By now the shape of the Cubs farm system should be coming into focus. There is plenty of talent, particularly in the lower levels, but not a lot of notable upside. This is a system full of potential bench players, back-of-the-rotation starters, and middle relievers. And it stays that way until we get a lot higher on this list than we will reach today.
The hope is that some of these players with only moderate projections now will break out in a big way and become potential impact players. For the hitters in particular, that might be a pretty good bet. The Cubs are very good at developing hitters and it seems that every year we have one or two bats come out of nowhere to steal a fair size chunk of the prospect spotlight.
The Cubs success developing pitchers has been much more uneven. There are some bright spots, but not many given the sheer volume of pitching prospects that have entered the system over the past few years. The Cubs have been working to improve their pitching development (and I think 2017 showed that improvement), but it remains to be seen if they have improved enough.
If the Cubs are going to coax some impact arms out of their army of prospects, the first prospect on today’s list might just be one to make that jump.
28. Brailyn Marquez, LHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2016 season
Projection: Probably a back of the rotation starter
Here’s what we know about Marquez – he’s a 6’4″ lefty who throws in the low 90s. Everything else is either an unknown or a work in progress. Right now that fastball is his best pitch, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to pair with it. Given that he’s still just 19, he has plenty of time to work on that other stuff so I’m not particularly worried yet. Marquez is a project, but he is a project with clear potential.
Last year with Arizona Marquez pitched 44 innings across 11 games (9 starts) and finished with an excellent strikeout rate of 10.64 K/9. The walk rate was also very good (2.45 BB/9), and he got an ok ground ball rate of about 49%. His ERA was a less than great 5.52, but FIP brings that down to 3.82. Those are good numbers for a guy just starting his career, but don’t forget that this is a guy just starting his career.
The next stop for Marquez will probably be Eugene. Hopefully while he is there we will get a look at how his secondary pitches are developing and if he can hold onto that very good strikeout rate against lineups that will be full of former college hitters.
27. Duncan Robinson, RHP
Acquired: 9th round, 2016 draft
Projection: Back of the rotation starter
Robinson is not exactly a typical pitching prospect in a number of ways. First, at 6’6″, he is one of the tallest hurlers on this list. And at 24, he certainly isn’t among the youngest. His strikeout rate is not very good (6.75 K/9 in 49.1 IP with Myrtle Beach), and while his 47.8% ground ball rate is solid, it certainly isn’t exciting.
But keep an eye on this guy. Conventional wisdom says it takes a little longer for taller pitchers to really settle into their mechanics, and Robinson has only been a professional pitcher for about a season and a half. Furthermore, his walk rate has remained fairly low at every stop, including High A (2.74 BB/9). The fact that he pitched 126 innings a year ago and could probably push for 160 this year also matters.
Right now Robinson is so far under the radar that it is hard to get good data on his velocity. There are some stadium gun reports floating around, but those are even less believable in most cases than spring training radar rumors. A strong start to the 2018 season, though, should start to turn more eyes towards Robinson. I think we’ll have much better data by mid-summer.
Regardless of where he starts the year, look for Robinson to finish the season in Tennessee. I suspect he’ll be methodically effective as he climbs the ladder, and that would set up him for a possible trip to Wrigley somewhere around 2020.
26. Michael Cruz, C
Acquired: 7th round, 2016 draft
Projection: Backup catcher
Cruz played 35 games in Eugene last year, hitting eight home runs on the way to a .282/.379/.565 line over 145 trips to the plate. His 84 PA in 25 games for South Bend did not go quite so well, but he should get a chance to build on that .186/.310/.286 start this year.
Even thought the slash line wasn’t there in South Bend, everything else was. His walk rates at both stops were excellent (9.7% in Eugene, 13.1% in South Bend), as were both strikeout rates (12.4%, 15.5%). And on top of that, having now played at least 25 games at three different levels in his short professional career, Cruz has yet to finish with a groundball rate in excess of 40%. Since grounders are good for hitters less often than the other hit types, that is excellent news.
Defensively, he remains a work in progress. There aren’t any questions about his ability to stay behind the plate so far, and really I’m not too worried about that aspect of his game. The main thing is that he stays healthy and gets his work in while in the lower levels; there will be plenty of time to dissect his defense once he gets into middle tiers of the system.
Offensively, I think Cruz could break out at any time. If that breakout comes this year, he’ll probably have to do it in the pitcher friendly Midwest League.
Unforunately, I could not find a good, recent video of Cruz.
25. Michael Rucker, RHP
Aquired: 11th round, 2016 draft
Projection: Back of the rotation starter
All in all, 2017 was a good year for pitching developing in the Cubs’ farm system, and Rucker is a big reason for that. He began the year as a lesser-regarded reliever buried in South Bend’s bullpen. 12.2 innings, a 15.63 K/9 and 1.42 ERA with zero walks later he was off to Myrtle Beach. As a starter. Over 15 starts (20 games) he amassed 93.1 innings and put up very respectable numbers (8.87 K/9, 2.03 BB/9, 5 homers, 2.51 ERA, 46.7% ground ball rate).
Rucker as a starter is a low-90s pitcher who gets decent sink on his fastball. His selection of offspeed and breaking stuff is nothing special yet, but he controls it well and has the potential for a plus pitch to yet emerge. As a reliever he can run the velocity up into the mid-90s while maintaining his good control and his ability to hang out in the bottom of the strike zone.
Rucker will likely stay in the rotation as long as that makes sense, and I like his odds to make that his permanent home. He’ll need to improve the secondary pitches for that to happen, but he should have some time to do that. If he does move back to the bullpen, I think the Cubs will try to keep him somewhat stretched out as a potential long man or swing starter. Basically, if he isn’t a back of the rotation starter, he looks like a prime candidate to be a super utility pitcher (if that is still a thing). He should spend much of 2018 in Tennessee.
24. Jason Vosler, 3B
Aquired: 16th round, 2014 draft
Projection: On many teams, he could be a starting third baseman candidate
In 2017 Vosler hit 21 homers, more than he had hit at every other stop in his professional career combined. His prior high water mark, 6, came in 38 games in High A back in 2015. I strongly suspect that surge in power is due to an adjustment to his swing that is repeatable, sustainable, and will continue to bear fruit as he moves along. I’m not certain, though, and so I’m grading this left-handed slugger cautiously. Should the power boost carry into 2018, feel free to move him up to the upper third of this list.
Defensively, Vosler isn’t going to take away anyone’s job. He gets the job done at third, but he isn’t a standout with the glove. He could handle first if necessary, but the Cubs have mostly kept him at third. I don’t really see a future for him as a utility infielder.
Offensively, on the other hand, he could produce enough to hang around quite a few major league lineups. His walk rate is very good (10.0%) and he does a nice job elevating the ball (just a 39.4% ground ball rate), but strikeouts could be a bit of an issue (22.6%). He doesn’t have the sort of speed that could impact his offensive game, either.
Basically, Vosler is a guy who could produce a reasonable Major League OPS in the .700 range while playing good enough defense at a key position. That’s if the power is real. If his power fades back to where it used to be, he’s more likely a minor league veteran in the making.
Look for Vosler to spend much of the year (hopefully) putting up big power numbers in Iowa.
23. Cory Abbott, RHP
Acquired: 2nd round, 2017 draft
Projection: Probably somewhere between a mid-rotation starter and a middle reliever
Abbott is hard to project right now, largely thanks to the fact that he has just 14 professional innings to his name. Those were 14 very good innings, though. The sample size makes the numbers useless, but feel free to get excited for an 11.57 K/9, a 1.93 BB/9, and an ERA of 3.86 over five Eugene games. And on top of that, he has a perfect game on his college resume (see video below).
We know he has a bit of deception to his delivery, that he pitches in the high 80s and low 90s, and that he pairs his fastball with a Syndergaard inspired slider. Both pitches are reported to have plus potential, but he’ll need a solid third offering to stay in the rotation.
The upside here is a solid middle of the rotation starter if he develops a third pitch, or a potential late inning relief arm if he doesn’t. The risk here is we really don’t know very much about him yet. I suspect the Cubs will push him up the system fairly quickly, at least until he hits a level where he struggles a bit, so we should get some good video on him this season.