Today we make history. A very small, relatively insignificant sort of history to be sure, but history nonetheless. To date the Number One prospects on the Top 40 have been, in order: Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Eloy Jimenez. Four of those players have reached the majors (although Soler hasn’t stuck there quite yet), and the fifth is considered one of the best prospects in baseball. And all of them are hitters.
The new Number One is not a hitter. In fact, there are only two hitters in the final eight.
And one of them is up first, so let’s get right to it with Number Eight…
8. Ian Rice, C
Acquired: 29th round, 2015 draft
Key Stat: OBP of .357, ISO of .210
Since being drafted, Rice has drawn a ton of walks and hit the ball hard. His time in Double A has been no different, and that in itself is remarkable. The jump to Double is a difficult one, but Rice has handled it flawlessly. For the season he is hitting .244/.357/.454 with 15 home runs, a 14.4% walk rate, and a 22.3% strikeout rate. I could wish the strikeout rate was lower, but for a Double A guy it will do.
Projecting Rice does not take much imagination. He’ll likely continue to pile up the walks and the extra base hits for Iowa next season, and by midseason I suspect he’ll be ready to come to Chicago for a week or two should a major league catcher hit the disabled list. If the Cubs keep Victor Caratini they may not need the right handed hitting Rice as a backup catcher in 2018 or 2019, but if Caratini is traded Rice is not a bad back up plan.
The question is going to be whether his work behind the plate will hold up, and there my data is a little sketchy. I have seen Rice catch, and I think he will be perfectly fine there. That said, I am not a scout, and my ability to evaluate catchers is probably non-existent. For now, though, I feel confident projecting Rice as a solid offensive backup catcher.
7. Brendon Little, LHP
Acquired: 1st round, 2017 draft
Key Stat: He’s a first round pick.
If I ranked Little based on his first professional appearances, I wouldn’t rank him. His ground ball rate in his 4.2 innings of work is excellent (57.1%), but everything else resulted in an ERA of 17.36 and an xFIP of 5.50. And that’s why we don’t rank on super tiny sample sizes.
If I ranked him based purely on scouting reports… well, that’s basically what I’m doing. And the scouting reports say Little is a high upside left-handed pitcher who may have to move to the bullpen. He has a fastball in the mid 90s that is said to have some sink to it, a curveball that was among the best in the draft, and a changeup he doesn’t really use. His control is good at times, but inconsistent. He has the pitches to be an elite groundball guy, but there is some risk here.
If Alex Lange, the Cubs’ other first round pick, had no health concerns, I would rank Little behind Lange. For now, though, Little wins because he does have two very good pitches, he does have the makings of a very good ground ball pitcher, and even if his changeup never develops and his mechanics never really improve, he could still have plenty of value as a hard-throwing left-handed reliever.
The upside, though, is that of a very good number three starter in the rotation case, or a future closer if he moves to the pen. I suspect the Cubs will keep him in the rotation while he works on his mechanics and changeup, and that means he may not move as fast as some might hope. I still expect him to join a full season league team next spring, and we’ll see what happens from there.
6. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2014 season.
Key Stat: Strikeout rate jumped to 8.27 K/9 with Tennessee.
Three years ago I ranked Tseng as the number five prospect is a much better, deeper, and more talented Cubs’ farm system. I considered him one of the safest pitching prospects in the system and referred to him as comparatively low risk. Had I stuck to that, I would look like a genius today.
I didn’t. He fell off the Top 40 altogether before breaking back out in a surprising and very impressive fashion. The reason he fell was largely due to the strikeouts … they disappeared. His K/9 in Tennessee last year was just 5.48, and while his walk rate was good (2.54 BB/9), none of his other numbers really created much excitement.
This year the strikeouts ticked up sharply, all the way to 8.27 K/9 with Tennessee and 8.10 K/9 with Iowa. While with Iowa, his ground ball rate has also climbed to a career high 50% over 30 innings of work. Tseng has alway been know for the polish on his stuff; now it appears he has added enough that he can use that polished stuff to consistently get outs at the highest levels of the minors.
He will get a shot at the majors, if not in September then sometime next year. I think he has a good chance to emerge as a quality back of the rotation starter perhaps as soon as next season, the sort of starter who can reliably go five or six innings every fifth day and keep his team in the game. Since he is just 22, I would not rule out further improvements that push him into the mid-rotation tier, either. Look for Tseng to get some scrutiny in Arizona in the spring.
Now we get to the top five, and in my book, any of these top five could be the top prospect. It all depends on how you value their various upsides against their rather considerable risks.
5. Tom Hatch, RHP
Level: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: 3rd round, 2016 draft
Key Stat: 9.18 K/9, 48.4% ground ball rate
If one of your top pitching prospects came in the third round of the draft, it means you have a very weak farm system or you somehow found a very good pitcher in the third round. Or, in this case, both.
Hatch was the Cubs first pick in 2016, and he fell to them at pick 104 because of a history of some arm trouble in college. There has been little sign of that trouble this season, though, as Hatch has already made 21 starts and likely to finish the year with around 130 innings pitched. And, on the whole, they have been good starts. His season numbers include a K/9 of 9.18, an elevated BB/9 of 3.78, a nice groundball rate of 48.9%, and a grand total of just two home runs allowed. Add it all up and get an ERA of 4.14 and an xFIP of 3.71.
On a month to month basis, though, Hatch’s results have been inconsistent. His monthly ERA in April and May was over 5.00, and in July it was 4.50. In June it was a minuscule 0.98. Even in his rougher months, though, the peripheral numbers mostly remained solid.
Right now Hatch works with a good fastball with plenty of movement and a fairly sharp slider. His changeup is graded less positively, and that will be something he likely works on as he moves up the ladder. He handles right handed batters pretty well, but lefties hit him pretty hard; the changeup may help with that as it continues to improve. If it does improve to the point that Hatch has a good three pitch mix, he could wind up as a solid number three starter one day. For now, though, I see him as a high floor guy with a very good shot of being a quality number four starter in two or three years.
4. Aramis Ademan, SS
Level: South Bend
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2016 season.
Key Stat: OPS of .830 with Eugene.
How many shortstops can one farm system send to the majors? In the past few years Cub or former Cub shortstop prospects making to the highest level have included Starlin Castro, Marwin Gonzalez, Ryan Flaherty, Junior Lake, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell. And they traded Gleyber Torres and Isaac Paredes. And yet, here we are with yet another shortstop in the top five.
Aramis Ademan is a good left-handed hitter. He isn’t likely to turn into a significant power threat or a steal a ton of bases, but his combination of an all-fields, line drive swing and pitch recognition abilities should result in a guy who maintains a high OBP on the basis of a relatively high average and quite a few walks. If those skills continue to play all the way into the majors (a big if), Ademan could be the sort of hitter that is considered for a spot near the top of the lineup.
So far this season he has hit .286/.365/.466 for Eugene over 29 games, and then packed his bags for South Bend. His strikeout rate with Eugene was just 16.4%, and he walked a very respectable 7.7% of the time. For a teenager already in the in the A ball range, those are excellent numbers.
Best of all, it looks very much like Ademan can stick at shortstop and be somewhat above average there. All aspects of his game need work, and the Cubs are not known for rushing their very young hitters, but despite that I think Ademan could move fairly quickly. I would not be surprised if he finishes 2018 in Myrtle Beach, and is in Iowa by the end of 2020.
Unless he is traded, of course. He should quickly become one of the Cubs’ most desired trade assets, and if they need to shore up the rotation or bullpen next July, he could very well be a key part in any trade.
3. Adbert Alzolay, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2013 season.
Key Stat: Myrtle Beach ERA of 2.98. Tennessee ERA of 2.42.
Alzolay is probably the favorite to be named the Cubs organizational Pitcher of the Year for 2017 (though Tseng’s name is definitely in the hat), and it is hard to argue. After 81.2 innings in Myrtle Beach in which he had a K/9 of 8.60 and a BB/9 of 2.42, Alzolay moved to Tennessee where his numbers are only slightly worse (K/9 of 7.96, BB/9 of 3.81). Home runs were a bit of a problem in Myrtle Beach (HR/9 of 0.88), but so far in Tennessee he hasn’t given up any.
Alzolay uses the fairly typical mix of fastball, curve, and changeup, and he generally can command all three pitches well. Depending on which reports you believe, his fastball sits in the low to mid 90s, and holds velocity deep into his games. Some reports have him flirting with the high 90s on occasion, but that may just be inaccurate stadium radar guns. Even though he isn’t a significant groundball guy (34.3% in Double A), batters do not square him up particularly well. When Alzolay is on the mound, you will see a lot of pop ups.
Look for Alzolay to get a long look from the Cubs in spring training, but ultimately I think he returns to Tennessee for a dozen or so games, and then moves up to Iowa. He has effectively solved right handed batters (they are hitting just .163 off him), but he still has some work to do with lefties. Long term, I don’t think Alzolay has the highest ceiling of the Cubs top three prospects, but he does have a fairly high floor and a good shot of turning into a quality number three or four starter in a couple years.
2. Oscar De La Cruz
Level: Myrtle Beach
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2013.
Key Stat: He’s made eighteen total starts the past two seasons.
If De La Cruz were healthy, he’d be on top of this list. His fastball features velocity and a lot of movement that generates plenty of grounders, his curveball is every bit as good as his fastball, and his changeup, although still improving, is already a weapon. At 6’4″ he has the size to get a good downward plane on his deliveries, and that should help his stuff play up at higher levels. In short, De La Cruz has about every attribute we look for in a pitching prospect.
But he can’t stay on the mound. He missed time with arm issues last season, and he’s missing time with arm issues again this season. What exactly those issues are is a little unclear (minor league injuries can be very mysterious, and the further from the majors the more mysterious they get), but the fact that he is missing this much time is a serious concern. Pitchers are risky prospects to begin with; pitchers with injury issues are even more so.
And yet the Projection here is so high that he comes in at Number Two despite the injuries. I suspect De La Cruz, if he can stay healthy, has the best chance of anyone in the organization of turning into a legitimate number two or better starter in the majors.
1. Jose Albertos, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to 2016.
Key Stat: 9.72 K/9, 53.5% ground ball rate.
The first pitcher ever to be ranked number one in the Bleacher Nation Top 40 is an 18-year-old with fewer than thirty professional innings to his name who is currently pitching in the short season leagues. Prior to this the riskiest pick for the top slot was Willson Contreras. Yes, that Willson Contreras.
Pitching prospects are risky. The younger the prospect, the less data we have, and the farther they are from the majors, the very much more risky they become. And I rank substantially based on risk. And I’m pretty sure I’m still sane. So if I’m ranking Albertos with all his risk factors this high, imagine how high his Projection is.
Albertos has a fastball that lives somewhere around 95 and has been clocked higher. He can already locate that fastball well and appears to use it against both left and right handed hitters. It is consistently graded out at 60. Not a future 60, a right now as you are reading this 60. And it isn’t his best pitch. His best pitch, which he can also command, is a a changeup that grades out as high as 70 and would probably be the best pitch in the organization if it weren’t for Dillon Maples and his unbelievable fastball. Albertos also has a curve that is billed as average, and some reports give him a slider with similar grades as well. All of this is built on the basis of already good command, with room for further improvement.
So, what do we call a pitcher with good command, good velocity, two plus or double plus pitches that can get outs, and an overall arsenal that is hard to square up and generates lots of ground balls? Folks, that is within an eyelash of being the definition of a true ace. The Cubs have had some pitchers with great stuff pass through the system lately, and some of them are still here, but no one has paired the raw stuff with the command to effectively and consistently use the stuff like Albertos. That combination of stuff and command at a very young age is what sets Albertos apart. He could be the best pitching prospect to pass through this organization in well over a decade, and if he stays healthy and his stuff holds up, he could front the Cubs’ rotation by 2021.
But we can’t ignore the risks. Albertos is not a big guy (6’1″, 185 lbs), and it remains to be seen how well he will hold up the demands of pitching 180+ innings a year. He may yet be forced into the bullpen (where his two plus pitches and good command would allow him to rocket through the system and turn into a true major league closer candidate in a hurry). Last summer Albertos pitched just four innings before being shut down with what was believed to be forearm soreness, so there are some injury worries here as well. A lot can happen between Eugene and Chicago, and most of those possibilities are very bad for Albertos’s future. De La Cruz is a safer bet to reach his projection than Albertos (or would be, if he could stay healthy), but Albertos has the higher projection. In the end, that was enough to get Albertos the top spot.
If Albertos stays in the top spot until he graduates into the majors (or is traded) I will be very surprised. Pitching prospects are volatile, and prospect rankings are often unforgiving to volatility. But that is then, and we’ll worry about those rankings when we get there. For now, for the Mid-Season 2017 Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects List, Jose Albertos is the best prospect in the organization.