The best middle infield prospect in the farm system may not be on this list. While all eyes on are Ian Happ and Chesny Young and Isaac Paredes (particularly Happ (and deservedly so)) for now, lurking in the instructional leagues is a guy named Aramis Ademan. The reports on any player based on nothing but practice games and rookie level contests can be iffy, but in the case of Ademan, certain traits keep coming up: can probably stay at short, relatively polished swing, advanced for his age, can hit for average.
As a general rule, I don’t rank prospects until they have played professionally in the U.S. simply because concrete data on players is so tough to find until they get into stateside leagues. Ademan, whom the Cubs signed to a big bonus out of the Dominican Republic in the last IFA class, is no exception. I think a case could be made for ranking Ademan towards the back end of the Top Ten on the high side, and should Happ prove to be an outfielder after all, that would in fact make Ademan the best infield prospect in the system. But a case can also be made for ranking Ademan a lot lower than that. Until we get some solid stateside data, it is just too hard to say.
Just keep in mind when reading through this that the next shortstop prospect, a guy who has been compared favorably to one Gleyber Torres by smart people who are not prone to exaggeration (not that he will become another Torres, you understand) is waiting for his cue.
And who knows what additional gems the Cubs may find from their highly productive scouting operation in Mexico. One third of this list came from Mexico, and I suspect the Cubs are not done finding talent in that often overlooked part of world.
4. Ian Happ
I know. This ranking is low, compared to where we’ve seen Happ on other lists. Allow me to explain.
The floor for Happ is a quality Major League bench player. As floors go, that is quite a floor for a 22-year-old hitting Triple A for the first time. And that floor all but guarantees that this is about as low as you will ever see Happ ranked.
He is ranked this low right now because I’m not yet entirely sold on the ceiling.
On the good side, Happ is a disciplined switch-hitter who can hit for power from both sides of the plate. He has shown a decent of command of the strike zone (7.3% walk rate in Double A) as well as enough speed to take advantage of opportunities on the basepaths, even if he isn’t threat to pile up large numbers of steals. Defensively, he gets most of his work at second base and in center field, but could handle any of the outfield slots and probably third base as needed. Unfortunately, he’s not an above-average defender at any of those positions.
And that is part of the problem. Ten years ago, teams were more than happy to take a defensively-challenged bat and hide him at second base, but those days are fading. Now about the only position the Cubs are likely to hide a weak defender is left field, and there is a list of part-time left fielders already on the roster ahead of Happ.
Happ has made improvements in his defense at second, in particular, but so far I have not seen enough to convince me he is going to be a regular there. That could change as the season plays out, but for now I think his glove will be ok at second and in center, but that “ok” probably won’t be enough for him to take a daily position in the field in the near-term on a team like the Cubs.
The other aspect that makes me cautious on Happ is his strikeout rate. 21.9% in Double A isn’t exactly bad, but certainly isn’t good. (Even here in the early going of 2017, as Happ has hit well at AAA Iowa, his strikeout rate is 20.5%. Again, not bad, but also not low.)
Happ’s strikeouts tend to be in deep counts and a result of being overly selective rather than the result of him swinging through hittable pitches, but I doubt that part of his game will simply go away. He’ll still be a valuable hitter with a strikeout rate in the low 20% range in the majors, but, with those strikeouts, it becomes a little harder to see a future star instead of a solid role player.
For now, I see Happ as mixing an above-average bat and below-average glove with a healthy dose of flexibility to become the sort of player who can start four times a week at three different positions and contribute with pinch hits in key moments on the off days. Those are immensely valuable guys to have.
There is a chance, though, that Happ finds a defensive home at second base and cuts back a little on the strikeouts, and in that scenario he could turn into an All-Star.
9. Chesny Young
With a just a touch more power in his bat, Young would be challenging for a top five slot on this list. Young is a hitter, pure and simple. He does an excellent job taking what the pitcher offers and making solid contact. He lays off the bad pitches, and he’ll send the hittable ones to all parts of the diamond. If we were ranking the hitters in the farm system in terms of the toughest to get out, Young would probably top the list.
He also has quite a bit of defensive versatility. He is a good second baseman, does fine at third, and can easily handle part time duty at short. Outfield really isn’t a problem either, particularly the corners. In short, Young could probably fill in competently at seven different positions, and would be good enough with the glove to start at more than half of them.
He also has decent speed, and since he gets on base a lot thanks in part to his high batting average, he is a good candidate to steal twenty or more bases a year with regular playing time.
So what’s the downside? Power. He doesn’t have much. The best ISO he has managed as a professional came in the Midwest League in 2014, and that was just .095. In over 330 career minor league games, he has a total of five home runs. There is absolutely a place in the majors for a versatile defender who can get on base and steal some bags, but that place is often one of the final two or three spots on the roster. Moreover, a lack of power doesn’t just manifest itself in a low ISO in the big leagues – it can also negatively impact batting average and walk rate, as more lightly-struck balls in play are converted into outs, and much better pitchers work consistently in the zone with impunity.
I do like Young’s odds of making the majors in a bench capacity, and I think his swing will do very well in pinch hit assignments. I would not be surprised, though, to see him included in a larger trade at some point.
20. Isaac Paredes
Paredes, for now, is the best shortstop prospect in the farm system. A right-handed hitter, Paredes is showing an advanced understanding of the strike zone for a teenager. In the Arizona Rookie League last summer he walked 13 times in 185 trips to the plate, and struck out just 20 times. He showed decent power for his age, with a .138 ISO, and finished his time in Mesa with a line of .305/.359/.443. The Cubs pushed him up to South Bend for the playoffs, and he was the regular shortstop for the Cubs for their short playoff run.
This year, at the age of 18, he started out back in South Bend. Since this will be his first full year as a professional, the Cubs will likely keep him all season in South Bend. That should give us plenty of time to take a look at his glove work and get a better sense whether he can stay at short or will be moving to second or third. At the plate, we’ll mainly be looking to see how he adjusts as Midwest League pitchers begin adjusting to him throughout the summer.
It is a little tough to put a ceiling on Paredes just yet, but regular Major League infielder is certainly in his range.
33. Carlos Sepulveda
Like Paredes, the Cubs signed Sepulveda out of Mexico. There are not as many scouts covering baseball in Mexico as there are in some of the other Caribbean countries, so there was not a lot of information out there on Sepulveda when he began to play with the Cubs.
But we quickly learned that he is a very capable second baseman with a smooth left-handed swing that projects to hit for average and draw quite a few walks. Like Young, though, there are concerns about his ability to hit for enough power to maintain a regular starting job.
He is only 20 and already in High A as the regular second baseman for the Pelicans. The Cubs will probably keep him as a regular second baseman until it becomes evident that his bat will propel him to the majors, and then I suspect he’ll start to get some experience at short and third in preparation for a potential career as a utility guy. If he does manage to turn into a left handed version of Young, he could have a chance for a very nice career indeed.
36. David Bote
Bote has been hanging around the farm system since 2012. When the 2016 season opened he was basically an organizational infielder, filling in at Iowa and Tennessee when injuries opened up a space. And then the Cubs traded away Gleyber Torres, opening a hole at shortstop in Myrtle Beach. Bote was asked to fill that hole.
And fill it he did. In 72 games (broken up over multiple stints) Bote hit .337/.410/.518 with six homers and six steals. In August and September, as the trade-depleted Pelicans were fighting for a playoff slot, he put up an OPS north of .980. Simply put, he was one of the best hitters in the Carolina League in 2016 and was a big reason why Myrtle Beach was able to win their second consecutive title. And he did a nice job at short, as well.
Now solidly on the prospect radar, Bote, 24, should get a chance in Double A this year to demonstrate what sort of a player he could be. A future as a right-handed hitting utility infielder is one possibility, and probably the most likely one, but I would not rule out a starting role at second or third one day. Inconsistent playing time has made him a little hard to evaluate, but he has shown flashes of power in some tough leagues in the past, enough power for me to believe that he could turn into average or slightly better than average bat in the majors one day.
37. Yeiler Peguero
The switch hitting Peguero was a key part of the Northwest League champion Eugene team last summer, playing at both short and second and looking promising at both slots. His season numbers were not particularly good (.260/.326/.336 with a home run and six steals), but his peripheral numbers show some promise (8.4% walk rate, 15.1% strikeout rate).
He should see plenty of work in the middle infield with South Bend this year, although with Paredes and Zach Short on the roster he will probably find most of his innings coming at second base. Offensively, I like what I saw on tape during Eugene’s stretch run and am looking forward to seeing more this year with South Bend. He could have a chance to hit for average as well have roughly average power; from a switch hitting middle infielder, that could be fairly valuable. Peguero flies a bit under the radar in the Cubs system, but he is well worth keeping an eye on.
The final round of our prospect rankings will focus on the outfielders, featuring the organization’s number one prospect. After that we’ll have a wrap up with all the names in one place as well as a few other interesting tidbits.