Opening Day has come and gone, and the start of the minor league season is on the horizon. Which means … let’s rank some prospects!
As always, I rank on a mixture of Projection and Risk. Projection (not the same thing as ceiling) is more or less how good I think a player is likely to be. Risk is how likely a player is to ever be that guy in the majors. That means a player with a high Projection might be ranked below a player with a lower Projection if there is a large difference in Risk. Likewise, a player who is very risky might be ranked over a safer player if the Projection difference is large enough.
Or, that how I normally do it. This year is a little different. This year, because so many of the really interesting prospects are so far away (and therefore have a higher risk), I pretty much had to reduce how much I weight Risk in order to get rankings that made sense.
One other complication has to do with the way talent is distributed in the system. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that the Cubs have a handful of prospects leading the pack and then a 55 way tie, but not that much of an exaggeration. Very tiny changes in the way I looked at prospects produced radically different results. The difference between my 39th ranked prospect and my 13th ranked prospect is narrower than ever.
I also eliminated pretty much anyone who has ever sniffed the majors from the rankings. My thinking is that you probably aren’t reading these to learn more about guys you already know about. You’re probably reading them to learn about who is up and coming in the system and is worth keeping an eye on. By now you are probably pretty familiar with Victor Caratini, Mark Zagunis, and Dillon Maples, and you will not find them here. For our purposes, they have graduated.
Normally I open the Top 40 with an article or two looking at the system as a whole and discussing where things are headed. Those articles are still coming, but this year they will be after the Top 40 has been presented.
So here we go. Starting with Number 40, we begin the 2018 rankings with …
40. Jake Stinnett, RHP
Acquired: 2nd round, 2014 draft
Projection: Good middle reliever with closer upside
Stinnett was a rarity when drafted – a college senior taken in the early rounds and paid a nearly slot bonus. The expectation was that the former Maryland ace would move quickly through the system thanks to good command and a good fastball/breaking ball combo, and it was reasonable to hope that he could be fighting for a mid-rotation starting job as soon as this year.
The reality wasn’t so smooth. After a couple seasons of inconsistent stuff and moderate at best results, Stinnett spent most of 2017 injured and was marked off as a bust by a large portion of the fan base. Those of us who stayed on the Jake Stinnett bandwagon were very lonely indeed.
And then he came back, finally healthy, as a reliever instead of a starter, and dominated Double A to finish the season. Suddenly Stinnett is right back on a lot of prospect radars. The groundball rate jumped from 45% in High A in 2016 to 55% in 2017, the strikeout rate ticked up to 8.59 K/9, and he finished the year with a Tennessee ERA of 0.61. Those numbers came from just 14.1 innings, so some sample size related caution is in order, but that leaves plenty of openings for optimism.
Look for Stinnnett to return to Tennessee to start the season with a fairly fast promotion to Iowa if he continues to dominate. If he proves that last year was no fluke and the he really can use his fastball (now reportedly running into the mid-90s) and slider to generate plenty of outs at the high levels, Stinnett should be on the candidate list for emergency relief work in Wrigley by mid-summer.
39. Chesny Young, INF
Acquired: 14th round, 2014 draft
Projection: Light-hitting utility infielder
Young might be one of the purest hitters in the organization. He makes a lot of contact (just a 14.7% strikeout rate in Iowa last year), and a lot of it is good contact. Unfortunately, he has so little power that even when he makes good contact the ball doesn’t necessarily go very far. It isn’t common for a legitimately good hitter to have so little power that it saps his batting average, but in the case of Young and his .256 Triple A average (and his .299 BABIP), I think that insufficient punch is in fact the biggest problem.
Defensively, he can do anything. Last year he played every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher, and I suspect that will be the pattern going forward. Young’s bat isn’t going to justify a starting job at any position, but his defensive flexibility and the overall quality of game in general is probably going to keep him around baseball for as long as he feels like playing.
If the Cubs lose an infielder this year, Young could get the call. He will be more likely to get that call if he shows some improved power in Triple A, and especially if he can find a way to raise that anemic .054 ISO into the triple digits. If he doesn’t make it with the Cubs, Young perfectly fits the profile of the sort of minor league free agent every team wants to sign to play in Triple A every year. One player as versatile as Young can provide a lot of insurance to a roster should the need ever arise.
But unless he starts hitting for more power, I’m not sure he’ll make very many Major League rosters out of spring training.
38. Bailey Clark, RHP
Acquired: 5th round, 2016 draft
Projection: The stuff says mid-rotation starter, but the consistency problems say middle reliever
Whenever Cubs pitching prospects are talked about, someone is going to bring up Bailey Clark. They are going to talk about his good fastball/changeup combination. They are going to mention his prototypical starting pitcher frame and how he might be a guy who can eat innings one day. And they are also going to mention his lack of control. And his 5.64 BB/9 in 44.2 innings for Eugene last year.
If Bailey had command of his stuff, he’d probably be in the top fifteen on this list. The potential is there for him to be a good starter, maybe even as good as a No. 2 guy if things break right. But his lack of command has so far been a problem. It shows up in the walks, and it also shows up in more hard contact than you’d expect given the stuff.
Given the huge hoard of pitchers in the low levels of the system, Bailey might be moved to the bullpen for a time simply due to roster pressures. As soon as he shows he has the ability to throw enough strikes, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him flipped right back into the rotation. Look for Bailey to open the season in South Bend.
37. Ian Rice, C
Acquired: 29th round, 2015 draft
Projection: Offensive backup catcher
Normally when a catcher hits 17 home runs and posts a wRC+ of 129 in Double A he gets more attention than what Rice has recieved. His walk rate is excellent (15.2%), his strikeout rate is good for the level (22.8%), and his .193 ISO is excellent news. Some might be worried by the .230 batting average, but given his OPS is .796 and he makes plenty of contact, I’m not concerned. Catchers aren’t known for beating out a ton of ground balls anyway (Willson Contreras being the exception).
Rice behind the plate is a work in progress, but I suspect he’ll be fine as a Major League backup one day. Given that Baseball America now projects him as a first baseman, I might be a little off in my thinking. That uncertainty has a lot to do with why he is ranked this low.
If he can stay behind the plate, at least enough for a backup job, Rice could have a nice career as a bat-first, right-handed slugging secondary catcher. Hopefully the Cubs don’t need him in that capacity this season, but by next year I think he could be ready to go. He should spend much of 2018 catching in Iowa, and probably putting huge power numbers in the hitter-happy parks of the Pacific Coast League in the process.
36. Daury Torrez, RHP
Acquired: Signed as an IFA prior to the 2011 season.
Projection: Middle reliever
ETA: Early 2019
Torrez spent four years primarily as a starter, but after a 2015 season with good results (3.23 xFIP) but not good strikeout numbers (5.76 K/9) the Cubs moved him to the bullpen. He repeated High A in 2016, this time as a reliever, and the K/9 jumped to 9.09. In 2017 he moved to Tennessee, and the strikeout rate fell back to 6.52.
On the other hand, his ERA was just 1.40 in 77.1 innings, and he walked just 1.51 BB/9. Double A batters had a tough time squaring him up, and he held hitters to a BABIP of just .237. His groundball rate was only about par (44.1%), but a line drive rate of just 12.3% explains his success.
Now the question is whether or not he can do it again. If he can repeat those numbers in Double A and Triple A this year, he could emerge as a lower strikeout reliever. His stuff is led by a hard fastball with plenty of sink that, oddly, doesn’t produce as many grounders as you might expect. His secondary stuff doesn’t draw as strong of reviews, but it could be enough for him to succeed in a middle relief role.
Look for Torrez to slot in somewhere in Tennessee or Iowa. I think the sheer number of relievers in the upper minors will keep him out of Wrigley this year, but with a solid 2018 he should be in line for bullpen consideration sometime in 2019.
35. Erling Moreno, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs signed Moreno as an IFA prior to the 2014 season
Projection: Number four starter
If you love groundball pitchers, and you know that I do, Moreno is the pitcher for you. At every stop in his professional career he has had a groundball rate no lower than 52.2%. In 2017 he pitched 64 innings, 14 starts, for South Bend and finished the year with a fantastic groundball rate of 62.1%. He also posted a solid strikeout rate of 8.02 K/9 and gave up just three home runs.
But thanks to some control problems (4.36 BB/9) he finished the year with an ERA of 4.22. Control had not been much of an issue for Moreno in the past, so probably the biggest question for the right-hander in 2018 is whether he can get back the control he showed in 30 innings with Eugene in 2016 when he had a walk rate of just 1.50 BB/9.
The other question with Moreno is health. He’s already had at least one surgery, and he has yet to pitch more than 64 innings in any professional season. He needs to show he can stay on the mound for 100 or so healthy innings if he is going to continue to develop as a back-of-the-rotation starter. If he can stick in the rotation, his sinker-heavy stuff should set him up nicely. I’m not so sure how well it would play in the bullpen, but hopefully we never need to find out.
Look for Moreno to be in the rotation for Myrtle Beach for the majority of the season.