Pitchers and catchers report in six days, which means baseball season is officially less than a week away.
Further, it means that we’ll likely see prospect coverage ramp up because, while the defending World Series champion Cubs are set at the Major League level, there still are prospects flowing through the pipeline and bubbling underneath the surface who want to be on the next team that wins it all.
I’m sure there will be plenty of prospect notes between now and then.
Here is the latest:
- Keith Law’s positional prospect rankings dropped recently at ESPN and it will make you feel some type of way. It’s an Insider story, so I won’t give away too much information, but know that the usual suspects — Ian Happ (No. 2 second baseman) and Eloy Jimenez (No. 4 outfielder) — are accounted for, as is former Cubs farmhand Gleyber Torres (No. 3 shortstop). However, as you might already suspect, Law doesn’t have any Cubs among the top-10 at first base, third base, shortstop or among right-handed or left-handed pitching.
- The Cubs are well off at the corners with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, as well as shortstop with Addison Russell and (in case of emergency) Javier Baez. On the other hand, pitching at the upper levels of the minor leagues still leaves much to be desired. But help could be on the way if a pair of lower-level prospects continue on their current paths of development. More on them later.
- Back to Law’s list for a moment, where it’s worth noting he has two Cubs second basemen in his positional top-10. We are already pretty well acquainted with Mr. Happ, but who is Carlos Sepulveda? It’s a classic Keith Law sleeper pick. Sepulveda signed with the Cubs out of Mexico in December 2014 (and officially announced in January 2015) and in 2016 — at age 19 — the left-handed hitting second baseman made a splash at South Bend. He slashed .310/.366/.373 in 365 plate appearances in 80 games in 2016 and could be worth keeping an eye on down the road if he continues to provide a combination of decent contact from the left side of the plate while limiting strikeouts (11.2 K% in 2016) as he rises through the system.
- Cubs Senior VP of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod joined WSCR’s Inside the Clubhouse (listen to the entire podcast from February 4th here) and dished on a variety of topics. But since we mentioned the lack of high-end pitching prospects at the upper levels, we can start there.
- The 2017 calendar year will be of the utmost importance for right-handers Duane Underwood and Dylan Cease, even though McLeod notes they are on “different places in their development paths.” McLeod described Underwood’s 2016 as “frustrating” as nagging injuries (as early as March 2016) and poor performance kept him from progressing in his development. The goal for Underwood is to get him pitch a full, healthy season in 2017 and hope the performance ticks up with injury troubles in the rearview mirror. Underwood was a top-100 prospect as recently as 2015, so hope isn’t completely lost.
- As for Cease, McLeod says “the reins are off” now that Cease is two years removed from Tommy John surgery after the Cubs put him on a conservative comeback trail. Cease’s climb through the organizational ranks will begin at South Bend, where McLeod says there will be no limitations for his first full season. This is positive news for a pitcher who might have the most electric stuff in the system. Cease struck out 66 of the 182 batters (36.26 K%) he faced over 44 innings in Short-Season A-Ball at Eugene. He is a top-100 prospect according to ZiPS‘ 2017 rankings and a late-season ranking from MLB Pipeline. His star will continue to be on the rise if he can stay healthy.
- McLeod also offered a state of the organizational arms kind of statement to the Inside the Clubhouse crew of Bruce Levine and Mike Esposito. “We don’t have the impact starters at the upper level, but with the volume of arms we’ve taken over the last few years and signed internationally we feel really good — not with just the depth but in terms of having some projected Major League impact guys at the A-ball levels and sneaking into Double-A.”
- While the Cubs haven’t developed the kind of pitching prospects who shoot through the minor leagues and make it to The Show, the organization hasn’t had a shortage of bats. The latest big swingers are the aforementioned Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ, and McLeod seemed to be looking forward to having both in the fold in 2017.
- Happ drew what almost seemed to be a reluctant Ben Zobrist comparison, as McLeod explained, “I don’t want to say he’s Ben Zobrist right now, but I think you’re going to see Happ have the kind of versatility for a switch hitter that can play second, he can probably play third, he’s been out in left, played center in college. … He’s that up the middle athletic player you can move around.” McLeod would go on to say that if Happ is “knocking on the door” at Triple-A Iowa, you will likely see him moved around the diamond to prepare him for what could happen under manager Joe Maddon. The plan to start the year will be for Happ’s main position to be second base. I’ll be curious to see where he goes from there and how he performs.
- As for Jimenez, the next step in his development is to continue his learning of how pitchers will attack him. McLeod described Jimenez as an exciting player who profiles as a middle-of-the-order hitter in any lineup, in part because he is “a big, strong, strapping kid with a short swing for a big man” who makes solid contact. So, what’s left to do? A lot actually. Let’s start with the old cat-and-mouse game of pitcher versus hitter. “The thing with Eloy now is trying to understand what pitchers are going to try to do with him, how they’re going to try work him,” McLeod said.
- McLeod also jumped into Eddie Butler territory, which we won’t get to here because it has been written about here and Michael recently wrote what to know about the newest Cubs pitcher here.