Over the next week, I'll be counting down the Cubs top 20 prospects. This is my annual attempt at trying to make sense of the Cubs' farm system and then break it down for you in bite-sized bits. The list is my own, based on what I saw, what I've read and what people have told me over the course of the past season. I don't pretend that this list is anything more than the idiosyncratic way that I try to organize things in my head. Pay more attention to my comments than the rankings, although I do rank them for a reason.
The only qualification for these rankings is that a player has not yet exhausted his rookie status, which is 130 at-bats or 50 innings in the majors. So even though Carl Edwards Jr. finished the season in the majors, he's eligible. Even though Arismendy Alcantara finished the season in Iowa, he's not.
Today I'll talk about the Cubs system in general and mention some players who didn't make my top 20 list but whom I wanted to say something about nonetheless. Tomorrow I'll start with prospect number 20 and work my way up to number one by the end of the week, I hope.
Overview: The bad news is that the Cubs no longer have the best farm system in the majors. That's probably the Red Sox or Twins or someone else. I really don't pay enough attention to all the other farm systems to be able to rank them with any precision, but the Cubs system at the moment lacks the kinds of impact players who can be expected to move through the system quickly and contribute at the major league level in the near future. The good news is that the reason for this is that all the impact players moved through the system quickly last season and were a major reason the team reached the NLCS last fall. But no system can lose a Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler and expect to not drop some in the rankings.
What the Cubs system lacks in star power, it makes up for in depth, especially at the lower levels. I still think the Cubs have a top ten farm system, despite the graduations.
It's been well-noted that the Cubs draft strategy the past few seasons has been to take big bats early and then load up on pitching in the later rounds. This is reflected in my prospect rankings that is once again heavy with hitters at the top and then dominated by pitching as I move down the list. But for the first time since Theo Epstein took over, I think there is as much pitching talent in the minors as there are position players. The pitching prospects are risky, no doubt, but when you amass as many of them as the Cubs have in recent years, the odds start to tilt in the team's favor that at least some of them will make an impact in the majors. The trick is to figure out which ones those will be and act accordingly.
Another thing that struck me as I looked over the list is that there are a lot of good contact hitters down in the minors. Whereas the Cubs major league roster was criticized for striking out a ton (a weakness the Mets exploited in the NLCS), the prospects down in the minors seem to be make more contact. That's not to say there aren't some players in the minors who strike out a ton, but my impression of the top guys is that they make more contact. I don't know whether that was a conscious decision on the part of the front office to balance out the three-true-outcomes sluggers in the majors, but from what I know of Theo and Company, it probably was.
Here are the guys that missed my top 20 list and a little something about each one. To be clear, I'm not saying these players are prospects number 21 to 30 on my list, although most of them would be on such a list if I were to make one. But they are guys that I'm quite interested in seeing in 2016 and whom I think have promise.
Eddy Julio Martinez. OF. B:R T:R. 6'2" 195. DOB: 1/18/1995. Signed as Int'l Free Agent, 2015.
Fine, you tell me where to rank him. If you read some reports on his swing and athleticism, you'd think I'd be ranking him too low at 4. If you read others or if you wonder why he agreed to a $3 million bonus on the open market, you might think I'd be ranking him too high at 15. But since I haven't seen Martinez play except for a few batting practice videos, I'm just taking him off the board rather than rely on the opinions of others who have him ranked, some based on second-hand observations anyway. He seems to me to be a guy who would slot in the 8-12 range, but I really don't know. The second-hand reports I've seen say that he can hit to all fields and right now likes to punish the gaps for doubles more than hit balls over fences. Reports are split on whether he's a center fielder or not, but I'd say no one really will know until he reports to Eugene or South Bend and starts playing out there.
Since the Cubs don't have a first-round pick in the draft this summer and will be banned from signing any international player for more than $300,000 for the next two seasons, there will be a lot riding on Martinez to keep the Cubs farm system from going dry in the years ahead.
Trevor Clifton. RHP. B:R T:R. 6'4", 170. DOB: 5/11/1995. 12th round pick, 2013.
Clifton made 22 starts for South Bend this past summer and posted a 3.98 ERA over 108⅔ innings. He showed real growth over the course of the season and August was his best month. He's one of those mass of arms with potential, throwing 95-96 miles per hour and showing the size and stamina to be a starting pitcher. He's got a sharp, promising curve that he just needs more consistency. He's a mid-rotation upside starter and should start the 2016 season in Myrtle Beach.
Clifton's one of those mass of pitchers who all have potential. So far, Clifton has neither broken out nor busted. But he's still young.
Donnie Dewees. OF. B:L T:L 5'11", 180. DOB: 9/29/93. 2nd round pick, 2015.
I wish I could be higher on Dewees. He's got some real positives, including an 80 "scrappiness" tool. Coming out of North Florida where he led the NCAA in hits and slugging percentage as a redshirt sophomore, he only hit .266/.306/.376 for Eugene last summer. That's not terrible, but it's not what you want to see out of a second-round pick out of college in his first year of pro ball unless he's a slick-fielding shortstop or something. Dewees isn't. He's an outfielder with a weak arm that might force a move to left field where he doesn't project to have enough power to be a starter there. He is fast, but he's going to have to increase his walk totals to be a leadoff hitter. He will steal bases and that's a good thing, although he was only 19 for 26 in steal attempts in Eugene. The real hope here is that he's a weak-armed centerfielder who gets on base often enough that he can use his speed to ignite a rally in the bottom of the order. But if he has to move to left, his bat just isn't going to carry him there.
Bryan Hudson. LHP. B:L T:L. 6'8", 220. DOB: 5/8/97. 3rd round pick, 2015.
Young and huge. That pretty much sums up Hudson. I guess I should also mention that he's got a wicked power curve ball. His fastball is still in the 88-92 mile per hour range, but you've got to figure with that downward action it should seem faster and in any case, he's still young enough to add a few mph onto it. He's a high-ceiling guy, but really raw at the moment. His professional career is 6⅔ innings in rookie ball so far, so that rawness is to be expected. It should be fun to watch him in Eugene this summer.
Preston Morrison. RHP. B:R T:R. 6'2", 185. DOB: 7/19/1993. 8th round pick, 2015.
Morrison has an odd, low 3/4 or high-sidearm arm slot and he doesn't throw very hard. He was a senior sign out of TCU and is probably destined for the bullpen. Then why am I so interested in Morrison? Because he threw 22⅓ innings for Eugene where he struck out 30 batters and walked only three last season. His ERA was 0.81. I'm not sure Morrison is a Top 30 prospect yet, but he's got my attention.
Brad Markey. RHP. B:R T:R. 5'11, 185. DOB: 3/3/1992. 19th round pick, 2014.
I hear that 5'11" on Markey is a little generous -- the mound adds a couple of inches. Markey is a short right-handed pitcher, but he's a bulldog on the mound and he had an outstanding season in 2015, going 7-0 with a 1.61 ERA over 84 innings. He only struck out 64 batters, but he also only walked ten as he attacks the zone. He says he hates walking guys. I don't know if Markey can keep this up as he moves up to Double-A next season, but he's got a chance. Markey has a plus curve and he's not a soft-tosser despite his size. Still, as a short right-hander, he's probably destined for the bullpen if he has a major league future. But he won't go to the bullpen without a fight.
Victor Caratini. C. B:S T:R. 6'1", 215. DOB: 8/17/1993. Trade with Braves, 2014.
Caratini was the best defensive catcher in the Cubs system last year, although that might be damning him with faint praise. The tools are there for Caratini to be a plus defensive catcher, however. He just needs to work on the consistency more. He hit a solid .257/.342/.372 for Myrtle Beach last summer and was particularly effective down the stretch, a time when many catchers wilt under the strain of the season. He's a better hitter from the left side, but he did hit three of his four home runs from the right side last season. In any case, he's not expected to be a big power hitter in the majors. But if he's a solid defensive catcher with a good OBP, he won't have to hit for power to have a major league job.
Anthony Giansanti. OF. B:R T:R. 5'10", 195. DOB: 9/28/1988. Undrafted Free Agent, 2010.
Giansanti hit .226/.293/.269 between Iowa and Tennessee last season. He's not on this list because he has any realistic chance of a major league future. He's here because of the general awesomeness of the Giansanity.
Tomorrow: Prospects 16 through 20.