Today we move on to prospects 6 through 10 in the Cubs system according to me. Here's where the Cubs really start cooking with gas. In case you missed part one (which has the introduction) or part two, you can catch up and we'll still be here when you're finished. In case you haven't checked, clicking on the names of the player will take you to their milb.com page.
Again by request, I'm listing them countdown-style. Unfortunately, I am unable to do a long-distance dedication at this time. Maybe later.
I wonder who will be number one tomorrow? The suspense is killing me.
10. Duane Underwood. RHP. 6'2", 205 lbs. DOB:07/20/94. 2nd Round (2012), Pope HS (GA)
Underwood was considered a first-round talent out of high school in Georgia going into the 2012 draft, but his senior season was best described as "inconsistent." Sometimes he would hit the upper 90s on his fastball and some starts he couldn’t touch 90. His off-speed stuff similarly flashed plus-ability, but his control was erratic. Sometimes he looked like a first-round talent and other times he looked like he belonged in the fourth or fifth round. The Cubs compromised and took him in the second round.
In his first two seasons in the minors, Underwood continued to be erratic. That led to a 4.97 ERA over 14 appearances in Boise in 2013. He was walking over four batters per nine innings and striking out fewer than six.
I guess the simplest way to explain Underwood’s turnaround in 2014 was that the then-19-year-old grew up. He dropped 25 pounds over the winter. Rather than thinking he could just get by with natural talent, he dedicated himself to being more prepared before every start. The Cubs slowed down his delivery, which improved his control and consistency. He had a breakout season in Kane County, posting a 2.50 ERA over 22 appearances. He got his walks down to 3.2 per nine and his strikeouts up to 7.5.
Underwood just needs to build on the gains he made last season to become a top prospect. Other than C.J. Edwards, he probably has the best raw stuff in the Cubs system. It always makes me happy when a player like Underwood just seems to finally get it. He just needs to keep doing the same stuff in Myrtle Beach this summer.
9. Gleyber Torres. SS. 6'1", 175. DOB:12/13/96. Int'l Free Agent (2013) Venezuela.
The slightly-less heralded of the two big international signings in 2013 had the better season in 2014, advancing as far as Boise before his 18th birthday. That’s not just a sign of his baseball skills, but also of his maturity and makeup.
Torres is yet another shortstop to add to the glut at the position, although he’s not particularly fast and his range at short will likely dictate a move to second base at some point. His skills at the plate are considerable, however, as he’s very good at putting the bat on the ball and making hard contact to all fields. He also goes to the plate with a plan. He’s very good at waiting for his pitch and drawing a walk if it doesn’t come.
The one negative about Torres is that he hasn’t really demonstrated any power yet. I don’t expect him to develop much anytime soon, but he just turned 18 last month. Who knows how he's going to develop? He’s not small at 6’1", so it is certainly possible that he learns to put some lift into those line drives.
The biggest knock on the Venezuelan at this point is that he’s a long way away. I hope he starts the season in South Bend, and I expect he would be the main attraction for those of you who are planning to make it out to Four Winds Field this spring.
If you needed to describe the perfect Oakland Athletics minor leaguer, you would probably come up with McKinney. You can almost picture Brad Pitt talking with Jonah Hill about him and saying "He gets on base."
What was impressive about McKinney last season was that he went from the hitting-friendly California League (hell, hitting-friends-with-benefits-friendly) to the pitching-friendly Florida State League and got a lot better. Admittedly he had struggled in Stockton in his first taste of High-A, but he seems to have figured out the level in Daytona, hitting .301 with a .390 OBP in 51 games there. He can make hard contact to all fields and doesn’t strike out too much, which should keep his average and OBP high.
Having said that, I do have some doubts about McKinney. He hit 11 home runs last season, but ten of those were in the Cal League. His speed is nothing special. Defensively, a weak arm will probably limit him to left field, although some think he can handle center. So what the Cubs may have in McKinney is a left fielder without power or speed. He will have to get on-base a ton (more than one could reasonably expect out of McKinney) for that to be the profile of a starting left fielder for a contender.
But there is a solid chance that McKinney learns to put some lift in the ball and he starts hitting for power. He’s got an excellent approach at the plate and he knows how to wait for a pitch he can drive. But he’s just got to learn to do more with that pitch than just a solid single.
Having said that, if you focus on what McKinney can do and not what he can’t (something I always advocate with prospects), there’s a nice package there. Peter Brand would be proud.
7. Albert Almora. CF. 6'2", 180 lbs. DOB: 04/16/94. 1st Round (2012), Mater Academy Charter (FL)
You could flip Almora and McKinney in the rankings if you want, and I’ve certainly gone back and forth between the two. But I think Almora’s higher upside and defensive value wins out over McKinney’s considerable on-base skills for now. The story may be reversed in a few months.
Opinions on Almora are pretty mixed. Some in the game think he’s going to be a quality starting center fielder, whereas others see him as no better than a 4th or 5th outfielder. I lean more towards the former than the latter, but I do have my doubts at times.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. With the exception of a torrid July that got him promoted to Double-A, Almora had a bad year. We can make excuses at to why that was (his dad was sick), but ballplayers need to play through adversity. When he got to Double-A, his numbers were hurt by a very poor babip, but beyond that, his already low walk numbers went down even more and his strikeouts went up.
Having said that, Almora’s tools still project out to being a quality center fielder. He doesn’t have great speed, but his baseball instincts are so good that he gets great jumps on the ball and rarely takes a bad route to a fly ball. I’m not trying to damn him with faint praise, but he’s unquestionably the best defensive center fielder in the Cubs organization right now, including the majors.
At the plate, Almora’s game centers on making a lot of contact and hitting a lot of line drives. The hope is that he’ll eventually make enough hard contact that some of those line drives start carrying over the wall. He did show some improved power last season, hitting nine home runs over 125 games.
Clearly Almora needs to walk more. He’d do much better if he went deeper into counts and trusted his ability to put the bat on the ball with two strikes. He does not strike out much, so I think he could afford to wait for his pitch.
Of course, no talk about Almora would be complete without mentioning his baseball intelligence and makeup. Those are the type of guys who work their way through problems like Almora had last season. Considering that he doesn’t turn 21 until April, it’s way too early to start doubting Almora.
6. Pierce Johnson RHP. 6'3", 170. DOB: 05/10/91. 1st round compensation (2012), Missouri State University.
I don’t think anyone likes Johnson better than I do. (His mother, I guess.) He’s got a low 90s fastball that he locates well and he can reach back and get up to 96 mph if he needs one. He’s got a curve that almost as good as C.J. Edwards’. He’s got the size and athleticism to be a mid-rotation workhorse. Guys like Johnson may not make many All-Star teams, but teams rush to give them $10-$14 million a year these days in free agency.
The big knock against Johnson coming out of Missouri State was that he had a lot of arm problems and specifically, issues with his forearm. He never had surgery, but he did miss a lot of time. But since he’s been in the professional ranks, there has not been a hint of arm problems. He did spend about a month on the DL last year, but that was a hamstring issue.
Despite the knock against him that he’s injury-prone, I consider Johnson to be a pretty low-risk prospect for a pitcher. Which is to say, still pretty risky, but it’s hard to see him not being a part of a major league rotation one day, barring a more serious injury. He did have some control problems coming off of his hamstring injury in Tennessee, and throwing strikes is something he has occasionally has an issue with. Not a big problem, but something to keep an eye on in Iowa this summer.