Yesterday I started my list of the top prospects of the Cubs minor league system with the bottom of my top 20 list and I'll count my way up. The bottom part of the list is filled with players who are pretty much interchangeable with the players I listed on my "honorable mention" list yesterday. If you want to trade out one of those players for one of the players discussed today for your own list, I wouldn't argue with you. It's also got a couple of players whose stock dropped dramatically over the past season, although it should be noted that in both cases, it could shoot back up again just as quickly.
Overall, this is a pretty strong bottom of the list. Perhaps not as strong as it has been in recent years, but the depth of the Cubs system has been impressive lately. Five years ago this list would be populated with guys who project out to be middle relievers or fifth outfielders. These players may still end up like that, but they all have the potential to be better than that.
20. Chesny Young. 2B. 6'0", 170. B:R, T:R. DOB: 10/6/1992. Drafted 14th round, 2014.
We all have our weaknesses. Mine is that I'm a sucker for middle infielders with a strong hit tool. I've been fooled before by prospects that I touted like that who have flamed out as they moved up to the higher levels of the minors. I'll probably be fooled again.
But why do I think Young will be different? For one, his hit tool could be really, really good. Young won the Carolina League batting title with a .321 average, whereas second place in this pitchers' league was .297. He set a Carolina League record by reaching base in 44 consecutive games. Young also walked more than he struck out (57 walks to 51 strikeouts) which is impressive at any level. His final batting line for 2015 was .321/.392/.386.
But Young isn't a one-dimensional player, which gives me more hope for him than others who have flamed out before him. For one, Young has some speed, which I hope means his BABIP will stay high. He also stole 21 bases in 29 attempts. Secondly, Young can play defense. He's not going to wow anyone with his play at second base, but he is steady there. He's also played every position on the diamond last season except center field, pitcher and catcher. He's probably stretched a little more than you'd like at shortstop, but a guy who can hit and play four positions (second, third, left and right) is a valuable player to have on a bench.
There will probably be some regression in Young this season as he moves up to Double-A. But even if he loses over thirty points of batting average, he's still hitting in the .280 to .290 range. He's still going to get on base via the walk or hit by pitch. He should still be able to steal bases. If he can do that in Double-A, he could have a major league future.
19. Pierce Johnson. RHP. B:R T:R. 6'3", 200. DOB: 5/10/1991. Drafted 1st round (supplemental), 2012.
I don't think anyone fell as far as Johnson did this past season. Superficially, his stats were pretty good in Double-A Tennessee: 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 16 starts. But those numbers hide a lot of problems. For one, Johnson missed the first two months of the season with a back injury. The biggest knock on Johnson coming out of Missouri State was that he could never stay healthy. He'd been able to avoid injury in the minors until last season. Now all those questions are back.
On top of that, while Johnson got good results when he returned, his stuff wasn't the same as it had been before he'd gotten hurt. He'd lost a couple miles per hour on his fastball and his curve wasn't as sharp. Repeating Double-A, his K% dropped from 24.4% to 18.8%. His walk rates went up slightly as well. He got away with missing fewer bats in the Southern League, but he got knocked around pretty badly in the Arizona Fall League (16 runs in 24.2 innings) and the scouting reports weren't good.
Now that's the bad news. The good news is that he still has the chance to bounce back. If last season was just the result of an injury that never properly healed, then he could bounce back to his 2014 form when he was a top ten prospect in the Cubs system. He's show the potential to be a solid mid-rotation starter in the past. He's got four pitches and his fastball and curve could end up being plus. He may have to adjust his mechanics to stay healthy and to gain greater consistency. But there's no reason he can't do that. Last season, Baseball America said that Johnson was similar to Jake Arrieta at the same age. I don't think anyone can reasonably predict that bright a future for Johnson, but it is a warning that the Cubs might just need to be patient with Johnson. He was added to the 40-man roster this winter, so he's still in the Cubs plans at the moment.
18. D.J. Wilson. OF. B:L T:L. 5'8", 177. DOB: 10/8/1996. Drafted 4th round, 2015.
Sometimes I rank someone I haven't seen, even on video, just because the reports I get back are so strong that I have to take their word for it. Everyone who saw Wilson play in rookie ball last summer just came away raving about his athletic ability and potential.
Wilson only hit .266/.322/.354 in rookie ball last season. So why did he impress so many people? For one, that's a small sample size--only 89 plate appearances. But reports were that he had some impressive bat speed through the zone and that he could end up driving the ball hard. Despite his small size, he could develop some power as he gains more experience. On top of that, Wilson has plus speed and projects to be a threat on the basepaths.
But what impressed observers the most is that Wilson projects out to be a plus defensive center fielder. His instincts in center are good for someone with so little experience and his speed can make up for a lot of mistakes as well. On top of that, he has a strong arm. With all that we're learning about the importance of defense in center field, a guy like Wilson has the potential to be very valuable. Wilson has been compared to Adam Eaton. If he lives up to his potential in Eugene or South Bend next summer, then he has a good chance to be a top 5 prospect on this list next winter.
17. Ryan Williams. RHP. B:R T:R. 6'4", 220. DOB: 11/1/1991. Drafted 10th round, 2014.
Sometimes you just can't argue with results. Most of you are already familiar with the story of the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2015. He was a 10th round draft pick who was a budget sign and offered a $1,000 bonus. In 2014 he pitched well enough to be invited back in 2015. Williams got off to a good start in South Bend last spring and with a 1.17 ERA after nine appearances, Williams got the call to Double-A Tennessee to make some emergency starts when injuries left the Smokies a starter short. He was supposed to return to South Bend when the Smokies got healthy, but he pitched so well in Double-A that he never returned to the Midwest League. For the Smokies, Williams tossed 88 innings in 17 appearances and went 10-2 with a 2.76 ERA. He struck out 61 batters and only walked 16.
Williams doesn't have very impressive stuff, but he does command it well and he knows how to use it. His fastball tops out at 88-90 mph, but it does have a good, sinking action that induces ground balls and stays in the ballpark. Williams allowed only two home runs last season in 141.2 innings between South Bend and Tennessee.
We've seen Williams' act before in Kyle Hendricks, and that's pretty much Williams' upside. We've also seen this kind of skill set in a dozen other pitchers whose names you've likely already forgotten because they washed out. There isn't a lot of margin for error on Williams, but as long as he keeps getting these kinds of results, then he's going to keep moving up in the organization. He'll start the season in either Tennessee or Iowa, probably based on how many pitchers in the Cubs organization leave spring training healthy. But don't be surprised if there is an opening in the rotation at Wrigley this summer if Williams doesn't get an audition.
16. Carl Edwards Jr. RHP. 6'3", 170 (soaking wet). B:R T:R. DOB: 9/3/1991. Trade with Rangers, 2013.
You all got a look at Edwards last September. Instead of me giving you a scouting report, how about I just repeat what you all said about him?
I could go on. Be sure to tip your waiter on the way out.
OK, Edwards is skinny. But the biggest reason for Edwards' drop is that it finally seems clear that his future is in the bullpen. The point of moving Edwards into the bullpen in April was supposedly for him to slowly build up his strength to start, but he never did. I never say never, but I think it's time to give up the idea that Edwards will ever be a major league starter.
The other reason that Edwards is dropping in the rankings is that he developed some control issues last season. His walk rate spiked in 2015. Edwards walked more than six batters per nine innings this past year. Of course, he also struck out 12.2 batters per nine in the minors, had a 2.77 ERA and allowed only one home run in 55.1 innings.
If Edwards can cut down on his walks, he could be a future closer. Otherwise, he'll likely still have a future in a major league bullpen. The stuff that made him such a highly-regarded prospect is still there. He still throws a mid-90s fastball and has a wicked curve ball. He just needs to learn more consistency. Edwards will be competing for a bullpen spot in Wrigley out of spring training. Even if he starts the year in Iowa, he'll likely be back in the majors sometime this summer.
Tomorrow: Prospects 11 to 15.