I don’t think there will be much surprise over who made the top five of our top 40 Cubs prospects list. For me, these are the five prospects who have either already separated themselves from the pack, or are starting to do so. And I don’t think the order will be too surprising. The lower three can be shuffled up a bit; they are pretty close. There is only a bit of separation between that group and number two.
But the guy at number one stands alone. I sifted stats through a number of equations that included lots of factors, weighted certain things in various ways, and generally tried to look at a number of different angles before slotting prospects into the rankings. The same guy led the chart no matter how I tweaked the numbers. Most of the time it wasn’t particularly close, either. There are prospects who could dethrone him before the season is out, but for now I think the Cubs have a very clear number one prospect. And it’s not as if the scouting reports disagree with the numbers.
Now that the prospects are all ranked, there are a couple more things to talk about. First, in the coming days, there will be an article that puts all the Top 40 in a single list for easy reference and also digs into where this farm system has some strength and where it is lacking. After that we’ll talk about International Free Agency, the draft, the CBA penalties, and how the Cubs can restock a farm system with impact talent while working under the restrictions that come with being a very good, very high revenue team.
But first, the top five.
5. Aramis Ademan, SS
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2016
Projection: Good, not great, starting shortstop or second baseman
Ademan does everything pretty well, but he doesn’t do anything very well. He’s a good prospect and my highest rated bat in this Top 40, but I’m not sure I see an impact guy here. Not yet, anyway.
The Cubs have been very aggressive with Ademan’s path through the minors. After 39 games in Eugene (.286/.365/.466) they promoted him to South Bend, and after 29 games for South Bend (.244/.269/.378) they had him open 2018 in Myrtle Beach. At every stop so far Ademan has hit a few homers, stolen a couple bases, posted a strikeout rate under 18%, and walked at a rate that has been variable, but mostly in an acceptable range. Defensively he has looked like a teenager playing professional middle infield – a great play one innings, flubbing an easy throw to first the next. The consistency will come, but the tools are clearly there for him to be just fine at short.
If Ademan is going to emerge as an impact guy, something he does will have to advance from being pretty good to really good. It could possibly be his defense, but a lot of people think it will be his power. As a 20-25 HR a year shortstop, Ademan could be a really valuable guy. I’m not sure if he’ll get there, but even if he doesn’t, I think he could still turn out to be a perfectly fine starting shortstop. I’m just not sure about star potential.
I’m also not sure Ademan will last much longer in the Cubs farm system. If they need to make a moderate sized or larger trade this summer, maybe a trade for a late inning reliever for the third year in a row, and Ademan has broken out in High-A, he will probably be among the names teams ask about.
4. Alex Lange, RHP
Acquired: First round, 2017 draft
Projection: Number three starter
Meet the best curveball in the farm system. It is a thing of beauty, and Lange locates it pretty well. He can set it up with a fastball that hangs out in the low to mid 90s, and he gets plenty of weak contact and swings and misses. His fastball has decent movement and he can locate it well enough in the strike zone to set up the rest of his arsenal and to use it against both sides of the plate. Oh, and now he has a pretty decent changeup as well.
After drafting Lange in the first round last year, the Cubs sent him to Eugene for nine innings. The sample size is small, but while there he put up a strikeout rate of 12.54 K/9 and a walk rate of just 2.89 BB/9. His groundball rate wasn’t much, only 39.1%, but I’m not sure he was using all his pitches either. He had just worked a full college season, after all.
As a starter for LSU, Lange has already picked up plenty of experience pitching in a very tough collegiate conference. That experience should allow him to adapt fairly quickly to the daily professional game, and is probably in part what allowed the Cubs to send him to High-A for his first full professional season.
The curveball gives Lange one plus-plus pitch, and the fastball can probably be reasonably graded a plus pitch. If he can bring the changeup to average … and I suspect plus is plausible … Lange would have the pitches needed to emerge as a solid number three starter. With a little luck, he might even be a little better.
The Cubs have no reason to rush Lange. Their rotation is stocked for now, and if they time things right Lange should be just about ready to go when holes start to open in Chicago. I suspect the Cubs will walk him up the system one level per year with that timing in mind.
3. Adbert Alzolay, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2013
Projection: Mid-rotation starter
Alzolay’s emergence last season was one of the better stories of the summer. In 22 total starts (15 for Myrtle Beach, 7 for Tennessee) he had very little trouble. His High-A ERA ended up 2.98; his Double A figure was 3.03. The strikout rates (low to mid 8s) and walk rates (between 2.4 and 3.3) were also relatively close. His groundball rate is on the low side (just 33% with Tennessee), but he avoid hard contact and allowed no homers at all for the Smokies (8 for the Pelicans).
Alzolay is a fastball/curveball guy. His fastball has some life and often sits in the mid-90s. He controls it well and can get whiffs with it. His curveball, often graded at plus like his fastball, also has good velocity and plenty of movement. That, too, is a pitch that can get swings and misses. His changeup still needs work, but projects about average.
A plus fastball, plus curve combo could set Alzolay up to be a very effective reliever if starting doesn’t work out, but the Cubs are showing no signs of making that move. With a good changeup he is a solid number three in the making. Without it, he may be more of a number four. Either way, after handling Double-A with ease already, there is not a ton of risk here. For a pitching prospect, he’s on the safe side relatively speaking.
The Cubs have limited Alzolay to about 120 innings each of the past two seasons. That won’t cut it if he is going to start long term, so I expect he’ll be allowed to move into the 140 or 150 innings range this year (though the start of his season has been delayed). Surprisingly, given that he has just 32.2 Double-A innings behind him, the rumor is he will head straight to Iowa when he leaves extended spring training. That suggests the Cubs are pretty confident in him and are wanting to challenge him a bit. That also suggests he could be part of their major league pitching depth chart as a guy who could be called up from Iowa by year end. We’ll see if things actually play out that way, or if Alzolay still sees a little more time at Tennessee.
Alzolay gets some traction at the back of Top 100 charts, but I don’t really see him as an impact-type pitcher. A solid mid-rotation guy, yes. But the sort of player you doodle into daydream rosters? Not really. Then again, a couple years ago we’d have said the exact same thing about – for one extreme example – Kyle Hendricks, and look how that turned out.
2. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2013.
Projection: Number two or three starter, or high leverage reliever
I consider De La Cruz to be one of two true impact prospects in this farm system. He enters the year with possibly the best mix of stuff and command in the farm system. There are better individual pitches than what De La Cruz throws, but right now none of them are thrown by someone who can pound the strike zone as effectively as De La Cruz. Although, to be fair, Lange may not be too far behind.
When he’s at his best De La Cruz throws a plus fastball with good movement in the mid-90s (sometimes on the high side of the mid 90s), a plus curveball with plenty of movement that he can locate for strikes, and a plus changeup that nicely rounds out his arsenal. As far as command goes, De La Cruz has only posted a BB/9 as high as 3.00 once. And that was in a sample of just three innings. His next highest figure was 2.60 in South Bend in 2016, and he lowered that mark to 2.14 with Myrtle Beach last year. He hasn’t been a big strikeout guy so far, but I think that will change with improved sequencing as he refines all his pitches.
The problem with De La Cruz is that he can’t stay on the mound. He pitched 70+ innnings in 2014 and 2015, but his high water mark since then was 56.2 last season. A lot of his injuries sound more like bad luck than a fragile arm, but the conern here is real. De La Cruz is not as polished as he really should be because he hasn’t gotten the innings he should have gotten.
Ultimately that may be what drives De La Cruz into the bullpen. I hope not, because I think with a healthy season behind him he should be challenging for the top spot on these rankings and could easily factor into multiple league Top 100 lists. If he does go to the bullpen, his stuff and control make him a closer candidate. If he stays in the rotation, I think a future as a number three starter is comfortably in his reach. If things break really right, he could have front of the rotation potential.
The Cubs will probably try to strike a balance between playing it safe given his health history and challenging him if he starts to thrive. I think there will be plenty of rust in his first few starts. After that, if he starts to consistently pitch well, he could be promoted to Iowa. Don’t be surprised to see him show up in Chicago in September. If he’s healthy.
1. Jose Albertos, RHP
Aquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2016 season
Projection: Maybe a front-of-the-rotation starter, if things go right
Albertos, I think, is a little behind De La Cruz in the command department, but his stuff takes a back seat to no one in this farm system. His changeup is one of the best in minor league baseball. Not just with the Cubs, but anywhere. His changeup is about as double plus as a double plus pitch gets, and he pairs it with a fastball that arrives in the mid 90s, has sink, and already grades out as plus. His curve? Good, with plus potential. And as his mechanics improve, he could wind up with plus control as well.
One plus-plus pitch, plus two plus pitches, plus plus command (follow that?) equals front-of-the-rotation starter. That is no sure bet, but that future is in his range. And that potential is what propels him to the top of the Cubs farm system.
There is risk, though. Not surprisingly for a teenager, there are mechanical issues with his delivery that need to be addressed. The Cubs will need to be careful with his workload as well. He pitched only 43 innings last year, so it may not be until 2019 that he’s able to handle 100 innings in a season. And on top of that, there are some concerns about his general lack of athleticism.
A lot needs to go right for Albertos to emerge as an actual front-of-the-rotation candidate in a few years, and there is no reason for the Cubs to push him. For now, the main thing is cleaning up his mechanics and continuing to develop control to match the quality of his stuff.