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2017 Cubs Top 20 Prospect Countdown: 15 to 11

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Day 3 of the countdown has the top catching prospects in the system and a personal favorite of mine.

Donnie Dewees Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Today’s installment of our prospect countdown has a pair of catchers and one of my personal favorite prospects.

If you want to catch up on the previous two installments, you can find them in this StoryStream. Also, clicking on the player’s name will take you to their milb.com page.

15. Victor Caratini, C. B:S, T:R. 6’1”, 215. DOB: 8/17/1993. Trade with Braves, 2014.

Caratini was born 30 years too late. In the eighties, a guy with his skill set would have been in great demand. He can catch, play some backup first base and pinch-hit. That he’s a switch-hitter would make him useful in the many platoon arrangements of that era. Earl Weaver would have loved him.

Unfortunately for Caratini, he’s a product of the teens, where his limited power cuts into his desirability as a backup first baseman. While he’s not a bad catcher, his limited defensive skills are not ideal in an era where catcher is primarily a defensive position. Plus in this era of big bullpens and short benches, no one pinch-hits much with a backup catcher for fear they’ll need them later in the game due to an injury. Even as a switch-hitter, he’s better batting right-handed than left. At least his ability to draw walks and get on base is more appreciated these days than back then.

But all is not lost for Caratini. While his defense is subpar, it’s still a lot better than it was when he came to the Cubs in a trade for James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio in 2014 as a converted third baseman. Caratini’s arm is still below average and he only threw out 26% of baserunners last season. At only 23, he’s still young enough to continue to make improvements behind the plate. It takes a while for most players to learn to catch. If it were easy, everyone would do it. (No, they wouldn’t. They don’t call them “the tools of ignorance” for nothing.)

On top of that, Caratini can get on base. Last season in Tennessee, he hit .291/.375/.405 with six home runs and 25 doubles in 480 plate appearances. He walked 54 times and struck out only 80. The on-base numbers are very good and while only hitting six home runs is disappointing, the 25 doubles indicate to me that he’s not that far away from growing into at least average power.

Caratini potentially could end up as a backup for Willson Contreras as soon as 2018. The Cubs added him to the 40-man roster this winter, so he’s likely to see his major league debut this season as soon as there is an injury to a catcher. He could also be trade bait if another team can be more patient (and optimistic) than the Cubs with waiting for his glove to develop.

Here’s some video of Caratini taking some at-bats in the Arizona Fall League this past October. Most of them are left-handed, but he does bat right-handed near the end of the video.

Projected 2017 Team: Iowa

14. Chesny Young, 2B. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 170. DOB: 10/6/1992. Drafted 14th round, 2014, Mercer University.

Man, do I irrationally love Chesny Young. Except for going 1 for 6 in his first two professional games in rookie ball, Young has hit .300 at every level in his three years in the minors. He won the Carolina League batting title in 2015 when he hit .321 (the only hitter in that league to hit .300 that year) and only lost out on the Southern League batting title in 2016 on a technicality. Young’s .303 was the highest average among those who qualified, but Braves prospect Ozzie Albies still lead Young when they added in enough at-bats for him to qualify.

So Young can hit. He can also get on base, as his .376 OBP last season indicates. Young walked 57 times and struck out just 64 in 553 plate appearances last year, so he does have a pretty good command of the strike zone. The one thing that Young lacks is power. He did hit four home runs last season, which increased his career total to five. He’s never going to be a power hitter, but the hope is that he turns some of those singles into doubles in the future.

Young runs well and he stole 16 bases this past summer, albeit in 30 attempts. He probably just needs to learn to read pitchers and pick his spots better.

Young is a good defensive second baseman, but unfortunately, he’s a bit stretched at shortstop. Otherwise, he’d be the ideal utility player. The Cubs seem to be turning him into a super-sub player. He played all four infield positions and left field last season and he has played right field in 2015. I’ve seen Young compared to Tommy La Stella, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Young take over La Stella’s role on the Cubs this season or next.

Here’s a piece from the Leadoff Man on Young. It’s from 2015, but he was the same player in 2016 that he was in 2015. He just did it at a higher level.

Projected 2017 Team: Iowa

13. P.J. Higgins, C. B:R, T:R. 5’10”, 185. DOB: 5/10/1993. Drafted 12th Round, 2015, Old Dominion.

Unlike Caratini, Higgins was born right on time to be a catcher. Catching has become a defense-first position over the last few years, with game-management skills figuring into the equation as well. Higgins also happens to be the best defensive catcher in the Cubs system at the moment. He’s still learning the position, but he is athletic, has a strong arm and demonstrated a real feel for catching, especially later in the season. Higgins is not a finished product, but everything indicates that he should soon be a very good defensive catcher.

On top of that, Higgins shows that command of the plate that the Cubs scouts are looking for so much these days. Last season in South Bend, Higgins hit .283/.389/.355 with 72 walks to 75 strikeouts over 537 plate appearances. He finds a way to get on base and even runs well for a catcher, so he can bat high up in the order without “clogging the bases,” so to speak.

What Higgins doesn’t have, and what keeps him from being an elite prospect, is power. He did have 30 doubles last season, but the zero home runs he hit kept his slugging percentage pretty low. In fact, he hasn’t hit a home run since leaving rookie ball for Eugene in 2015.

The lack of power may mean that Higgins is destined to be a backup catcher, but assuming his glove develops as expected, he’ll have a long career in the majors. More and more teams are emphasizing defense behind the plate and Higgins should be able to deliver there. I can see a lot of pitchers wanting Higgins as their personal catcher one day.

Here’s a feature on the Leadoff Man from last August on Higgins.

Projected 2017 Team: Myrtle Beach

12. Donnie Dewees, OF. B:L, T:L. 5’11”, 180. DOB: 9/29/1993. Drafted 2nd Round, 2015, North Florida.

Dewees has terrific speed. I made a comment last summer that every time I look at a South Bend game, Donnie Dewees is on third base, either through a triple or stealing third. Between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year, Dewees stole 31 bases in 36 attempts and hit 14 triples. He hit 12 of those triples in the Midwest League, which led the league by four triples, despite being promoted to Myrtle Beach in late July.

Dewees is mostly a contact hitter who can spray the ball to all fields, although he did manage 5 home runs. (I know at least one of those was inside-the-park.) Dewees is a threat to go to third every time the ball goes into the gap. He’s also working on his bunting this winter to better take advantage of his speed.

Overall between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year, Dewees hit .284/.338/.416. He only walked 39 times (compared to 87 strikeouts) in 577 at-bats last season, and he’s going to have to learn to draw more walks if he wants to be a starting outfielder in the major leagues. He also has a weak arm. While he covers enough ground to be a center fielder, his arm may limit him to left. If so, he really doesn’t have the power or on-base skills you want at that position. Maybe he becomes a starting center fielder with good on-base skills, good range and you live with the arm. Or he could become the next Tony Campana. His 2017 season will go a long way to determine what his future is.

Here’s a nice feature on Dewees from last May that includes some comments from Cubs vice-president Jason McLeod. You can see his swing that is more designed to slap the ball to all fields rather than drive the ball. Dewees also shows some good range in center field in these highlights.

Projected 2017 Team: Myrtle Beach

11. Rob Zastryzny, LHP. B:R, T:L. 6’3”, 205. DOB: 3/26/1992. Drafted 2nd Round, 2013, Missouri.

Zastryzny fell off the prospect radar screen with a terrible 2015 season, due in part to a broken ankle. But he bounced back with a strong 2016 and ended up in the majors in August. He even made the NLCS postseason roster, even if he didn’t actually make it into a playoff game.

Zastryzny is what he is — a soft-tossing left-hander who gets outs with locating pitches and changing speeds. Once he got to the majors, pitching coach Chris Bosio encouraged him to throw his cutter more and it paid off. Zastryzny allowed only three runs, two earned, in 16 innings over eight appearances down the stretch including one late-season start. Small sample size to be sure, but the fact that he struck out 17 and walked five in the majors last year was encouraging.

In the minors last year, Zastryzny was almost exclusively a starter, spending half a season in Tennessee and half the season in Iowa. His overall minor-league numbers don’t impress that much, as he was 10-5 with a 4.31 ERA. But the Pacific Coast League is a good hitters league, and Zastryzny, in my opinion, pitched much better than his ERA would indicate. For one, in 81 innings in the PCL, Zastryzny struck out 77 and walked 31. I was in attendance in Zastryzny’s final minor league start and he pitched much better than the five runs in five innings would indicate. For one, he gave up two home runs in that game and the ball was really carrying at Chukchansi Park in Fresno that night. But most impressively, he kept the Grizzlies hitters guessing as he fanned 9 and walked just one in five innings of work.

Zastryzny showed that he has the stamina to be a back-end major league starter, but the Cubs are more likely to use him out as a left-hander out of the bullpen and a spot starter. A lot like Travis Wood, and I suspect the Cubs failure (so far) to re-sign Wood has a lot to do with them feeling that Zastryzny can do the same job, only cheaper. (He can’t hit or play left field like Wood though.) Even if the Cubs do end up bringing in another pitcher before Spring Training, I think they intend to break camp with Zastryzny on the roster.

You’re probably familiar with Zastryzny, but here’s some highlights from his 3⅔ innings of scoreless relief at Dodger Stadium last August.

Projected 2017 Team: Chicago

Tomorrow: Prospects 10 through 6.