I’ve described the Cubs farm system a couple of times as having a very small number of prospects in the top tier, a somewhat larger number in the next tier down, and then a huge pile of prospects all mixed together behind that. So far we’ve been sifting through that third tier, the huge pile of prospects. Today we finally move into the middle tier. For me, that middle tier begins with Number 13.
That’s not to say that this middle tier is full of future stars. There are still players to talk about who project best in bench roles, but at least they have something about their game that could move them from the ordinary run of the mill bench player to the sort of bench guy who, while you may not want him starting, you absolutely want on your team because of the things that he does do so very well. There is plenty of room here for players to surprise us as well. In one case, a certain prospect made it into the middle tier exactly because he has already surprised pretty much everybody.
After today we will be down to the Top Ten. After today, there really shouldn’t be any surprises as to who is in that Top Ten. The exact order may be slightly unexpected, but the members of the group really shouldn’t be. With maybe one exception. But we’ll talk about him next time.
Today we’ll start with yet another member of the Cubs 2017 draft class.
16. Austin Filiere, 3B
Acquired: 8th round, 2017 draft
Projection: Decent starting third baseman
When the Cubs drafted Filiere out of MIT, most of the headlines were about how he might be a future front office guy. And he might be a future front office guy. But don’t get in any hurry for that future.
Filiere went to Eugene and hit .261/.392/.443 with a 14.1% walk rate, a 25.8% strikeout rate, and six home runs in 49 games. The concerning part here is the strikeout rate, but he appeared to make some nice adjustments as his half-season unfolded. For example, he had just three strikeouts in his final eight games. We’ll need to see that strikeout rate stay down as his career develops, but for now I’m not too concerned.
Digging a little deeper, there are plenty of good signs. His groundball rate was just 34.4%, well under the norm, and that meant he was hitting a lot of balls in the air. The line drive rate suggests he was hitting plenty of them fairly hard, as does his .182 ISO. Again, he’ll need to keep that up through a full season before we give those trends too much credence, but right now all the arrows are pointing in the right direction.
Filiere could turn out to be a third baseman with a patient approach that produces better than average power. There’s plenty of risk here and he has a long way to go to get there, but right now I have him as the best third base prospect in the system.
15. Erich Uelmen, RHP
Acquired: 4th round, 2017 draft
Projection: Mid-rotation starter or late inning reliever
It was easy to overlook Uelmen right after the draft due to the sheer number of pitchers the Cubs drafted and the fact that the Cubs immediately started him in the bullpen in Eugene. I think with more exposure this year his stock should start climbing.
Uehlmen has a low to mid 90s fastball with plenty of sink that he can throw to both corners of the plate. The rest of his stuff is well behind that fastball, but there are flashes of average to plus potential in his other pitches. In his brief 17.2 innings of relief he posted a strikeout rate of 11.72 K/9, a walk rate of 4.58 BB/9, and a ground ball rate of 55.8%. The walk rate is high for the level, but the strikeout and walk rate are exactly what we hope to see.
Now, if you haven’t already, watch the below video.
Did you notice the delivery? The sort-of side arm that is extremely rapid to the plate? That delivery, combined with a fastball that might just be one of the best in the system, is going to make Uelmen tough to deal with. The Cubs may be tempted to ride the fastball and keep him in the bullpen. If they do, he could fly through the system in a hurry.
I hope they stretch him out, though, and work to develop the additional pitches necessary to start long term. That plan will take longer to bear fruit, but could result in the Cubs having a slightly unusual but effective Number Three or Four starter one day.
14. Zack Short, SS
Acquired: 17th round, 2016 draft
Projection: Decent starting middle infielder
In 2016 Short had a nice half season in the Northwest League. He walked more than he struck out and finished with a wRC+ of 118. His ISO, though, was only .087.
In 2017, playing in a Midwest League that is usually rougher on hitters, that ISO jumped to .186, and it stayed up at .151 when he got a mid-season promotion to Myrtle Beach. His walk and strikeout numbers remained excellent at a 14.4% walk rate and 18.1% strikeout rate in High A. The number suggest he made an adjustment before the start of the 2017 season, and the eye suggests he tweaked his swing to generate more flyballs. And it might have worked pretty well for him.
I think the floor for Short is a quality bench utility infielder. His glove will be fine in that role, and he gets on base enough to be an asset in a pinch hitting capacity (.372 OBP in High A). What puts him this high on the list is the fact that Short had one of the lowest ground ball rates in the Carolina League as well as one of the highest line drive rates. His swing is now geared to drive the ball in the air, and he has the strikezone judgement and bat-to-ball ability to make consistent hard contact. That’s the formula for a player who could hit for a lot more power than we’d otherwise expect.
If Short had just a little more power, a case could be made that he is the best all around hitter in the organization. Every year we see some prospects take a jump up in power when moving into the Southern League, and some of those players look awfully similar on paper to Short. He could be about to break out significantly.
This is probably the highest you will see Short ranked this year, and I freely admit I am out on a limb with this one. But if I had to pick one batter to break out in Double A this season, it would be Zack Short.
13. Charcer Burks, OF
Acquired: 9th round, 2013 draft
Projection: The glove says he’s a starter, the bat says not so fast.
Charcer Burks is a Gold Glove winning left fielder. Keep in mind they only give one Gold Glove per position for the entirety of the minor leauges. That means he beat out a whole lot of really good outfielders, and it is well deserved. Defensively, this guy is just plain excellent.
The only reason he usually plays left is his arm. He has the speed and agility to handle center, but his arm is borderline for that position. He played 34 games there last season, though, and could handle it on a part time basis without any problem.
Offensively, Burks is a pretty good hitter. In Double A last year he finished .270/.370/.395 with a 12.9% walk rate, a 20.0% strikeout rate, 10 homers, and 16 steals. He usually posts pretty good ground ball and line drive rates has enough speed to be a factor on the basepaths. In fact, the only thing stopping me from projecting Burks as a future leadoff hitter candidate is the fact that there isn’t an obvious place for him to play.
Unless he surprises us with an uptick in power (and his batted ball numbers suggest we shouldn’t be surprised if he does), Burks doesn’t exactly have the power to play left while also sort of lacking the arm to play center. I think the bat would be good enough in center, particularly with his Gold Glove defense, but without more power it may not work in left.
And that means Burks is often seen as a fourth outfielder in the making. If that is how it plays out, I think he’ll be a fourth outfielder who may be sought after by teams with especially large or challenging left fields.
12. Miguel Amaya, C
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2016 season.
Projection: The sort of catcher who will terrorize opposing base runners.
He is very raw and needs a lot of development work, but Miguel Amaya could fairly be looked at as the catcher of the future. That future is way off in the distance, though.
While we’re waiting, we’ll be treated to watching a very exciting defensive catcher. Amaya has a good, accurate arm and is very quick behind the plate. You can still run on him, but I think with additional experience that will happen less and less often. Amaya cuts down a lot of baserunners, over 40%, and he makes it look easy. Unusually for a catcher his age, he also does a nice job corralling bad pitches. I have no idea how his framing measures up, but if that is an issue, it is an issue he has plenty of time to correct.
He has a lot of work to do at the plate. He struck out 20.1% of the time in Short Season A, and finished with a line of just .228/.266/.338. He doesn’t hit a ton of grounders, but he doesn’t consistently square the ball up either. Honestly, I’ll be surprised if his swing looks the same three years from now as it did last year. The tools needed to be a good hitter are there, but he has a long way to go before he gets there.
Amaya lands this high on the list largely because I am a big believer in his glove. Most of the time when we talk about Cubs’ catcher prospects we’re talking about guys who moved to the position late and need a lot of work behind the plate. Not so here. Amaya is a gifted defensive catcher and has the potential to be the sort of backstop who simply shuts down opposing base runners. That potential is pretty valuable in a teenage catcher, and it pushes him up these rankings despite his sky high risk.
11. David Bote, INF
Acquired: 18th round, 2012 draft
Projection: Offensively super utility player or starting second baseman
In the middle of 2016, Bote was a basically a minor league veteran bouncing around the farm system to fill in where needed as needed. Then the Cubs traded away Myrtle Beach shortstop Gleyber Torres, and Bote was sent to High A to fill that gap.
Instead, he posted a wRC+ of 158 and led the Pelicans to a champsionship. He followed that up in 2017 with 130 wRC+ in Double A, finishing with a line of .272/.353/.438 and 14 homers. He improved his walk rate (to 9.1%) and dropped his strikeout rate (to 18.8%) along the way. And he did it despite having one of the highest groundball rates of his career.
Defensively, he can play pretty much anywhere. He has primarly stuck at second over the past season (and he is very underrated defensively at that position), but he can handle anything on the infield and both outfield corners as needed. He even has 7 innings on the mound on his resume. For a team like the Cubs, he’s pretty much the ideal bench bat. For a team that lacks a stockpile of young infielders already in the majors, he could easily be a quality starting second baseman.
It is not all that common that you see a player transform himself from organizational depth to 40 man roster member in just a season and a half, but this is a guy who has done just that. Once he proves he can handle Triple A pitching, he may well get a shot to be Maddon’s next super utility guy.