Today we cross into the very bottom rungs of the top ten, and from here on out pitching will very definitely be the story. Of the remaining sixteen prospects to discuss, ten of them are pitchers.
I don’t think there will be very many surprise names on the rest of this list. It is relatively clear who the best prospects left in the system are as a group. The ordering of them, on the other hand, is where things get really tricky. That is made more complicated by the fact that ten of the sixteen have spent all or most of their time this season in one of the A ball levels. The lower the level, the tougher it is to rank the prospect.
But ranked they are, and once again we have quite a lot of upside on the list. Lots of risk, more than we are used to seeing in this bracket, but it isn’t hard to imagine a major league future of some sort for any of these players.
We kick things off with a third baseman who is having the best year of his career. At number 16 …
16. Jason Vosler, 3B
Acquired: 16th round of the 2014 draft.
Key Stat: .259/.361/.439 with 15 homers
Vosler has emerged as one of the best slugging prospects remaining in the farm system, and the peripheral numbers suggest he should produce enough in the majors to keep his left-handed bat around for awhile. In addition to his overall solid line, Vosler has a very good walk rate of 10.5%. His strikeout rate of 21.1%, on the other hand, is shading towards the high side. If his power holds up at higher levels he’ll probably be fine with that much swing and miss, but the margin for error here is thin.
The really impressive thing with Vosler is how much he has improved his results over last season. He split time between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee last season, and in both cases he did not hit for much power. His Tennessee line in 2016 (105 PA) was just .250/.314/.359. This year’s success comes as a result of improved patience, fewers strikeouts, and a much higher ISO. In short, Vosler is showing signs of waiting for pitches he can drive, and then driving them.
Defensively, Vosler is a third baseman. He has played one game at first this season, and part of one game at second. And that’s it. The fact that he is very definitely blocked at third base could mean that he has more value to the Cubs as a trade candidate.
15. Dillon Maples, RHP
Level: Triple A
Acquired: 14th round of the 2011 draft.
Key Stat: Tennessee xFIP of 1.92
Without a doubt, the emergence of Dillon Maples has been the best farm system story of the season. Maples was drafted as a high ceiling high school pitcher who needed arm surgery and mechanical adjustments, and then began a long series of rehabs, injuries, and struggles. By the time the 2017 season rolled around, most folks had written him off. He showed enough during the 2016 season to sneak into the mid-season Top 40 in the 40th slot, but was missing from the 2017 pre-season edition.
What a difference four months make. Now a case can be made that Maples belongs in the top five. I won’t be making it though, because even though he is having a fantastic season and I think he is a lock to reach the majors (perhaps as soon as September), I still have some concerns. I could only rank a true reliever like Maples at the top of the system if I were convinced he was a closer in the making, and while that is in his range, I’m just not quite there.
First the good stuff: Maples’ fastball might be the best pitch we have seen in this farm system in a long time. MLB Pipeline drops a 75 on it, and by some accounts that is conservative. He can reach triple digits, locate it fairly well, and it has a ton of movement. It is both an out pitch and a pitch that sets up his breaking stuff, stuff that he can also use to get outs. This season he has gotten strikeouts at an elevated rate everywhere, ranging from 12.64 K/9 in Myrtle Beach to 18.44 K/9 in Tennessee. His walk rates have also been elevated (4.15 BB/9 in Iowa to 7.24 BB/9 in Tennessee), but his fantastic groundball rates in the low 60% band help make up for that. Basically, Maples is a guy who can walk himself into trouble, but can use strikeouts or double play balls to get right back out of trouble again.
My chief concern is that batters can square him up at a fairly high rate. He doesn’t give up a lot of contact, but his Batting Average On Balls In Play is over .400 in both Double and Triple A. The better infield defense in the majors will probably cut into that somewhat, but not entirely. That means Maples is a guy who, every once in a while, will have an inning go very wrong for him. That variability could be enough to keep him out of very high leverage roles, at least for a time.
But he could probably contribute to a major league bullpen as a lower leverage guy starting now. And when he does get that call, it should serve as a reminder that we shouldn’t give up on prospects too early. It sometimes takes a while for great tools to translate into success, but if those tools are there, patience can be very much rewarded.
14. Justin Steele, LHP
Level: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: 5th round, 2014 draft
Key Stat: He’s cut his walk rate back to 3.28 BB/9.
Steele is still two years or so away from the majors, but he is looking increasing like a guy who could fill in at the back of the Cubs’ rotation one day. His numbers are not eye-popping (7.48 K/9, 3.28 BB/9, 48.7% groundball rate), but he’s managed to convert those numbers into an ERA of 2.92.
His xFIP, on the other hand, is 4.15. That suggests that Steele has done a little better of a job keeping the ball in the ballpark than we’d expect given his number of fly balls allowed. And looking at his results, we see that he has allowed a flyball on 31% of his batted balls. Since he isn’t a high strikeout guy, he allows a lot of batted balls, and a lot of those are fly balls. That could be a recipe for trouble.
We’ll see how that works out for him in Double A next season. If the flyball rate does run him into homer related trouble, he’ll have some time to made adjustments before we realistically start talking about a trip to Chicago. At worst he could morph into a lefty bullpen arm, but for now I think a future as a number four starter is well within reach.
13. Charcer Burks, OF
Acquired: 9th round, 2013 draft
Key Stat: .364 OBP and 14 steals
Burks is a Gold Glove winning left fielder who is worth prospect consideration for his glove alone. What jumps him up to number thirteen on this list is the progress he has made with the bat.
Burks had a good year at the plate with Myrtle Beach in 2016 (115 wRC+), but despite making the difficult jump to Tennessee, he has improved his offensive game almost across the board. His walks are up (13.2%), his strikeouts are down (19.6%), and his BABIP is up (.319). His raw power has dropped a bit (ISO down to .117) and he isn’t stealing quite as much (14 SB vs 23 total in 2016), but overall he has improved his game in significant ways.
The Smokies have played Burks mostly in left and center, and I think that is where he would likely play in the majors. His right handed bat might not be an obvious fit in the Cubs lineup, but an outfield of Heyward, Almora, and Burks would likely be one of the best defensive groups assembled in a Cubs’ uniform in a very long time.
All of that could make him an attractive trade candidate as well. I suspect Burks will be dicussed over the winter as well as next summer. Whether with the Cubs or someone else, I think he’ll reach the majors in 2018.
12. Wladimir Galindo, 3B
Level: South Bend
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2014 season.
Key Stat: His lowest career SLG is .432.
Galindo doesn’t have quite the power numbers with South Bend that he showed in Eugene, but he is still one of the better slugging prospects in the system. His decline in power figures (ISO down to .142) correlates with a very promising decline in strikeout rate. A year ago his K% was 28.6%, and that was a problem. This year it is 22.6%, and while that is still high it isn’t disasterously so.
Through 177 PA this season, Galindo is hitting a robust .290/.350/.432 with four homers. Defensively he has spent most of his time at third, and the remainder at first. That means, for now, his right handed bat is thoroughly blocked at the major league level.
Galindo is a long way from the majors, though, and by the time he gets there (2021 or so) the Cubs could be on the doorstep of an opening at first; Rizzo has two option years on his contract, and 2021 is the second one. That means Galindo could be part of the next core, the group of prospects who will need to be ready and waiting when the Cubs’ current young core moves into the final year or so before free agency.
That concept of the next core is one to keep in mind when looking at prospects in the low minors. Just because they are blocked today doesn’t mean they will be when the finally arrive, and just because the Cubs don’t need them today doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t have a hole in four or five years. Hanging onto a high upside bat here or there could pay off down the road, provided of course that they hang on to the right one.
11. D.J. Wilson, OF
Level: South Bend
Acquired: 4th round, 2015 draft
Key Stat: His ISO this year .205.
The big question with Wilson before this season was whether or not he could hit for enough power to let his natural speed work for him. And by power, we didn’t mean home run power. We meant ‘get the ball into the gaps enough for some hits’ power. So far this season, that question is no longer relevant. Wilson is slugging .447, has an ISO of .205, and has eight home runs. The power is fine.
Unfortunately, that power has come with an increase in strikeouts that has left Wilson in the scary territory. His K% is now 26.4%, and that is definitely too high for Low A. His walk rate (9.3%) is good, but a strikeout rate that high will make it tough for Wilson to get on base enough to let his best tool, his speed, play. Somewhere he needs to find a balance between enough power and not too many strikeouts.
Fortunately, he has two and half to three years to look for that balance, and we have no reason to think he won’t find it. Long term (2020 or 2021), Wilson projects as a left handed hitting center fielder with excellent defense, double digit home run power, and maybe 25 or 30 steals a year. If he sticks with the Cubs, I don’t think he’ll have any trouble finding some sort of a role on the major league roster.
If the strikeouts come down. As a high strikeout guy, Wilson could be looking at a ceiling of a defensive fourth outfielder.
10. Javier Assad, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2016
Key Stat: xFIP of 3.34.
If there is a name in the top ten you don’t recognize, it is probably Javier Assad. Assad is a product of the Cubs’ extensive scouting operations in Mexico who is in just his second year with the Cubs’ organization. For now the Cubs are taking their time with this right hander and letting him move one level at a time. Once he gets a year of full season ball under his belt next summer, that may change. There are signs that Assad could move quickly.
Assad ticks all the boxes for a low level pitching prospect. He has the strikeout rate (9.5 K/9), the low walk rate (2.16 BB/9), and the good ground ball rate (51.8%). He has allowed a few home runs (0.43 HR/9), but not too many. And he does give up some hard contact resulting in a BABIP of .374, but improvements to his secondary pitches over time should help with that. As is, he has an xFIP of 3.34.
It is too early to say whether or not Assad will stay in the rotation, or even how long he can keep up this run of success, but from what I’ve seen I’m optimistic. I think Assad has a fairly high floor for a low level pitching prospect, and that he has a fair amount of upside. Number ten is probably an aggressive ranking, but I’m going with it.
9. Alex Lange, RHP
Acquired: 1st round, 2017 draft
Key Stat: He’s a first round pick.
To be clear, this ranking isn’t based on a whole lot. Lange has professional stats from one game, and that game he was excellent. But I’m not ranking him based on two professional innings. He did impress me in the College World Series, but I’m not ranking him based on that, either.
Basically, I’m ranking Lange based on nothing but scouting reports (and that is not something I like to do). The scouts say Lange had one of the best curveballs in the draft, and that his fastball is about as good. Throw in a changeup that shows promise and you have the makings of a solid middle of the rotation starter who could move through the system quickly.
Except that he is also said to have inconsistent command that sometimes leads to very bad outings. That could be something the Cubs can correct; we’ll just have to wait and see. We do know the Cubs liked him enough to draft him 30th overall in June … but also that they reportedly had some health concerns.
Like I said, this ranking isn’t based on a whole lot. We’ll learn a lot more about him in 2017 when he reports to a full season team, and this time next year I’ll be able to rank him with a lot more confidence than today.