Welcome to the fourth installment of my countdown of the best in the Cubs minor league system.
Today we're starting to get into the elite prospects. Even if the depth in the system this season isn't quite as deep or as good as it was last year, all of these prospects have a chance to be major league starters and some of them could end up as All-Stars. Of course, the problem that all the position players are going to run into is that the current Cubs lineup is young and there aren't many holes in it. But these things have a way of working themselves out. If a prospect demonstrates that he belongs in the major leagues, some team will make room for him.
If you missed the previous installments, the links to all of them are available in this StoryStream.
10. Jeimer Candelario 3B. 6'1", 210. B:S T:R. DOB: 11/24/1993. Int'l Free Agent, 2010.
Candelario was a top 10 prospect in the Cubs system in 2012 and 2013 and was seen by many as the Cubs' third baseman of the future. Sure, there were some questions about whether he could stick at third base, but he had a smooth stroke from both sides of the plate. He had more power from the left side, but hit for a higher average from the right. In either case, he could hit to all parts of the field.
Then the Cubs drafted Kris Bryant and Candelario had a miserable 2014 season. He got off to a bad start in High-A Daytona, got demoted back to Kane County and went into a funk all season long that he never got out of. I don't know whether he was pouting over his demotion, he had some kind of hidden injury or he just couldn't get out of a slump, but the same Midwest League that he mastered fairly easily at 19 was pretty tough on him at age 20. He didn't drop off the prospect map because he still hadn't turned 21 yet, but expectations were a lot lower for him coming into 2015.
Myrtle Beach must have agreed with Candelario a lot more than Daytona Beach did because he hit .270/.318/.415 in 82 games before getting promoted to Tennessee. Freed from the pitcher-friendly Carolina League, Candelario did even better in Double-A, hitting .291/.379/.462 with five home runs and 10 doubles in 42 games. In fact, between the two teams, Candelario hit 35 doubles last season and it wouldn't take much for him to start turning some of those doubles into home runs.
Another area where Candelario improved was on defense. Early in his professional career, there were a lot of questions about his ability to stick at third base. But now scouts project him out to be at minimum a league-average defensive third baseman and maybe even an above-average one. He cut his error total from 26 in 2013 to 13 in 2015 in the same number of games.
So while the good news is that Candelario can stick at third base, the position is no longer open for him. There was a lot of talk that he would have to move to first base early in his career maybe he could . . . nope, that's no good either. I suppose the Cubs could try him elsewhere. He's not real fast, but it might not be too big of a stretch to stick him out in left field . . . ARRGGH! YOU'RE NOT HELPING ANY!
For all the talk that the Cubs need to trade Dan Vogelbach, there really isn't a spot for Candelario anywhere either, barring an injury. His upside is as a league-average third baseman--kind of a switch-hitting Aaron Boone or something. Even if he reaches that potential, he's not going to push Bryant off of third base. He'll probably start the season in Tennessee again and look to get a midseason promotion to Iowa. Then I wouldn't be surprised if he was on "hug-watch" all July.
And here's my annual reminder that his first name is pronounced "JAY-mur," although most of his teammates just call him "Candy."
9. Eloy Jimenez. RF. 6'4", 205. B:R T:R. DOB: 11/27/1996. Int'l free agent, 2013.
Jimenez was the top international free agent in 2013 and while Gleyber Torres might have passed him in the rankings for now, that's not because of anything that Jimenez has or has not done. Jimenez has moved up the Cubs system one step at a time and last year he made his Eugene debut where he hit .284/.328/.418 with seven home runs in 57 games. Those numbers are more impressive when you realize he's only 18 (and stop comparing him to Torres).
Jimenez is a big man who is just learning to tap into his power. He has tremendous power to all fields when he does connect. Another positive from Jimenez's season in Eugene was that he only struck out 17.2% of the time. While he does have some holes in his swing and has been known to chase a bad ball or two, it looks like he will be able to make more contact than your typical young slugger. That he only walked 15 times in 250 at-bats is a little concerning, but we'll have to see if those numbers stay there when pitchers start to fear him more.
I've often compared Jimenez to Jorge Soler, although Jimenez doesn't have Soler's cannon arm. It is likely going to be good enough to stay in right field, or it would be a plus arm in left. Both are big right-handed sluggers who can hit the ball out to all fields, or at least that's what we hope for Jimenez.
Jimenez is still a long, long way from the majors and he just turned 19 back in November. Even if everything goes right, it's fully possible that Jimenez won't be ready for the majors until 2020. He might just be the number one attraction in South Bend this summer for those who plan to make out there. Let's hope he makes the drive worthwhile.
8. Billy McKinney. OF. 6'1", 205. B:L T:L. DOB: 8/23/1994. Trade with Athletics, 2014.
I fully expect my evaluation of McKinney to be my most controversial, primarily because I know he has a lot of fans around here. And I get it. There is a lot to like here. Before fouling a ball off his kneecap which knocked him out for the season, McKinney was hitting .285/.346/.420 in 77 games in Double-A as a 20-year-old. He's got good plate discipline. McKinney walked 44 times in 433 plate appearances between Myrtle Beach and the Smokies. He only struck out 60 times. For someone so young, he's got an advanced feel for hitting.
But for me, there are some warning flags on McKinney. For one, I don't think he can play center field. I think the Cubs agree with me because McKinney has only played four games in center since the trade, all with Daytona in 2014 and none this past season. Second, his arm really is below average for right field. He could probably play there, but it wouldn't be ideal.
That makes McKinney a left fielder and if he's a left fielder, where's the power? McKinney hit 10 home runs in the homer-happy California League before the Fourth of July trade that brought him to the Cubs. He has 11 in 886 plate appearances in his minor league career elsewhere. That isn't going to get it done for a major league left fielder without speed, which McKinney doesn't have either. I know some of you think that McKinney will grow into power. It's possible, sure. But even now at 21, he looks "mature" to me. His swing looks so polished that I don't think he's going to tamper with it to add some lift. On top of all that, McKinney struggles against left-handed pitching.
So if I'm down on McKinney, why do I still have him in the top ten? Because he still hit pretty darn well for a 20-year-old in the Southern League. Also, he's got a great makeup that is going to get every inch out of his talents. I see McKinney as a "high-floor" type of player. He's going to be a major leaguer. I just don't see him having much chance of being an all-star or even a starting left fielder on a good team.
As I think about McKinney, I'm going to throw out the comp of Chris Coghlan. Coghlan went to college so he was a bit older than McKinney was at the same level, but he seems to be a very similar type of hitter. There's nothing wrong with being Chris Coghlan. It's a good thing. But I have to knock McKinney down compared to some other players with a higher upside.
7. Oscar de la Cruz. RHP. 6'4", 200. B:R T:R. DOB: 3/4/1995. Int'l free agent, 2012.
Where did he come from? De la Cruz was a shortstop in the Dominican Republic that no one was much interested in until the Cubs decided to take a chance on him (for the low, low bonus price of $85,000) and see if he could pitch. He spent two years in the Dominican Summer League just learning how to pitch. Last summer the Cubs brought him to the States and had him skip rookie ball down in Arizona and report straight to Eugene. The results were spectacular.
De la Cruz made 13 starts for the Ems last summer, totalling 73 innings. In that, he struck out 73 batters and walked only 17. He held opposing hitters to a .211 average and posted an ERA of 2.84. He led the league in WHIP at 1.00. His fastball sits at 92-93 with good movement but he can hit as high as 97 and the feeling is that he's still growing into his velocity. (He may also still be just plain old growing. At least one report has him up to 6'5".) De La Cruz also has a curve in the low-80s that has the potential to be a plus pitch. I don't have to tell you that he need to work on a changeup, right? Almost no one learns a great change that quickly.
As I mentioned, de la Cruz is a beast on the mound, both physically and from a competitive standpoint. His athleticism and his former time as a shortstop allows him to get off the mound quickly and field his position.
It's hard to say what de la Cruz future holds because he's not a fully mature pitcher yet. Obviously the sky's the limit at this point. It would only be a mild surprise if he was the number one prospect in the Cubs system at this time next season. Or he could go the other way. Above all, de la Cruz wi'll be another great reason to make the drive out to South Bend to check him out yourself this summer.
6. Dylan Cease. RHP. B:R T:R. 6'1", 175. DOB: 12/28/1995. Drafted 6th round, 2014.
The biggest reason Cease isn't higher is because he's still an unknown and a major injury risk. Cease was considered a potential first-round pick in the 2014 draft before he missed most of his senior season in high school with an injury that would eventually require Tommy John surgery. Cease missed all of 2014 and made his debut in the Arizona League this summer.
I really don't care about Cease's results in 24 innings in rookie ball. The fact that he was just pitching was an incredibly good sign. But an even better sign was that Cease's fastball was sitting 96-97 mph and touching 99 down in Arizona. He had control and consistency problems, but that's normal for someone coming back from Tommy John, let alone for a 19 year old. We won't know about his control of his fastball or for that matter his promising curveball until he pitches more this summer. And even then he may not be 100% back from the arm surgery.
A starting pitcher with Cease's size and velocity is a potential number one starter. Hopefully he makes it up to Eugene this season where we can all get a better look at him. But it's still going to be a couple of seasons before we find out if Theo Epstein and company won the lottery when they decided to take a chance on Cease.
Monday: The top five prospects in the system.