If the Cubs are going to be able to restock their farm system with elite and near elite talent while maintaining an excellent team in the majors, they are going to have to do it by – among other things – out-scouting other organizations on the International Free Agent front. The fact that the current CBA prevents the Cubs from spending the most money means they probably won’t land many of the consensus best prospects in any IFA class going forward, and we should not be expecting them to find any more everyone-agrees-they’re-great-from-the-moment-of-signing Eloy Jimenez or Gleyber Torres types.
Not all good major league players were the top prospects in their IFA class, however. Willson Contreras is just one example of a non-widely-heralded IFA signing that has worked out very well for the Cubs, and several pitching prospects are working their way up right now after being under-the-radar targets. And if you go even further down in the farm system, you can see more hope on the horizon.
Specifically, there is reason for optimism in the Cubs’ 2017 Dominican Summer League class. It is much too early to say if any of these guys – most of them teenagers – will reach the majors, let alone if they can be Contreras-level impact players once they do, but there are some players with very positive peripheral numbers that we should keep a very careful eye on for the year ahead. With any luck, some or all of these players will come stateside and play in the Arizona Rookie League (where the Cubs now have two teams), or maybe even the Northwest League, this summer.
For now we’ll stick with the bats in the DSL. The pitchers will get their own article, and, rest assured, there are some pitchers well worth talking about. Today, though, is all about the offense.
Starting with 19-year-old switch-hitting outfielder Fernando Kelli. Kelli’s line of .320/.437/.443 should be enough to get your attention, but it gets better. His walk rate of 11.9% and strikeout rate of 17.1% are also very noteworthy … but, still, it gets better. He stole 58 bases in 67 games in 2017. He led the DSL in steals last summer, and no one was remotely close to him. If, just for fun, we project that pace over a 162 game season, he’d have 140 steals. The all-time Major League record for steals in a season is 138, and that was set in 1887. (So, clearly, that record is going to fall in a couple years.) With that kind of base-stealing ability, that strong of a walk rate, and that good of an overall line, Kelli is one to watch very closely indeed.
Right-handed hitting infielder Luis Diaz (18) didn’t do anything as stunning as Kelli’s stolen base totals, but he did put up a very good overall line of .273/.374/.466 with a 12.2% walk rate, a 17.9% strikeout rate, 8 homers, and 25 steals. At the very least, those numbers reflect an athletic infielder who is squaring the ball up consistently. At this stage of the minors, that is exactly what we want to see.
Moving behind the plate, left-handed hitting catcher Jonathan Soto (19) stands out for an absurdly low strikeout rate of just 9.7%. He also walks 9.3% of the time, so it doesn’t look like he’s lacking in selectivity. When he does make contact, his .284/.350/.383 line suggests a lighter stick right now. But the ability to make that much consistent contact, combined with just a little more power he could develop as he gets older, could turn Soto into a noteworthy offensive catching prospect in a couple of years.
One of the things I most like to see from very young players is a higher walk total than strikeout total, because much of that discipline ability is innate. Josue Huma (17), a switch-hitting middle infielder, qualifies as both very young and drew 29 walks against 28 strikeouts. Both rates were right about 10%. He hit .238/.318/.323 with a homer and 20 steals, numbers that will likely improve as he gets older. For now, we’ll just keep an eye on him.
Carlos Pacheco (18) was second in the DSL with 9 home runs. A product of the Cubs’ much-discussed Mexican scouting operation, Pacheco, a right-handed hitting outfielder, also stole 10 bases on his way to a .232/.366/.424 line. As you might expect, his walk rate was excellent (16.4%), but the strikeout rate was definitely on the high side for the level (24.9%). That said, good power and a good walk rate in his first professional season, as a teenager playing in a foreign country no less, are good signs for his future.
Rochest Cruz (18) played in only 22 games, but he still piled up 14 walks (17.5%) against 8 strikeouts (10%). His overall line was decent though devoid of power (.250/.392/.297), but 80 plate appearances isn’t much to go on. We’ll have to see how this left-handed hitting second baseman does this season before we can say too much about him.
The addition of a second Arizona Rookie League team in Mesa should make it easier for the Cubs to bring some of these players stateside in 2018, where we can get a better look at them. In a few cases – hopefully Kelli, at a minimum – I am really hoping that a trip to Eugene is in the cards for 2018, so we can get some really good video on these guys in action.