Chicago Cubs Top Ten Prospects for 2017
The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in large part based on the development from their minor league system. What is left in that system?
Our minor league top 10 series is coordinated by Benjamin Chase, one of our contributors at Call to the Pen.
He has pored over thousands of minor league games over the course of the year via milb.tv along with speaking with a number of team and independent scouts. These lists are based out of those conversations.
Each system will have prospects from 10 to 1, and then finish with one newcomer to the system that is worth keeping an eye on that is not in the top 10 at this time.
Conversations are certainly encouraged in the comments section on each system as we go along!
Cubs System Review
After breaking a century-old curse, the Cubs are riding high right now. They’ve ridden the excellent work that their front office has done in acquiring talent from the trade market, free agent market, international market, and draft to build their team, and that team is young with plenty of opportunity to be around for a while.
The team’s success has meant using much of the prospect capital that the organization had built on the major league team and in trades to help build the team. The team has traded away guys like Andrew Cashner, Dan Vogelbach, and Gleyber Torres, but to add keys to their championship like Anthony Rizzo, Mike Montgomery, and Aroldis Chapman.
So while the organization may be short in the depth of “studs” that they once had, there are still solid players. The Cubs will certainly see two guys in the top 50 with one more borderline top-100 guy.
The team made an intentional effort this year in the draft in pursuing pitching that could move quick, attempting to address one weakness the organization has had in the Theo Epstein era.
Let’s take a look at the top 10!
10. Thomas Hatch, RHP
Birthdate: 9/29/94 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: None
Stats in 2016: Did not play in the minor leagues in 2016
Those who follow college baseball were hearing a lot about Hatch this spring. He was the ace of an Oklahoma State team that made a surprising run in the College World Series based largely on his right arm.
After missing all of 2015 with an injury to his elbow that he spent the season caring for and rehabbing, Hatch returned to the mound as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, throwing 130 1/3 innings with a 2.14 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. He used his heavy fastball to suppress homers, allowing only 2 in his 19 starts.
Hatch doesn’t have a dominant pitch that would lead to a load of strikeouts, but he has a heavy fastball that sits in the low 90s and touches 96 along with a slider that has excellent late break, moving it off of the best part of the bat, though not usually missing bats.
Hatch has an unusual arm slot. He throws from a low 3/4 arm angle, but he gets on top of the ball from that arm slot, making it tough for hitters to pick up the ball. For such a difficult arm angle, Hatch seems to have great control.
The Cubs wisely let Hatch rest his arm after 130 innings for OSU just a year removed from elbow injury, but he’ll likely make his debut next season, probably at the short-season A-ball level or the low-A level.
9. Trevor Clifton, RHP
Birthdate: 5/11/95 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: high A
Stats in 2016: 119 IP, 2.72 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.33 BB%, 26.22 K%
Clifton was taken out of high school in Tennessee in 2013, and many felt he was projectable, but he had minimal refinement, which is why he lasted until the 12th round.
The Cubs worked with Clifton to modify his delivery to make it more repeatable and work with his growing frame. He was drafted at 6’1″, 170 and now sits about 6’4″ and 215-220.
Clifton works into the mid-90s with his fastball, which he does very well getting on top of and keeping low in the zone. His change has taken some significant steps in the last year and could be considered an above-average offering, getting plenty of swing and miss.
From my view, Clifton’s curve I felt took a step backward in its break last season, however, what he got out of the pitch ended up being more of a ground ball inducing breaking pitch that keeps the ball on the ground.
Clifton may profile more as a #3/4 starter with his curve behaving more as a contact pitch, but he has seen excellent development in the last year from the point of being a questionable starter last season to the Carolina League pitcher of the year for Myrtle Beach this season as a starter.
The Cubs have done very well thus far developing Clifton, and of the guys I considered at this point in the list, Clifton is definitely the guy who I could see taking the biggest step forward toward the majors next year if he takes a similar progressive step in 2017 as he did in 2016.
8. Duane Underwood, RHP
Birthdate: 7/20/94 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: rookie, low A, high A, AA
Stats in 2016: 73 IP, 4.32 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 10.61%, 18.79 K%
Underwood shot up draft boards before the 2012 draft due to his excellent fastball with great life that ran all the way to 98 MPH in his senior year of high school.
Physically well-developed out of high school, many thought he would move quickly with a big curve and that fastball at 6’2″ and 200 pounds, but he struggled with his consistency his first two seasons. Just when he started righting the ship in 2014, he faced an injury and missed significant portions of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with elbow inflammation.
Underwood has the make up of three above-average pitches when he can have consistency in his delivery. He has a plus fastball that still sits 92-96 with a 98 peak along with late life. His curve has excellent depth and his change has quite a bit of movement in its own right.
If he can maintain his conditioning, which has been an issue in the past, and his mechanics, he flashes the possibility of three plus pitches and a front-line starter. However, as he’s now 22 and five years removed from his draft season, Underwood may be at a point of either showing as a starter this year or moving to the bullpen.
As a reliever focusing just on the fastball and curve, Underwood could be dominant, likely adding a tick or two to his sitting fastball and not having his mechanical issues affect him quite as much as they typically concern his ability to keep location through a game.
7. Eddy Martinez, OF
Birthdate: 1/18/95 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: low A
Stats in 2016: .254/.331/.380, 10 HR, 8 SB
Martinez defected from Cuba and was a highly regarded free agent when he came to the Cubs in October of 2015. The team aggressively placed the 21-year-old in full season ball after losing two seasons of play in the wait to get cleared to play.
Martinez has the ability to lay claim to five tools, with speed being his best tool, which translates to his excellent defense at all three outfield positions. He may profile best defensively in right field due to a plus arm, but he can handle center very well, so he’ll likely be left there as long as he can handle the position.
Right now, the biggest difference between raw tools and game performance for Martinez is in his power, and while you can see some exceptional displays in batting practice, he’s struggled to turn the raw power into game production. His biggest issue has been facing elite velocity up in the zone and breaking stuff away, though to be honest, many would be happy with his 24 doubles and 10 home runs in his first full season.
There is a lot of projection still left in Martinez, who could put on 20-30 pounds of good weight without overloading his frame at all. While he does have tremendous speed, he’s not translated this to the base paths at this point, so there’s work to do there as well.
Martinez is a guy that you watch and can easily see why the team would dream on him for sure, and it’s easy to see why the Cubs dropped a $3M bonus on Martinez to bring him into their organization.
6. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP
Birthdate: 3/4/95 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: rookie, short season A, low A
Stats in 2016: 39 IP, 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 6.88 BB%, 31.88 K%
De La Cruz is a long, athletic pitcher who has been slow in his development as he was originally a shortstop until signing with the Cubs in 2012. His stuff, while raw, has made big progress in his ability to turn over a lineup and work through hitters rather than simply throw.
One would have a hard time blaming De La Cruz for just reaching back and firing as he’s had success doing just that, standing taller than his listed 6’4″ (I’ve heard as tall as 6’6″-6’7″) and bigger than his listed 200, but it’s definitely not “bad” weight. With his size, he fires a fastball that reaches upper 90s in velocity at its peak, but his height and ability to stay tall in his delivery gives him exceptional plane on the ball that is difficult for hitters to square up.
He works with a power curve ball that doesn’t have the big loop many are used to seeing, but has quick, hard break that gets plenty of swing and miss from hitters. His change is a tick behind as a fringe-average offering, but he flashed at times this year, and when it showed well, it showed as a plus-level change.
He is a good athlete and is able to stay in the zone well due to his athleticism and ability to hold his delivery well for his height, something typically seen as an issue for taller pitchers, but elbow soreness due to the lack of previous pitching conditioning on his arm before signing has held back multiple seasons.
He’ll likely be pushed in full-season ball next year, but many feel like he could he have a longer leash as a starter than Underwood due to his solid mechanics and control.
5. Mark Zagunis, OF
Birthdate: 2/5/93 (23 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: AA/AAA
Stats in 2016: .288/.384/.469, 10 HR, 5 SB
Zagunis was part of the successful 2014 draft class that brought in Kyle Schwarber to the team. He was a college player that came into pro ball with an excellent eye at the plate, but beyond that rated as more org filler than anything else.
Instead, Zagunis has truly played out well, certainly controlling the zone with a solid low strikeout rate and also providing more gap power than previously thought would be part of his profile.
Zagunis is a solid defensive outfield that can passably play center right now, but he is probably best suited for left field going forward.
Offensively, Zagunis has the requisite pitch recognition and hit tool to work in the leadoff spot of a lineup, but his speed isn’t ideal for the spot in the lineup as he’s an average runner.
4. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
Birthdate: 11/24/93 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: AA/AAA/MLB
Stats in 2016: .283/.376/.464, 13 HR (minor leagues only)
Candelario is a perfect example of a prospect who is more in the sum of his parts than in the grading of any one of those parts. He doesn’t have any one tool that truly grades out as plus, though his arm would be closest.
Instead, Candelario works with nearly every tool being a 50 or 55. He has solid gap power from an above-average contact tool. That led to 39 doubles and four triples this season to go with his 13 home runs.
Candelario is a switch hitter with a good idea of the strike zone, as evidenced by his 70/99 BB/K on the season in the minor leagues.
Candelario got a short run in the major leagues this year, with only 11 at bats, but he’s shown that he’s worked his way to being ready for the big show at this point. The problem is that pesky MVP playing in front of him.
His defensive skills at third base are solid, with a strong and accurate arm. The accuracy allows an above-average arm to play up to a plus level. However, with Bryant in front of him, it’s very possible that the Cubs could use Candelario in a deal for another pitcher or whatever else the team feels they need.
3. Dylan Cease, RHP
Birthdate: 12/28/95 (20 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: short season A
Stats in 2016: 44 2/3 IP, 2.22 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 13.74 BB%, 36.26 K%
The forgotten part of the method that the Cubs utilized in drafting Kyle Schwarber and then signing he and two other early college signees for under slot is the acquisition of high-end high school arms later in that 2014 draft.
Cease is, thus far, the best performer of those high schoolers, though he’s had his own injury bugaboos as well. He has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and has reached triple digits. He also works with a power curveball that has come significantly this season.
Cease does have work to do on his change up, and that will determine his future role going forward. He is a very good athlete and could handle starting very well. However, his big time arm would be a huge asset in the bullpen.
Cease has done some work on his mechanics, and he has a much more smooth delivery now.
2. Ian Happ, 2B
Birthdate: 8/12/94 (22 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: high A, AA
Stats in 2016: .279/.365/.445, 15 HR, 16 SB
Few did more for their prospect stock in Arizona in this year’s Arizona Fall League than Happ. With many concerned about his ability to handle elite velocity and quality breaking stuff, stating that he feasts on mediocre stuff primarily, Happ may not have dominated the AFL, but he controlled the strike zone (15/22 BB/K ratio), and he had a 139-point OBP delta from his .236 batting average and .375 OBP.
Happ has a quick, balanced approach from both sides of the plate. It is notable to me that he doesn’t have an obvious strong side as many switch-hitters do. That quick stroke has allowed for him to provide more contact than power at this time, but his body has filled out well, likely to about 6’0″ and 215-220 pounds.
Happ is a better athlete than many would wager from just seeing his height/weight numbers. He is an above-average raw runner, but displays very adept base running instincts.
Happ’s performance for a half-season in the Southern League could give the Cubs the confidence to move him to AAA Iowa in 2017, unless they’d like to see him spend more time at second base at a lower level.
His actions at second base improved over the course of 2016 to the point where he could be considered an above-average defender with a borderline plus arm.
1. Eloy Jimenez, OF
Birthdate: 11/27/96 (19 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: low A
Stats in 2016: .329/.369/.532, 14 HR, 8 SB
Coming into 2016, many knew who Jimenez was at a meta level, but little was known about just how good he truly was. Heck, even within his own organization, he was overshadowed by his fellow 2013 signee, Gleyber Torres.
Jimenez quickly got everyone’s attention and changed that lack of knowledge in a hurry. One of three players with a legit claim on the MVP of the Future Stars game, Jimenez actually put on a great display of what some may consider his “worst” tool, his defense, when he made a ridiculous running catch.
Jimenez is built like a guy that you would assume would have power, but he hadn’t really shown through until this season. He produced 40 doubles and three triples to go with his 14 home runs. While he may have had a rough BB/K ratio, his strikeout rate was not bad at all, especially for a power hitter.
Jimenez is a guy who should be a prototype right fielder with a plus arm and plus power. His contact skills have definitely bumped up to a borderline plus level as well, giving him a legit chance to be the rare hitter who hits for average and power.
The 6’4″, 210+ pound beast of a hitter should end up in the top 25 of most prospect lists this offseason.
Newcomer to Keep an Eye On: Bailey Clark, RHP
Birthdate: 12/3/94 (21 years old)
Level(s) Played in 2016: rookie, short season A
Stats in 2016: 11 2/3 IP, 2.31 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 0 BB%, 28.26 K%
Part of 16 college pitchers that the Cubs chose in their first 18 selections of the 2016 draft, Clark could very well have the best pure stuff of any of those college arms they selected.
Clark has bumped against triple digits with his fastball in short stints, reported at 99 MPH in multiple settings, and he gets excellent sink on the pitch as well. He pairs that with a slider that is consistently above average and has flashed as well as a plus-plus pitch.
That sort of repertoire would typically indicate a selection in the first round or two of the draft, but Clark struggled in the spring with reduced velocity and control, which is a hallmark of his when he is going well, and he lost his rotation spot for Duke.
Chicago took the gamble on Clark moving forward, and he did flash well in the short amount of time he threw for the organization, showing excellent control and more in his change up than had been reported coming into the draft.
There is significant effort in Clark’s delivery, and that has many worried that he may end up as a reliever, though as a reliever with his fastball/slider combo, he would be an elite reliever for sure.
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Agree? Disagree? Someone you have a question about from the system? Leave a comment down below!