I imagine every regular reader of Bleacher Nation could name at least two players from the Cubs’ 2017 draft – first round picks Brendon Little (LHP) and Alex Lange (RHP). Beyond the first round, though, sometimes it’s hard to remember all the guys who were drafted and signed.
Very regular readers might add overslot high school signees Jeremy Estrada (RHP) and Nelson Velazquez (OF). The unique story behind Chris Singleton (OF) might cause him to stick the memory banks as well.
How about Chris Carrier (OF)? Rollie Lacy (RHP)? Peyton Remy (RHP)? Mitch Stophel (RHP)? Jeffrey Passantino (RHP)? Not only did the Cubs draft all those players, they all signed. And some of them played for at least one Cubs’ affiliate last season!
I’m not going to try to run down all the details on all the non-first-rounders the Cubs’ drafted last season, but there are some names you should be watching in 2018. Unless otherwise noted, expect all of these players to spend time in extended Spring Training and to make their season debut with Short Season Low-A Eugene in June.
Jeremy Estrada (RHP), 6th round
He might be the best pitcher the Cubs drafted. If healthy, he might have been a first round pick. Estrada, 19, wasn’t healthy, and fell to the sixth round, but it sounds like he should be good to go in the spring. The Cubs will probably handle Estrada carefully at first, but his fastball/changeup combo could do pretty well in the low minors. The big questions early for Estrada: does he have the durability to stay in the rotation, and can he develop a third or fourth pitch? 2018 won’t give us all those answers, but it will start to provide some evidence.
Nelson Velazquez (OF), 5th round
Velazquez is 19, raw, toolsy, and already has eight professional home runs in just 126 trips to the plate. He handled the Arizona Rookie League with relative ease, batting .236/.333/.536, and adding 5 steals to go with his 8 bombs. The walk rate was good (11.9%) and the strikeout rate was scary (31.0%), but for a teenager just tasting professional baseball, that strikeout rate doesn’t necessarily worry me. Yet. Now if we get into mid-August and he has a 30%+ strikeout rate in Eugene or South Bend, that’s different. In fact, that strikeout rate, and the adjustments he makes at the plate in general, will be one of the big things to watch for Velazquez this year. The other key will be his defense. The bat could be good, but some reports have his glove rated significantly higher. We’ll have to see.
Keegan Thompson (RHP), 3rd round
In 19 innings for Eugene, Thompson struck out 23, walked 4, and finished with an ERA of 2.37. That’s a nice start to a professional career. Thompson, 22, pitched very well in a tough college conference (Auburn), and he has a reputation for throwing a ton of strikes. That’s good, provided all four of his pitches have enough movement and can be located well enough to avoid hard contact. Northwest League hitters had trouble with him, but how about Carolina League hitters? I suspect Thompson could skip South Bend altogether and jump right to High-A to start the season. He could be that polished. Thompson wasn’t a huge strikeout guy in college, though, so mainly I’ll be watching for a very low walk rate and a high ground ball rate. If those two trends emerge, Thompson is going to shoot through the system in a hurry and could be a candidate for a middle relief or back of the rotation job in 2019.
Austin Upshaw (INF), 13th round
Some say he’s the best hitter in the Cubs’ draft, and he provided some evidence of that with South Bend last summer. Upshaw, 21, signed fast enough to play 52 games for the Cubs, and in those games he hit .290/.339/.381 from the left side of the plate. Most of his time was spent at first, but he played at second and third as well, and I think he should be able to handle all three as he moves up the ladder. As a low strikeout (13.5%) left-handed utility guy, Upshaw could move fast. This year I will mainly be watching his offensive numbers (particularly ISO and BB%) to see if he has enough bat to potentially start, and just how good his glove could be at his various positions. Look for Upshaw to either stay in South Bend for a few months, or start in Myrtle Beach.
Jared Young (INF), 15th round
Another left-handed hitter, Young may be more of a project than we normally see in a college draftee. He is officially listed as 6’2″ and 185 lbs. That means he likely has some room to add additional muscle, and that in turn could translate into a little more power at the plate. With Eugene last year, the 22-year-old hit .257/.311/.336 in 153 PA. Not great, but not a line that comes with a ton of red flags, either. A little more power, enough to push that .079 ISO up a few notches, could turn Young in to a guy who projects to an OPS in the .700 range. At that point he could be a solid utility candidate. Young might start in South Bend, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Cubs hold him in the Arizona weight rooms at least for a time.
Mitch Stophel (RHP), 25th round
I hate to read too much into the line posted by a college pitcher in 15.2 innings in Arizona, but… K/9 of 12.64, groundball rate of 50%, xFIP of 3.74. Oh, and he’s 6’3″. Tall, throws strikes, gets grounders – yep, I’m interested. Stophel, 23, may start the year in the South Bend bullpen, and if he keeps piling up the grounders and strikeouts he may not stay there long. The walk rate of 4.90 BB/9 causes some concern, but not much. Not yet. That will be something to watch this year, as will his general stuff. Not many have seen Stophel pitch, so reliable reports on what he throws are hard to find. South Bend and Myrtle Beach both have excellent video systems, so we should get some answers on that front this spring.
Austin Filiere (INF), 8th round
Filiere was praised for being drafted out of MIT, and there was some speculation that his baseball future lay not on the diamond, but in a front office somewhere. Turns out he’ll probably be staying on the diamond for awhile. With Eugene last summer (217 PA), Filiere, 22, hit .261/.392/.443 with a walk rate of 14.7%, and ISO of .182, and a high-ish but ok strikeout rate of 25.8% while playing mainly at third. The walk rate is the really impressive part here, and if he can keep that up while providing even average power as he moves up the system, Filiere could move quickly. To start with, though, I’m thinking South Bend.