The Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects: 32 to 25

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The Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects: 32 to 25

Cubs Minor Leagues and Prospects

cubs prospect top 40Today’s edition of the Top 40 has a very strong 2015 flavor to it. Three of these eight prospects were drafted just last summer, and another was drafted the summer prior.

There is also a prospect here who should serve to add a little caution to the excitement over the Cubs’ youth-driven rebuild. He was acquired from the Braves in a deadline deal designed to reinforce a young Atlanta team that had won 90+ games the year before and looked like it was about to be a major factor for several seasons. Given how woeful the Braves are now, it may surprise you to realize that trade was just in 2014. Things can change in a hurry.

Reading the Top 40 can’t be done in a hurry, though, so here’s hoping you’re seated comfortably. Oh, and that you’ve already read the previous articles on the methodology of ranking prospects, a few prospects who missed the cut, and the eight players at the bottom of the Top 40. If you’re all caught up on those, then let’s start with …

32. Jacob Hannemann, OF
Age: 24
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee and Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Hannemann in the 3rd round in 2013.
Notable Stat: His monthly OPS split in Tennessee improved by about .300 between May and August.

A left-handed hitting outfielder who can play high quality defense across the grass and steal some bases can probably find a job on a Major League bench … if he can hit a little. That is really the last piece to the puzzle for Hannemann. If he can make a little more consistent hard contact, he’s in the 2017 discussion for the Cubs’ outfield bench.

Hannemann torched the Carolina League for 16 games to start the season, was sent to Tennessee, and promptly struggled. Badly. His first half slash line, over 48 games, was just .220/.261/.324. The improvement was steady all season long, though, and in the final month of the season (130+ plate appearances) he slashed .256/.346/.393. He walked 14 times in August and just 18 times the rest of the Double A season.

Even though he is going to turn 25 in April, I’m not quite ready to write off Hannemann as a prospect. He’s progressing more slowly than I’d like, even given the two year layoff from baseball he had after high school, but so long as I’m seeing consistent improvement in the right areas I see no reason to give up on him. I think his most likely path to the majors is as a defensive-minded fourth outfielder, but if the late season patience holds up and he adds just a little more power, a starting job is within his range.

Don’t be surprised if he struggles when promoted to Iowa, though. That has been his pattern.

31. Paul Blackburn, RHP
Age: 22
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Blackburn as a supplemental first round pick in 2012.
Notable Stat: His GO/AO of 1.77 is pretty much excellent.

Blackburn’s goals this season should start with staying healthy. He was limited to 18 starts and 89.2 innings last season, down from 24 starts and 117 innings the year before, and one of the injuries that slowed him was with the forearm. If he takes the mound 20 to 25 times in 2016, that’s a good start.

Despite the fewer innings, Blackburn improved in the places we wanted to see improvement. His BB/9 dropped from 2.38 to 2.21, his K/9 rose from 5.77 to 6.32, and his HR/9 fell from 0.5 to 0.3. That is exactly the trend we want to see in a young pitcher.

At this point I think we know what Blackburn is: a back of the rotation pitcher in the making. He is following the lower-strikeout, higher-groundball path to the majors, and so far he’s done a nice job limiting the walks and the home runs along the way. If he continues to throw his low-90s, three-pitch mix into the bottom of the strikeout zone, he’ll probably continue to grounder his way up the system and, eventually, into a chance at a spot in the Major League rotation.

I’m not sure the bullpen is a great fallback for him, though. Most quality relievers have at least one pitch that grades as plus or better, and Blackburn probably doesn’t. His stuff and his command of it are solidly above average, good enough to get the job done as a ground ball inducing fifth starter, but I don’t see his stuff playing as well in the pen.

30. Christian Villanueva, 1B/3B
Age: 24
Likely 2016 Team: The disabled list, a couple rehab stops, and eventually Iowa.
Acquired: The Cubs acquired Villanueva from the Rangers for Ryan Dempster in 2012. Also in the deal, some kid named Kyle Hendricks.
Notable Stat: In Triple A he blended a very healthy 15.7% strikeout rate with an equally healthy .178 ISO.

A broken fibula in Spring Training means Villanueva’s shot at the Major Leagues is going to take a little longer. Make no mistake, though, he deserves that shot.

Villanueva, right in the correct age window for Triple A, played well for the Iowa Cubs in 2015. In addition to the 15.7% strikeout rate, he walked just under 7% of the time and hit 18 home runs on his way to a line of .259/.313/.437. Then he went to Obregon in the Winter Leagues and hit.322/.434/.480 with 9 more home runs as their third baseman.

Long known for his defense, I think after 2015 there can’t be much doubt that the bat is also ready for a Major League debut. Defensively he does his best work on the infield corners (primarily third), but has seen a little time at second and in left field as well. He would not be an option at short or center, but I suspect he could come off the bench and finish up a game anywhere else.

The problem is that he is thoroughly blocked with the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo is going nowhere. Kris Bryant is going nowhere … unless he is pushed to the outfield by someone like Jeimer Candelario (more on him in a couple days). For now the right-handed hitting back-up infield spot is occupied by Javier Baez, and Villanueva isn’t likely to win that fight. Barring an injury, there just isn’t anywhere to play him in Chicago.

And with guys like Candelario and Dan Vogelbach arriving in Iowa, defensive innings at the corner infield slots could become hard to find there as well. While I can’t argue with having him in the organization as extra depth in case of a rash of injuries in Chicago, I honestly think the best thing for Villanueva’s career would be a trade to a rebuilding team where he might have a shot to play regularly at third. I’m not convinced he can hit enough to hold down a starting third base job in the majors, but I’d love to see him get the chance.

But it is very hard to be traded when you’re on the DL with a broken leg, and there is no guarantee that Villanueva will be back to his usual self by the Trade Deadline. Baseball is a strange sport, though, and you never know how situations might change. By the time he comes back, we might be very glad indeed to have him in the system.

29. Victor Caratini, C
Age: 22
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee
Acquired: The Cubs acquired Caratini from the Braves in 2014 in the James Russell trade.
Notable Stat: The 10.8% walk rate is a very good sign.

Caratini is a switch-hitting catcher who shows promise of becoming both a good defensive catcher and a reliable hitter from both sides of the plate. His very good walk rate with Myrtle Beach last year was paired with a very good strikeout rate of just 16.6%, 4 home runs, and a line of .257/.342/.372.

A little more power would certainly help his offensive value, and I would not be surprised to see some additional power show up in Double A. The switch-hitting is a nice asset to have, but even with that weapon I think his bat may end up too light to claim a starting catcher job in the Major Leagues long term. As a back up, though, he could be just about ideal.

Caratini has been the primary catcher on two championship teams since he joined the Cubs (2014 Kane County, 2015 Myrtle Beach), and he should be the primary catcher again when he joins the Smokies next week. Catchers take a little longer to develop, as do switch-hitters, so don’t expect him to move up the system at an accelerated rate. He should be still ready, if all goes well, to potentially be the backup to Willson Contreras (more on him in a few days) in Chicago in 2018, after Miguel Montero has left.

28. Carson Sands, LHP
Age: 21 (by a couple of days)
Likely 2016 Team: South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Sands in the 4th round in 2014.
Notable Stat: For his awful July 19th start, Sands had an ERA of 243.0. Thanks to his other 13 starts, his season ERA was 3.92.

There should be a quartet (and maybe a quintet) of pretty good pitching prospects in the South Bend rotation this season, and Sands is the first of that bunch to appear on the Top 40. At 6’3″ has a starting pitcher’s frame, and it is as back of the rotation work horse that I see Sands shaping up.

None of his pitches grade as plus, but his fastball / curve / changeup mixture all grade as average or better, and he commands them pretty well. Between the movement on his pitches and his ability to locate them low in the zone, Sands was able to fare pretty well in the ground ball department, totaling a GO/AO of 1.40. It isn’t hard to imagine this big lefty using that ground ball inducing stuff to work two hundred innings a season as a number four or five starter in the majors one day.

I have a harder time imagining him any higher in the pitching rotation than four or five. While he struck out 20 in his 19 innings of Rookie ball after the 2014 draft, his 2015 strikeout rate dropped to 6.44 K/9. The walk rate remained nearly identical at 3.30 BB/9, but that is probably a little high given the rest of his profile. Getting consistently ahead in the count so as to cut back on the walks will be one of the things he will be working on as he moves up the system.

Interestingly, even though he doesn’t have as high a projection as some of his fellow pitching prospects, he may not need as much polish time in the minors, either. The Cubs will need to build up his inning count this year and next, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sands emerge as a viable rotation option as soon as the 2018 season.

27. D.J. Wilson, OF
Age: 19
Likely 2016 Team: Eugene or South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Wilson in the 4th round in 2015.
Notable Stat: The .322 OBP was a great start for a potential lead off hitter.

The Cubs invested a large portion of their 2015 draft pool funds into Wilson, a move that likely surprised some given that the success rate of 5’8″ Major League hitters is not tremendously high. Almost immediately, though, word began to leak from the Cubs’ training facility in Mesa that Wilson might be special. He has the bat speed and strength to drive the ball into the gaps (and even punish a few mistakes over the fence), a strong understanding of the strike zone, and potentially elite speed. There is no doubt about his ability to stay in center field, and he should be well above average there.

His speed is his biggest weapon right now, and learning to translate that raw speed into stolen bases will take some time. Every other part of his game might just be advanced for a high school draftee (the 16.9% strikeout rate certainly hints in that direction), and that means he might open the season in South Bend as opposed to Eugene as I previously expected. That aggressive assignment would be a significant vote of confidence from the Cubs.

I don’t have enough data to put a projection on Wilson, not with any kind of confidence, but I will note that he has all the tools to be an impact lead off hitter who plays well above average defense in center. I took a cautious approach when ranking him because I have so little data; Baseball America ranked him eleven slots higher, for what it’s worth.

Keep a close eye on Wilson this season.

26. Donnie Dewees, OF
Age: 22
Likely 2016 Team: South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Dewees in the 2nd round in 2015.
Notable Stat: In his first 66 games he hit 5 homers and stole 19 bases.

I was expecting the Cubs to draft a pitcher in the second round of the 2015 draft, but they didn’t do it. They went back to the ranks of collegiate bats and took the left-handed hitting Dewees instead. In the process, they may have drafted one of the better pure hitters in that draft. His first taste of professional ball required some adjustments, so don’t let the .266/.306/.376 line from last summer throw you off. Dewees can hit.

Dewees has a chance to hit for average power and, thanks in part to his plus speed, could hit for a better than average batting average as well. He is the sort of player who could turn into a 15 HR, 35 SB threat one day … and that stolen base projection may be low.

Defensively he may be a little more limited, but that remains to be seen. He has the speed to play anywhere, but I’m not certain about the arm (reports are mixed). That will be something to watch when he takes the field in South Bend this summer.

25. Dave Berg, RHP
Age: 23
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee, and maybe Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Berg in the 6th round in 2015.
Notable Stat: Through 19.1 professional innings, Berg has allowed 3 walks and no homers.

I was aware of Berg before I went to watch the Pelicans play late last summer, but I was not expecting to be as impressed as I was. Berg, a very good closer in college, attacked High-A hitters right off the bat. He wasn’t afraid to pitch inside or to challenge the hitters to hit his pitch, and thanks to his submarine delivery and late movement, virtually no one was able to square the ball up against him. Just weeks away from being drafted he was already leaving hitters in High-A looking over matched.

In his limited time in High A Berg was getting hitters out via the grounder (2.78 GO/AO) as well as the strike out (7.88 K/9). More advanced hitters may have less difficulty picking up his funky delivery, but I suspect right-handers are always going to have some struggles against him. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs spend the early part of 2016 looking for a level at which hitters are able to rough up Berg a bit, and it may well take a trip to Iowa before they find it.

Berg is a pure reliever, and while I’m not sure that he’ll take a setup or closer role in the majors, I have little doubt he’ll get a chance to play a role in a Major League bullpen at some point. He’s mostly been used as a single inning reliever so far; transitioning him to a multi-inning super utility pitcher role may take a little time should the Cubs chose to pursue that route.

There are not many pure relievers on this Top 40 list, but I think Berg is the one with the highest floor. I think he could be an option for a late season call up in 2016 and could be competing for a job in Spring Training a year from now.


Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.