As you might expect given the Cubs’ stable of young hitters in the majors, outfield is not a place where they are lacking in depth. Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Albert Almora Jr. are all still on the roster as full-time outfielders (though I suppose we could see Schwarber head back behind the plate part time at some point), and Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist split their time between the infield dirt and the outfield grass. Once or twice a season we’ll even see Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and maybe even Victor Caratini in the outfield as well.
The upper minors are similarly loaded with outfielders, although, for the most part, they profile more as bench players than regular starters.
One exception might be Charcer Burks. Although Burks is best known for his defense -and it is Gold Glove caliber defense in left, where he plays the most – the bat is starting to come around. His 2017 Double A line of .270/.370/.395 is the best he has posted since he left the shortseason leagues. He also stole 16 bases and hit ten homers, and earned himself a trip to the Arizona Fall League in the process.
The best news, though, comes from his peripheral numbers. Burks posted walk rates between 10.2% and 13.5% in each of the past four years, and strikeout rates under 21.8% across that same span. At just 22, he has time to further refine his swing, add some additional muscle, and probably see a slight increase in overall power. I can see him turning in to a league average-ish bat in the majors, something in the wRC+ 95 to 105 range perhaps. Combined with his elite defense in left, that should make Burks a valuable fourth outfielder with the potential to start on a regular basis should the roster require it.
Burks isn’t even the best defensive outfielder in the upper minors, though. I would give that title to Jacob Hannmann, the long time Cubs prospect who was briefly a Mariner and is now back. Hannemann is also a minor league Gold Glove type, and is probably the best defensive outfielder I have watched in the minors, with the exception of some guy named Almora.
At this point, Hannemann is basically a defensive fifth outfielder, pinch runner, and left-handed bat off the bench. On a team with less outfield depth than the Cubs I think he would be a very strong contender to make the Opening Day roster in that role. With the Cubs, he’s likely headed back to Iowa to continue work on his bat while making even more highlight reel plays in the grass.
If you’re looking for more of an offensive option, Mark Zagunis is an candidate. Zagunis does two things pretty well – he draws walks (17.2% walk rate in Iowa), and hits the ball hard (.188 ISO, .333 BABIP with Iowa). Unfortunately, his glove is probably limited to left in the majors. That said, a fourth outfielder who could realistically post a wRC+ in the 100 neighborhood in the majors isn’t a bad depth option to have.
Bijan Rademacher is a viable right fielder, but also fits into the potential offensive substitute outfielder role. He doesn’t have the power of Zagunis (.142 ISO in Iowa) or the elite walk rate (10.9% walk rate), but is more likely to hit for average and has the advantage of being left-handed. He probably projects more as a 90-95 wRC+ guy long term, but that is still nice to have stashed in the minors for emergencies.
There are even more interesting outfielders in the lower minors, several of whom should really have your attention. If the Cubs can avoid the need to deal them away for bullpen help, there are outfielders in the very low minors who have a chance (hard to say how much of a chance because of how low in the system they are) to emerge as impact players in a few years.
D.J. Wilson draws rave reviews for his defense, and at the age of 20 held his own at the plate in the Midwest League. The potential is here for Wilson to become an excellent defensive center fielder who is a 15 HR, 30 SB threat, but he is still a few years away.
Eddy Martinez is closer to the majors; he spent last season in Myrtle Beach at 22, but I don’t think we’ve quite seen what he is fully capable of yet. Martinez was a well-regarded Cuban defector the Cubs signed prior to 2016, and he is still rapidly adapting his game. For example, jumping from Low A to High A he cut his strikeout rate from 21.9% to 15.5% while holding his ISO around .120. Next season he should be challenged by a trip to Double, and it may not be until the second half in Double A that we really see what this guy might be capable of. You can dream on a good right fielder with a good mix of speed and power, but it remains possible that issues making consistent hard contact will still hold him back. If you’re looking for a player who could have an explosive rise up the prospect charts in 2018, though, this might be your guy.
Jonathan Sierra will be 19 years old for the 2018 season, and he’ll probably spend that season in Eugene … or maybe South Bend. Sierra has the potential to be an excellent slugger, but this left-handed hitter is years away. If thing break right, he could be arriving near the end of the decade, though, when the Cubs could be badly in need some of good, cost-controlled bats.
And then we have Nelson Velazquez. Velazquez was drafted out of Puerto Rico last summer, and he is quickly becoming a lot of people’s favorite player from the Cubs’ 2017 draft. As his Arizona Rookie League SLG of .536 shows, this is a guy with plenty of power. He also drew plenty of walks (11.9%), which is a good sign, but we won’t really know what the Cubs have in Velazquez until he is tested against tougher competition. Like Sierra, I think he’ll head to Eugene next year, but I’m hoping he is vaulted up to South Bend. For now, his timeline looks similar to Sierra’s as well.