelario is going to have a tough time getting those innings in the majors. Moving Candelario to left is a theoretical option, and I suspect he would be no worse than Schwarber once he adjusted to the position, but it feels a little like forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Finding a way work Candelario into Chicago’s lineup could be on the organizational wish list by midseason. He won’t hit a ton of home runs, but should be good for 15+. From both sides of the plate he will draw walks and spray hard liners to all fields on his way to a relatively high OBP. I think there is no question that he could be a better than average everyday starting third baseman in the major leagues, and I strongly suspect he’ll be among the best in the league at that position while he’s in his prime. Look for Candelario to arrive in Chicago in September at the latest, if he isn’t traded first.
4. Albert Almora, CF
Age: 21 (for a few more days)
Likely 2016 Team: Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Almora in the first round in 2012.
Notable Stat: There are no good minor league stats to measure his defense. Just go watch this instead.
Sometime in the past I commented that Almora’s defense had to be seen to be believed. Well, this spring a lot of Cubs fans have seen that defense on display in spring training, and judging by the comments here and on Twitter, many of you have become believers. The rest will be converted once he hits the majors. I’m not worried about that in the slightest.
Almora is the best defensive outfielder I’ve ever seen play minor league baseball. His reads are fast, his routes are clean, and his speed is underrated. His timing is almost impeccable, and sometimes I half wonder if his glove is lined with superglue. So far as I am concerned, it is worth the full price of a ticket just to watch him play defense. While he is still in the minors and you have a chance watch him on the cheap, go.
But enough about the glove (until the next highlight reel catch, anyway). The concern with Almora has been his bat; that concern I no longer share. I wrote about the mechanical change that I believe is responsible for Almora’s second half offensive surge over the winter, and I’m not going to recap it all here. Suffice to say that I am convinced that .301/.370/.464 line Almora posted over more than 200 PAs in the second half is sustainable. I would not be surprised to see a line similar to that in Iowa this season.
Long term, Almora’s glove alone makes him a guy you want starting in center field. The bat should be about average for that position, close enough that it won’t sap the added value he brings on defense, anyway. He hasn’t been much of a base stealer in the minors, but he has enough speed for it. Right now he just happens to be bad at it. If he can improve that area of his game, he could turn his baserunning into a real weapon. That would augment his offensive value.
For now, it would probably be safe to assume that Almora will see some time in Wrigley this year, and that he will be the leading candidate to take over in center should Dexter Fowler leave next year.
3. Ian Happ, 2B, probably
Likely 2016 Team: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Happ in the first round in 2015.
Notable Stat: He posted an ISO over .200 in both Eugene and South Bend.
The Cubs have a pretty good track record taking college hitters early in the first round; 2015 was the third straight year they followed that philosophy. The 2013 and 2014 guys will be starting at third base and in left field for the Cubs tonight. Based on that alone I think any prospect analyst would be justified in not betting against Happ.
But we don’t have to go off that alone. Happ signed quickly enough to spend 130 PA with Eugene last summer, hitting .283/.408/.491 in the process. He then went to South Bend for 165 PA and hit .241/.315/.448. At both stops he had an excellent walk rate (17.7% and 10.3%), but a troubling strikeout rate (21.5% and 23.6%). For a guy posting ISOs over .200 a strikeout rate over 20% in the low minors isn’t a terrible thing, but it is a bit of a red flag.
Then again, it may not be. Happ has a fast bat and plenty of natural power, but from some reports it sounds like he tends to overswing at times, and that in turn leads to some of the swing and miss in his game. This is a problem the Cubs are familiar with, and last season they had a lot of success reducing that same tendency in Javier Baez. I think Happ will always have some swing and miss to his game, but the high walk rates and power will offset that nicely. So long as he can keep the K rate under, say, 25%, he should be alright.
Defensively, he has the speed, quickness, and arm to play pretty much anywhere on the diamond. He spent a lot of time in the outfield, particularly center, last season, but for 2016 it looks like the Cubs are turning him into a second baseman. He will need some work there, but I have little doubt he can be an adequate defensive second baseman in time. He has all the tools to do it, and reports are that his work ethic is off the charts. If, for some reason, second base doesn’t work out, the daily utility super-sub role is always an option.
Being a switch-hitter and learning a new position should slow down Happ’s charge up the minors a bit, but he could still hit Tennessee by the end of the year. By late 2017 we could be counting down to a Happ call up. Regardless of his position, Happ has a chance to be an on base threat from both sides of the plate. He could be a 20+ HR, 15+ SB a year guy while playing plus defense up the middle and getting on base at a high rate. In other words, he could be a very good starting second baseman.
It is interesting that in Happ and Candelario the Cubs have two switch-hitting infielders with plenty of offensive potential. I’m sure that fact hasn’t been missed by other GMs. Of the two, I think Candelario would be the easier to pry out of the system (although he won’t be cheap) and I fully expect to hear both names in trade rumors until one of them is dealt or both are entrenched in Wrigley.
2. Gleyber Torres, SS
Likely 2016 Team: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: The Cubs signed Torres as an IFA prior to the 2014 season.
Notable Stat: As an 18-year-old in the Midwest League, Torres hit .293/.353/.386.
I think this is the least confident I have been in a number two ranking since I started doing the Top 40. Based purely on the stats, I wouldn’t have him any higher than sixth. What we saw in 2015 from Torres at the plate was a cross between Starlin Castro and Javier Baez – Castro’s slugging and Baez’s strikeouts. That’s not a pairing that gives me confidence.
The upside is undeniable, though. That he is a teenager playing shortstop in a full season league alone boosts him into the prospect spotlight, and his understanding of the strike zone (8.4% walk rate) is already advanced for any age. When he does make contact it tends to be hard line drives that are going to fall for base hits at a good rate. Once on base, he had the speed to swipe 22 bags in 2015, and with improvements on his technique he could steal 30 a year. At 6’1″, 175 lbs he should grow to some additional muscle (and therefore power), but it remains to be seen how much.
And how much could be critical. His strikeout rate of 21.0% would be fine (if a little high for Low A) from a slugger, but from a guy with an ISO of .093 it is concerning. Either the K% has to come down or the ISO has to come up (or both). Otherwise, Torres’s current profile of a future everyday infielder with All-Star potential fades to that of a utility guy with fringe starter potential in a hurry.
There is a lot to like with Torres, and given his young start he has a long time to figure things out. As I noted on Happ, he’s also in the right system to improve on the strikeout rate, and his ranking as the number two prospect in the system reflects that. While I have deep concerns based on his current statistical profile, the scouts are universally laudatory in his praise; I am ranking Torres based heavily on the reports of those scouts. Realistically, number two is about as high as I can rank him.
Torres should pair with Happ in Myrtle Beach this season as one of the best double play combination in the minors. Ultimately Torres may need to move off of short, but it is too early to be worried about that yet. For now he just needs to keep playing daily, keep walking regularly, and keep working on making consistent hard contact. Should the ISO go up and/or the K% go down, we could be looking at a star. His progression in those departments will be closely watched this season.
1. Willson Contreras, C
Likely 2016 Team: Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs signed Contreras as an IFA prior to the 2009 season.
Notable Stat: He had a Double A OPS of .891.
Contreras was a surprise pick for the top spot in the mid-season rankings in 2015, even to me. He started lower on the list in the first version, but every time I ran the numbers he crept up the list, ultimately becoming just the third prospect to ever be ranked Number One in a Top 40 (Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant being the other two).
This time around, it was never in doubt. Contreras is no longer a surprise or a secret. He’s the best catching prospect in baseball, and he is ready for Triple A.
Contreras is probably not going recreate the .333/.413/.478 line he posted in Tennessee. Somehow he managed to maintain a BABIP of .370 all season, and that means he either had some luck going for him or he is actually better than even I think he is (and I already think he is really really good). Fortunately, even if the BABIP comes down out of the stratosphere, the rest of his package will still make him a well above average offensive catcher. He walked at a 10.9% rate in Double A, struck out at just a 11.9% rate, and even stole 4 bases to go with his 8 homers.
Defensively, I think he will be just fine. He could do a better job controlling base runners, but he isn’t bad in that area now. The arm is easily good enough; it is mostly the technique that needs additional work. Without PitchFX data to verify I hesitate to grade his framing ability, but to the naked eye it looked solid. We’ve seen better catchers at blocking pitches, but we’ve seen worse as well. All in all, I think he should be around average as a defensive backstop.
He is also a former third baseman, and should be able to fill in on either infield corner if the need arose. The same goes for left field. I suspect, though, that the Cubs will be content to keep him behind the plate most of the time.
Contreras should spend all of 2016 in Iowa continuing to work on his catching. With three catchers in Chicago already, there is no need to rush him up for anything other than some injury fill-in work or as a September call up. Next year I expect him to split time with Montero in Chicago as the replacement for Ross, and the following year, once Montero’s contract has expired, to take over as the Cubs’ primary catcher. That may seem like a slow development path, but catchers do take some time and nothing is gained by rushing. It is possible that Contreras will hit so well in Iowa that he’ll force the issue sooner than that, but that would be a really good problem to have and isn’t worth worrying about.
Long term, I see Contreras as an everyday catcher and middle of the order bat with All-Star potential. He’s the best catching prospect in baseball, and once again he is the best overall prospect in the Cubs’ farm system.