To be sure, every MLB farm system has a handful of sleepers emerge every season. It is, as an extension from Monday’s piece, a prerequisite for a halfway decent farm season.
For even the downtrodden Cubs, last year was no different. Miguel Amaya and Brailyn Marquez, two International Free Agency bonus babies, showed some fulfillment of their potential and emerged as top five prospects. Trent Giambrone and Matt Swarmer, guys from freakin’ Delta State and Kutztown Universities, completely redefined their career trajectories. Even Justin Steele’s uber-successful and rapid bounce-back from Tommy John qualified as a sleeper season.
The fun part is trying to pick out the needles in the haystack now, if nothing else so you all have ammo to point at me and laugh in seven months. Here are my sleeper picks for the Cubs’ farm system as we sit here in mid-February …
YOVANNY CRUZ, 19, RHP
To be honest, Cruz already kind of broke out, it just seems likely this is the year he’ll get credit for it. Let’s consider his final 7 starts last year, a stretch during which he turned 19: 33.2 IP, 26 H, 6 BB, 41 K and a 1.34 ERA. The majority of Cruz’ season was spent in the Arizona League, where we don’t have video and survive primarily on word-of-mouth. And then, seemingly as a present to us Milb.tv freaks, the Cubs graced us with a late August promotion to Eugene for Cruz’ final outing.
In that 5.0 scoreless inning start, Cruz showed that he already possesses one of the system’s best breaking balls – some call it a slider, some call it a curveball, everyone knows it’s nasty:
Best Cubs prospect most have never heard of?
Kind of an old-school sinker-slider, tall-and-fall righty that broke out at age 18 in AZL last summer.
Lucky for us he got one start in Eugene (5 4 0 0 0 5), so here’s video of the K pitches from that start. pic.twitter.com/JYOIv8GCCu
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 29, 2019
Cruz pounds the zone with a low 90s sinker, which generated groundballs at a 55% clip last year. He is, as the video shows, very comfortable using his breaking ball against left-handed hitters. He’s advanced beyond his years, and there’s frankly little reason to think he’d find particular difficulty in the Midwest League. That being said, it’s likely the logjam of starting candidates at South Bend – and the interest in keeping Cruz’ inning total sub-100 – will keep Cruz in Mesa for the month of April.
LUKE REYNOLDS, 23, 3B/1B
One of the NCAA’s most productive players in 2018 (.389/.551/.699), I think Reynolds has a chance for establishing himself as the system’s most consistent middle of the order threat this year. This is a man with a plan at the plate. Between his college season and stints in Mesa and Eugene, Reynolds totaled 91 walks in 110 games in 2018. When he did make contact as a professional, it was usually hard and on a line: he led the Emeralds with a 23.6 LD%.
Finally, Reynolds’ spray chart as a professional, courtesy of Prospects Live, is something out of a Chili Davis dream:
The highlighted balls there are Reynolds line drives, and, as a left-handed hitter, that’s about the most even distribution you’ll ever see in the minors. If anything, the key to Reynolds breakout will probably be allowing himself to be less polished in the name of selling out for power. Attacking early count pitches, cheating on fastballs have time and place. What’s kind of shocking from Reynolds spray chart is that he really never elevated the ball with an extreme pull down the line.
RILEY THOMPSON, 22, RHP
This is the kind of player the Cubs have simply not drafted previously in the Jason McLeod era, so you’ll have to excuse some extra dream-wishing on Thompson’s extremely talented arm. The Cubs have, as McLeod himself said at the Cubs Convention, been too narrow in their approach to procuring amateur pitching. Habitually, the Cubs have drafted 22-year-olds throwing 90 mph with a really good collegiate walk rate.
They have not drafted college juniors with this NCAA line: 48.2 IP, 47 H, 5.92 ERA, 34 BB, 58 K. Yuck, right? Wrong.
Can’t always scout the stat line:
Best raw stuff the Cubs drafted in 2018 belongs to 11th rd’er Riley Thompson, who pitched just 48.2 IP in 2 years at Louisville.
Assigned to Eugene, Thompson was nasty in last 4 GS: 15.2 IP, 11 H, 1.72 ERA, 7 BB, 21 K. FB up to 97.
Here are 10 of those K’s. pic.twitter.com/5FISwcioc9
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 30, 2019
Thompson’s fastball has reportedly topped at 100 in the past, the curve falls off the table, the two-seamer really runs. Thompson has the body, velocity and secondary flashing of a first-round pick; but in his years after Tommy John while at Louisville, he couldn’t harness it. So it appeared that was the priority for Thompson when he arrived at Eugene. His first five outings: 9.2 IP, 2 BB, 4 K’s. A different dude. But then they took the reins off, and the real Thompson came out in those final four starts referenced in the tweet.
There’s a chance in the long run the bullpen will be a better fit for Thompson’s two potentially elite pitches. But here’s to hoping they set him loose first in the South Bend rotation, and if he can maintain the semblance of command he showed in Eugene, I guarantee he’ll be in Myrtle Beach by summer.
A half-dozen more
- Post-Hype Sleeper: Brendon Little, 22, LHP. I can find some compelling statistical reasons here. Little’s FIP was a point under his ERA. His LOB% was laughably bad at 58.5%, likely explained by a .349 BABIP with runners on base. Left-handed batters had an unsustainable HR/FB%. In a better pitching environment in Myrtle Beach, we could be reminded far more often of the promise of his selection. Remember, though, he was always seen as a guy who had huge upside, but needed work.
- Post-Hype Sleeper, Take 2: Jonathan Sierra, 20, OF. It should be a law that lanky outfielders should not be allowed to be comped to Daryl Strawberry as teenagers, and that’s Sierra’s cross to bear. As a teenager, people threw out Grade 70 raw power on Sierra, and he got an enormous signing bonus from the Cubs. Since, he’s hit 5 home runs in 737 pro PA’s. No player in the Northwest League hit to the opposite field more often, which is a good instinct that the Cubs have to coach out of Sierra’s brain. Pull, Jonathan, pull. Use that power.
- All he needs is health: Bailey Clark, 24, RHP. The Cubs did a strange thing with Clark last year. In April, Clark looked like one of the season’s best breakouts; he was being used as a 2-4 inning reliever, and looked fantastic. His first 8 games: 23 IP, 19 H, 1.17 ERA, 7 BB, 28 K. Then, the Cubs started taking him up to 60 pitches, and by June he was injured. When he returned in August he wasn’t quite himself. Hopefully this was a wake-up to let this kid be a 40-50 pitch middle reliever and let him max out that FB/SL combo.
- The Winter League Breakout: Vimael Machin, 25, UTL. The 2018 slash line of .217/.343/.325 across High- and Double-A might read like a low minors 25th man, but you can squint and see Machin’s combination of skills being bench Major Leaguer quality. He’s played five positions and posted a 15.7 BB% vs 17.6 K% last year. Then, Machin went to the Puerto Rican Winter League and hit .307/.421/.455. The line between “tops at AA” and “useful I-80 up-and-down guy” is thinner than you’d think for a guy with Machin’s particular set of skills.
- Just fun to root for: Alexander Guerra, 21, C. Signed out of Cuba in 2017, Guerra will probably hit full season ball for the first time this year after turning 22. He’s listed at 5-11, 240, but that weight is a dirty lie. He’s closer to 300 than 200, I’ll just tell you that. Probably not a catcher for too long, Guerra is a DH-in-training, but there’s reason to believe in some real power ahead.
- Deep, deep cut: Cam Sanders, 22, RHP. The 12th round pick out of LSU and son of Scott Sanders had more walks (17) than innings (16.2) in his debut last year, but he caught my eye every time I watched him. Electric arm with projection on top of it. I’m convinced this is the kind of guy who could hit up a Driveline program and come out throwing 98.