Today we are definitely getting into very good prospect territory. There are guys on today’s list who could easily top a future Top 40, and that applies to hitters as well as pitchers. Most of that upside is in the low minors, for now, but it is undeniably there. It is just going to take time – and excellent development – for that talent to filter up the system.
It will take less time for a lot of the pitchers to do that filtering. The Cubs have been drafting a lot of college pitchers, and lately they have been promoting them fairly aggressively. That is a change for this organization, and the result is that the 2016 and 2017 pitching draft classes are already reaching Double A. By next year I think they’ll get to Iowa, and that is going to make roster construction for the Iowa Cubs really interesting this winter.
For the past couple of years the Cubs have used Iowa primarily as an extension of the major league bench. They sign a lot of minor league free agents who could head to the majors if needed, see which ones pan out, and let the rest go at the end of the year. This year, for example, they did a very nice job finding a bunch of bulllpen options to stash in Iowa, and that has payed off significantly.
But if pitchers are coming up from within, they will need innings. More innings to developed prospects will result in fewers innings for free agent signings, but that in turn could weaken the major league depth while the prospects are getting the final layers of polish. The Cubs are going to have to become very good at balancing those two opposing forces when building Iowa’s roster starting next year.
This middle section of the Top 40 opens with a familiar name with previous Top 40 Number One rankings on his resume. But 2018 has not been his year. In the extreme.
25. Jose Albertos, RHP
Key Stats: 15.26 BB/9. Yes, that’s a 15.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’ve lost my mind. You’re thinking there is no way I can justify ranking a guy who often can barely find the plate, let alone the strike zone, as high as 25.
There is method here. First, I don’t buy into the fears that Albertos has simply lost the ability to throw strikes. That is a real thing, Rick Ankiel was a famous case, but it is extraordinarily rare. I think the odds are much more likely that a mechanical change wasn’t working for him, and that he lost confidence in his stuff and his coaching as a result. Time will tell, but I have watched (via online video) games where he was frequently missing by very little, not by miles. I think the ability to pitch is still there, it’s just lost in a mess right now.
But if the Cubs’ coaches can help him find it again, he still has ace potential. Consider his strikeout rate: 10.57 K/9 with Eugene, 11.77 K/9 with South Bend. Everyone in baseball knows this guy can’t throw strikes, and he is still posting one of the best strikeout rates in the system, and many of those strikes are swinging. How? His stuff is really that good. Batters who know he’ll probably walk them still can’t lay off his stuff. If he can just regain the form that allowed him to walk just 3.63 BB/9 in 2017, he’d probably still be the best pitching prospect in the system.
I’m not projecting anything on Albertos for now. He needs to show that he can recover from this weirdness and get back to throwing strikes. If he can’t, his next step is retirement. If he can, he could again be a high end pitching prospect with elite potential. This season is basically a lost season for him developmentally, but I’ll be watching his work closely in 2019.
24. Dakota Mekkes, RHP
Key Stats: 10.50 K/9, 1.50 ERA
Mekkes should get a September call-up. Due to roster concerns, I don’t know that he will, but this guy doesn’t have anything left to prove in the minors. Since being drafted in 2016, he’s confused hitters with his atypical side-arm-ish delivery and kept them off balance with the movement on his legitimately good stuff. Along the way, his groundball rate has increased, from 37.6% in Myrtle Beach last year, to 47.5% in Iowa this year. His strikeout rate has been high at every stop, and while he has walked more than we’d like to see in the past, that figure is down to a reasonable 3.75 BB/9 with Iowa. He’s ready.
His ticket to the majors will come as soon as the Cubs find roster room for him, so his floor is about as high as we can make it. I rank him down at 24, though, because I’m not sure he’ll turn out to be the elite reliever we hope he is. Batters hit him pretty hard in both Tennessee and Iowa (when they could make contact, anyway), and his 3.36 FIP suggests that his 1.50 ERA isn’t quite as dominant as it appears. When it is all said and done, Mekkes might be an average middle reliever with no shot at starting. That’s a nice prospect, but not a guy you get excited about.
But I freely admit I’m probably being too cautious here. I suspect Mekkes will start being trusted with high leverage roles within a year of sticking in the majors, and that before too long he’ll be a proven right handed setup man.
23. Cory Abbott, RHP
22, Myrtle Beach
Key Stats: 9.64 K/9, 45.6% ground ball rate
Abbott, while in college, famously copied the slider grip used by Noah Syndergaard and his stock took off. Suddenly he had a pitch with which to finish batters off, and since he pounded the strikezone he had plenty of chances to use it. The result was hearing his name called in the second round of the 2017 draft. With the Cubs he has moved up fast, reaching High A a year after being drafted. His groundball rate has climbed steadly as he moved up the system, and his strikeout rate has remained very good. The result is a guy cruising through the Carolina League with a 3.28 ERA through nine starts.
Pencil Abbott in for Tennessee next season, and with a strong start he may well get a fast ticket to Iowa. Abbott doesn’t have a very high ceiling, but he projects as a very solid number four starter with a relatively high floor. He’ll need some seasoning in the upper minors before he makes it to Wrigley, but a 2019 debut wouldn’t shock me at all. 2020 is a safer bet.
22. Ian Rice, C
Key Stats: 126 wRC+
Rice burst onto the prospect stage with a 17 homer barrage in Tennessee a year ago. He’s still in Tennessee, but he has just seven homers so far this year. His wRC+ hasn’t moved, though, because he’s been a better overall hitter. Last season Rice hit .230 and hit a ton of fly balls. This year his line is .252/.384/.398, he’s hitting more line drives, and he’s hitting more to the pull side. That overall production increase is also coming despite a slight increase in strikeout rate, up to 25.2%. Projecting that out, I think Rice will be fine as an offensive back up catcher, but I don’t know that his bat will translate enough to start.
He is buried behind multiple catchers on the chart, and there are more catching prospects coming up from the lower levels. That could mean Rice winds up leaving the Cubs before he gets a shot at the majors. He could be ready for that shot anytime next season, but he’ll have to survive the Rule 5 draft for his chance to come in Chicago.
21. Trevor Clifton, RHP
Key Stats: 3.94 ERA, 7.69 K/9
Clifton has moved methodically up the farm system, one level per year, since being drafted out of high school in 2013. If he keeps that rate of promotion up, Clifton will make his major league debut in 2019. When he does, it will probably be as a starter. He has the velocity (reliably in the mid 90s) to perhaps be very good in relief, but I think the Cubs will try his mix of breaking pitches as a starter first.
Consistency has been the biggest problem for Clifton. He ran into problems in 2017, for example, both with his pitches and his results, and it took him part of this year to get things right again. If he can maintain his aresenal, he projects as a back of the rotation starter. If the Cubs do move him to the bullpen, though, and he gets the typical MPH bump, he could pair a good slider with a 98 MPH fastball in relief. Long term, that might be his best fit.
20. Reivaj Garcia, 2B
Key Stats: .350 OBP, 100 wRC+, 16 years old
There is basically no video for anyone playing in Arizona right now, so I am having to rank Garcia based on nothing but the stat sheet, age, and background info. And for a guy who is just sixteen, it is a very good stat sheet. His strikeout rate is a touch high at 20.7%, but nothing I’m concerned about for a guy playing in his first professional league. His 7.6% walk rate is solid. Those rates lead to a line of .290/.350/.344, and that is perfectly fine for someone who really hasn’t developed much power yet (remember, power is often the last tool to emerge, especially when you’re that young). And when you consider that Garcia is a switch hitter, the overall package looks even better.
I’ve never had to project someone this young before, but I can’t see how hitting at a league average rate when two to four years younger than most other players in the league is a bad thing. It would not be right to assume that because he is starting his career so young he has elite upside, but I don’t think we can rule it out either. So … I’m punting. I’m ranking him in the middle of the Top 40 because I very much think he should be ranked, but I just don’t know how to do it yet. When we get more data, and particularly video, this ranking could shift dramatically in either direction.
19. Brendon Little, LHP
21, South Bend
Key Stats: 8.07 K/9, 4.08 FIP
The scouts continue to love Brendon Little, but the stats don’t. Scouts talk about his plus curve, excellent fastball, and a fast improving changeup that could give him three average or better pitches he can throw for strikes. The stat sheet shows a guy who strikes out quite a few batters, but walks a few too many (3.83 BB/9) and is prone to hard contact. Both his home run rate and his line drive rates have improved this year, and that greatly helps matters, but he still doesn’t quite look on paper like the potential mid-rotation starter the scouts see. That makes Little somewhat hard to project.
From a pure prospect standpoint, that very good fastball/curveball combo gives him a relatively high floor simply because he should be able to move into the bullpen and perform very well. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Little turned into a very good left-handed reliever if the Cubs did move him into the pen. As a starter, though, I’m just not sure I see it yet. As a starter it will probably be at least 2021 before he gets a shot at the majors. As a reliever, it could be as soon as late 2019.
18. Jhonny Pereda, C
22, Myrtle Beach
Key Stats: 10.2% walk rate, 14.0% strikeout rate, 107 wRC+
One of the things the Cubs’ farm system does very well is develop catchers, and it looks like Pereda is going to continue that tradition. His breakout has been one of the best stories of 2018 for the farm system, and it has moved Pereda from a little regarded name on a roster to a prospect well worth considering. I have not watched him in person yet, but those who have don’t raise any serious issues with his defense. It looks like he’ll be able to stay behind the plate, and that’s good, because he is proving to be a tough out at the plate. His OBP has ticked up this year, from .335 to .351, and his seven homers are a career high.
We know the bat develops more slowly with catchers, and it is often the bat that seperates a starting catching prospect from a backup guy. Since Pereda is just now breaking out, I’m not confident which category I should put him in. That will probably become more clear when he reaches Double A next year. For now I think we can expect that he will continue up the system with morderate power, a good on base percentage, and plenty of work behind the plate. He could be ready for a taste of Chicago sometime in 2020.
17. Charcer Burks, OF
Key Stats: 12.1% walk rate, .348 OBP
I really thought this would be the year Burks would take a major step forward, but it hasn’t happened. A very gifted defensive left fielder limited only by his arm (and therefore not as strong an option in center), Burks entered the season with two straight years of improving power and good on base rates behind him. I expected by now he’d be looking like a very good fourth outfielder or starting left fielder for a team that could afford to lose some power in left. Instead, the power has taken a step back (ISO down to .091), and that in turn has sapped the batting average and OBP (which is down from .370 a year ago). The walk rate has remained steady, but despite repeating Double A his strikeout rate has leapt from 20.0% to 25.9%.
The one thing that keeps him even this high on the rankings is that he did hit the disabled list with an unknown injury early in the season. It may be that the injury is the reason his power declined (we’ve certainly seen that before) and if so his overall projection doesn’t really change. Barring that, though, Burks now looks more like a fringy defense only fifth outfielder than someone with a shot of starting in any situation. If that remains the case as we head into next season, he’ll probably fall off the prospect radar altogether.
16. Duncan Robinson, RHP
Key Stats: 3.40 FIP, 1.44 BB/9
The ninth round pick in 2016, Robinson looks right at home in the Tennessee rotation. His ground ball rate was very high early last year in South Bend (53.7%), but has fallen to closer to average with Tennessee (45.4%). I suspect, though, that is at least in part due to him working to develop alternatives to his baseline sinking stuff. The uptick in his strikeout rate (now 7.75 K/9) suggests that those efforts are paying dividends. Add it up, and we have another strike-throwing, damage-limiting, solid back of the rotation candidate.
I think the Cubs are going to have to find room for Robinson on Iowa’s roster next year, if only to free up space in Tennessee for the hoard of pitchers coming up behind him. I suspect he’ll do just fine in Iowa, and by midseason should be on the short list of pitchers the Cubs can consider calling to Chicago if a need appears. He’ll have plenty of competition for the job, but I can see Robinson turning into a solid, 200 innings a year kind of number five starter in the fairly near future.
15. Brennen Davis, OF
Key Stats: 13.5% walk rate, 4 steals in 13 games
Davis is going to get branded with the ‘leadoff hitter of the future’ tag just as soon as he picks up enough of the spotlight to warrant some major publication write ups. His calling card is speed, and he may well be the fastest guy in the farm system today (although, personally, I’d like to see him in a race with D.J. Wilson and Fernando Kelli). Davis was said to need work on his pitch recognition abilities when drafted, but his 13.5% walk rate suggests he either was more advanced than previous thought or has been a very fast study. That walk rate allows him to get on base (.385 OBP), and that in turn allows his speed to play on the basepaths. He might just turn that tag into a prediction.
Some analysts project Davis to have comparable power to fellow 2018 high school draftee Cole Roederer, possibly better. If so, the Cubs could be looking at a plus defensive center fielder with a high on base percentage and 20 homer / 40 steals potential. That is going to be awhile, though. Davis will likely head to Eugene next year, and probably won’t have a realistic shot at the majors until 2022-23.
14. Zack Short, SS
Key Stats: 122 wRC+, 12 home runs
Another late round pick from the 2016 draft (17th round), Short looks to be the next product of the Cubs’ hitting prospect assembly line. This season he has been the everyday shortstop for Tennessee, and he projects to be just fine in that role long term. I think his path to the majors is more likely as a right-handed-hitting utility guy, but the Cubs won’t start to add positional flexibility until he reaches Iowa. I don’t doubt he’ll be fine as a utility guy, though, providing average or better defense across the infield while hitting for solid power and getting on base at a very good rate.
What he won’t do is hit for average. His impressive wRC+ in Tennessee comes with a .235 batting average thanks in large part to his 26.5% strikeout rate. The 15.3% walk rate offsets it nicely, though, and leaves him with an OPS of .780. Look for even better power numbers when he goes to Iowa next season, and don’t be surprised if he is the talk of Chicago in 2019 or 2020 when he shows up as a bench bat and finds a way through good at bats and solid defense to just keep sticking around the majors.
13. Brailyn Marquez, LHP
Key Stats: 10.03 K/9, 51.6% ground ball rate
Marquez is the kind of pitching prospect scouts love. He has the height (6’4″), the velocity (regularly clocked in the mid 90s), and a promising set of secondary pitches to back up that fastball. Toss in the facts that he’s a teenager and a lefty, and there is no surprise that MLB Pipeline now ranks him as the Cubs’ number four overall prospect. I love the ceiling here, and I have no qualms projecting him as a potential number two starter, but he is nowhere near as polished as some of the pitchers ranked above him. He leaves quite a few pitches out of the strike zone for one thing (3.60 BB/9), and he is somewhat prone to making mistakes that leave the yard (1.03 HR/9). I think both of these areas will be improved with additional experience.
Marquez has one of the highest ceiling among the upper tier of Cubs’ pitching prospects, but for now he is also the highest risk. I’d hesitate to project him reaching the majors anytime before late 2022 or early 2023, and there is a lot that can happen in that much time. Of course, given that his biggest weakness right now appears to be his command, one thing that could happen is his command takes a significant step forward and allows him to move much more quickly. If that happens, he’ll leap up this list in a hurry.
12. Matt Swarmer, RHP
Key Stats: 9.06 K/9, 1.89 BB/9
Swarmer came out of the 2016 draft, and so far has been one of the best pitchers for the Cubs from that draft, despite being selected in the 19th round. He opened the year with 51.1 innings in Myrtle Beach, but, after dominating to the tune of a 10.34 K/9 and a 1.23 BB/9, the Cubs sent him to Tennessee. Basically, he’s been the same guy: 9.06 K/9, 1.89 BB/9. He isn’t much of a groundball pitcher, but even Double A hitters have a hard time squaring him up. His ERA doesn’t look impressive (3.97), but this is a case where I think he’ll really benefit from playing front of a better defense (FIP 2.87).
Swarmer is typical of how the Cubs have drafted pitching in recent years. They’ve focused on guys who pound the strike zone and minimize hard contact by whatever means. It was only a matter of time before one of those pitchers really broke out, and Swarmer might be the first of the bunch. I don’t have any velocity data I’m confident in, but Swarmer has shown the ability to get outs with pretty much his entire arsenal. For now I’m still projecting him as a relatively safe number four starter, but if he keeps pitching like this that could change to a number three. Look for Swarmer to head for Iowa sometime next season, and don’t be surprised if he’s in Wrigley that September.
11. Nelson Velazquez, OF
Key Stats: 26.6% strikeout rate, .182 ISO
When reading scouting accounts of Velazquez, you will see frequent references to bat speed and raw power. He has both, and his success will depend on his abilty to make enough contact to let those tools play up. A 31 game stint in South Bend early in the year did not go well at all (.188/.242/.196, 35.8% strikeout rate), but he has looked better with Eugene. As is typically the case with very young power bats, it will be some time before we know what the Cubs have in Velazquez. He has a very high ceiling as a right handed slugger, but he also has a long way to go.
He’ll move the system as fast as his contact rate lets him, and he’ll continue to add muscle and refine his swing as he goes. If all goes well, around the time he hits High A or Double A it will start coming together and he’ll explode onto the prospect stage. Pencil that in for 2020 or 2021, with a major league debut a season or two later. In time, he could be a fixture both in right field and in the heart of the lineup.