And finally we get to the outfield, home of the organization’s best prospect. (Who is not currently playing. But still.)
This is a very diverse group of prospects. On the one hand you have very high ceiling guys like Eloy Jimenez and D.J. Wilson, players with star potential, lurking in the lower levels of the system. And on the other hand you have a deep crop of fourth outfielders and fringe starters sitting in Iowa, led by Mark Zagunis. Eventually, probably by next season, that first group is going to start fighting the second group for playing time in the upper minors.
And that means we probably have some transactions involving Triple A outfield prospects on the horizon. Transactions in this case do not necessarily mean trades; we could see some released or put up on waivers as well. That is the cost of having this kind of extreme depth.
Ultimately, though, all eyes will be on Eloy Jimenez. Not only is he the best prospect in this organization, he is among the best prospects in the game.
1. Eloy Jimenez
Jimenez suffered a shoulder injury in spring training, and the Cubs have been bringing him back from that setback slowly. He is still currently in Arizona rehabbing. That has given some other Top 40 prospects, namely Jeimer Candelario (2) and Ian Happ (4) a healthy share of the early season spotlight. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to see people speculating that one of those two (Happ, for most) might have passed Jimenez as the Cubs’ best prospect.
He hasn’t. Neither has. Jimenez is the best prospect in the Cubs’ organization, and I do not think it is particularly close.
Defensively, Jimenez projects as a corner outfielder. He has the arm for right field, if only just, but is probably better suited to left. He is a determined defender, as we saw in the 2016 Futures Game when he flew halfway over the fence in foul ground to make the best catch of the All Star weekend. But, as we also saw in the Futures Game, defense for Jimenez is going to be something he does between at bats. It will be at the plate where he really shines.
And he has the potential to be very shiney indeed. His power is graded as high as 70. I’ve seen 60s dropped on the bat. And that is a very special, very elite combination. Even better, we already have indications that Jimenez can make adjustments quickly. His improvement just during the 2016 season was notable, as seen in his strikeout totals. After striking 51 times in April and May (48 games), he had just 43 the rest of the season (64 games).
Just how high Jimenez’s ceiling is can be a little intimidating to contemplate. He just turned 20 in November, and other than a stint in the Arizona Fall League, has yet to play outside of Low A. But if you were to say “he could be a 40 homer a year guy, with an OPS in the .900 range in his prime”, I would not argue.
The fact that the Cubs did send him to the AFL could indicate that they may think he could move quickly. When he comes back from the shoulder problem, he should start in High A, and we’ll see from there. I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended the year in Tennessee.
11. Mark Zagunis
Zagunis was drafted as a catcher, but he was quickly moved to the outfield full-time, and he has an excellent shot of making to the majors in the not too distant future as an outfielder. Really, the only knock on Zagunis is that he a bit of a ‘tweener – not quite good enough defensively for center field, but with a bat that isn’t quite potent enough for the corners. As a right-handed hitting fourth outfielder, though, or even a fringe starting corner guy, he should have a nice career.
At the plate, Zagunis is all about the OBP. The next time he finishes a season with a walk rate under 10% will be the first time. In terms of seasons with enough Plate Appearances to be meaningful, he’s only been as low as 10% once (Triple A, 2016). His second lowest is 14.2%. Once he gets on base, though, Zagunis is not a speed burner. He has posted double digit steals twice in his career, but his high water mark is 12. I suspect 10 to 15 a year is about as many as we could hope for in the majors.
Zagunis makes hard contact, but his swing produces more line drives than homers. He is a doubles threat, but probably won’t hit more than ten homers a season without swing changes, and probably won’t hit that threshold very often. Given that he is a right-handed hitting corner outifielder, that is part of the problem. Even the fourth outfielder job in Chicago is becoming backed up, and as good as Zagunis’s OBP could look near the top of an order, I’m not sure how the Cubs would ever get him there.
If he stays with the Cubs, Zagunis will be fighting for a bench job for the next few seasons. I suspect he will be considered in trades, though, and in the right situation could take over left field on a daily basis and put up roughly league average total offensive production.
13. D.J. Wilson
Now we get to a legitimate center fielder. Wilson is an undersized left-handed hitter with excellent speed, very good routes, and a good arm who should be just fine for a nice long time as a center fielder. Defensively, he is rivaled on this list only by Jacog Hannemann.
Offensively, the scouting reports have not matched the production. Scouts love Wilson. They rave about his bat speed, his coachability, the projectable power, and the speed at which he made adjustments in Eugene last year. All of that is true, and all of it points to a guy who has a potential future as a starting center fielder who could, if things break very right, challenge for an All-Star bid or two in his prime.
But we are a long, long way from that right now. Right now, Wilson is a guy who struggles with strike zone judgement and gets himself behind in counts (or out) too easily. A 20.4% strikeout rate is high for Short Season A, and that is where Wilson finished 2016.
On the good side, though, he started a lot worse than that – 32 of his 56 strikeouts came in the first half (36 games) as Wilson hit just .197/.302/.282. But he did make adjustments, and in the second half (33 games) he cut the strikeouts down to 24 while hitting .313/.338/.453.
Look for more of that struggle/adjust/thrive pattern from Wilson for awhile. Eventually, though, so long as he continues to adjust in ways that keep strikeouts from becoming a problem, Wilson will probably break out in a big way and challenging for a top five spot on future editions of this list.
17. Eddy Martinez
Martinez also made steady improvements through his first full season as a professional, finishing with a decent line of .254/.331/.380 with 8 steals and 10 homers. Martinez does well on defense – I think his glove is well ahead of his bat right now – and projects as a better than average right fielder with an arm that opposing teams will have to account for. In terms of his arm, think Jorge Soler. He’s in that territory.
The bat should play well enough for him to stay in right. His swing still needs mechanical work, but that’s not surprising given he’s only been playing professionally in the US for a year. He made quite a bit of progress last year, and was still showing off pretty good power despite tinkering with in-season adjustments.
Fast forward a few years, and Martinez projects as a solid hitter who could put up 15 to 20 homers and steals a year while playing above average defense in right. There is plenty of risk here, but also plenty of reason to think he could become a fixture in the lower parts of the Cubs lineup down the road.
23. John Andreoli
Andreoli is one of the best baserunners to come through the farm system. This guy is fast and translates that speed into a lot of stolen bases – 206 of them and counting. He also gets on base a ton – career .375, .374 last season. So why isn’t he in the majors batting leadoff for someone today?
Because speed and on base percentage have primarily been all he brings to the table. He changed his swing and hit 12 homers for Iowa last year, but as a side effect ballooned his usually low strikeout rate to a career high 26.2% in the process. He’s not much of a threat to hit for a high average (though the walks make up for that in the OBP department), and his defense is limited by his arm.
Add it all up, and Andreoli is a major league ready right-handed hitting fifth outfielder trapped in a system that is not really in need of another major league ready right-handed hitting fifth outfielder. As a pinch runner and occasional starter he could be an asset to the Cubs, but he is simply squeezed out by sheer depth for the time being.
25. Jacob Hannemann
In terms of raw tools, Hannemann might be one of the better prospects in this system. He offers a rare blend of power and speed that, if he can fully harness those tools, could turn him into a major league regular. Of those tools, speed is definitely his calling card. He’s a capable base stealer who should continue to get better with experience, and on defense is a very dynamic outfielder with a resume of highlight reel plays in center as well as on the corners.
Hannemann is 26 now, but thanks to a two year post-high-school layoff from baseball, his skill set is not as developed as we might expect. He has had some trouble staying off the disabled list as well; in 2016 he was held to 74 games, and he got a late start in 2017 thanks to another minor issue. Now back in Double A, he’ll probably move to Iowa as soon as the Cubs find room for him.
Since Hannemann is a left-handed hitter as well as a good defender, and is on the 40-man roster, he could have the inside track on a call to Chicago should a need in the outfield appear. Eventually he could take over a starting role, if his development at the plate continues, and – if it somehow came together – an outfield with Hannemann alongside Albert Almora and Jason Heyward would almost certainly be the best defensive unit in baseball.
30. Bijan Rademacher
Rademacher has been in the farm system since 2012, and he is about as major league ready as they come. He does not offer much in the way of power or speed, but if you are looking for a left-handed bat who can come off the bench, work deep counts, get on base at a high rate, and play in the outfield corners, then you’ve found him.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there is much of a chance of Rademacher holding down a starting job over the long term. He has little speed, for one thing, and has yet to hit more than 10 home runs in a single season. Still, Steamer projects Rademacher for a major league line of .251/.320/.372. That’s not too bad for a potential reserve outfielder, if thrust into duty.
At some point Rademacher should get a shot at the majors, but I would not be surprised if he opted to play in Asia one of these years.
35. Charcer Burks
Every time I watch Burks play, he looks better. He started as a no power guy with little plate discipline and way too many strikeouts, but in 2016 he emerged as a legitimate power and speed threat, drawing walks at a 12.4% rate. Admittedly, strikeouts are still a problem; his 21.8% strikeout rate is definitely on the high side. The rest of his line, .247/.356/.407 with 11 homers and 23 steals, is more than enough to keep him on the prospect radar.
Defensively, I think Burks could play anywhere in the outfield. He is not in the same tier as Hannemann or Wilson with the glove, but he should be at least average in center and a large step above that on the corners. His minor league Gold Glove is evidence of that. Offensively, he is starting to look like an everyday player with leadoff hitter potential. We will need to see some improvement in the strikeouts in Double A this season, but other than that, Burks just needs to keep doing his thing to break out with a really nice season.
If he doesn’t get the strikeouts in check, Double A might be about as far as he climbs. We have seen many times that all it takes to sink a promising prospect is trouble making contact. I don’t think that will happen in this case, but I’m ranking cautiously for now. With a strong start to the 2017 season, Burks could jump up about 20 spots and become one of the early season stories for the organization.
And that’s all we have.
The next, and final, article for the 2017 Top 40 will be the grand list of all the prospects in one place for easy reference.