Last week I started my countdown of the Top 20 prospects in the Cubs system along with a few other assorted players who didn't make the top 20 for one reason or another but could have. Today I finish up that countdown with the top 5 players in the system.
The top prospects in the Cubs system this year don't have the upside of last season's collection, but that's not really a knock on these five young men because few farm systems have ever had a collection of prospects like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber. (The Tigers system around 1977 comes to mind with Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Lance Parrish. Maybe the Royals system of a couple years ago, but the jury is still out on that. Well, the jury is still out on that quartet of Cubs, too.) These five players are certainly an improvement over where the system was before Theo Epstein took over. The Cubs still have a top 10 farm system.
If you have missed any of the previous installments or you just want to review, they're all available at this StoryStream.
5. Albert Almora. CF. 6'2", 180. B:R T:R. DOB: 4/16/1994. Drafted 1st round, 2012.
Just three or four years ago, Almora wouldn't have ranked this highly. As a 21-year-old in the Southern League last season, Almora hit a respectable .272/.327/.400 with six home runs and eight steals in 106 games. That's fine, but it would be a little disappointing for someone taken with the sixth pick in the draft.
But that's not what's so special about Almora. He's a true plus-plus defensive center fielder with a strong arm. While not blessed with anything more than above-average speed, Almora has a natural talent for reading fly balls and covering a huge amount of territory in center field by getting a great jump on the ball. His plus arm is also strong enough to keep any runners from tagging up or trying to take an extra base on anything not hit deep to the outfield. In an era where our understanding of the importance of defense in center field is to the point that players like Kevin Kiermaier or Kevin Pillar are considered 3 to 6 win ballplayers, Almora has the potential to be an impact starter even if he does turn out to be a bottom of the lineup hitter.
Almora is a contrast to other young Cubs in that he's much more of a contact hitter than a three-true-outcomes type of player. Almora struck out only 47 times in 452 plate appearances last season, which should keep his batting average high. The problem, traditionally, is that Almora doesn't walk much either although last season he recorded a career-high 32 walks.
Last season, Almora left the Smokies in early July to join Team USA, who won the silver medal in the Pan-Am Games. When he returned, Almora had made some slight adjustments to his swing. The results were encouraging as he hit .302/.370/.448 in 44 games after his return. I'm hesitant to read too much into this because that's still a small sample size. But if that turns out to be a real improvement in his hitting ability, Almora could end up being a very, very valuable player.
No write-up of Almora is complete without a mention of his strong makeup and reputation as a good teammate. The bilingual Almora is equally at home among the American and Latin players and has been known to gladly take time to help players from Latin America get used to life in the US. (Jorge Soler, for one.)
Almora should start this season in Iowa. He's currently pretty blocked in the Cubs outfield and likely won't see much time in Chicago in 2016 barring an injury or a trade. But Almora is likely in the Cubs plans in 2017 and beyond and if he isn't, he should have a great deal of trade value.
4. Duane Underwood. RHP. 6'2", 215. B:R T:R. DOB:7/20/1994. Drafted 2nd round, 2012.
I'm a believer. Underwood has improved every season in the minors and last year was his best as he went 6-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 73.1 innings at High-A Myrtle Beach. Those numbers would look even better if you throw out the six runs he gave up in one inning on June 26. After that game, Underwood was sent back to Chicago for an MRI while the rest of us just held our breath. But the MRI came up negative and Underwood just missed six weeks with elbow inflammation.
Underwood only made two regular season starts for the Pelicans after returning, but then made two starts in the playoffs, none better than allowing one run on five hits over six innings in the championship-clinching game. Underwood struck out seven and walked no one in that game.
Underwood's best pitch is his fastball, which sits 93-95 mph. He also has a changeup and a curve that are good, although inconsistent. At this point, he's content to use them to induce weak contact rather than get strikeouts. Last season he only struck out 48 batters in the regular season at Myrtle Beach, but he has the stuff to record much higher strikeout totals. His control is also good as he walked only 24 batters.
Early in Underwood's minor league career, he'd gotten a reputation for not wanting to put in the extra effort necessary to succeed. Over the past couple seasons, Underwood has reportedly matured greatly and his work ethic is now considered a strength rather than a weakness.
Underwood has been moving up the minor league ladder one step at a time and is most certainly ticketed for Double-A Tennessee this season. If he can survive in the better hitter's environment of the Southern League, he should be on the radar for a major league debut in 2017. His upside is probably that of a number 3 starter and he could join the middle of the Cubs rotation around then.
3. Ian Happ. 2B/OF. 6'0", 205. B:S T:R. DOB: 8/12/1994. Drafted 1st round, 2015.
In my first version of this list, I had Underwood ranked ahead of Happ. Since then, I've read a couple of reports, both from people within and from outside the Cubs organization, that were optimistic about Happ's ability to make the transition to second base. As a left fielder, Happ has the potential to be a solid major league starter. But at second base, his offensive potential could make him an All-Star. Thus, I reversed my ranking of Underwood and Happ on that basis.
Happ is a strong hitter from both sides of the plate. Although some observers like his swing better from the left side than the right, there shouldn't be that big of a platoon difference either way. Happ has a good power/speed combination that could make him an annual 20/20 player in the major leagues. Happ is a selective hitter and can be expected to draw a lot of walks (as he did last season) but he's also going to strike out a lot.
The Cubs sent Happ to the Northwest League last season and it proved no match for him as he tore it up for a triple-slash line of .283/.408/.491 over 29 games. Happ wasn't quite as successful in South Bend after the promotion. He hit .241/.315/.448 in 38 games.
Happ has compared to Kyle Schwarber on occasion, mostly because they're both advanced hitters from a Midwestern university (Happ went to Cincinnati) that the Cubs took in the first round in back-to-back drafts. But perhaps the better comparison is to another Cub, Ben Zobrist. Happ doesn't have Schwarber's power potential, but 20 to 25 bombs a season are possible if he hits his ceiling. Like Zobrist, Happ is likely to get on base a lot by walking and can steal 15-25 bases a season. Happ has a below-average arm and that will likely limit his defensive versatility to second and left field, but other than that, Happ's ceiling could be a lot like Zobrist's.
A lot of this hinges upon Happ's ability to stick at second base. As a hitter, Happ is likely ready for High-A Myrtle Beach, but if the Cubs are serious about making a second baseman out of him, then he's likely to start the season in South Bend, if not Extended Spring Training.
2. Willson Contreras. C. 6'1". 175. B:R T:R. DOB: 5/13/1992. Int'l free agent, 2009.
It's possible this ranking is a shiny new toy ranking. But good starting catchers are so hard to find in the majors these days, that Contreras' value justifies this ranking in my mind. Last season, Contreras didn't even make my top 30 prospects list, although I was aware of him as a converted infielder who had shown some aptitude for catching. Heck, because of a signing error, Contreras has been eligible for the Rule 5 draft every season since 2010 and no has taken him. Then at age 23, Contreras busted out at Double-A, winning the Southern League batting title with a .333 average and a .413 OBP. Things got so weird by May that while Contreras was splitting time behind the plate with Kyle Schwarber, Smokies manager Buddy Bailey was putting Contreras back at third base so he could get both players in the lineup at the same time.
Contreras only hit 8 home runs last season, but he pounded out 34 doubles in 454 at-bats to give him an impressive .478 slugging percentage. As a hitter, Contreras can hit the ball into both gaps with regularity. Contreras cut his strikeout percentage almost in half from 2014 and slightly increased his walk rate, giving him 57 walks to 62 strikeouts. If those figures stick, Contreras should be a very good offensive catcher in the major leagues.
Defensively, Contreras simply lacks consistency at this point. He has flashed the tools to be at least a major-league average defensive catcher and maybe a little more. But as a converted infielder, the position doesn't come naturally to him yet. That should come with more and more reps. It didn't help that he had to share time with Schwarber in the first half of last season but he should have no such problems in Iowa this summer. His best skill is just catching the ball, although he arm has the potential to be above-average if he can work on his footwork and release more.
If Contreras reverts to what he was before last season, then this ranking will look silly and his future will be as a major league backup. But the hitting skill he showed in Double-A appears to be real. He even hit better on the road than at Smokies Park, so he wasn't just taking advantage of a good hitters' park. Contreras could see the majors this season if there is an injury to a catcher, and there is always an injury to a catcher.
1. Gleyber Torres. SS. 6'1", 175. B:R T:R. DOB: 12/13/1996. Int'l free agent, 2013.
Who else? Torres was the youngest player in the Midwest League at the start of last season, having only turned 18 the previous December. In 119 games in South Bend, Torres hit .293/.353/.386 with 24 doubles and 22 steals. Those numbers could have been even better, but Torres, playing his first full season of baseball, wore down badly as the year went along. Torres only hit .204 in August, which knocked his batting average under .300. Despite the late-season slump, Torres got a late promotion to Myrtle Beach so that he could get more games in during the Carolina League playoffs. At the end of the season, Torres was named the top prospect in the Midwest League in Baseball America's poll of league managers.
Right now as a prospect, Torres is a four-tool player who can do everything but hit for power. As a hitter, he likes to punish the opposite-field gap a lot, although the feeling is that he'll be able to pull the ball more eventually. Once that happens, Torres will start clearing more fences, although he's never likely to be a major power hitter. Defensively, he has good hands for someone so young and his range is good enough that he should have no problem sticking at shortstop. His arm is true as well, combining above-average strength with above-average accuracy. His speed is also good, but he needs to work on his baserunning. He was caught stealing 14 times in 36 attempts. That should improve with experience.
The other thing the Cubs have been quite impressed with Torres is his maturity. They had no plans to send a 17-year-old to Boise in 2014, but he demonstrated enough responsibility that they let him finish the season up there. He's considered a hard-worker as well.
Perhaps the only downside on Torres is that he was too aggressive at the plate last season and pitchers were able to take advantage of that as the season went on. He struck out too much in South Bend. (21.0% to an 8.4% walk percentage)
Torres reminds me a lot of Starlin Castro. Not the Starlin Castro that the Cubs just traded to the Yankees, although that guy had his charms too. But the Starlin Castro who burst on the scene at Wrigley Field in 2010 and delighted us all.
The other problem with Torres is one you've probably already guessed. He's a shortstop, and Addison Russell looks to be manning that position for the Cubs for a long, long time. Torres could play second base, but he's certainly not as valuable there. Like some of the other prospects on this list, Torres looks to be trade bait but unlike some of the others, Torres would likely bring a lot back in return. I'm just kind of hoping that he goes to an American League team.