This was the year that Miguel Amaya emerged as the best prospect in the Cubs farm system (and also the year he picked up a new challenger for the top slot in Nico Hoerner, but that’s another article). Amaya, the primary catcher for South Bend, turned in a very solid season as a 19-year-old catcher and left us with plenty to dream on the process.
He stood out so much, in fact, that in recapping South Bend I could almost just type “Miguel Amaya” and leave it at that. Almost, but not quite. There was more in South Bend last season than just Amaya, but… well… let’s just say that Amaya is probably the only South Bend player a non-prospect-nerd can name.
So let’s start with Amaya. First of all, he won’t turn twenty until early March but he already looks right at home behind the plate. He’ll stick at catcher, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turns into a well above average defensive catcher in the process. He moves well, blocks well, picks well, and has an arm that FanGraphs projects to be a 60 grade (and they might be underselling it a bit). I don’t think it is possible to grade pitch-framing with the data we have available in the minors, so the best I can say on that front is that he passes the eye test.
At the plate, he is probably ahead of schedule. Catchers are often slower to develop with the bat than the glove, and teenagers aren’t often in the full-season Midwest League. Amaya, as a catcher, finished with a wRC+ of 114 on a line of .256/.349/.403. His walk rate (10.4%) and strikeout rate (19.0%) were both where we would like to see them or better, as was his BABIP (.298). Amaya doesn’t hit too many grounders (38.3%), but for the time being the balls he does put in the air don’t necessarily go that far (ISO .147). That will change as he continues to add power to his 6’1″, 185 lb frame. Long term I see Amaya as a somewhat above average hitter with at least average power. Combine that with his defensive potential, and we could be looking at a guy who puts up some good Major League seasons inside of the next decade.
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) August 16, 2018
Two of the other noteworthy hitters for South Bend made it to High A by the end of the year and have already been discussed in the Myrtle Beach recap: Jared Young and Christian Donahue. Nico Hoerner made it to South Bend for a few games, but we’ll hold off on a discussion of Hoerner for now.
Michael Cruz, a left-handed hitting catcher the Cubs drafted in 2016, finished with a wRC of 115 over 310 PA for South Bend. He is more polished than Amaya behind the plate, as well as at it (BB% of 8.1%, K% of 10.6%), but right now I’m not sure he has the tools to match Amaya’s ceiling. He could turn into a fast moving bench option, though.
Austin Filiere, a right handed hitting corner infielder, hit his way to a wRC+ of 101 despite a strikeout rate of 25.7% and a surprisingly low ISO of .109. Last year in Eugene that ISO was .182, and for a corner infielder who pulls about half his hits, I would not expect that low an ISO. If he finds that missing power, Filiere could yet emerge as a quality bat. That adjustment could be tough to make in Myrtle Beach next year, but we’ll keep an eye on him.
Twenty year old Rafael Narea, a right-handed hitting middle infielder, could also stand to add some power. His .237/.295/.310 line is mainly held back by his lack of power (.073 ISO). He did a better job putting the ball in the air this season, but those balls just didn’t travel. Still, given that he’s just 5’10”, 160 lbs, I would definitely keep track of Narea. With just a little more power he could emerge as the next in a long line of well regarded Cubs’ middle infield prospects.
Other than Amaya, this class of bats is not great. Fortunately, things get a little more interesting on the pitching side. Rollie Lacy and Tyler Thomas were among those interesting arms, but they were traded near the deadline. That leaves us with Cory Abbott, Jeffrey Passantino, Erich Uelmen, Javier Assad, and Brendon Little. There may be a few more I’ll wind up regretting not mentioning, but that’s enough to get started with.
We’ll open with Little, since he was a 2017 first round pick. We had high hopes for Little coming into the season, but the lefty did not have a great season. As is the case with a lot of the pitchers the Cubs are packing into the lower levels of their system these days, his stuff revolves around his curve and changeup, and both project pretty well. He pitched better than his 5.15 ERA says (FIP 4.12), but he didn’t strike out that many (7.99 K/9), walked too many (3.82 BB/9), and posted a so-so groundball rate (47.0%). I suspect some of his inconsistency was due to mechanical tweaks and the Cubs having him work on certain pitches over others. We should start to see the results of that effort in Myrtle Beach in 2019. I do think Little winds up in a late-inning relief role before it is all said and done, but I like his odds to do well in that role.
Javier Assad, a right-hander, is tough to project. None of his pitches draw scouting praise, but he just consistently pitches pretty well (3.70 FIP). He’s not a big strikeout guy, doesn’t get a ton of grounders, and may well be doing well because he’s just pretty darn good at setting up hitters and forcing weak contact. That profile may not survive a trip to Double A… but it has before. He’ll also head to Myrtle Beach in the spring.
Erich Uelmen was very good for South Bend in 56.1 innings (2.33 FIP, 9.27 K/9, 2.40 BB/9, 66.2% groundball rate), but not so good for Myrtle Beach in 33 innings. I’m not worried. Uelmen pairs good fastball velocity with the sinking stuff to get a ton of grounders. That is a pitching prospect profile I am very much a fan of, and I’ll be watching Uelmen head back to Myrtle Beach with great interest.
Jeffrey Passantino spent time with both South Bend and Eugene in his first full season as a professional, and with South Bend he posted some very good numbers in his 34.1 innings. He gets plenty of strikeouts (9.70 K/9), walks very few (1.05 BB/9), and finished the year with an ERA of 3.41. Unfortunately he gave up way too many homers (1.57 HR/9) and a little too much hard contact in general, otherwise we might be talking about him as one of the breakout stories of the season. Keep a close on eye on this right-hander. He’s not very big (5’9″) and will be 23 when opening day roles around, but the results suggest there might be a fast moving reliever candidate here.
As far as stuff goes, the best pitcher at this level was probably Cory Abbott. He has good command, good velocity, and a promising (if inconsistent) breaking ball. There is work to do using those tools to set up hitters and convert them to outs, but his 10.84 K/9 with South Bend gave us plenty to dream on. He popped up in the Myrtle Beach writeup given that he spent twenty more innings there (67.2) than in South Bend, and I think he may head back to Myrtle Beach for a time. Right now I like Abbott as a high strikeout back of the rotation candidate, but if his breaking stuff takes a step forward he could be a solid mid-rotation type prospect by the end of the year.
All in all, an interesting group. None of them compare to Amaya yet, but there are some players on the pitching side who could be getting close to a breakout. Fortunately for South Bend fans, I think 2019 will be a lot more entertaining than 2018.
Next time we’ll talk about Eugene, and that’s when we start to get into the really exciting prospects.