I love following prospects. I love reading minor league box scores. I even love watching poor, grainy videos of minor league games just to get a subpar glimpse at a guy with a five percent chance of contributing in the Majors at some point in the next half decade.
But something has happened this year: the Chicago Cubs are so good that it's really difficult to watch a minor league game in lieu of soaking up every second of every game for the big club.
Just how exceptional has this April been? Well, let's take a look at Cubs records in April over the last ten years:
Not since April 2008 have the Cubs been anywhere close to this good. So you can forgive yourself if you, like me, have been paying more attention to the goings on in Chicago than those in Des Moines, Kodak, Myrtle Beach, or South Bend.
Thankfully, those guys have been playing every day, too, and as we settle into May, let's take a look at Cubs prospects who have *meaningfully altered their stock after the first month of play.
(* Small sample size and big picture disclaimers apply. No single month can make a non-prospect into an elite one or vice versa. All numbers here are through April 30.)
1. C Willson Contreras
Contreras exploded onto the prospect scene last year. While he has always had a good arm, he made solid progress in the finer aspects of his position and his offensive game leaped forward after years of roughly league-average production to the tune of a .333/.413/.478. That's tough to follow.
How about a .344/.423/.410 April? Although he hit no homers, his 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio stands out as does his continued on-base excellence despite climbing to Triple-A (Contreras does have a homer in May). Climbing a level and playing just as fantastically is a good way to kick your trajectory up a notch. He is in line for a 2017 timeshare with Miguel Montero before taking over in full for 2018.
2. CF Albert Almora
During the winter, I chronicled the 22-year-old Almora's scorching end to the 2015 season and openly hoped that his changes were real, not simply a two month mirage. So far, so good in 2016. Almora posted quite possibly his finest monthly line with a .366/.405/.549 line, including three home runs and six walks to go with just nine strikeouts. Almora has rarely struggled with strikeouts, but the arrival of power and walks into his game has reignited his prospect star. Like Contreras, Almora has a 2017 job sitting on a platter for him if he continues to show that he deserves it.
3. 2B/OF Ian Happ
How do you find yourself on the rising stock list with a 24.0% K%? Make sure to have a .313/.427/.550 line fueled by great power (.238 ISO), a tremendous walk rate (15.6%), and some nice game speed too (three steals in three attempts). Happ had all of 67 games of professional experience entering this season, so big-time production at High-A so quickly may very well have Happ on something of a modified Schwarber plan. Maybe there's only a five percent chance of Happ reaching the Majors this year, but that's about five percent higher than I would have expected two months ago.
4. OF Eloy Jimenez
The jump to full-season ball can be really tough on a prospect and all that much tougher on a 19-year-old Dominican prospect. Jimenez's alarming 28.1% K% should keep him off this list, but a .284/.326/.420 line is to impressive to ignore. Jimenez isn't perfect, but at 19, perfection isn't needed. This is encouraging.
5. CF Donnie Dewees
Dewees is 22, so success in the Midwest League isn't as impressive as it is for Jimenez. Dewees has employed his game-changing speed to produce a .345/.394/.583 line, including six triples in just 21 games. Despite climbing a level, Dewees has improved his walk rate, cut his strikeout rate, doubled his power, and kicked his batting average way up. What more do you want?
6. 2B Chesny Young
Young is 23, a former 14th round pick, and might weight 180 pounds holding a barbell. He hasn't been on my prospect radar at all despite hitting at least .315 at every level.
If you want to get my attention with no power, you'll have to knock my socks off. Chesny, my socks are gone. .402/.505/.524 with 11 stolen bases and a walk rate (16.2%) that is more than twice as high as his strikeout rate (7.1%). Young is at Double-A. This is no low minors illusion. Further, in his prior year and a half in the minors, Young hit only a single home run. This April? Two.
I'm on notice.
7. 1B Dan Vogelbach
Big Dan's prospect star has dimmed considerably after years of middling game power production even though he continually posts exceptional on-base percentages. His power still isn't playing at an impact level. So why is he on this list? The jump between Double-A and Triple-A is plenty significant, and Vogelbach has continued to show elite on-base skills. His Double-A line.(272/.403/.425) was strong, but his April line of .354/.447/.523 is astoundingly great, including an uptick in power. His 30.3% K% is out of character and truly alarming, but the other aspects of his game look great.
8. RP Felix Pena
It's rare to put a reliever on this kind of list, especially a reliever who lost a minor league starting job in the last year. So how did Pena pitch his way onto this list? Over six appearances spanning 11 innings, Pena surrendered just four hits, issued two walks, and struck out 16 batters. Although his BABIP figures to climb over the course of the season, exceptional walk and strikeout rates can always carry guys with big fastballs. Pena is on my radar, even at 26.
9. OF Bijan Rademacher
I've never been high on Rademacher despite some consistently solid numbers. But April? 15 walks versus 11 strikeouts and .351/.493/.614 batting line which included four long balls is eye popping, especially after Rademacher hit just four homers all year in 2015. He still has an uphill battle, but at least there's some type of possibility now.
10. SP Ryan Kellogg
Kellogg is a 22-year-old pitching in the Midwest League, so he should be able to produce strong numbers. Still, he deserves credit for actually producing: over 21.1 innings, he allowed 18 hits and four walks while striking out 18. A 6-6 lefty with those numbers will always be on the radar.
1. SS Gleyber Torres
Torres was the choice of most prospect experts as the Cubs top prospect this winter (I'm partial to Dylan Cease because I love upside and I worry about Torres's ceiling given the lack of power in his game, but that's a question for another day), so big things were expected of him in the Carolina League. Unfortunately, Torres's April was a minimally-mitigated disaster. His .179/.289/.308 batting line was horrendous and his strikeout rate kicked up over 25%, a crushing number for an on-base machine. At least Torres had a 12.2% BB% in April. We'll see how he responds to his first struggles as a professional.
2. OF Billy McKinney
I wrote about McKinney back in January, arguing that he needs to find some power this year if he wants to keep his prospect status intact. Instead, McKinney's first month of repeating Double-A featured a mortifying .206/.289/.235 line with no power whatsoever, a cratered batting average, and a 23.7% K% that was far worse than his 15.3% rate at Tennessee last year. He could fall off of a cliff quickly.
3. 3B Jeimer Candelario
After a red-hot spring, Candelario seemed prime for a big year at Double-A. His .203/.347/.342 shows that his power took a slight dip, his walk rate remained fantastic, and he missed out on a bunch of singles. Unfortunately his May has been dreadful thus far, so it seems as though he'll need a big turnaround.
4. OF Eddy Julio Martinez
I was ecstatic when the Cubs signed EJM, recognizing that he may need an adjustment phase while hoping that his raw skills would lead to quick production. Turns out the adjustment phase is needed as Martinez's .235/.270/.353 line showed the need for improvements. His May has been very strung through one week, so it's possible that some adjustments have already been made.
5. SP Justin Steele
Steele's early professional returns were strong, but his opening month in the Midwest League was a complete disaster. Over 12.1 innings in four starts, Steele allowed 24 hits and eight walks, though he did have 13 strikeouts. Regardless, allowing 21 runs in 12.1 innings is alarmingly poor (even if "only" 13 were earned). It was a discouraging month.
6. SP Rob Zastryzny
Zastryzny hasn't done much to acquit himself after being selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, and over 29 April innings, he allowed 29 hits and 10 walks with 22 strikeouts. While those numbers aren't terrible, they're not impressive either. Given that Zastryzny is repeating Double-A at 24, it's time to make a move if he has a shot at a Major League career.
7. OF Jeffrey Baez
The "other" Baez has played well at every level thus far, save for a terrible cameo at Myrtle Beach last year. Sadly, that terrible production has carried over into 2016 as his .224/.272/.289 April is as bad as it gets. He has no wiggle room as a 22-year-old in A ball, so hopefully he turns it around.
On the whole, April was a solid month for Cubs prospects with Contreras and Almora in particular grabbing the attention of prospect watchers. Here's hoping that May will have even more encouraging signals for the group of prospects in the system.