A few days ago, Jed Hoyer sat down with Jesse Rogers and hit on a series of key talking points for the upcoming season. Among many things, they discussed how much playing time Chris Coghlan can expect, if Javier Baez will actually see sometime in center field and whether or not Kyle Schwarber will catch at the major league level in 2016.
Taking a step back from the majors, however, is Jason McLeod – who joined Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette on MLBN Radio to discuss the state of the minor league system, top prospects and more. You can listen to the full interview here – transcribed by CCO, here – or take in some of the highlights, along with my own thoughts, below.
- Willson Contreras will indeed begin his 2016 season at AAA Iowa, and McLeod believes he will see the Majors before the season is over. Depending on the catching situation at the Major League level, it’s easy to see how that could be the case. An injury to Miguel Montero, for example, is more likely to lead to a Contreras call-up than a long-term David Ross or Kyle Schwarber fill-in. If David Ross gets injured, however, I wouldn’t expect the Cubs to stunt Contreras’ growth at AAA to ride the bench in the Majors, however well he’s playing.
- Even so, McLeod expects Contreras to spend a couple of months, at least, in the minors continuing to improve on the mental half of the game. As an already gifted athlete, Contreras just needs to round out the “being a catcher” aspect of his game. To McLeod, the time he will spend with Montero, Ross, Henry Blanco and others this Spring, will be a huge component towards his final stage of growth.
- McLeod is thoroughly impressed with Gleyber Torres’ 2015 season, which – despite a late-season wear down – was a big step forward for his development. The biggest thing the front office learned about Torres was his strong makeup and maturity level. Torres won’t be in the Major Leagues this or next season, but he can take huge steps forward in 2016. With a year of professional baseball under his belt, the front office no longer has to artificially limit his ascent by anything other than his ability to be successful.
- Torres, for what its worth, is expected to remain at shortstop for the immediate future. Given how young and early into his career he is, I wouldn’t expect McLeod to say anything else, but it does sound sincere.
- Oh, you’re gonna love this: the front office nickname for Billy McKinney? ‘Billy Baseball.’ That’s a terrific nickname, and apparently one that is appropriately given. McKinney comes in for high praise from McLeod, especially on his polished, gap to gap, “veteran” approach at the plate.
- That’s the good news. The bad news is that the hairline fracture in his kneecap hasn’t recovered as well as the Cubs hoped, so he will not be ready to go at the start of Spring Training. Still, the front office expects him to be full-go by the end of the Spring.
- Duane Underwood was a raw young pitcher when he was first selected by the Cubs in 2012, but the Cubs’ minor league coaches have smoothed out his delivery a good deal since the beginning of his development. According to McLeod, Underwood is now throwing anywhere from 93 to 96-97 MPH on a given night, in addition to two plus off-speed pitches. He hasn’t quite put it all together yet, but you can imagine why his ceiling is so high.
- Underwood is expected to head to AA Tennessee, where he will work on finishing batters off, using the entirety of his repertoire. Striking batters out, polishing up his approach and gaining confidence is the 2016 plan for the hard-throwing righty.
- McLeod dives pretty deeply on the trio of high-upside starting pitchers taken in the 2014 draft – Dylan Cease, Carson Sands and Justin Steele – and all three come in for high praise. Cease, expectedly, excites McLeod the most. If you recall, he was a first-round talent who slipped because of an elbow injury that ultimately led to a planned Tommy John surgery. As of now, he is healthy and lighting up the radar gun, occasionally touching 100 MPH in 2015. For more on Cease, Sands and Steele, check out the CCO transcript here.
- As far as organizational sleepers, McLeod names pitcher Oscar De La Cruz. At 6’5″ 230 lbs, De La Cruz is an aggressive righty with three pitches and a fastball that sits between 90-95 MPH. Across 13 starts in 2015, De La Cruz finished with a 2.84 ERA (3.18 FIP). He had an impressive 25.2% strike out rate and just a 5.9% walk rate. Already on our radar around these parts, De La Cruz figures to get much more widespread attention in 2016.
- Despite an up and down minor league path, Jeimer Candelario finally looks poised to take a big step forward in 2016. Finishing his season in AA Tennessee, Candelario hit .291/.379/.462 across 182 plate appearances. More importantly, he finished with a strike out rate (11.5%) lower than his walk rate (12.1%). McLeod firmly believes he can play third base in the Majors – something that was previously a subject of concern – and is excited to see what he does in 2016. He did not indicate where he will start out, but there’s little doubt he’ll see AAA Iowa in 2016 at some point.