One common refrain I’ve heard (and said!) a lot this Spring is how much more exciting the 2018 season feels than last year (World Series hangover and whatnot). And you know what I realized? The same is true for the Minor League season, too!
Sure, around this time last year, the Cubs still had guys like Eloy Jimenez hanging out at the top of the prospect rankings, but outside of Dylan Cease, there wasn’t as much as usual to get excited about watching on the minor league front in 2017, especially after Ian Happ came up to the big leagues
Since then, however, the Cubs have drafted two college pitchers in the first round – Brendon Little and Alex Lange – and have a handful of other guys (Adbert Alzolay, Oscar De La Cruz, and Jose Albertos) who finally appear to be both healthy and ready to pitch a lot this summer.
Everything won’t magically click, but the Cubs now have young, high-ceiling guys in full-season action right alongside polished college arms. It’s gonna be a fun year to follow these pitchers (I’m looking at you, Luke).
- Speaking of which, Cubs Farm Director Jaron Madison sounds similarly excited (MLB.com): “Over the past three or four years, everything we’ve done through the Draft or international signings, we’ve focused our time and energy on pitching. We know we have a roster full of young impact players. We did a deep dive this offseason, looking at everything we do from our throwing program in the Minor Leagues to when to push players to the next level to communicating with the big league staff, just trying to have synergy on the pitching front.”
- Jim Callis went on to suggest that Alzolay has No. 3 starter upside and could be ready for the show as soon as this season. And, as it turns out, that’s his goal, as well:
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 8, 2018
- Side note: Victor Caratini is often overlooked as a top prospect, but a switch-hitting catcher who could play multiple positions (corner infield spots) and is currently hitting well in Triple-A has a lot of value. He might not ever supplant Willson Contreras at the big league level, but that’s a good guy to have hanging around.
- Meanwhile, according to Callis, Albertos and De La Cruz offer a higher ceiling than Alzolay (which is quite the compliment, given Alzolay’s ceiling as mid-rotation starter), but are still a few more years away.
Pitching prospect Jose Albertos throwing live BP to the Iowa squad this morning. pic.twitter.com/SMLPjMQYgB
— Stephanie Lynn (@SRL590) March 8, 2018
- Then there’s the trio of college arms – Little, Lange, and 2016 third-round pick (but top Cubs pick that year) Thomas Hatch – who could rise quickly through the system and change the narrative of the system in the blink of an eye. So, yeah, it’s like I said … an exciting year for Cubs pitching prospects.
- Speaking of which, you didn’t forget about Hatch, did you? If you recall, the Cubs took Hatch with their first overall pick in the 2016 draft (which came in the third round), and he had a solid first year for the Cubs, immediately beginning his career at High-A: 26 starts, 4.04 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 23.2% K rate, 9.2% BB rate. If you’d like to read more about him, Carrie Muskat has a Q&A with the Cubs prospect over at Cubs.com.
- And while we’ve got Alzolay, De La Cruz, and Hatch all on the mind, the Cubs are using Big League camp to get those guys acclimated to life as a Major Leaguer. Indeed, the team is purposefully stressing the mental-education side of the game, putting them around big-league staff so they can see how a veteran pitcher prepares for a long season. You have to imagine, then, that the Cubs think they can be pretty close to breaking through.
- By the way, have you caught De la Cruz on the mound yet this Spring? The guy just has the look of a big-league pitcher, and could be the best prospect in the Cubs’ system if he stays healthy. “Physically he’s so imposing and so impressive that the good thing is his problems haven’t been arm-related issues,” Jason McLeod said of De La Cruz at the Tribune. “So that’s good. But at the same time, we’ve been waiting for two years, and if we can get him 100-plus innings this year that would be a very good development year for him. The baseball industry will see what we’ve been seeing and talking about as far as what we feel is the excitement surrounding his upside.” It’s worth reminding folks that De La Cruz only just turned 23 this month, and was only just added to the 40-man roster this offseason.
- The Cub Reporter has your full 2018 Cubs Minor League Camp rosters, if you’re so inclined to browse and find out where everyone will be this spring.
- Before there was De La Cruz, Albertos, Alzolay, Hatch, Little, and Lange (whew! the Cubs have a lot of pitching prospects) there was Dylan Cease … and before Dylan Cease, there was Duane Underwood Jr. The Cubs picked Underwood in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft – the first of the current front office – and he was highly touted for quite a while. But since then, injuries and ineffectiveness have slowed his career, and pushed him to the back end of the Cubs top 30 prospects rankings according to MLB Pipeline.
- But this season, according to Joe Maddon, Underwood looks different and ready to take off. “His body is better, he’s leaner,” Maddon told Cubs.com of the 23-year-old. “When he came into camp this year, he had a different look about him. This is a guy with a high ceiling, and he hasn’t realized it. There’s a lot of conversation from the front office, coaches, etc. I think this winter he went home and did a little soul searching. He’s much more assertive, he’s attacking the zone.” If Underwood does, indeed, take a step forward along side the Cubs other pitching prospects this summer, things can get fun very fast. Like some of the college pitchers, Underwood’s age/experience will allow him to move quickly, which means we could see him hit AAA or even in the big leagues this season.