Today we move into the upper half of the Top 40. In previous years, this is where we would start to see some significant prospects appear. In the pre-2015 edition of the Top 40, for example, this bracket included Dan Vogelbach, Victor Caratini, and Jeimer Candelario. This year, the sort of prospect we’ll find is rather different.
Some of you were surprised yesterday to see a couple of guys I project as not much better than defensive bench outfielders ranked in or around the Top 30. In years past, a defensive outfielder with a questionable bat would be ranked only if he were really fantastic with the glove, and maybe not then. A good example of that is Charcer Burks. He won a Gold Glove in 2016, but he didn’t appear on either Top 40 that year, and the farm system was hardly at peak talent even then.
Times are different now. This is a bottom three farm system to some, and given the significant handicaps placed on the Cubs by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it is likely to stay near the bottom for some time. Restocking can happen, but much of that restocking will likely need to be spent to reinforce the major league roster in the come years. After all, if we have learned anything over the past two years, it is that even great teams cannot afford to sit still, and sometimes the only solution is to deal from the farm system.
Fortunately for the Cubs, this organizational weakness is largely by design. They did a fantastic job of timing the arrival of a group of very high upside prospects so that they crashed into the majors together, and as a result the major league roster is set for bats for the next few years. Unfortunately, the lack of a good farm system is still going to present a serious challenge. The Cubs have to fill multiple holes in both the rotation and the bullpen this winter, and they’ll have to do it primarily with with free agent dollars. Creative trades, trades from the major league roster, and maybe even a promotion or two are the fallback approaches, but those are all very uncertain approaches indeed.
In fact, because the farm system is so useful as a means of reinforcing the team mid-season (as we have seen each of the past two seasons), I would argue that restocking the farm system a bit could be the Cubs’ number three priority this winter, right behind filling up the rotation and the bullpen.
Even though this is a weak farm system, there is some upside to be found. There are a handful of players who could, if things break right, develop into impact talent right before our eyes. We saw one of those guys yesterday with Bryan Hudson. Today we will talk about a few more. But first, once again, let’s look to the middle infield. Checking in at Number 24 is…
24. Vimael Machin, Inf
Level: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: 10th round, 2015 draft
Key Stat: His OBPs this year: .371 with South Bend, .356 with Myrtle Beach.
The key difference between Machin and the other middle infielders below him on the Top 40 is that Machin doesn’t really qualify as light hitting. After homering ten times for South Bend, the Cubs sent him to Myrtle beach where, after 18 games, he is already hitting .309/.356/.397.
A left-handed hitter with a very good swing, Machin is not an easy guy to get out. He understands the strike zone and although he doesn’t walk a ton (6.8% walk rate in High A), he doesn’t strikeout out all that often either (15.1%). As evidenced by his high BABIPs (.332 in South Bend, .357 in Myrtle Beach), what Machin does very well is make hard contact. That makes Machin an infielder who can hit for average and who should have average-ish power at worst.
On the downside, he turns 24 in a few months, and with the exception of a short stint in Triple A last season (where he held his own in limited time), he hasn’t progressed past A ball yet. That makes it hard to gauge how much of his offensive success is his ability and how much is his experience in a league full of younger pitchers. Before we can be too confident in Machin, we need to see how he handles Double A. If he posts similar numbers for the Smokies next year, he could move into the conversation for a spot in the top ten.
23. Miguel Amaya, C
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2016.
Key Stat: He’s 18.
If I ranked on nothing but raw upside, Amaya might be a top five prospect. If I ranked guys based on how exciting they are to watch, he might be top three. As an 18-year-old catcher, Amaya is probably half a decade away from the majors in a best case scenario. We have seen a couple of times lately that the bat for catchers tends to develop relatively late, and I don’t think Amaya will be any different. It may be 2020 or so before he really puts everything together at the plate and takes off. If he ever does.
But if he does, he could be a significant impact guy. Even though his overall offensive numbers aren’t great (.203/.233/.327), his strikeout rate isn’t too excessive (21.5%) and he does already have three homers. I think in time he’ll do a better job recognizing pitches he can handle, and that when he does we’ll start to see his numbers tick up.
In the meantime, we can watch him throw out base runners. He has picked off runners 42% of the time this season, and some of his throws to second are impressive. As you would expect with a teenager behind the plate, he has some work to do before he really masters the art of shutting down a running game, but I think he has the tools to be excellent in that department.
So, for now, patience is in order. You’ll probably see Amaya on this list a lot over the next few seasons. Eventually you might see him on top of it.
22. Chesny Young, Inf
Acquired: 14th round of the 2014 draft
Key Stat: Meet the best pure hitter in the farm system.
Chesny Young is exceptional hitter. In terms of the ability to recognize pitches and make solid contact, he is probably the best in the farm system right now. Unfortunately, there are probably some pitchers who have more power at the plate. That results in the very odd reality that Young, while playing in the power friendly Pacific Coast League, has managed an ISO of just .051.
At a glance it looks like Young is slumping this year, but I’m not sure that’s the case. His line is only ok (.278/.327/.329), but the peripherals look much stronger (6.5% walk rate, 14.1% strikeout rate, BABIP of .323). Basically, that line is only ok because of a complete lack of power. He makes regular contact, but that results primarily in singles. If he can find just a bit more power somewhere, he could probably be a league average player in terms of offensive value.
Defensively, Young can play anywhere. So far this season he has played every position for Iowa but pitcher and catcher, and if the need arose I completely believe that he could do a credible job behind the plate. His path to the majors as an extremely versatile right handed bat off the bench is easy to see, and it is a role that could keep him on a major league roster for a number of years. But to get there, he probably needs just a little more power at the plate.
21. Jhonny Bethencourt, Inf
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2015.
Key Stat: OBP of .372, SLG of .407
Bethencourt has posted a double digit walk rate every year he has bee a professional, and this year (12.2%) is no exception. What is different is that his strikeout rate is much higher than his previous rates (23.1%, up from the low teens), and so is his ISO (.126, up from about .078). I suspect Bethencourt is making some adjustments to his swing this season that are designed to unlock some power, but along the way his strikeout rate has ticked up.
I’m not sure how much power Bethencourt is going to have long term, but right now I’m not too worried about it. I really like the walk rates he is putting up, and I like the apparent adjustments that have lowered his groundball rate, raised his flyball rate, and incrased his ISO. Those are exactly the changes he would need to make if the bat is going to break out.
If he does breakout, it will likely be as a second or third baseman. He has played quite a bit of both, and a future in a utility role can’t be ruled out. We’ll get a better idea when he heads to South Bend next season. By the end of the season after that, if these peripheral numbers hold up, he could be in Tennessee.
20. Michael Rucker, RHP
Level: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: 11th round of the 2016 draft
Key Stat: 2.02 ERA through 71.1 innings
Rucker began his season in the South Bend bullpen. Seven games and 12.2 innings later, he and his 15.63 K/9 and 0.00 BB/9 were shipped over to Myrtle Beach. Eventually he moved into the rotation, and eventually he even started walking some people. Now he has emerged as one of the fastest moving pitching prospects in the system.
Rucker is still getting plenty of strikeouts (9.21 K/9 in High A), limiting the walks (2.02 BB/9) and proving stingy with the long balls (0.38 HR/9). That’s a formula for success at any level, and sure enough he holds an ERA of 2.02 and an xFIP of 3.25. His groundball rate is solid at 41.4%, but nothing exceptional.
Nothing exceptional might be the best way to describe his stuff as well. He uses a fairly typical fastball /curve / changeup mix, and all of them are good. And his control is good. The question is whether he can get to the majors with simply good, or if some great needs to mix in there somewhere. For now I have him down as a fairly high floor guy, but one with a limited ceiling. Look for Rucker to be competing for a middle innings bullpen or back of the rotation job by mid-2019.
19. Jonathan Sierra, OF
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2016
Key Stat: Two home runs with the promise of more to come.
Sierra is officially listed at 6’3″, 190 lbs, and he is the next in a line of slugging outfielders from the Caribbean to pass through the Cubs’ farm system. That doesn’t mean he is certain to reach the majors like Jorge Soler or become an elite prospect like Eloy Jimenez, but I think he has the makings of a quality prospect in his own right.
We don’t have a whole lot to go on with Sierra right now. His walk rate this season is good (7.3%), but his strikeout rate is awful (33.6%). He projects as a power guy, but he has more steals (4) than homers. And since he is in Arizona, we don’t have a lot of video or third party scouting reports on him. There is a lot of unknown here.
But there are signs he could be special, and not just the monster signing bonus the Cubs gave him a couple years ago. Thanks to good line drive and fly ball rates, his BABIP is a rock solid .344. His speed probably helps that, but I strongly suspect that the BABIP is an indicator that when he does make contact, he makes very hard contact with regularity. The strikeout rate is terrifying, but I’m going to reserve panic on the grounds that he’s very young and the Cubs are almost certainly working on his swing.
It may be another year and a half or so before we really know what the Cubs have in Sierra, but there are plenty of reasons (other than that strikeout rate) to be optimistic.
18. Trevor Clifton, RHP
Acquired: 12th round, 2013 draft
Key Stat: 4.45 ERA
Clifton had a great season a year ago, finishing his High A campaign with 9.76 K/9 and an ERA of 2.72. As a result, hopes were high entering 2017. But once again we have evidence that the jump to Double A is the toughest jump in the minors as Clifton has regressed in every key area. His K/9 is down (7.71), his BB/9 is uncomfortably high (4.15), his HR/9 is a career high (0.79), and his xFIP is near a career high (4.33). In other words, not a lot has gone right for Clifton.
But he remains one of the Cubs better pitching prospects. Clifton has had issues with control in the past, and this is not the first time an elevated walk rate has hurt him. This also isn’t the first time we saw a steep drop in strikeout rate year over year. What Clifton has been able to do so far, though, is adjust and keep improving. That’s partly why I still have him in the Top 20 and still think he could be a mid-rotation starter for the Cubs one day.
That day just won’t be as fast as I had hoped. For now, Clifton just needs to get a handle on his control again and get back to letting his mid-90s stuff work for him. Finding a way to raise his groundball rate of 36.1% percent would be nice, but at this point Clifton probably is who he is, and who he is should be good enough to compete for a job in the Cubs’ rotation in another season or so. If he can regain that control.
17. Eddy Martinez, OF
Level: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2016 season.
Key Stat: 16.7% strikeout rate, .135 ISO
Martinez was given a tough assignment in 2016. After joining the Cubs’ organization, he was immediately sent to the (compared to his Cuban home) frozen tundra of South Bend. He struggled badly. And then, slowly, over the course of the season, started to look a whole lot better. He finished up with a wRC+ of 111.
This year he went to Myrtle Beach, and struggled badly. And then he got better. By month, his OPSs for this season are .587 (April), .573 (May), .641 (June), .838 (July). His thirteen total homers are already more than last year, and he still has a month to go.
The promise with Martinez, and promise he looks more likely to fulfill every time I see him, is that of a true five tool outfielder. He has the speed to steal a dozen bases a year with more experience, the glove to handle center field with ease, the arm to keep base runners honest from right field, and the power to send lots of balls on very long journeys. The biggest question has been his bat – does he have enough of a hit tool to tap into his power and let his other tools play?
Jury is still out on that, but I’m leaning heavily into the “Yes!” column. Martinez has a strikeout rate this season of just 16.7%, and that is very good. His BABIP is lowish for a guy with his speed, .258, but I think that is a factor of him still adjusting at the plate. It suggest that Martinez is a guy who can make contact even on pitches he can’t drive. Once he starts letting those go and waiting for pitches he can hammer, his numbers could explode.
And when they do, if they do, we could be looking at the best prospect in the system. That’s a huge ‘if’, though, and he has an even bigger test awaiting him in Tennessee next season. That said, if you are looking for an exciting, high upside prospect to follow, you could do a lot worse than Eddy Martinez.