Every player in today’s edition has significant upside. There is a lot of risk here, no doubt about that, but there is also a chance that every player on this list could be a key performer on even a good Major League team one day. The range of outcomes includes part-time or bench assignments, of course, but for the first time we have an entire group that can fairly be projected as having regular Major League upside.
Again, though, there is risk. Lots and lots of risk.
Today also continues the trend of the strong presense of the 2017 draft on these rankings. An optimist would say that last June’s draft class is all over these rankings because the class was just that good. A more realistic take is that I am probably a victim of recency bias. A lot of the 2017 class hasn’t had much time to show us what they can do, so I’m quite a bit more relaxed in how I handle certain red flags and warning signs. A lot of 2017 draftees will probably move around in the rankings quite a bit in the coming months.
10. Bryan Hudson, LHP
Acquired: 3rd round, 2015 draft
Projection: Mid-rotation starter
Not only the does 6’8″ lefty get pretty extreme downhill plane on his fastball, he’s gaining improved command of it and delivering it consistently in the low 90s. The result, unsurprisingly, has been a whole lot of groundballs. Hudson’s groundball rate last season in 124.1 innings for South Bend was an insanely high 66.2%. And there is plenty of room for Hudson, overall, to get better.
When he was drafted out of high school in the third round his curveball was considered his best weapon. It probably still is, and I suspect the next step for Hudson will adding a layer of polish to that already good curveball and using it more aggressively as an out pitch. He also has a changeup that shows promise.
The strikeout rate hasn’t been there yet, just 5.86 BB/9, but as Hudson has smoothed out his mechanics his control has substantially impoved. His 3.76 BB/9 in 2017 was a little over half the walk rate he posted with Eugene the season before.
The ceiling with Hudson is very high. Already an extreme groundball pitcher, if Hudson can turn his curveball into a pitch that lets him generate more strikeouts he could emerge as a guy with true front of the rotation potential. Projecting more conservatively, I still see a future as a quality mid-rotation sort.
He has a lot of work to do to get there, though. He’ll spend this season in Myrtle Beach. If he can build on his progress from last season, by the end of the year Hudson will be a pitcher whose name comes up in a lot of Cubs’ trade conversations.
9. Jonathan Sierra, OF
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2016
Projection: Slugging outfielder
One of the Cubs’ last high-dollar international free agent signings before they were placed under two years of restrictions, Sierra has some of the best raw power in the system. His size is going draw comparisons to former Cubs prospect Eloy Jimenez, albeit a left-handed version.
Defensively, Sierra should be just fine in left or right. He has the arm for either and already gets positive comments for his defensive reads. He may actually be fast enough to handle center on some occassions, but we’ll see if he retains that speed as he continues to layer on muscle.
But the defense is going to be a sideshow to his bat. Sierra already shows pretty good strike zone recognition and patience (8.8% walk rate in Arizona), and while his power isn’t showing up in a big way in games yet, that should just be a matter of time.
Unless, and this is a massive unless, he is torpedoed by contact issues. In Arizona last year he had a 28.8% strikeout rate. For that level, that is an obscenely high number. It is also a number that could drop in a hurry as he makes improvements to his swing and gets used to how pitchers will attack him, but for now it is terrifying. By comparison, notorious free swinger Javier Baez was in Double A before he posted a comparable K% in a meaningful sample size. Ian Happ was in the majors.
Sierra will likely be assigned to Eugene later this summer, and while he is there we really need to see two things – an improved strikeout rate and some manifestation of his power in game. With strong improvements in both areas he has the potential to finish the season as the Cubs’ best prospect. That’s a big if, though.
8. Nelson Velazquez, OF
Acquired: 5th round, 2017 draft
Projection: Slugging outfielder
Velazquez was one of the Cubs’ two high-dollar over slot bonus signs in the 2017 draft, and quickly showed why. In just 126 PA for Arizona he hit 8 home runs and finished an ISO of .300 on a line of .236/.333/.536. The walk rate was excellent (11.9%), and the strikeout rate threatens to destroy his career before it ever gets started (31%).
Yes, I really am ranking a guy with a greater than 30% strikeout rate in Rookie ball in the Top Ten. That is partly a sign of just how weak this farm system is, and partly due to the fact that the only real flaw in Velazquez is that strikeout rate. He has the arm to play anywhere in the outfield, has enough to speed (for now at least) to handle center if the need arose, and is showing pretty good strike zone recognition. When he makes contact, he destroys the baseball.
But no set of tools will save a guy who can’t make contact, and right now Velazquez is striking out a rate that would make me nervous were he in Triple-A. For a player in Rookie ball, it is one of the most frightening prospect stats I have ever ranked.
On the other hand, he is only 19. The fact that the walk rate is good makes me think that pitch recognition isn’t the problem, and that bodes well for his ability to correct his contact issues. I suspect the Cubs will be working hard with him on changes to swing and approach that should help bring down the strikeouts. If those efforts are successful, Velazquez could easily wind up as the top prospect on this list by the end of the year.
Look for Velazquez to join Sierra in what should be a really exciting Eugene outfield this summer.
7. Brendon Little, LHP
Acquired: 1st round, 2017 draft
Projection: Mid-rotation starter or high leverage reliever
ETA: 2019 as a reliever, 2021 as a starter
Little only pitched 16.1 innings for Eugene last year, so mostly what we have on him are scouting reports. Those reports give Little command of a fastball that has been reliably clocked into the mid-90s and a pretty good curveball. That pairing alone could set Little up as a reliever who could move through the farm system in a hurry, if the Cubs were so inclined.
It looks, though, as if the Cubs prefer to keep Little starting and try to devleop his changeup into an effective third pitch. This will be a slower path, but plus fastball / plus curveball backed by an average change up is a good formula for a mid-rotation starter, provided the command is there.
Speaking of command, thoughts coming out of the draft were that he’d need to make some changes to smooth out his delivery a little. That work, if the Cubs go there, will take some time. We may not know just what sort of command Little could have until he’s made those adjustments. On the other hand, the Cubs have a history of letting pitchers work with somewhat abnormal deliveries provided it works well for them (Jake Arrieta is one famous example), so they may leave Little alone. We’ll find out this year.
Little opens the year in South Bend, but with a strong start could move quickly to Myrtle Beach.
6. Tom Hatch, RHP
Acquired: 3rd round, 2016 draft
Projection: Third or fourth starter
When Hatch was drafted (as the Cubs first pick in 2016 despite being a third rounder), the reports said he threw a lot of stuff that should get grounders – sinkers, sliders, changeups, and everything down in the zone. And last year in his first professional action, he did have a HR/9 of just 0.14. But his groundball rate was only average-ish at 45.7%. Why? It might be because, according to Baseball America anyway, he was working in a high four-seam fastball to make sure he could change a hitter’s eye level. Don’t be surprised, then, if Hatch’s groundball rate takes a step forward this year.
Not that it really needs to take a big step. His strikeout rate of 9.10 K/9 is quite good, and while his walk rate needs to come down somewhat (3.61 BB/9), he’s not in bad shape there either. With at least three pitches can throw for strikes, perhaps four depending on reports, and the ability to get plenty of swings and misses, Hatch has all the tools he needs to be an effective third starter one day. Remember: he slid in the draft to the third round primarily because of an injury the year before, not because he wasn’t expected to be a serious prospect if healthy.
Double-A will be a test for him, particularly if he continues to have some trouble with control, but right now Hatch is right where we would expect him to be. I think he’ll stay in Double-A all this year, or most of it anyway, but a good year in 2018 should set him up for a long look in spring training in 2019. He could be a part of the Iowa Pitcher Shuttle Service by mid next season.