We are ranking the top 20 prospects in the Chicago Cubs farm system as the 2019 season opens up. A state of the farm system, an introduction, and prospect number 21 are here, prospects 20 through 16 are here, prospects 15 through 11 are here, and now we’re gonna look at a big group of guys who just missed.
This familiar thing happened to me every time I began the BN Prospect List over the last few weeks. I reach this one particular spot, this one certain group of names, think about it for a few minutes, and then close my browser and walk away from the computer. How in the hell will I ever rank these 11 guys?
And so I’m here to tell you: I’m not going to. I’m stopping the prospect list at 20 names this year, principally because I cannot credibly stand behind any conceivable order of the following dudes. Every time I attempt it, the order has no correlation to the one before it. They have left me a broken man.
So let’s pause the unveiling of the top 20, and get into a discussion of these 11 dudes.
At various times over the winter, you have read me, Brett, Luke, Michael, Jesse Rogers all tell you about the increased depth in the farm system. We’ve told you that pitching is coming. It’s always met with the same understandable skepticism. The Cubs have earned that.
Today’s 11 guys are very much not likely to be the game changers that convince anyone that Jason McLeod and Co. can draft and develop pitching. But because of the sheer amount of them, I feel pretty darn good that one of them will stick as a big leaguer. Maybe a couple. Relievers are weird; sometimes it just inexplicably clicks. I mean, we all lived the Blake Parker experience, for one example that just kind of happened. And the reason it will click is probably due to something they don’t even possess in their arsenal yet.
So, here you go: 11 arms that could have been just outside the top 20 if I had ranked them. Cowardly, you’ll find them today in alphabetical order. They are somewhere between my 22nd and 50th best Cubs prospects.
Trevor Clifton. Age: 23-286. 2018 numbers (AA/AAA): 126 IP, 106 H, 3.43 ERA, 101 K / 52 BB, 8 HR-A.
A great bounce back season following a very disappointing 2017, Clifton was extremely consistent, allowing 3-or-fewer earned runs in his first 21 starts (and 24 of his 26). I just don’t see it as likely that Clifton’s secondaries allow him to start consistently in the Majors. His curveball is probably best as an early count freeze-pitch, and neither his slider or change has quite made it to big league quality. But I do think there’s some hope for him. On the right day Clifton’s two seamer gets extremely nasty arm-side run, and I think his short-arm delivery would play up if he just faced hitters once. Clifton will be a minor league free agent next November if he’s not added to the 40-man roster between now and then.
Oscar De La Cruz. Age: 23-354. 2018 numbers (AA): 77.1 IP, 76 H, 5.24 ERA, 31 BB, 73 K, 8 HR-A.
Somehow it’s 2019 and Oscar De La Cruz has still not pitched 80 innings in a season. Given some full rotations in Iowa and Tennessee, it’s probably most likely that De La Cruz returns from his suspension as a reliever, and there’s a chance that produces a jump in stuff that vaults him back near the top of this grouping. But until then, I’m going to be skeptical, as it has long seemed to me that De La Cruz’ best attribute has long been simply existing as a decent pitching prospect in a system bereft of them. Once reinstated, he’ll be again eating a 40-man spot, so development must begin speeding up.
Tom Hatch. Age: 24-145. 2018 numbers (AA): 143.2 IP, 127 H, 3.82 ERA, 61 BB, 117 K, 16 HR-A.
If there’s a guy likely to prove me wrong and make it as a starter in the bigs, your best bet is probably Hatch. He’s made 52 starts in 2 seasons pitching in the Cubs minors, he has really good spin rate on his fastball, and he made progress as the Double-A season went along. His final 8 starts: 44.1 IP, 33 H, 3.05 ERA, 17 BB, 47 K. Still, I just can’t quite get there with Hatch, as his platoon split (683 OPS vRHH, 867 vLHH) and his mid-inning stuff suggest he might be best in relief. Hatch will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft after the season, so the Cubs will want to feel very solid on their internal projections of him by November.
Erick Leal. Age: 23-341. 2018 numbers (A+): 63.2 IP, 35 H, 1.41 ERA, 17 BB, 61 K, 2 HR-A.
It’s worth celebrating at every turn what an amazing 2018 season Erick Leal – the return for Tony Freakin’ Campana – had in coming back from Tommy John surgery. Those are cartoon numbers, and then he mostly continued it in the Arizona Fall League, and even made three starts in the Venezuelan Winter League. Leal’s stuff is right on the fringe, but his curveball seemed the best it ever has last year, and his changeup was always solid. The upper-level test this year will tell us a lot. He is also a minor league free agent at season’s end.
Dillon Maples. Age: 26-288. 2018 numbers (AAA/MLB): 44 IP, 29 H, 3.89 ERA, 44 BB, 84 K, 3 HR-A.
On May 11, brought into a 5-0 game in Omaha, Maples walked four of the 5 batters he faced, nearly blew the game. Four days later, he lost a game with three hits allowed in an inning (a rarity for Maples). Six days after that, Maples just barely survived another save. The wheels were falling off. And then in his next outing, on May 25, Maples threw only sliders. And for about a month, that’s about all he did – something like 80+% sliders, with just a few rogue fastballs and curves mixed in. The results: 11.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 20 K, 7 BB. I think that’s the formula that will allow Maples to succeed, but that’s walking the tightrope of not then over-grooving the pitch that got you to the league in the first place. I think if it’s going to happen for Maples and the Cubs, we’re entering now-or-never territory, and he really needs to control his upper-90s fastball to do it. Obviously his potential as a reliever is significant.
Alec Mills. Age: 27-083. 2018 numbers (AAA/MLB): 142.2 IP, 132 H, 4.73 ERA, 48 BB, 131 K, 11 HR-A.
Well, last year sure was strange. Mills has always seemed to be one of those “Whole > Sum of Parts” guys, his stuff always talked down. A “pitchability” guy. And then you throw him in short relief in the bigs, and his changeup looks other-worldly, his slider looks close to plus. It really took me off guard. And given that Mills has one option year remaining, I’d really suggest they use him exclusively in the bullpen this year, really explore if he’ll continue to play up in that role. However, I must say I don’t expect it: I expect him in the AAA rotation, bounced between various roles, and possibly out of the organization in 2020.
James Norwood. Age: 25-059. 2018 numbers (AA/AAA/MLB): 61.1 IP, 50 H, 2.79 ERA, 29 BB, 67 K, 3 HR-A.
I have a feeling that for the rest of James Norwood’s career, I’m going to remember the five changeups he threw his debut inning. The split-changes, as I’ll call them, were good enough to send me into a “whoa I’ve slept on Norwood for years” panic. And then in researching him in this process, I began to wonder the same:
This is the summer that James Norwood had.
May 27 to August 18. 26 games: 9 in AA, 13 in AAA, 4 in MLB.
The numbers: 31.2 IP, 21 H, 1.14 ERA, 12 BB, 40 K.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) February 21, 2019
Norwood has always sort of existed under the radar, not quite enough K’s to turn your head, a few too many walks to get you really interested. But I think that ignores the fact that he’s really close to getting it. By the way: if there’s one dude in the system I’d love to spend the winter at Driveline, it’s this guy.
Duncan Robinson. Age: 25-078. 2018 numbers (AA/AAA): 141.2 IP, 151 H, 3.11 ERA, 25 BB, 119 K, 9 HR-A.
Given how often he’s been talked about, and his presence in big league camp, I think we could surmise that Robinson might just be the Cubs favorite of these 11 arms, at least as the starters go. You can understand why. Over five starts between May 31 and June 25, Robinson pitched 29 innings, struck out 30 and didn’t walk a soul. He’s the guy a pitching coach points his other pupils to and says “why can’t you be more like that guy?” Robinson has got by in the minors by keeping balls in the park, using his downhill plane and good fastball control. However, his stuff isn’t quite big league quality, and so I’m skeptical this skill will be sustainable in the bigs. The good news is Robinson saw a lot of improvement in his third pitch last year, a slider that seems to tunnel well off his fastball. If he can get that pitch to come a little further, I might be convinced there’s a swingman in there.
Michael Rucker. Age: 24-300. 2018 numbers (AA): 132.2 IP, 111 H, 3.73 ERA, 38 BB, 118 K, 18 HR-A.
Sort of a microcosm for this entire group, Rucker is a guy that had a lot of low minors success and is consistently very, very solid. He has a good slider that, on the right day, can look nasty. He pitches in the low 90s. He commands the zone well. There’s just no sizzle here. He’s got the platoon split (618 OPS vRHH, 743 vLHH), as his changeup is the weakest of his offerings. His body is maxed out, and so hoping for anything besides maybe 94-95 in the bullpen is unlikely. He will also be Rule 5 eligible in November, and he’s a guy I could absolutely see going in that draft if he’s not protected.
Matt Swarmer. Age: 25-149. 2018 numbers (A+/AA): 128.2 IP, 113 H, 3.22 ERA, 21 BB, 135 K, 10 HR-A.
There were versions of the Top 20 that had Matt Swarmer in there. He’s on the cusp behind an amazing season that anointed him the Cubs’ minor league Pitcher of the Year. Swarmer added about 2 ticks to his fastball, often topping at 94 mph, and didn’t sacrifice any of his plus command. After a brief adjustment when he received a midseason promotion to AA, this was Swarmer in his final 11 starts in Tennessee: 61.1 IP, 51 H, 3.38 ERA, 9 BB, 60 K. This is a funky pitcher, he seems to be made entirely of arms and legs, throws extremely over the top, and right-handed hitters don’t have a chance against his slider. But lefties do, and he’s now 25-and-a-half years old. Does he have one more jump in him?
Duane Underwood. Age: 24-216. 2018 numbers (AAA/MLB): 123.1 IP, 129 H, 4.45 ERA, 40 BB, 108 K, 9 HR-A.
I know none of us will look back fondly on the Chris Gimenez era, but I’ll forever insist that Gimenez made a really positive difference in Underwood. Early-season Underwood, with Gimenez behind the dish, was the best I’ve seen the former second-round pick. He trusted his stuff inside the zone and began to sequence his pitches in more non-traditional ways. In his first seven starts, Underwood’s numbers were: 34.1 IP, 27 H, 2.62 ERA, 7 BB, 30 K. But when summer hit, the hard contact that has followed Underwood around continued, as seen by the .350 BABIP over his next 15 starts. In late August he was moved to the bullpen, presumably to ascertain if he’d be a September call-up candidate. He wasn’t. This is Underwood’s last option season, the Cubs’ final chance to get something out of an asset they’ve touted for a long time. I think it’s time to let him fling it 96-97 in the bullpen, and see if indeed something clicks.