We cross the halfway point today, and still we haven’t found a real impact prospect. On the other hand, we have talked about some players could emerge as impact prospects one day.
This is a key distinction. Any farm system (really every farm system) should be able to produce replacement level players. Every team in baseball should have an organization that produces a couple bullpen arms, fifth starters, and useful bench players every season. That sort of player is an absolute necessity for any team regardless of if they are in contention, and any system that can’t produce that sort of prospect is in serious trouble indeed.
The Cubs can produce that sort of player. No problem there.
When we’re talking about good farm systems, though, what we’re really getting into is how many impact prospects a system has and how far away they are. A system with a lot of guys like the Cubs had three years ago (Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, Contreras, and so forth) will be hailed as a great farm system because of that impact talent. The fact that it is also producing fifth starters and fourth outfielders is necessary, but not as noteworthy.
The Cubs have a ton of quality prospects, but almost all of them do not qualify as impact. Right away we run into a problem: how do we define impact? Answering that question statistically is outside the scope of these few paragraphs, so let me go with a rule of thumb. If a you are constructing imaginary lineups or rosters around a particular guy, he might qualify as an impact player. For example, three years ago everyone wanted to write linueps with Kris Bryant. This year, though, no one is imagining lineups with the Cubs’ top positional prospects.
That rule of thumb leaves plenty of gray area, but I think it does set the sort of contrast we need to think about.
In the Cubs farm system, right now, I have two impact pitchers (both very risky) and zero bats. And that is the problem with this farm system.
It may not stay that way, though. There are a lot of players in this system could take some steps forward and emerge as impact guys. Think back to three years ago. At this time in 2015, basically no one was talking about Contreras as a cornerstone of the Cubs future. Useful prospect? Maybe. Tops. Then he exploded onto the stage in Tennessee and now we can’t imagine the Cubs without him. That’s a guy who moved himself into the impact prospect tier. It does happen, and it would be really nice for the Cubs if it happened in multiple cases this season.
The first guy on the list today is a player who could, one day, make that transition.
22. D.J. Wilson, OF
Acquired: 4th round, 2015 draft
Projection: Defensively he’s a very good center fielder, but his bat could limit him
Wilson is in the conversation for best defensive outfielder in the farm system. He gets solid reads, his arm can play anywhere, and he has more than enough speed handle center. If the glove were the only consideration, he’d rank among the best prospects on this list.
His speed carries over to the basepaths and could, with a little more polish, turn into a major threat. He needs more work reading pitchers and timing his jumps, but with some experience I could see Wilson turning into a 20+ steals a year kind of guy.
If he can get on base. As good as Wilson’s glove is, his bat isn’t there. In South Bend last year he hit just .229/.309/.419. The walk rate (9.5%) and ISO (.190) were very good, but he was killed by strikeouts (25.6%). A strikeout rate that high over an 88 game sample in that league is not a good sign. On the other hand, he did miss all of June with an injury and appeared to hit better when he came back, so it is very possible that the season numbers are giving an unnecessarily negative impression.
And that makes him really hard to rank. He has everything he needs to be an everyday center fielder who lights up the web gems reel on a daily basis except the ability to make enough consistent contact to actually land in a Major League lineup. He’ll need to cut into that strikeout rate in Myrtle Beach this year.
21. Jeremiah Estrada, RHP
Acquired: 6th round, 2017 draft
Projection: Consensus seems to be he has mid-rotation potential
ETA: No idea
The Cubs made two fairly large over-slot draft signings in 2017, and one of them was Estrada (the other was Nelson Velazquez – we haven’t talked about him… yet.). Estrada needed the bonus to lure him away from college, and once he signed he only pitched 6.1 innings for Arizona. With that small of a sample size, the numbers he posted are completely useless.
So we have to rely on the scouts instead, and the scouts don’t always agree. In general, it sounds like he has a fastball that hangs out in the low 90s and can be reliably clocked up into the mid-90s, but he can’t control it very well. His breaking stuff shows promise, but he can’t control it very well. He has a changeup that some people love, but he can’t control it very well. If you catch him on a good day he can look like a solid number three starter in the making, but if you catch him on a bad day he looks like the kind of reliever whose stuff can almost get him out of the trouble his wildness gets him into.
In short, Estrada is one of the most enigmatic pitchers on this list. I think the upside is high enough that it moved him into the middle of the Top 40, but it is worth noting that FanGraphs has him considerably higher (11), while Baseball America didn’t even rank him.
We’ll get our first idea of how Estrada is developing when the roster for Eugene is announced in June. A ticket to Oregon would be a good sign, but even if he stays in Arizona I wouldn’t give up on him too quickly. His mechanics definitely need work, and that work should help the control issues. Don’t forget about this guy, but don’t expect him any time soon, either.
20. Keegan Thompson, RHP
Acquired: 3rd round, 2017 draft
Projection: Mid-rotation starter
Of all the college pitchers the Cubs drafted in 2017, and there are a lot of them, Thompson might be the most advanced. Seasoned by years of competition with Auburn, Thompson starts his professional career with four pitches he can throw for strikes, experience using all those pitches to set up hitters, and command of his entire arsenal. That should allow him to move very quickly once he gets used to playing baseball professionally.
He’ll begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach, and I suspect the Cubs will leave him there most of the season. The risk on Thompson is that while he has four pitches he can use, none of them individually are particularly great pitches. Most scouts are dropping average-ish grades on all of them. For that sort of a pitcher to succeed, he’ll need to be very good at using those pitches to maximum effect. Fortunately Myrtle Beach has one of the best video systems in the minors, so we should get excellent footage of Thompson and how his stuff might play out as his career advances.
I’m high on Thompson. This ranking represents some stuff-based uncertainty, but right now I think a future as a mid-rotation starter is perfectly possible.
19. Javier Assad, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2016 season
Projection: Back of the rotation starter
The emergence of Assad with Eugene last summer was one of the brightest highlights of the second half of the season. In 13 starts (66 innings) the right-hander put up very nice strikeout numbers (9.82 K/9), a good walk rate (2.86 BB/9), a very respectable groundball rate (50%), and allowed just 2 homers all year long. In other words, he put up a very prototypical Cubs’ lower minors pitching prospect kind of season.
Assad’s best pitch is his low 90s fastball that features plenty of sink and generates quite a few of his grounders. He appears to have both a slider and a curve, somewhat unusual for his age given that many players focus on just one breaking pitch early on, but there are no consistent indications as to the quality of those pitches. He may need both as he moves up the ladder, though.
At worst, his good command and willingness to pound the bottom of the stikezone could set him up well for a career in relief, but for now I see him as a good fourth of fifth starter. He’ll need to further develop one or two of his secondary pitches to reach that projection, but he has plenty of time to work on that.
Assad should be a fixture in the South Bend rotation this year.
18. Trevor Clifton, RHP
Acquired: 12th round, 2013 draft
Projection: Back of the rotation starter or late inning reliever
Clifton had a rough 2017 in Tennessee. He started well, but his last good outting came on July 2nd. It was pretty much all downhill from there. Despite that, there is plenty is to like here.
When he is at his best, Clifton has pretty good command of his fastball, curve, and changeup. He can get strikeouts, but sometimes seems to pitch more for weak contact than whiffs (and I don’t think that is a bad thing). The groundball rates have never been high, mostly in the 30% range, but he doesn’t give up too many homers for a fly ball pitcher. In short, he has the tools he needs to get hitters out.
In the second half of 2017, though, it just wasn’t working. He’ll return to Tennessee to start 2018, and we will get to see what adjustments he made to put those struggles behind him. Success will likely see him moved up to Iowa as soon as the Cubs can find a crack in that incredibly packed pitching staff… or promoted to Chicago in September straight out of Tennessee if such a crack never emerges and he’s reached a point where the Cubs want to see him face big leaguers.
If he continues to struggle in the rotation, I think a move to the bullpen could work out nicely. His fastball is already his best pitch; with the typical bullpen velocity bump it could turn into a plus offering. I suspect his stuff in relief could make him a setup candidate one day. With any luck, though, he solves his 2017 struggles and finishes this year as a Chicago starter waiting to happen.
17. Dakota Mekkes, RHP
Acquired: 10th round, 2016 draft
Projection: High leverage reliever
In a matter of months we will probably finally know what the Cubs have in Dakota Mekkes. The risk here basically comes down to his delivery. He has the odd sidearm-like release that scouts call “low three quarters”, but when it comes from a guy who stands 6’7″ hitters call it “really hard to pick up”. The open question on Mekkes is whether his success so far is mostly due to that deceptive and hard to track delivery against young competition, or if he also has good enough movement on his pitches to handle hitters who aren’t going to be fooled by his side arm action.
In 31 innings with South Bend last summer, Mekkes had it all his own way. His strikeout rate was excellent (13.65 K/9) and his ERA was just 0.58 when he was promoted to Myrtle Beach. He proved to be more human in Myrtle Beach, but the strikeout rate remained very good (9.57 K/9) and he ended the year with an ERA of 1.28. His walk rate was over 4.00 at both stops, but for a short stint reliever I’m not as concerned by that given the strikeout stuff. I’d rather he give up a walk than hard contact.
And he definitely wasn’t giving up hard contact. He doesn’t earn a lot of grounders, but his line drive rates are low and in all of 2017 he allowed just one home run.
But that was against A ball hitters. In 2018 he goes to Double A, and here the hitters will make it very clear if last year’s success was simply due to an odd delivery. Some scouts say he has plenty of movement on his pitches (primarly a low 90s fastball) and should be just fine, but others are less sure. If he mows down hitters in Double A, go ahead and pencil him in for a seat on the 2019 Iowa bullpen shuttle.
Unfortunately I could not find any good video of Mekkes. Given all the attention on his somewhat odd delivery you would think someone had recorded it and put it on YouTube, but if they did I haven’t found it yet.