|Original Published Date: October 7, 2016|
As I write this in late September, the Chicago Cubs are the best team in baseball. Will they win it all? History would say no, but Theo Epstein has put together an impressive team that was built on the back of great scouting and player development as well as some nice free agent signings. If you’re looking at the sentence and thinking…isn’t that the way it supposed to work? Sure, but it’s easier said than done…
The Cubs minor league system has clearly taken a hit, but nobody in Chicago is complaining. That said, there is still some very good talent remaining. One of the big Latin bonus babies, Eloy Jimenez is developing into one of the best prospects in the game. He’s still a couple of years away, but could develop into a classic power hitting right fielder. As with other Cubbies draftees before him, Ian Happ can really hit and could be ready to contribute at the highest level next season.
On the pitching side, the Cubs have a lot of chits in which to make bets. The best of the bunch is also the youngest in Dylan Cease. He’s a ways off, but his power arsenal is impressive. A little closer is Oscar De La Cruz and Trevor Clifton who both performed very well in 2016. Duane Underwood continues to be in the “what if he could stay healthy” category. While nobody profiles as a true top-of-the-rotation talent, all have a chance to contribute at the big league level.
The window is just starting in Chicago and given their financial flexibility, it could last for many years. Throw in several impact prospects on the farm and it feels likely that the curse will be broken soon…maybe even in 2016.
Highest Level: Low-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 OF
We’ve been writing about the potential of Eloy Jimenez since the Cubs signed him to an impressive $2.8 million dollar signing bonus in 2013. They’ve handled him with kid gloves but slowly starting to take them off this year and he responded. In 112 games in Low-A, he posted a .329/.369/.532 slash line with 14 home runs. While the home run total might not seem impressive, it was good enough to rank him third in the Midwest League, doing it all as a teenager.
I expect the Cubs to continue moving slowly with Jimenez as he doesn’t turn 20 until November. To that end, he could spend most of next year in High-A. However, assuming he plays well, he could finally see acceleration in 2018.
Scouting Report: Jimenez has the profile to be a power hitting right-fielder in the major leagues. At a projectable 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Jimenez is still growing into his body and we are just beginning to see his strength, match his physical size. When it does, he projects to have plus in-game power with a chance to hit 30 plus home runs annually.
He doesn’t currently control the strike zone well but as he matures and develops, his aggressive approach should be tapered. However, he’s always likely to swing and miss a lot but with a trade-off of double-plus power. While he currently has average speed, that likely will not remain as he fills out. Until then, he could steal high single-digit stolen bases annually.
Fantasy Impact: I wrote last year that prospect fatigue with Jimenez could be leading to a buying opportunity for Dynasty League owners. Unfortunately, that window has passed as he’ll be high on my Top 100 list. Given his age though, he’s still two to three years away from contributing to a fantasy roster, so fantasy owners need to continue to be patient. The ceiling is a .260 hitter with 30 plus home runs and five to eight stolen bases.
Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2017-18, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 100 Player
As the ninth overall player and the fourth college positional player taken in the 2015 draft, the Cubs were hoping that Ian Happ could repeat, at least somewhat, the success of 2014 first round pick, Kyle Schwarber. While he’s not Kyle Schwarber, it’s a pretty dynamic profile that should project him as an everyday regular in the big leagues.
He easily handled the Carolina League, posting an .885 OPS with a 1.4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. While the strikeouts were a little high (23.5%), his ability to go deep into a count is impressive, making him a tough out. In July, the Cubs rewarded him with a promotion to Double-A where he continued to play well. In 65 games, he batted .262 with eight home runs and six stolen bases.
Scouting Report: As he proved first in college and now in professional baseball, Ian Happ can hit. He’s a switch hitter with above-average bat speed from both sides but with a more leveraged swing from the left-side. At 6-foot and 205 pounds, he has the size and strength to project above-average power with 20 plus home runs possible. His average speed does play-up on the bases as he is able to read pitchers well and get excellent jumps.
This past season, he split time between second and the outfield, but the Cubs appear to be leaning towards him playing at second base long term. The problem of course is he’s blocked in the infield and is likely blocked in the outfield as well. It’s the theory of “the embarrassment of riches” that the Cubs enjoy. Will he be trade bait in the off-season? It’s not been in the DNA of the Cubs to-date, but he does seem a likely candidate as the Cubs contemplate their abundance of young hitters.
Fantasy Impact: Ian Happ is a player I really like to roster on my fantasy teams. He doesn’t have a true plus fantasy tool but should be able to contribute across the board in a Ben Zobrist type of mode. Plus, being a switch-hitter, only helps the profile and will give Happ a better chance of reaching his ceiling. The upside is a slash line of .290/.360/.460 with 20 home runs and 10 to 12 stolen bases.
Highest Level: Short Season, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 35-40 SP
Dylan Cease graduates from our 2016 emerging prospect to become the number one pitching prospect in the Cubs organization.
Taken in the sixth round of the 2014 MLB Draft, Cease has yet to pitch in full season ball but his power arsenal has played extremely well in Northwest League this past year; a league dominated by college players. The 20-year-old posted an impressive 13.3 strikeout rate while also demonstrating good control and keeping the ball in the park. Now two years removed from Tommy John Reconstructive Surgery, the Cubs will likely start him off in full-season ball next year and if he pitches well, could end the year in High-A.
Scouting Report: Dylan Cease has a power arsenal that consists of an 80-grade fastball that sits in the upper nineties, hitting triple-digits with regularity. He complements the fastball with an improving curve ball that he’s now able to throw for strikes. The change-up also took a nice step-up and while it’s still his third pitch, shows enough promise that we can grade it out as a future above-average offering.
The delivery is very easy, oozing with athleticism. He’s able to repeat his delivery well and his 3.00+ walk-per-nine rate should improve as he’s able to throw his curve ball more consistently for strikes. Yeah, he’s had Tommy John Surgery, but so did Jacob deGrom early in his career and things have worked out just fine.
Fantasy Impact: I own Dylan Cease in two of my Dynasty Leagues and wish I had him in more. The profile points to a number two starter profile or a lock-down closer. The reason I throw out the closer option is based on how hard he throws. If he were 6-foot-5 and throwing 100 I would feel better, but he’s 6-foot-2 and many times those guys wind up in the pen. Regardless, he’ll make my Top 100.
Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50-60 OF
Mark Zagunis was originally drafted as a catcher but the Cubs moved him to the outfield last year in order to expedite his bat to the big leagues. He controls the strike zone extremely well as was demonstrated in his 36K/30BB strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 games in Double-A. His lifetime .400 OBP shows the kind of discipline he brings to his game.
Scouting Report: Despite his catcher’s build, Zagunis is a good athlete with above-average foot-speed and enough bat speed to produce 15 to 18 home runs at the highest level. However, the over-the-fence power has yet to develop as he is still very much a line drive hitter. However, as he matures and adds strength, natural loft should come to his game and the doubles will turn into home runs.
Now in Triple-A, Zagunis is nearly ready for the show but in Chicago, he is blocked. He would be an interesting trade chip over the winter that could help the Cubs bring back an arm for their bullpen or starting rotation.
Fantasy Impact: Despite his third round pedigree, Zagunis has been overshadowed by some of the many elite prospects that have moved through the Cubs system over the past two years. However, as the system has thinned, Zagunis is quickly rising to the top and you know what, he’s better than I thought. The upside is a .290 plus hitter with great on-base skills with a chance to hit 15 to 18 home runs and chip in a handful of stolen bases. It doesn’t scream fantasy all-star, but he could be a very good, number four outfielder in a mixed league.
Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15-20 3B
I first laid eyes on Jeimer Candelario in May of 2014 and despite hitting a long home run, I had a lot of questions about his potential power. After five years of professional baseball and 56 home runs later, I still have concerns. However, what I believed from the beginning is that he could hit…and he’s starting to prove that out.
In 553 plate appearances across Double and Triple-A this past season, he had an 80% contact rate with a walk rate of 12.6. His batting average was really a tale of the BABIP. In Double-A, he hit .219, but it came with a .261 BABIP. In Triple-A, he hit .324, but his BABIP adjusted to .374. If you split it down the middle, Candelario is probably a .270 to .280 hitter with a .340 on-base percentage.
Scouting Report: In a system as deep as the Cubs has been over the past three to four years, Candelario has been floating under the radar. While the upside is not anywhere near that of Bryant, Russell, Soler, etc…, he can hit and that should allow him to see big league at-bats. Will that be in Chicago? Unless there are injuries, and a lot of them, I just don’t see that happening.
Candelario has the hit tool and line drive approach that should allow him to become a .270 to .280 hitter with a .425 Slug with plenty of doubles. He’s strong and with enough bat speed, that 15 to 18 home runs is not out of the question. He’s a 30-grade runner, so stolen bases will not be part of the equation. If you add it all up, it’s a solid offensive profile.
Fantasy Impact: If you’re expecting Candelario to benefit from the Cubs big-time offensive machine, I don’t see this happening. He’s a prime candidate to get moved to help the Cubs in some other area of their ball club. Once he makes it to the big leagues, the ceiling is a corner infielder with 15 to 18 home run potential and a .270 to .280 batting average.
Highest Level: Low-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP
Injuries slowed down the progress of the Oscar De La Cruz as he missed most of the 2016 season with an arm injury. Once he got back on the field, he showed the kind of electric stuff that got the Cubs excited at the end of 2015. In 39 innings, he posted a 3.00 ERA with 51 strikeouts and only 11 walks.
Granted, he was 21-years-old and pitching in Low-A, but the stuff played and he was in fact very unhittable. Assuming he starts the 2017 season healthy, the Cubs will likely start him in the Florida State League. However, don’t expect them to rush him through the system as he’s new to pitching and with his maximum innings to-date set at 75, building up arm strength is very important.
Scouting Report: Even though De La Cruz is very raw, I’ve ranked him as one of the top pitching prospect in the system. The reason is simple…he has a great arm and enough athleticism to repeat his delivery. He has a plus fastball with a lot of late movement that sits in the mid-90’s. The Cubs also believe there could be another tick or two as he matures and hones his delivery. His curve ball and change-up are still raw but both took a step up this year.
Even with his limited exposure to pitching, his mechanics are quite good. The delivery is easy with good balance and the ability to repeat his mechanics. He also pitches with excellent plane, pitching down in the zone. This should help him keep the ball in the ballpark and induce a lot of ground balls.
Fantasy Impact: It’s always good to have a few young prospects with high upside on your Dynasty League. De La Cruz fits that to the tee. If it all comes together, he projects as a number two starter or an excellent back-of-the-bullpen arm.
Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2017-18, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP
Drafted in the twelve round of the 2013 MLB Draft as a raw arm strength guy, Trevor Clifton is starting to take the next step in his development. He’s now had back-to-back 100 innings season with improving stuff and control. In 23 starts in the Carolina League, he posted a 2.72 ERA while striking out 129 and walking 41.
He did go through a rough patch in July but righted the ship in August to finish the season strong. He got even stronger in the playoffs where he dominated. He’ll likely start 2017 in Double-A with a good chance to see Chicago sometime in 2018. The ceiling is a number four starter but if his secondary pitches continue to improve, that ceiling could rise.
Scouting Report: Drafted as a skinny teenager three years ago, Clifton has worked hard to put on good weight in order to develop a body that can pitch at the highest level. With his increased physicality, his fastball now sits 92 to 95 MPH. His secondary pitches have also taken a step up and his 9.48 K/9 emphasizes the point.
At 6-foot-1, Clifton physically resembles Orioles starter Dylan Bundy; a strong kid with a good lower half but doesn’t get great plane on his fastball. The Cubs might want to introduce a two-seamer to his pitching mix so that he will increase the amount of ground balls.
Fantasy Impact: Owners in deeper Dynasty Leagues need to keep Trevor Clifton firmly on their watch list. While he is likely a major league pitcher his ultimate ceiling will depend on whether he can get another tick on his fastball and continued improvement on his secondary pitches.
Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2017-18, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50-60 SP
Since being drafted in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft, Duane Underwood has only exceeded 100 innings in a season once, and that was in 2014 when he pitched 100.2 innings in Low-A. He was once again injured in 2016, going down in early July with a forearm issue. While an MRI didn’t reveal anything structurally wrong with his arm, he didn’t pitch the rest of the season.
Up until the injury, Underwood wasn’t pitching all that well. In 13 starts in Double-A, he posted a 4.91 ERA with a 1.5-to-1, strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 4.76 walk per nine was over a walk higher than his career average. Perhaps his forearm was hurting long before he said something. Until Underwood can get back on the mound and start to log significant innings without incident, the immediate future is a little murky
Scouting Report: Underwood has the profile that you love to see in a young pitcher. He has good size at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds with a fastball that sits 92 to 95 MPH. However, his secondary pitches have yet to develop to complement his fastball, probably because of his lack of time on the mound. Both his curve ball and change-up show promise, but are still very inconsistent.
His mechanics are smooth and he has enough athleticism to repeat his delivery. In fact, his mechanics are why his increase in his walk rate was so unusual. He just doesn’t have the pitching mechanics of someone with 30-grade control; which is what someone pitching to a nearly 5.00 BB/9 grades out to be.
Fantasy Impact: I’m not adding Underwood to any of my fantasy teams until he can prove long-term health. I’ve just seen this movie too many times and the end result is just not very good. Assuming he does stay healthy, he has a number three starter profile with plenty of strikeouts and above average ratios.
Highest Level: Low-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 to 70 OF
The Cubs signed Eddy Martinez to a reasonable $3 million dollar signing bonus out of Cuba in 2015. He spent the majority of 2016 knocking the rust off in Low-A and as the season progressed, he showed better bat control and the ability to work a count. While he showed some power and speed, the upside is generally considered to be 10 to 15 home runs and not much more than that.
Scouting Report: Martinez does have good bat speed but his swing path is more geared to line drive power as opposed to over-the-fence power. While the Cubs could add some loft to the swing, they generally like hit-first over power-first players and therefore I see Martinez home run ceiling as 15 to 18.
He does run well but he did not show it much during the year; only stealing 8 of 13 bases. The reports I had on him in the outfield were also very good. He runs good routes and the Cubs had him play all three outfield positions. His arm is considered at least above-average, if not more.
Fantasy Impact: Based on his pedigree, Martinez is owned in a lot of Dynasty Leagues. However, I don’t see an impact fantasy player but more of a number five outfielder. If he changes his swing mechanics, this could change, but unless he does, I can only recommend him in Dynasty Leagues that roster 300 or more players.
Highest Level: DNP, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Streaming Pitcher or Middle Reliever
The Cubs didn’t have a draft pick in 2016 until the third round and decided to go for Oklahoma State right-hander Thomas Hatch. Serving as the Friday night starter, Hatch had an excellent season, posting a 2.14 ERA in 19 starts with a 112-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Given he missed the entire 2015 season with a sprained UCL and pitched his team into the College World Series, the Cubs played it safe and held him out of game action after signing him. He did pitch in the Fall Instructional League and reportedly looked good.
Scouting Report: Hatch has a nice three pitch mix with a fastball that sits 91-93 MPH, and a solid hard curveball and change-up. All three pitches play up as he has the ability to throw strikes. His fastball has heavy sink and induces a lot of ground balls but his secondary pitches are not yet sharp enough to produce high strikeouts. This was something the Cubs focused on this past year and will continue as he moves through the minor leagues.
Hatch is able to repeat his delivery but his motion lacks power from his lower half. In doing so, he’s expending a lot of effort and that could lead to arm injuries down the road.
Fantasy Impact: While Hatch has a good arm, unless he can get his strikeout rate up and improve his delivery, he can be ignored in all Dynasty Leagues.
2017 Emerging Prospect
The Cubs have been mining Mexico for players over the past couple of years and one of their prize signings in 2015 was Jose Albertos. The 6-foot-1 right-hander only had one start last season but after striking out seven across 4.1 innings and hitting the upper 90’s, the Cubs believe they have something special. He only turns 18 in November, so they will likely take it easy with Albertos but his combination of stuff and feel for pitching might dictate otherwise.