This year the Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects list turns five years old.
Yes, it still exists. And yes, it is late this year. Normally it is published before the Major League season begins; obviously I did not make that target this season. There are three reasons for that, and this article is one of them. The other two reasons – in the month of March my wife and I both moved into a house and welcomed our first child. Those two events took place about five days apart, seven days if we include the closing on the house. Toss in a complicating snow storm right in the middle of the settlement process, and for a time it was literally a race between the baby and the move. In juggling that madness, I had to put the Top 40 on the back burner for a time.
As for this article … I decided about four months ago that I would open this edition of the Top 40 with some sort of a retrospective on my rankings as a whole. Digging up my past rankings and analyzing that data turned out to be a bigger project than I had expected. It turns out that over the past four years a lot of players have passed through the Cubs’ organization and these prospect rankings, and compiling this meta-list involved rediscovering some players that I had quite frankly forgotten about.
That work is done, though, and so as to spare you the hours of searches and fascinating side tracks into the depths of FanGraphs, here is that list of all 116 players to ever appear in the Top 40, sorted alphabetically by their first name.
So, how have we done at ranking prospects? Honestly, not too bad. There are some pretty bad misses, but on the whole I think the Top 40 has fared rather well. That is mostly due, I think, to the fact that I am much better at evaluating hitters than I am pitchers, and the Cubs farm system has been very hitter-heavy over the past four years.
Let’s start by looking at some of the rankings that, in hindsight, were probably not as good as they could have been.
Biggest Over-ranking: I’m tempted to put Brett Jackson (5th: pre ’13) in this slot, but given how thin the farm system was on impact talent in 2013, I’m not sure that was all that big of a miss. Just keep in mind that 5th in 2013 and 5th in 2015 (or 2017) are two radically different rankings.
Instead, I’ll go with Robert Whitenack. Whitenack dominated A ball with a knuckle curve that made him, when healthy, all but unhittable at times. That led to him being ranked 12th in the pre-2013 list. He never actually played for the Cubs in 2013, though, and his time with the Indians did not go well. 2013 was his final season; the Indians released him the following spring. The lesson here – beware of one pitch pitchers with awesome stats in A ball.
Biggest Under-ranking: There are a lot of candidates, but to my surprise I think I have to go with Matt Szczur. Szczur appeared on the rankings between 2013 and 2015, but he never appeared higher than 25th. Worse, I delisted him altogether in the mid-2014 update. I ranked him that low because I did not see him becoming more than a good bench outfielder at best. Sure enough, he turned into a good bench outfielder, although he wound up with more life in his bat that I expected to see at the major league level.
I have always ranked prospects on a mix of Projection (how good a guy is likely to be) and Risk (how likely as guy is to hit his projection). In hindsight, my projection for Szczur was fairly spot on but I appear to over estimate his risk. It is worth remembering, though, that even projected bench players are very good to have in the farm system. They may not be the flashiest prospects, but they are still prospects and can still reach the majors and contribute there.
Biggest Hit: This is easy – Jeimer Candelario. Candelario has been on every edition of the Top 40, debuting at Number 11, dropping as low as 21, then surging all the way back up to Number 2 in the mid-2016 ranks. That means he was first ranked just after a 71 game stint in Short Season A (Boise at that time). He is certain to appear on the 2017 Top 40, but that might be his final ranking. Candelario’s call to the majors, with the Cubs or following a trade to another team, could come anytime this season.
Two other names were candidates for this slot. Willson Contreras did not appear on this list at all until mid-2015 when he rocketed from unranked to Number 1 in an instant, a high mark at the time. He stayed in the top slot until he made the move to Wrigley. Kyle Hendricks appeared on both 2014 lists, and in the 9th position on both lists. This was generally considered high, largely due to his lack of velocity. The fact that he consistently got hitters out, even if those outs weren’t strikeouts as often as we are used to seeing from high ceiling pitching prospects, was enough move him into the top ten. That he has been successful in the majors has not surprised me; that he is arguably one of the top few pitchers in the National League as we start on the 2017 season does. I expected good things from Hendricks, but not this good.
Best of the Best
Looking over the list, there is a pretty clear group of all-time Top 40 prospects. Right now, if I were to pull together an All Top 40 Top 5 Hitters, it would probably be, in order: Bryant, Contreras, Baez, Russell, and Soler. Eloy Jimenez appears likely to challenge for that fifth slot within a year or so, and both Happ and Candelario are within striking distance.
On the pitching side, Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Hendricks would top the list. Dylan Cease would certainly be on it, and after that it gets murkier. Oscar De La Cruz and Trevor Clifton are good candidates to round it out, but a case could be made for Rob Zastryzny and perhaps a few others as well.
There are only three players to appear on every edition of the Top 40: Candelario, Pierce Johnson, and Duane Underwood. Candelario and Johnson are good candidates to graduate this year, and Underwood is at risk of falling off altogether if he can’t avoid the DL for a good chunk of 2017. By the end of the season, all three of those streaks may well be over.
Willson Contreras is the only player to never appear lower than Number 1. Kris Bryant almost pulled it off, but I ranked Baez over Bryant prior to 2014.
There are a handful of players who were never ranked outside the Top 10, and you can probably guess most of them (Bryant, Baez, Russell, Soler, Contreras, Happ, Almora, Schwarber, Hendricks). Junior Lake and Brett Jackson also make the cut, as does Eddy Martinez, though he’s been ranked only once.
Juan Paniagua is the final entry into that club, and probably the one most people would have a hard time guessing. How did that happen?
Paniagua is an interesting case. Based largely on scouting reports, he debuted at Number 10 on the 2013 list. He then immediately fell off the list altogether and has never made it back. That said, Paniagua actually had a decent year in the Tennessee bullpen last season, and it remains possible that he’ll find his way into a Major League middle relief job in the next year or two.
There are a handful of players who appeared on just one list very near the bottom, but only one guy has appeared just once and at Number 40: 2013’s list ended (began, actually, since we started publishing with Number 40 that year) with Greg Rohan. That makes Rohan the first player ever to be ranked in the Top 40.
The list of Number 40s is an interesting one. By the time I get to this slot, the math behind the Top 40 has so many players so close together I ususally just hand pick someone who looks particularly interesting to finish off the list. Maybe that’s why Number 40 has included some pretty good prospects: Bijan Rademacher (2014), Ryan McNeil (mid ’14), Charcer Burks (2015), Felix Pena (mid ’15), Wladimir Galindo (2016), and Dillon Maples (mid ’16).
The Fifth Anniversary Top 40
The 2017 Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects List will roll out over the next several days. This year, though, it will roll out a little differently. In the past we would start at Number 40 and publish anywhere from five to ten prospects a day until we got the good list, the top few. And that made sense, because in the past there has always been some … suspense? … over who would top the list.
This year, there isn’t any. Eloy Jimenez is the best prospect in the organization, and it isn’t particularly close. There may be some question about whether I stick with Candelario at Number 2 or flip to Happ, but that’s probably about it as far as drama at the top of the list.
So, instead of unveiling the list in reverse order, I’ll be unveiling the list by position, wrapping up with a combined list for easy reference as always. We’ll start those positional lists with the longest one – right handed pitching.
The 2017 Top 40 is finally here. Enjoy.