I think before the draft is a good time for a check-in on prospect rankings and the state of a minor league system. The complexion of the Cubs pipeline will change significantly with next week’s draft, and then again when short-season ball begins soon thereafter, and we see which players in Extended Spring Training have made strides. We’re also two months into full-season ball, and so we have some statistically significant numbers to trust in evaluations.
The 2019 season has, to me, been a mixed bag. Injuries have loomed front and center, which is never fun. Overall, I’d say I feel better about the top guys and worse about the depth. I ultimately decided to stop this re-ranking list at 21 names, because there’s just a morass after that point. Monday’s draft will help continuing to restock the cupboard.
Conversely, I feel really positive about the top 13 guys in the system, and will happily defend their merits as legitimate prospects. Here’s my top 21.
21. Luis Verdugo, SS, Extended Spring Training
What we’ve learned this year: A stand-out guy from Instructs, Verdugo apparently added some good weight in the offseason, and the Cubs have high hopes for him when short-season begins. Verdugo hit just .193/.264/.295 in the Arizona League at age 17 last summer, but there was a semblance of patience and power within those numbers (he homered yesterday!). It will be very impressive if Verdugo earns the Eugene shortstop position; that’s a subplot to watch in two weeks.
20. Erich Uelmen, RHP, High-A Myrtle Beach
What we’ve learned this year: Uelmen returned from injury just a week ago, so we haven’t learned much. I did watch his start last night, and will note that his command of the sinker looked really good. He’s in midseason form in terms of drawing groundballs, so the question will be if he can draw enough strikeouts as he moves up the ladder.
19. Christopher Morel, 3B, Low-A South Bend
What we’ve learned this year: If I’m guilty of ranking Morel a little too highly, it’s because he possesses a skillset that no one else in the system really does: he’s raw and toolsy as hell. He plays with abandon. But his instincts are really good, and while he’s going to fall flat on his face a lot, he’s also succeeding at a near average rate in the Midwest League through 38 games.
18. Robel Garcia, IF, Triple-A Iowa
What we’ve learned this year: Here goes. I’ll tell you right now, this might be a silly ranking for a 26-year-old that was on the Italian National Team 200 plate appearances ago. Am I getting swept up by his insane 43-game stretch? Probably. Is it a referendum on the depth of the system behind him? Yeah, sure. But it’s also a positive statement about a guy that does not hit the ball on the ground, and despite a wiry frame has strong forearms and wrists that produce legitimate power. There’s going to be a massive adjustment needed when pitchers start force-feeding him offpseed at a higher clip, and I’m not sure where the home is defensively. But in a system so absolutely bereft of power, I can’t deny Robel a ranking.
In a season w/few pleasant surprises so far, one breakout star has been Robel Garcia.
After a failed MiLB career, Garcia regrouped by playing in Italy(!)
The Cubs spotted him in the WBC, signed him this winter, and he immediately broke through in AA, showing power to all fields: pic.twitter.com/95puR1PtDQ
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) May 30, 2019
17. Dakota Mekkes, RHP, Triple-A Iowa
What we’ve learned this year: The standard Mekkes set for himself was unfair. So when Dakota started off a little lethargically – a 5.14 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 3.86 K/9 – in his first six outings, it all felt a little disorienting. We’d never seen Mekkes like that, literally even for seven innings. The good news is that it was a blip, and we’re back on track. Since April 25, he’s himself: 13.2 IP, 13 H, 2.63 ERA, 5 BB, 16 K. Not sure if we’re likely to see him at Wrigley or not this year, but you can bet if he gets really hot I’ll be clamoring for it.
Dakota Mekkes has the best pitching face.
— Dylan Heuer (@dylan_heuer) May 19, 2019
16. Paul Richan, RHP, High-A Myrtle Beach
What we’ve learned this year: The thing that jumps out to me is that Richan continues to show a really significant platoon split. This year he’s allowed a .591 OPS to right-handed hitters versus a .883 OPS to lefties (and remember, this is a pitcher’s league with a .690 average OPS). This surprises me a bit, because Richan has a full arsenal and a lot of command, so that’s something he’s going to have to improve on. I expect the plan is to keep him in Myrtle Beach for the entire season; Pelicans pitching coach Brian Lawrence is a good fit for Richan.
Gameplan called for loads of fastballs early, and added more secondaries the second and third time thru. I like the state of his breaking balls, would like to see more in unpredictable counts. Change up wasn’t great in this one, but armspeed is good.
Nice outing overall!
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) May 16, 2019
15. Richard Gallardo, RHP, Extended Spring Training
What we’ve learned this year: What I’ve learned has been via Phil at The Cub Reporter, so I’d direct you there for a lot of details. Phil has praised Gallardo’s polish, in fact comparing him to a college pitcher (and Richan, in particular). I think from video there’s still some projection to be better than that, and we’ll see how he develops his change-up and if a harder breaking ball is added eventually. For now he’s 90-94 with a good curve. I expect he will be pitching in the Arizona League this summer at just age 17 after being the top IFA pitching prospect in last year’s class.
14. Yovanny Cruz, RHP, Extended Spring Training
What we’ve learned this year: Cruz competed for a job with South Bend in Spring Training, and performed admirably there, even showing a small bump in his velocity. The Cubs decided it best he stay in Arizona, and it appears he was then injured there. He’s listed as “Limited Rehab” by Phil, so I don’t anticipate he’ll be ready for the start of the Eugene season. Let’s cross our fingers that it’s not serious. All in all, the biggest thing I learned about Cruz is that he’s not his listed height/weight, he’s actually really big.
Can now confirm there is almost no sillier height and weight listing in the system than Yovanny Cruz. Let’s toss out 6-1, 190 now. pic.twitter.com/Q6iSwjZBFp
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) March 14, 2019
13. Riley Thompson, RHP, Low-A South Bend
What we’ve learned this year: Last year’s positive step forward in command was no fluke. Thompson, now years removed from his Tommy John surgery, is under control and has a good plan. His change-up has taken a nice step forward, where I feel like his breaking ball isn’t showing plus as often as it did in Eugene. Still, he gets downhill with a 92-95 mph fastball, and isn’t afraid of his secondaries. He’ll be in Myrtle Beach by July, and we’ll have a better idea then of how advanced he is.
— Emily Waldon (@EmilyCWaldon) May 25, 2019
12. Justin Steele, LHP, Double-A Tennessee
What we’ve learned this year: Luck is not his friend. No one in the organization has had worse luck with balls in play this year, and it has not all been earned. Still, when I watch him on video, I’m not seeing anything to be concerned about; his drop here is the result of a step forward by those above him (and frankly, 10-13 was a total toss-up for me). Steele is still running his fastball up to 95, hitters struggle with his curve, and the rest is still a work in progress.
11. Keegan Thompson, RHP, Double-A Tennessee
What we’ve learned this year: We have but one start to go on, and it was practically perfect. Thompson came down with a bout of arm soreness, and has been out for nearly two months. He’s actively rehabbing in Arizona now, and should be good to go for the second half. Here’s to hoping we see more of that curveball we saw in his first outing.
* * *
My plan had been to go to 25 names with this list, but again, I found myself really stagnating after 21. Here is the next group that was garnering consideration:
Honorable Mention: Javier Assad, Trevor Clifton, Reivaj Garcia, Trent Giambrone, Bryan Hudson, Alex Lange, Brendon Little, Vimael Machin, Jhonny Pereda, Fabian Pertuz, Matt Swarmer, Nelson Velazquez, Jared Young.
I feel like I’ve written a lot about the names in this grouping, so I won’t re-hash much. I would say Lange is the noteworthy one because he’s fallen so fast. I want to make excuses for Lange, I want to still believe in him, but I’m struggling with this in particular:
First 83.2 IP in Cubs organization: 17 BB
Next 80.2 IP in Cubs organization: 47 BB
Lange doesn’t have the stuff to survive a walk rate that has spun out of control. Until there’s signs of the dominant control we saw in the first half last year, I can no longer rank him highly.