The Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects: 16 to 9

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The Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects: 16 to 9

Cubs Minor Leagues and Prospects

cubs prospect top 40Almost there.  Today’s list takes us into the top ten, and tomorrow’s will wrap up the rankings.  There will be one more article after that, a listing of all forty prospects in one place with some additional summary statistics, but the rankings themselves will be complete.

If you are just now getting into the Top 40, then you have a pleasant afternoon of reading ahead of you. Five articles have already been published in this series, twenty four prospects have already been ranked, and thirty one have been discussed.  All the links you’re looking for are (in order) right here, here, here, here, and here.

This list is the next to last group of eight.  First up today is a guy with a very high projection, but a risk profile that might be even higher.  Say hello to …

16. Duane Underwood, RHP
Age: 21
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Underwood in the second round in 2012
Notable Stat: He missed two months with a forearm issue that did not require surgery.

Underwood has some of the best stuff in the system. His fastball is probably a plus plus pitch, and he has a changeup and a breaking pitch that both show a ton of promise. He has the pitches to be a legitimate number two starter in the majors one day. If you get the chance to watch him pitch in person, take it. He has already dealt some absolute gems, and he is one of those guys who can produce something special every time he steps on the mound.

Despite all that, I’ve ranked him sixteenth overall and behind seven other pitchers. The reason is simple: risk. I have concerns that, eventually, Underwood could be ticketed for arm surgery.

The Cubs shut Underwood down for about two months last year due to forearm soreness. Ultimately his MRI was clean, no surgery was required, and he came back to pitch well at the end of the season. All seemed well. But in spring training stiffness in that right elbow returned and limited his activities, at least for a time. It could be just a meaningless coincidence, but when a hard-throwing young pitcher has discomfort in his pitching elbow that affects his ability to pitch twice in consecutive seasons, I get worried.

If Underwood can put together a full healthy season, he will probably be in the top five and will be in the discussion for the top slot among pitchers when I build this list next spring. That strikes me as a lot of ‘if’. Thanks to the arm issues, I consider Underwood the riskiest proposition among the top tier of Cubs’ pitching prospects, riskier even than a guy we have yet to discuss who hasn’t pitched out of rookie ball yet.

The upside here is immense; don’t let the relatively low ranking cause any confusion on that score. He could be a number two starter or, if he winds up lacking starter’s durability long term, a shut down reliever. But until I have confidence that the arm isn’t going to blow up he is just too big of a risk to rank that highly.

15. Mark Zagunis, OF
Age: 23
Likely 2016 Team: Tennessee
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Zagunis in the 3rd round in 2014.
Notable Stat: Take away two games in Rookie ball in 2014, and Zagunis has had an OBP over .400 at every stop as a professional.

Drafted as a catcher, the Cubs moved to Zagunis to the outfield and, in the interests of advancing his bat as quickly as possible, left him there. He spends most of his time in the corners, but I think he could handle any of the three slots. In a system stacked with very good defensive center fielders, he may not get a lot of chances up the middle, but I think he could do it.

The main value here is in the bat, and the bat is probably better than most of us expected. In High A last season he walked at a 15.6% rate, struck out at a 16.8% rate, and compiled a line of .271/.406/.412 with 8 homers and 12 steals. The strikeout rate has barely moved since he joined the system in 2014; possibly a sign that he really hasn’t been challenged since he became a professional.

The 12 steals came in 22 chances. With additional experience, I think we can expect to see that success rate increase. Similarly, I think the home run total is going to tick up a little, but he isn’t likely to be a slugger. His swing is geared more for line drives, and he does a very nice job selecting the pitches he can make the most of and laying off the rest. In terms of approach and plate discipline, he’s one of the best in the organization.

In an organization that values on base percentage, an organization such as the Cubs, I think he will be ticketed for a lead off job despite his lack of a elite speed or conventional corner outfield power. As a right handed hitting lead off guy, 15 homers and 25 steals a year are probably within his range, not to mention an OBP that should remain very high as he moves up the system.

He’ll head to Tennessee to start this season, but if he handles that transition well he could be ticketed for a promotion to Iowa before the end of the year. Sometime in 2017, it’s possible he could make the trip to Chicago.

14. Ryan Williams, RHP
Age: 24
Likely 2016 Team: Iowa
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Williams in the 10th round in 2014.
Notable Stat: His Double A FIP was 2.86.

Williams does not have front of the rotation potential. His profile is pretty clearly that of a fourth or fifth starter who thrives on ground ball outs and doesn’t give anything away. Within that profile, he checks all the boxes and could arrive in Chicago as soon as this season.

His 6’4″ frame suggests he could be a highly durable innings eater at the back of a rotation, and indeed in just his second professional season he was already up to 141.2 innings. He doesn’t strike out many (6.24 K/9 in Double A), but his low 90s fastball comes with a heavy sink that results in plenty of baseballs being hit straight into the dirt in front of the plate. Infielders will get a workout with Williams on the mound, but it pays off with nice low batting average against of just .227 in Double A.

The walk rate is low (1.6 BB/9 in Double A), the home run rate almost nonexistent (allowed 2 in 168.1 innings), the ground ball rate is very healthy (1.42 GO/AO) … this guy is just about everything you would want in a fifth starter.

Williams ranks this highly because of how relatively low risk he is. His ceiling is below any other pitcher in the Top 16, but his floor is right up there with the highest in the farm system. If catastrophes happened and the Cubs had to bring Williams to Wrigley this spring, I think he’d probably handle it just fine.

13 Carl Edwards, Jr., RHP
Age: 24
Likely 2016 Team: Iowa and Chicago
Acquired: The Cubs acquired Edwards from Texas in the 2013 Garza trade.
Notable Stat: Over 31.2 innings he held Triple A hitters to a .142 average.

After a 2014 campaign in which injuries limited Edwards to under 70 total innings, the Cubs moved the lanky right hander to the bullpen full time in 2015. He split time between Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago, and finished with 60 total innings pitched.

And a huge walk rate. Over 31.2 innings in Triple A, Edwards gave up walks at the stunning pace of 6.82 BB/9. The only things that kept his free pass giveaway from turning into an utter disaster were his fantastic strikeout rate (11.08 K/9) and the fact that Pacific Coast League hitters just couldn’t hit off him. He held them to a .142 average and just 4.3 hits per nine innings. Somehow, Edwards had stumbled on a formula in which he was either unhittable or out of the strike zone altogether.

I’m not sure that’s sustainable. I love the K rate and the way he throttled hits, but that walk rate is scary high. When Edwards heads to Iowa to start the season, limiting the walks is almost certainly going to be one of the things the Cubs have him working on. He had pretty good command prior to the injury-plagued 2014 season, so I’m hoping it is just a matter of him regaining a feel for his stuff.

The stuff, when he can control it, is excellent. As a reliever Edwards’ fastball sits in the mid-90s and maintains the sharp, late cutting movement that has made facing him miserable for hitters across the minor leagues. His secondary pitches look good, but, again, he has to be able to locate them consistently for them to really be useful.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Edwards as a starter, but for 2016 I look for the Cubs to keep him primarily in the bullpen. If a need appears in Chicago, and one almost certainly will before the long regular season is out, Edwards should be a candidate to return to the majors. Long term he has the pitches to earn a spot at the front of a rotation (assuming he is durable enough) or at the back of a bullpen. If he can cut the walk rate in half, he could be a top five guy by mid-season.

12. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP
Age: 21
Likely 2016 Team: South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs signed De La Cruz as an IFA prior to the 2013 season.
Notable Stat: He struck out 73 in exactly 73 innings.

Given the success that he enjoyed with Eugene last summer, it is easy to forget that De La Cruz has only been pitching for about two years. He used to be a shortstop before the Cubs signed him and moved him to the mound. As a result of that lack of experience, De La Cruz is very much a work in progress. Just about every part of his game is inconsistent.

The fastball lives in the mid-90s, but has been reported a little higher than that. Right now, that’s his main pitch and is the chief cause of his tidy 9.00 K/9. He already has pretty good command of that pitch (as seen by his 2.10 BB/9), and it makes life difficult on hitters with plenty of movement. It could also use some consistency, but it is already graded as a plus pitch, and some are dropping plus-plus grades on the potential.

The other pitches need work. They are coming along, but right now it is a little hard to say how good they could be. The changeup and the breaking ball could both wind up as plus, and in that scenario (assuming he can command them as well as the fastball) we are looking at a future ace. I don’t want to drop that label on him yet, though. After all, he’s only been pitching for 159.0 innings.

De La Cruz will join a fantastic South Bend rotation with a ceiling as high as anyone in the farm system. In the best case scenario his secondary pitches come along very quickly and the Cubs can accelerate him up the system at two levels a year, but that is probably unlikely. Look for De La Cruz to spend the season in South Bend, and look for him to continue to get better as the season progresses and he becomes more comfortable with his pitches and mechanics. This time next year we should have a much better idea what his timeline looks like and just how good he can be.

11. Bryan Hudson, LHP
Age: 18
Likely 2016 Team: Eugene, or maybe South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Hudson in the 3rd round in 2015.
Notable Stat: He’s a 6’8″ lefty.

The relevant stats on Hudson at this point are very few: he’s a 6’8″ lefty who has pitched a grand total of 6.2 professional innings. That’s about it.

Everything else comes from the scouting reports, and if those reports were any more glowing you’d be able to see them from space. According to those reports (from a variety of sources), his curveball is already excellent and has a chance to get even better. It may very well be the single best pitch in the farm system. His fastball probably hangs out around 90, but there may be a little room for some more velocity. I don’t know too much about the movement, but the consensus seems to be that it also has a plus future. His control is also fairly advanced.

So, what sort of a future can we expect from a super tall lefty with one pitch that could be plus-plus, one that could be plus, and good control? Those are the building blocks of a future ace. Hudson, if all goes well, could emerge as a true number one starter. He has a lot of work to do to reach that target, and given the lack of hard data regarding how his stuff performs in actual games I would not call that his projection, but it could be within his reach.

Normally I’d expect a guy in Hudson’s spot to head to Eugene after a stint in extended spring training, but reports of the already advanced control make me think the Cubs may go ahead and challenge him with a trip to South Bend before the year is out. Regardless, the most important thing for Hudson is that he stay healthy, pitch regularly, further refine his already good pitches, and add a third pitch to his arsenal. His future looks as bright as anyone in the system.

10. Eloy Jimenez, OF
Age: 19
Likely 2016 Team: South Bend
Acquired: The Cubs signed Jimenez as an IFA prior to the 2014 season.
Notable Stat: He cut his strikeout rate from 19.5% to 17.2% between ’14 and ’15.

Jimenez is a massive human being who has the promise of hitting for massive amounts of power. He looks bigger than his 6’4″ 205 lb listing, but so far we are only getting glimpses of the power potential in his bat.

With the Eugene Emeralds last summer, Jimenez posted healthy totals in both walks (6.0% walk rate) and strikeouts (17.2% strikeout rate) on his way to a line of .284/.328/.418 with 7 homers. For a slugging prospect, it was a promising start.

This year he will patrol the outfield, mostly left and right field, for South Bend while adjusting to the pitching-friendly Midwest League. We shouldn’t expect a prominent slugging display with South Bend, not from a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, but I think we will continue to get glimpses what Jimenez is capable of in that area. As his swing improves and he begins to square up the ball more regularly we should see the power numbers start to take off.

The biggest question with Jimenez is that swing: will he make enough consistent contact to let his nature power play? The jury is still out on that, but the strikeout and walk rates from Eugene are both positive signs. The decline in strikeout rate between the Arizona Rookie League and the Northwest League is a very positive sign. Jimenez won’t need to hit for a high average to have plenty of offensive value, but, naturally, the higher the better. We should have a better sense of how his hit tool will hold up in a few months.

For now I have Jimenez projected as a starting outfielder with plus power and average defense. I suspect the Cubs will let him get a full season of minor league ball behind him before they look to accelerate him up the system, but that could still line him up for a Wrigley debut as soon as late 2018. Really, it all comes down to his bat. If he can make consistent hard contact, he’ll move fast and have a shot at stardom. His progression will be one of the biggest stories of the summer.

9. Jake Stinnett, RHP
Age: 23
Likely 2016 Team: Myrtle Beach and Tennessee
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Stinnett in the 2nd round in 2014.
Notable Stat: Including his college years, 2015 was his third year as a full time pitcher.

With Stinnett, we have to ignore his age. He was drafted as a college senior, but his experience was more comparable to a high school senior or JuCo draftee. It wasn’t until his junior year at Maryland that he moved to the mound, and thanks to a very good slider he was able to shut down college bats effectively enough for the Cubs to spend a high draft pick on him.

That slider-led success was apparent after he turned professional in 2014, leading Stinnett to a 9.95 K/9 and a batting average against of just .130 in a very short stint with Boise.

And then 2015 arrived, and Stinnett seemed like a different guy. His control was wobbly, leading to a walk rate of 3.85 BB/9, 16 hit batters, and 11 wild pitches. The strikeout rate plunged and hitters began carving him up for an ERA of 4.46 and a FIP 4.20. By mid-summer he was being written off as a bust and the prospect spotlight became focused elsewhere. And as a result, I think a lot of people missed that Stinnett turned a corner late in the season and began getting much better results.

I don’t think Stinnett lost his control or misplaced his plus slider in 2015. I think he spent the first part of the season doing something he never had to do before – learn to pitch. Stinnett’s slider was so good in college and in the very low levels of the minors that, I suspect, it carried him. Meanwhile, he needed to go through the same process of delivery adjustment and mechanical refinement that we expect for high school draftees but tend to not expect for collegiate ones.

If we look at Stinnett from that point of view, the progress is readily apparent in his split stats. His ERA by month from April through August, for example, runs 6.60, 6.00, 3.91, 3.97, 2.84. Focusing on his August numbers, we find such fairly healthy numbers as 28 strikeouts in 31.2 innings, just 6 walks, a batting average against of .230, and a WHIP of 1.01. In other words, as the changes and tweaks and lessons and experience began to sink in, Stinnett started to pitch more like the 2014 Stinnett.

In 2016, then, we should see Stinnett build on the success he enjoyed late last summer and, now working from a better foundation as a pitcher, began to once again take advantage of his excellent slider and very good fastball. There will be struggles, particularly early in the season, but I don’t think they will be as profound or prolonged as what we saw last season.

This is admittedly an aggressive ranking for Stinnett, but it is ranking based on a projection of Stinnett as a starter with No. 2 potential or a near-elite back end reliever. If we still see a repeat of his 2015 wildness as we get into mid-summer, Stinnett is likely to drop in these rankings in a hurry. However, if he does build on the mini-breakout he enjoyed at the end of 2015, he is going to once again find himself right in the middle of the prospect spotlight.


Author: Luke Blaize

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