January 16, 2017
Chicago Cubs Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: Flags fly forever, baby! (It’s not very strong at the top, but there’s a lot of interesting young upside plays further down the list)
The Top Ten
The Big Question: How might it all go wrong for the Cubs?
A popular technique in project management or consultation is the premortem. For those of you not as well-versed in behavioral economics—or at least those who have spent fewer hours of your life teching corporate conferences than I did—we’ll take a page out of Adam McKay’s book and let Richard Thaler sum it up:
“Assume we are at some time in the future when the plan has been implemented, and the outcome was a disaster. Write a brief history of that disaster.”
There has already been a whole lot of ink spilled on how the Cubs got to the point where they could fly a World Series pennant on Waveland Ave. Even here at BP we gushed about how well Theo Epstein and company’s plan worked.
So let’s let the air out of the party balloons briefly. The Cubs dealt some pretty premium prospects to the Yankees for a few months of Aroldis Chapman, but the system is still pretty healthy. At the top, one of the best prospects in baseball. And past that, some close-to-the-majors bats and high upside arms. There’s the spoils from a huge 2015 IFA class yet to even come stateside and begin to make their mark (more on them later). But if there is one thing you take away from composing prospect lists, it’s that there are oh so many ways it can go wrong (and people will remind you about all of them on Twitter three years from now).
So how might it go wrong from the Cubs 2017 Top Ten Prospects?
Eloy Jimenez is an elite prospect bat. Those tend to have low bust rates relatively speaking, but there’s a lot of hype around him—and more about to come courtesy of the author of this essay. He’s a teenager in A-ball with some swing-and-miss. Those sometimes grow into a 22-year-old in Double-A with more swing-and-miss. That causes the power to play down to 55 or 60, and suddenly—or I guess gradually—we end up with a major leaguer that doesn’t look all that different from 2016 Corey Dickerson. Those left field profiles are risky.
Ian Happ may be a left fielder and...well, those left field profiles are risky. Happ doesn’t have Jimenez’s offensive tools either. He’s a fine hitter, but if he can’t play a plurality of his games at second base, it’s very possible he’s just another bench bat.
Albert Almora already has a month of major-league time under his belt. I guess more like two if you count the playoffs. He’s also a pretty safe bet to be a major-league contributor. However, it’s possible that he keeps hacking, and major-league arms start expanding the zone, and now he’s hitting an empty .250, and okay, he’s not THAT good a center fielder. Good enough to caddy there in late innings though, which is what ends up happening.
Trevor Clifton is a pitcher. Need we say more? Well at times we haven’t said more. But maybe he’s just a middle reliever with a fastball he struggles to command and a curve that still only flashes in 2019.
Jeimer Candelario made defensive strides at third base this year, but if he bleeds a little more athleticism in his twenties...well, he’s already playing about once a week at first base. And on the right side of the infield he’s not even interesting enough offensively to be one of those dudes that Ben comps to C.J. Cron in the Fantasy blurb.
Jose Albertos is an 18-year-old pitcher. He’s a heckuva prospect. We might even end up a year late by having him this low. He might end up a Double-A reliever too. It’s plausible, if not likely, but absolutely a disaster.
Dylan Cease...okay, I set out to try and come up with something for all the arms that wasn’t just “he gets hurt,” but given Cease’s track record of health (or lack thereof), let’s just say “second Tommy John” and move on to the next disaster.
Eddy Julio Martinez gets eaten alive by swing and miss and doesn’t have Jimenez’s light tower raw power to fall back on. He ends up an up-and-down bench outfielder.
Oscar de la Cruz turns out to be dominating younger competition in the Midwest League with his advanced command of the fastball and breaker. Double-A bats aren’t as kind and eventually force a move to the pen where the velocity doesn’t play up enough to be more than an Iowa shuttle candidate.
Thomas Hatch gets hypnotized as part of a preseason team-building exercise and now thinks he’s a chicken.
On the final ledger we end up with one second division starter, a troika of bench bats, a middle reliever, a couple of Triple-A shuttle guys, one injury bust, and a forced Simpsons reference. That won’t all happen of course, but none of it individually is too wild an outcome. It’s The Apple from a player development standpoint. I’ve just turned a top-half system in baseball into roughly the likely outcomes for the Marlins Top Ten. But the Cubs are well-positioned to weather this storm. As it is, they don’t have places for the close-to-ready guys to play even if they hit their OFP. Theo Epstein could truly say he’s a victim of his own success here, but it falls into the good problem to have category. Of course, after you’ve won your first World Series in over a century, there won’t be many bad problems to find.
And anyway, they award as many Prospect List Pennants as they do $/WAR Trophies.
1. Eloy Jimenez, OF
The Good: Jimenez progressed from a raw, toolsy, but exciting corner outfield prospect in April to one of the best offensive prospects in baseball by the end of the year. He has plus-plus raw power and enough barrel control to get almost all of it into games. There’s leverage and bat speed, and all those good scouty words, but cutting to the chase, we are talking a potential 30-home-run hitter, and even with the ball a bit more juiced—allegedly—that is no common feat. He’s no mere corner masher either—although there would be enough mashing for a corner—he’s an advanced hitter for a teenager, and his approach improved throughout the season against the more experienced arms of the Midwest League.
The Bad: He’s a below-average runner already limited to a corner spot in A-ball. That will likely be left field in the majors as his arm is only average. He projects as an average defender there, which is more neutral than bad, but it isn’t moving the needle. While he doesn’t need to “grip it and rip it” to tap into his power, the swing does get long at times, and we’ll need to see him against upper minors arms before we’re completely confident in an above-average hit tool here.
The Irrelevant: You might remember Jimenez from such exhibition games as the 2016 Futures Game.
OFP 70—All-star corner outfielder
The Risks: Man that performance in A-ball was great. But it was still only A-ball. Also, blah blah blah corner profile, blah blah blah hit tool. We’ve done twenty of these lists, you know the drill.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Frankly, you already missed the boat on Jimenez if you don’t own him. But if you’re starting a dynasty league, it’s safe to say Jimenez is a top-25 prospect. He’s got dreamy tools. He’s in a great org. He’s got MiLB production on his side. Drool. There’s a potential OF1 here, and I want him.
2. Ian Happ, 2B/OF
The Good: Happ is a polished hitter from both sides of the plate with an excellent approach and feel for the barrel. There is a balanced offensive profile here with a potential above-average hit tool and enough power to make the advanced approach translate into good on-base skills against major-league arms. Enough leverage in the swing and strength in the body to be a doubles machine even if the over-the-fence power won’t be all that notable. There is real defensive flexibility here, even if he’s just fringy or below-average at multiple positions, that has value. We don’t broadly consider this for the purposes of projecting him, but Happ is in a good organization to get the most out of this skillset.
The Bad: He’s not the most athletic of second baseman. His range isn’t ideal and his footwork can be choppy. He’s a below-average runner so is limited to a corner—probably left—in the outfield. There’s some bat drag at times which can give his swing some length, and he’s vulnerable to good velocity above the hands. The ultimate game power will end up as a 40 or 45, which is good for a second baseman, not so good for a corner outfielder.
The Irrelevant: Happ ranks third all-time at the University of Cincinnati in both walks and on-base percentage.
OFP 55—Joe Maddon’s new favorite swiss army toy
The Risks: Happ should hit, but it is yet to be clear if he hits enough to be more than a fringy corner outfielder, which is where he might end up.
Major league ETA: Late 2017
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: The hit tool is nice, as is the potential for multi-position eligibility, but there’s nothing about Happ that’s particularly special. If he remains 2B eligible for the longrun, there’s top-12 potential at his position, sure. But he’s not gonna get a lot of time there if he remains in this org, and even if he changes hands I’m not convinced he’ll be a middle infielder for a long time. He’s a top-100 fantasy prospect, yes, but despite what Bret Sayre tells you, he should be closer to 100 than to 1.
3. Albert Almora, OF
The Good: Almora has some of the best outfield instincts you will see, and it helps make the glove play as potentially plus in center, despite his not lighting up a stopwatch home-to-first. The defense would be a weapon in a corner spot. At the plate, Almora likes to swing, but has a simple swing and outstanding feel for contact, so he hasn’t seen good enough arms to exploit that approach yet. He’s a heady baserunner and—like in the outfield—the skills play up past the straight-line speed, something Cleveland is now well aware of.
The Bad: Almora is a bit of a hacker, and while he has the hand-eye to make contact, it isn’t always good contact. The power is average at 5 o’clock, but plays more to 40 in games. He’s only an average runner, which may limit his defensive ceiling in centerfield. It’s not a tweener profile—he could comfortably play center field everyday—but it does lack some impact potential.
The Irrelevant: Fun Fact: Almora scored a go-ahead run in extra innings in the 2016 World Series. Not a bad thing to have on your C.V. before you lose prospect eligibility.
OFP 55—Batting-average-driven everyday center fielder
The Risks: He’s a pretty safe major-league contributor, but unless he is Juan Lagares w/r/t being a 70 CF with only average speed, he’s more solid regular than star, and that approach will really have to work against major-league pitching to even reach that.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Simply put, Almora is a better MLB prospect than a fantasy one because his profile doesn’t scream “I need to play every day.” If he does end up in an everyday role, he could ride a good average and relevant HR/SB totals to OF5 status. If not, well, how many backup outfielders do you roster in your league?
4. Trevor Clifton, RHP
The Good: I am a sucker for a fastball with hard arm-side run down in the zone, and Clifton’s ticks all my buttons. His best feature above-average velocity and wiffle ball late action. He can get swing-and-misses with it in the zone due to the movement. His curve flashes plus with hard, late 10-5 break and was a bat-misser by the end of the season.
The Bad: Both of Clifton’s secondaries need further improvement. Velocity worked more around 90 in some outings. The arm slot can drift down and he’ll get on the side of the curveball at times, causing the pitch to flatten out. His command of the curve is still fringy. The change is a non-factor currently. The fact that he works out of the stretch, the slot, his less-than-ideal size and the slingy arm action all point to a potential bullpen future.
The Irrelevant: Maryville, TN had a strong abolitionist presence in the early 1800s due to its large Quaker population.
OFP 55—Mid-rotation starter
The Risks: The changeup and command need refinement, might be a reliever. Oh, yeah, he’s a pitcher too.
Major league ETA: Late 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: You probably haven’t heard of Clifton—and even if you have, most of your league mates probably haven’t. That makes him a good value buy if your league rosters, like 200 prospects, but he lacks the upside or immediate impact potential to flirt with a ranking closer to the top-100. If we’re being honest, his name is boring.
Please note a previous version of this article referred to Clifton as "undersized" in The Risks based on prior 2016 internal reports. He has since been confirmed to be 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, rather than closer to his listed height and weight. We regret the error.
5. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
The Good: It’s tempting, in the interest of time—still ten more of these lists to go—to just C+P the Happ entry here, but we’ll try to wordsmith it a bit so it’s not too obvious. Candelario is an...uh... “advanced” hitter from both sides of the plate. The swing is simple, short, and geared for contact, but he is strong enough to make it loud if he gets a pitch to drive. And like most Cubs prospects not named Albert Almora, Candelario has a keen eye and strong approach at the plate. So he knows which pitches to drive. All things considered, it’s a plus hit tool. His plus arm plays well at third base.
The Bad: Hey it’s another polished Cubs hitter with a fringy defensive profile and maybe-not enough power to carry the day. Candelario improved at third base this season, but you will see the phrase “he battles there” a bit too much for my liking. The bat will be doing the heavy lifting here, and his swing lacks the loft to project more than low-double-digit bombs, though he’ll bop his fair share of doubles.
The Irrelevant: Candelario grew up in San Pedro de Macoris and signed out of the Dominican Republic but he was born in New York, NY.
OFP 55— Late-career-Martin-Pradoish third baseman
The Risks: At the risk of repeating myself some more, Candelario is another polished, major-league ready—or close to it—prospect without a ton of upside. If he doesn’t hit quite as much as we project, there isn’t much else to carry the profile.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: A change of scenery would be nice (sense a theme?), because if Candelario plays every day as a second-division 3B I do think he could flirt with many top-20 finishes at the position. But we can’t really factor “he might get traded” into these rankings, and as such, Candelario has very little present-day value. That sucks, because if he was on, say, the Angels, he might be a back-of-the-top-100 fantasy prospect. (How dare you suggest he would play over My Main Main Jefry Marte- j.p.)
6. Jose Albertos, RHP
The Good: So if you are going to rank a 17-year-old arm with very limited pro experience this highly—even one who just got a seven-figure bonus, he needs to pass our rigorous questionnaire:
Big arm? Yep, potential plus-plus fastball here
Any advanced secondary of note? Oh yeah. Unusually it’s the change, not the breaking ball, and it could be a very good one.
Okay, but is he really going to be a starter? Look, he’s a teenager in the complex, but he’s got about the best chance of that general profile to stick in a rotation as you’ll find.
The Bad: Well, he’s still seventeen and a long ways from the majors. You would need “two gymnasium-sized super computers” to calculate and enumerate the baseball version of everything that could go wrong for Albertos between now and that shiny OFP below.
The Irrelevant: If you are hustling for an irrelevant late at night and, say, just search for Albertos’ birthdate, you get a whoooooooole bunch of Phish setlists from that night’s show at the UIC Pavillion. It featured an encore of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” which I am going to guess was roughly 23 minutes long.
OFP 60—No. 3 starter
The Risks: All of them. He has all of the risks. And he’s a pitcher.
Major league ETA: 2021
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I mean, I get it. There’s a little bit of an Anderson Espinoza vibe here. But Albertos is too far away and too much of a pitcher to go nuts about. If your league rosters 200 prospects and you love upside, go for it. Otherwise, meh. The profile isn’t that unique, even if he has a better shot of making the profile work than most. But still, probably don’t.
7. Dylan Cease, RHP
The Good: Cease has a big fastball. Of that there can be no doubt. It’s a high-90s howitzer and a potential plus-plus pitch with command refinement. His 12-6 hammer curve will flash plus, and it did that more often as the season went on. He was healthy. That’s good in this case! The delivery doesn’t have any obvious red flags, unless you count elite arm speed as a red flag, which, well...
The Bad: His durability is going to be a question mark until he gets through a full season of full-season ball as a starter. And even if that happens, you question if he’s a starter in the long term. He’s undersized—although a good athlete—for a starting pitcher. The command is below-average. The changeup is firm and needs grade jumps to be a major-league third pitch. The fastball doesn’t move a ton (for as much as that matters when it can touch 100).
The Irrelevant: Do not be alarmed if you see Cease in the cockpit of your private jet. That’s actually his twin brother, Alec.
OFP 60—Major-league closer
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: There’s a lot to like with Cease, but as alluring as his potential is, the red flags outweigh the potential ceiling at this point. Sure, if he proves he can hold up and he can hold up without his stuff suffering, you’ve got a pretty nice pitcher on your hands. But the odds of both of those things happening, well, Vegas wouldn’t take ‘em. So basically, when it comes to Cease as a fantasy prospect ... not yet. If he proves more durable, sure. But not yet.
8. Eddy Julio Martinez, OF
The Good: Martinez has a broad base of tools and improved throughout his first stateside season in the Midwest League. He has premium bat speed and will flash plus raw power. The hit tool is raw at present, and he tinkered with his timing mechanisms in 2016, but it projects as at least average. He’s an above-average defender in a corner with a plus arm that plays well in right field, and he has enough present day footspeed to take some reps in center field as well.
The Bad: He lacks a carrying offensive tool, especially if he ends up in right field. The plus raw power plays down in games currently because of his line-drive approach, and there’s swing and miss in the profile as well. Some of that could be chalked up to rust and lost game reps, but you can get him to expand on stuff running down and away. He’s an above-average runner at present, but if he loses speed as he ages, center field even once a week may be a bit of a stretch.
The Irrelevant: Martinez's Cuban team Were the Leñadores de las Tunas. This translates (per Google) to “the Woodcutters” (shame he didn’t somehow end up in Williamsport). Their logo features a cactus, so...you tell us.
OFP 55—Above-average outfielder
The Risks: Martinez hasn’t played above A-ball, and the offensive tools will have to play all the way top projection for him to be a viable starter in a corner outfield spot.
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I definitely suggest keeping an eye on Martinez, because there are enough pieces of offensive tools here that he could be a good fantasy player. But they’re just pieces right now, so Martinez is mostly just an idea at this point, despite the hype that surrounded him last year. If it starts click, don’t be afraid to jump on board.
9. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP
The Good: de la Cruz is a big, athletic arm, a converted infielder that has taken to life on the mound well, if not all that quickly. He features a heavy fastball that sits primarily in the low-90s at present, although it has ticked higher at times. He commands the pitch well down in the zone, and it’s a potential plus offering if he can find those extra ticks more often. His mid-70s curveball projects as above-average, and he can already spot it for a strike to both sides of the plate or bury it as needed.
The Bad: The stuff—while it projects as major-league quality— doesn’t jump off the scouting report, and there isn’t much projection left here. Injury issues have left de la Cruz over-age for the leagues he’s pitched in and...well, that means there are injury issues. The curveball’s shape and velocity can be inconsistent. It will flatten out when he tries to find an extra few mph. The change is still rough and he’s shown limited feel for it.
The Irrelevant: Ervin Santana leads all players from de la Cruz’s birthplace of La Romana with 26.5 WARP, narrowly edging out Edwin Encarnacion. (at least until Jefry Marte overtakes both of them - j.p.)
OFP 50—No. 4 starter
The Risks: He’s an older Midwest League arm with a crude changeup. There’s a very good chance he’s just a solid relief arm. On the other hand, he’s got limited enough miles on his arm, that there might be some positive risk here as well, and two advanced pitches give him a better base than most Midwest League arms regardless of age.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: You already know how I feel about back-end starters. Spend your time elsewhere.
10. Thomas Hatch, RHP
The Good: Hatch bounced back after missing the previous season with an elbow injury, winning the conference pitcher of the year award and leading Oklahoma State to the College World Series. His fastball has a lot of life from his low-three-quarters slot, which caused a fair amount of weak contact and awkward swings. Working 91-94 in college, his velocity did bump into the mid-90s in instructs in short outings. His slider is a potential above-average offering with depth and late movement. His changeup works and is an effective enough offering against left-handers.
The Bad: While no surgery was performed, Hatch did miss the 2015 season with a sprained elbow ligament. He isn’t a bat-misser, relying more on weak contact and pitchability. The changeup is usable but is still somewhat raw as he didn’t use it that often in college. There isn’t much projection left given his age and his filled out body.
OFP 50—No. 4 Starter
The Risks: Elbow injury in 2015, he’s a pitcher, pitchability over stuff. The arm slot could create difficulties against left-handers in pro ball.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: You already know how I feel about back-end starters. Spend your time elsewhere.
Others of note:
Mark Zagunis, OF
Isaac Paredes, SS
Another Cubs approach dude
Donnie Dewees, CF
Not eligible for the 25U, but worth a mench here
Jose Rosario, RHP
The former future breakout guy
Duane Underwood, RHP
When the future of a franchise is also its present, as is the case in Chicago, lists like these are a little beside the point. Ordinality doesn’t do a great job representing the yawning gulf between someone like Kris Bryant—first on this list, and one of the three or four most valuable players in baseball—and the man ranked at number ten, Trevor Clifton. There’s more than nine degrees of separation there. But The Lord looked upon such statements with displeasure and said, “Thou shalt write ranked lists, for they art both easy to read and easy to write.” And it was Good.
Since I wrote last year’s version of this list, three of its members—Jorge Soler (4), Gleyber Torres (6), and Billy McKinney (9)—have been traded for AL relievers. Net those debits against their replacements in the ranking—Jimenez (6), Edwards, Jr. (7), and Almora, Jr. (9)—and replace Eddy Julio Martinez at 10 with Clifton, by virtue of each’s performance, and you get a list with not much movement at the top and quite a bit less upside toward the bottom, if a hair more certainty.
A few questions remain: Is Russell’s future more of what he is now—a light-hit, good-field shortstop with a little more pop than you’d expect—or a .280/.370/.485 MVP type in the mold of Miguel Tejada? That promise, overexcited though it is, has always been hanging in the air around this kid, and we’re now getting into the stretch of seasons where either it or something like it is going to actually materialize on paper, or we’re going to have to accept that he’s the Edgar Renteria of this era’s loaded shortstop class.
Schwarber, meanwhile, will have to prove that his bat can hold up to the increased demands that his new position—left field—places upon it, and that his surgically reconstructed knee doesn’t fall apart at the first sign of a fly ball to the position. His dominant turn in the World Series went a long way towards allaying the first concern, and his extraordinary work ethic will mean rehab that’ll limit risk related to the second, but 2017 will still be Schwarber’s first ever chance to prove himself over the full 162.
Jimenez, the one potential star on the list not already mashing at Wrigley, is ranked sixth. Seven through ten are a collection of guys hovering at the back-end of the 25-man and guys still a few months away. Happ and Clifton, the entrants in the latter category, could both be big-league contributors as soon as the end of the year, but have unfinished business in the minors. The Juniors, Edwards and Almora, are already playing at Wrigley but still trying to find out where and how much. This will be a pivotal year for each.
Looked at in totality, this isn’t a list you can dream on in quite the way last year’s was. But does that really matter? For the guys in the top half of the list, last year’s dreams have already become this year’s reality. —Rian Watt