First we caught up with the pre-season Top 40 list and checked in on the status of that group of prospects.
Then we took a look at the lower half of the Top 40, numbers 40 through 21.
And today we take a look at the top half, including the new Number One.
This player will be just the fourth Number One in Top 40 history. Jorge Soler was the first, and in time he gave way to Kris Bryant. Then, last summer, came the (at the time) surprising choice of Willson Contreras that in hindsight doesn’t look all that surprising after all. If Contreras were eligible he would still be on top, but he’s been in the majors long enough that I consider him to have graduated. We need a new Number One.
And we have three candidates in Jimenez, Candelario, and Happ.
Candelario is the least risky of the three. Happ offers additional value on defense with his positional flexibility, not to mention a rather moderate amount of risk. Jimenez has the loudest tools and highest potential, but is also the most risky. This decision was nowhere near as difficult as the insomnia inducer from 2015, but it wasn’t an easy one either. I can make an excellent case for any of those three.
But we shouldn’t focus so hard on those three that we lose track of the rest of the System. The Cubs are lacking on fairly safe, elite, impact talent in the minors right now, but they still have a ton of depth. There are a lot of players in the system who could handle a daily job in the majors, and even more who could add quite a bit of value coming off the bench. There are more potential stars than you might think, albeit potential stars that are very young and come with quite a lot of risk. Particularly on the pitching side.
For example, there are no fewer than four prospects in this system that I think could emerge as a Number One or Number Two starter in a playoff-caliber major league rotation one day. And there is a fifth sitting on the fringe. Odds are good that the realities of prospect development will keep most (or all) of these guys from reaching that level, but having four candidates isn’t a bad place to start for any team.
Who are the four? The first one is Number Twenty.
20. Jose Albertos RHP, Arizona
Key Stat: 4 IP, 7 K
Albertos is just 17 and is already throwing in the mid-90s in the Arizona Rookie League. The Cubs signed him out of Mexico last year for a seven figure bonus, and his excellent fastball and promising (but still work in progress) changeup and slider hint at a very bright future. If things break right he could be a front of the rotation sort of arm, but he is a long ways away from that future. Unfortunately he was shut down with arm soreness after his one Arizona appearance, so for now all we have to rank him on are scouting reports and four wonderful innings. Needless to say, he is as low as he is due to his immense amount of risk.
19. Pierce Johnson. RHP, Iowa
Key Stat: 9.20 K/9 in 45 IP
Johnson missed most of the month of May as well as a week or so in late June this season, and as a result he is likely to once again come up short of the one hundred innings pitch mark. He did exceed that milestone last season, but he needed innings in the Arizona Fall League to do it. When healthy, Johnson features a plus fastball, plus curve, and a pretty good change up. He has the pitches to do well in the middle of a rotation or at the back of the bullpen, but right now he has a hard time staying on the mound long enough to finish refining his game. The result is bouts of wildness, and that means too many walks and homers. Fortunately his injuries are not to his arm or shoulder, so if he can finally manage a healthy season or two he could quickly become fixture in the Cubs’ rotation. For now, though, he’s been pitching out of Iowa’s bullpen.
18. Thomas Hatch. RHP, probably Arizona
Key Stat: None.
I’m breaking one of my own rules here and ranking Hatch even though he hasn’t played as a professional in the US yet. The Cubs drafted Hatch in the third round in 2016 as their first overall pick. Hatch then went to the College World Series where he looked very impressive in helping carry Oklahoma State to the semifinals.
It looks like Hatch’s hallmark is going to be grounders. He has a good fastball that could turn into an out pitch, but I suspect he’ll be a guy who induces a lot of weak contact and easy infielder outs. Thanks to his elevated work load in college this season, the Cubs may just leave him shut down until instructional ball.
17. Erick Leal. RHP, Myrtle Beach
Key Stat: ERA of 3.02, FIP of 3.62
Leal has been part of the Cubs’ organization since the 2013 season, and he has been consistently pretty good at every level. At 21 he is slightly young for High A, but thanks in part to a low 1.88 BB/9 he is having his best season since he left rookie ball. He doesn’t strike out many (just 6.25 K/9 this season), but he stays near the strike zone and doesn’t make many mistakes. His walk rate has dropped and his strikeout rate has increased in each of the past three seasons, and that also bodes well for his future. I see Leal as a back of the rotation candidate, but a relatively low risk one.
16. Ryan McNeil. RHP, Myrtle Beach
Key Stat: 10.10 K/9
McNeil, drafted in 2012, missed the entire 2013 season due to arm surgery, but now he is starting to show the potential that made him a third round pick to begin with. McNeil has taken the Pelicans’ closer job thanks to his ability to pile up the strikeouts. He throws hard, hanging out in the mid-90s if minor league stadium guns are to be believed, and gets some pretty good movement on his fastball. He also does a nice job staying away from the walk and limiting the long ball. His frame suggests that he might have the endurance to be effective as a starter again one day, but for now the Cubs seem to content to let him pitch his way up the system in a relief role. He could pitch himself into Wrigley by the end of 2018.
15. Jacob Hannemann. OF, Tennessee
Key Stat: 16.8% strikeout rate, .752 OPS
Hannemann arrived late to professional baseball, but from the beginning there was no doubt about his athleticism. He has translated that athleticism into defense that now qualifies as very good and could yet push into elite status. Until 2016 questions remained about his bat, but a strikeout rate of just 16.8% and an ISO of .179 certainly look promising. Hannemann’s value will probably continue come primarily from his glove, but his left handed bat looks increasingly like it could be a nice fit on a major league bench.
14. Jake Stinnett. RHP, Myrtle Beach
Key Stat: His K/9 is up 0.43 from last year, and his BB/9 down 0.53.
Stinnett has stuff that is better than his results indicate. When he has his delivery working, his fastball sits in the low 90s with plenty of late movement, and he pairs it with a slider that can draw quite a few whiffs. When he gets in trouble with walks and homers, it seems to come at times when his mechanics just aren’t quite in sync. I suspect his delivery is still a bit of a work in progress, but, whatever the cause, that inconsistency may be the only thing that is keeping Stinnett from taking off. I still see him as a future mid-rotation starter, and a pretty good one at that, but he has to solve the consistency problem in order to get there.
13. Donnie Dewees. OF, Myrtle Beach
Key Stat: .343 OBP between two stops this season
Dewees is a left handed hitting outfielder the Cubs drafted in the second round in 2015. He has already hit his way into High A, and so far is thriving there. Known mainly for his speed (23 steals so far this season), Dewees has shown a fair bit of power as well (.414 SLG in South Bend, .515 with Myrtle Beach). Defensively, he appears to be doing just fine in center. With his very good contact ability and sound understanding of the strike zone, he could fit in at the top of a lineup or lower down as a way to break up a string of right handers. So far he has all the makings of a future major league regular.
12. Ryan Williams. RHP, Iowa
Key Stat: His 1.38 GO/AO is a career low.
Williams lives by the ground ball. His best pitch, a very good sinking fastball, can result in a ton of balls bouncing harmlessly into an infielder’s glove. He pairs that sinker with a low walk rate (2.45 BB/9) and a good enough strikeout rate (6.14 K/9) for a package that has allowed him to move up the system quickly. Unfortunately, he hasn’t pitched for Iowa since May. Before the DL trip he looked like he could be a second half starter option for Chicago, but now this is effectively a lost season for him. If healthy, he’ll head back to Iowa again next spring with an eye towards cracking the Cubs’ rotation as soon as an opportunity arises. Long term he looks like a back of the rotation starter with the potential to eat a lot of innings.
11. Victor Caratini. C, Tennessee
Key Stat: .295/.384/.401 in Double A
Caratini is a solid defensive catcher already, but with time could become a very good reciever. It is difficult to grade catcher framing in the minors due to a lack of good data regarding pitch placement (no PitchFX in other words), but to the naked eye his work looks just fine for his level. Offensively, the switch hitting Caratini is enjoying a good year. His walk rate (11.7% this year) and strikeout rate (17.6%) have always been pretty good, but thanks to a .353 BABIP he has compiled one of the best lines of his career. That BABIP is going to come back down, but the walk rate and the line drive swing should be enough to make him a very valuable backup catcher in the majors.
10. Bijan Rademacher. OF, Iowa
Key Stat: Double A line of .313/.395/.484
After 199 career games in Double A, during which he compiled a total line of .282/.385/.418, Rademacher has finally gotten the call to Triple A. The biggest difference this season has been his power; Rademacher’s ISO jumped from .109 last year to .172 this season. That led to his 9 Tennessee home runs and helped fuel his .355 BABIP, and that in turn drove his rather impressive slash line. Both the ISO and BABIP are in line with what he had done at lower levels, so I tend to believe those numbers are sustainable. If they are, this left handed hitter looks like a guy who will definitely get a shot at being a major league fourth outfielder some day. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take a regular starting job outright.
9. Bryan Hudson. LHP, Eugene
Key Stat: GO/AO of 2.46
Hudson doesn’t have the prettiest looking stat line, with a 4.37 ERA and a 5.55 FIP, but most of that is driven by his 6.69 BB/9. Long term though, I’m not at all worried. Hudson is a 6’8″ lefty in his first professional season; control problems are going to happen as he adds muscle, refines his mechanics, and gets his delivery fully in sync. His curveball might be the best pitch in the organization, and he already has a very good fastball with which to set it up. Add a changeup, and he has one in progress, and Hudson has all the raw materials to sit atop a major league rotation one day. For now, though, patience is in order.
8. Mark Zagunis. OF, Iowa
Key Stat: .274/.360/.486 with Iowa
Zagunis does a lot of things well, but I’m not sure he does them well enough to be a major league regular. His single best ability is getting on base, and in that department there is no challenging him. He’s the best OBP guy in the farm system. Unfortunately, he has just four steals this season. He only has six home runs. His 19.9% strikeout rate isn’t bad, but does sap his average a bit. His .212 ISO is the result of Zagunis spraying line drives around the outfield, and that should result in a lot of doubles at the highest level. If Zagunis could play center, his high OBP with lots of line drives approach could be a real asset. Unfortunately, I think he is a corner outfielder, and that means he may wind up as a fourth outfielder in the majors. Zagunis has a very high floor, but his ceiling is somewhat limited.
7. Trevor Clifton. RHP, Myrtle Beach
Key Stat: 9.79 K/9, 3.29 FIP
Clifton has long been one of my favorite power arms in this organization, and it looks like 2016 is the year he tamed that raw power into pitchability. His fastball lives in the low 90s, even late in games, and is reliably said to have touched the high 90s on occasion. His secondary pitches are coming along, and at times you can see his breaking ball evolving into a weapon with further refinement. He is fly ball prone, but despite that he has an HR/9 of just 0.41. Listed at 6’4″ and just 170 lbs, Clifton may yet add a little more velocity as he fills out his frame. What we see now looks like a future Number Three starter in the making, but with a touch more on the fastball and the development of a good changeup we could be looking at a future Number Two.
6. Dylan Cease. RHP, Eugene
Key Stat: 24 K in 22 IP
Cease is one of the most exciting pitchers in the organization. It took seven digits to sign him in the 2014 draft despite the fact that the Cubs knew he needed arm surgery when they took him. He bounced back with a fastball that can reach triple digits and is said to live in the mid to high 90s even late in games. His breaking ball is a step behind the fastball, but it is still an out pitch. He needs a third weapon to become a true ace, but he has the stuff to become an ace in time. Unfortunately he only lasted 22 innings before being sidelined in Eugene with a minor injury, but his return to the mound lasted just a third of an inning and yielded four walks. If he can stay healthy, his future is as bright as any player on this list. If arm trouble forces him into the bullpen, his future is still extremely bright as a potentially dominant closer. Either way, the main thing for now is that he can stay healthy and starting logging some experience.
5. Eddy Martinez. OF, South Bend
Key Stat: .328/.413/.500 in the second half
Martinez got off to a slow start with South Bend. That isn’t surprising given it was his first taste of professional baseball in the States, and that taste came in a cold Midwestern spring. Once he settled in, though, this right handed hitter started putting up some of the best numbers in the organization. He is a disciplined hitter who can draw plenty of walks as well as hit for average, and so far he has shown more power than we really expected. His speed is on display in the outfield (as his is arm), but he is still learning how turn that speed into steals. I can see Martinez turning into a very good defensive corner outfielder or above average defensive center fielder with 15+ home runs and 30+ steals one day. Now that he pretty much has a full season of experience behind him, don’t be surprised if the Cubs look to move him up the system more aggressively.
4. Oscar De La Cruz. RHP, South Bend
Key Stat: In just 16 innings this year he already has 23 Ks.
Had De La Cruz been healthy and able to start the season back in the spring, and had he performed the way he has pitched in his brief time of being active, he would have been a contender for the top slot on these rankings. He is another power right hander with developing secondary pitches, but De La Cruz stands out in that he already relentlessly attacks the strike zone. He converted to pitching in 2013, and in that year had a BB/9 of 4.09 in the DSL. Every year since then his BB/9 has been 3.00 or less, including an impressive 2.10 in 73 innings with Eugene last year. His speed through the minors depends on his health and the progress of his secondary pitches, but I would not be shocked to see him in the upper minors by 2018. The spring elbow soreness that slowed his start is a concern, but hopefully not a lasting one.
3. Ian Happ. 2B/OF Tennessee
Key Stat: For the season, .825 OPS, 9 HR, 13 SB
A switch hitter, Happ hit his way out of High A with a 16.4% walk rate, a 23.5% strikeout rate, and a line of .296/.410/.475. In 149 plate appearances with Tennessee the strikeout has actually come down (to 20.1%), but the walks have all but vanished. That rate is now just 4.0%. He is still hitting for average, but at .286/.315/.400 he has lost some power as well. The jump to Double A is a tough one; some adaptation time is completely normal.
The plummeting walk rate concerns me, though, as does his defense at second. I think he can stay at second long term, but it would be as an average-ish defender. Given his ability to play all over the diamond (not to mention switch hitting), I think his ultimate future is as a true super utility guy. The bat should play very well in the majors, well enough the Cubs may want to have him ready as an option by the middle of next year, but the glove may lag a little behind if he stays at second full time. Regardless of timeline, I like his chances to be a quality addition to the Cubs roster in the not too distant future.
2. Jeimer Candelario. 3B, Iowa
Key Stat: .297/.403/.531 with Iowa
The switch hitting Candelario is having an excellent season. High walk rate: Yep (14.2%). Good strikeout rate? Yep (19.3%). Power? Yep (.234 ISP, .531 SLG). Good OBP? Yep (.403). Name what you want on offense, and unless it is stolen bases, Candelario has delivered in Triple A at the age of 22. Defensively, I think he can stay at third and provide positive value with the glove. He is not going to be as good as Baez there, but I have no problems with Candelario playing third on a regular basis in Chicago. Right now that is his only position (other than first), but I suspect if Maddon wanted to get him in the lineup, we’d discover he was good enough in left.
He got a taste of the majors this year, and he should be in line for a September call up. Unless he is traded over the winter the Cubs could think very hard about finding a way to play him in Chicago next season. It would be a juggling act, but his bat from both sides of the plate might be good enough to make the experiment worth trying.
1. Eloy Jimenez. OF, South Bend
Key Stat: .934 OPS. 19 years old.
In the end, I couldn’t pass up the tools. Six weeks ago I didn’t think Jimenez would take this spot, but when Happ came back to the pack a bit and Torres was traded, the door opened and Jimenez slugged his way through.
He is the riskiest of this trio, but I think he also has the highest ceiling. His strikeout rate is a little high (21%), but I suspect that more to do with approach and should be improved with experience. The walk rate (5.6%) isn’t high, but given that he is hitting .347 with a BABIP of .419, I’m not entirely surprised. He’s clearly able to crush the ball. His power manifests with 12 homers and an ISO of .203. And he’s still 19. There is probably more power to come.
Jimenez, in other words, could be an offensive monster. He can also play a pretty good right field. His arm grades out very well, and while I think his routes in the outfield could use some work, I can’t fault the effort. By the time he reaches the majors I suspect he’ll be rated as above average defensively, and that base coaches will learn to respect his arm.
How fast he progresses could depend on his plate discipline. The strikeouts could get out of hand, and if they do the Cubs will likely slow him down until his approach catches up. Other than that, there is no real reason he couldn’t reach Double A before the end of next season. That could set him up for a 2018 arrival in Wrigley (assuming he isn’t traded first). I don’t think he profiles as highly on offense as Bryant or Soler, but he still has a very good chance to be a middle of the order hitter even in the Cubs stacked lineup.
Tomorrow we’ll take one final look at the list, all in one place for convient reference, as well as check out some of the postional and per level breakdowns of the new Top 40.