In 2016 the Cubs wanted to draft pitching. They believed, in general, that college pitchers were safer picks than high school pitchers. And since they didn’t draft until the third round (that was the year after the Cubs signed qualified free agents John Lackey and Jason Heyward), they didn’t have the draft budget to take many shots on high upside pitchers who might slide, so they locked in on their college pitching strategy. Relentlessly. And the results were one of the strangest drafts we’ve seen in recent memory.
The Cubs signed 24 players from the 2016 draft. Eight of them weren’t pitchers. One of them was a high schooler. One. I don’t recall any draft in which a team didn’t pick until the third round being so memorable for such strange reasons.
Last year at this time, the 2016 draft class had played, at most, about two months of baseball as professionals. Some hadn’t played at all. It was too early to really start meaningfully evaluating just how well the Cubs’ strategy played out. Now that we are an additional year away from the draft, we can start to get a better sense of things. The final verdict won’t be in for a few more years yet, but there are some trends starting to emerge.
There is one important thing to note before we dive into the numbers. Since the Cubs did not have a pick until 104th overall, and since they did not have the draft budget to chase anyone who wanted to sign for very much over slot, we really need to evaluate this draft on a different scale from most other drafts. To put it bluntly, if anyone from this draft class even reaches the majors, we should probably call it a good draft. If they, collectively, amass 10 career Wins Above Replacement, then this draft should be mentioned on the Hall of Fame plaque for everyone in the front office who shaped the strategy.
We’ll start with a few of the position players. In fact, since there are so many pitchers to consider, we’ll give those guys their own write up. For today we’ll worry about just the bats.
Catcher Michael Cruz was the first bat drafted (7th round), and so far things look good. He split his time between Eugene and South Bend last summer, but wound up catching over 230 innings between the two stops. With Eugene he hit .282/.379/.565 in 145 PA, and with South Bend .186/.310/.286 in just 84 PA. At both stops, the walk rate was very good (9.7% and 13.1%) and the strikeout rate left little room for complaint (12.4% and 15.5%). With more time to adjust to Low A pitching, I suspect his South Bend line would have improved.
He’ll probably get that time this year. I suspect Cruz, who turned 22 earlier this month, will head to South Bend as the primary catcher. Catchers move more slowly than other hitters, so I don’t think we should be in any hurry with Cruz. For now, though, the offensive peripherals look fine. If he handles South Bend well, this left-handed hitting receiver should be in good shape to be on the prospect radar.
I think we’ll be hearing quite a bit about infielder Zack Short (17th round) this year. He split his 2017 between South Bend and Myrtle Beach, and put up solid numbers with both. With Myrtle Beach, he finished with a walk rate of 14.4%, a strikeout rate of 18.1%, an ISO of .151, and an OPS of .786. The 22-year-old utility infielder should reach Tennessee at some point this season, possibly Opening Day, and if he replicates those peripherals in Double A he will be in the conversation for future backup infielder openings in Chicago.
Zach Davis, a switch hitting center fielder, stole 23 bases in 56 games for Eugene last summer. He hit .275/.374/.363 along the way, and while his 24.5% strikeout rate is well on the high side for a college guy in Short Season ball, his 10.5% walk rate is solid. The strikeout rate will need to come down as he advances, hopefully starting when he heads to South Bend this year, but it is easy to imagine a future for a switch-hitting center fielder with speed. Whether that future might be as a starter or bench guy will probably come down to just how much he does hit.
The Cubs drafted shortstop Delvin Zinn (23rd round) out of high school in 2015. They didn’t sign him and he went to a community college. That meant he was eligible again in 2016, and this time he signed. Baseball America listed Zinn as one of the more intruiging players in the Cubs draft, and for that reason he gets a mention here. Since he was drafted at 19, he is a long ways off. He only has 51 professional games behind him, and all of them came in Arizona. His numbers are moving in the right direction, though. Last year he walked at a 9.4% clip, struck out 24.2% of the time, and finished with a line of .228/.302/.298. He should get some regular time in Eugene this summer, and that will give us our first good video of him in action.
If Connor Myers (27th round) comes through your town, go watch him play. His defense in center is about as good as you are going to see anywhere in the minors. If the Cubs could DH for the center fielder, he would probably be in Chicago now. He’s that good out there. Unfortunately, a wRC+ of 34 in 332 PA for Myrtle Beach doesn’t leave much room for optimism. He looked better than that at the plate a few times during the season, but not consistently. The glove is good enough that the Cubs will likely be tempted to keep him around as long as they can, just in case the bat comes to life, but that temptation will have an expiration date for the soon-to-be 24-year-old. If you get a chance to watch him play, take it. He’s worth the price of admission.
In short, the position players from the 2016 draft look about like we would expect from a draft that was severely resource constrained: a couple players who profile as bench players if things break right, and a couple interesting long shots. Right now I would keep the closest eye on Zack Short and Zach Davis. Short could be primed for a breakout season, and Davis, if his peripherals hold up, may start to move quickly.
As for the pitchers in the odd-ball 2016 class? We’ll save them for next time.