The Cubs system isn’t quite as deep as it was a few years ago, but the bottom half of the top ten still has some talent, some with upside and others with the chance to make an immediate impact, either in Chicago or through trades.
As a reminder, these lists are mine and all mistakes are my fault.
10. D.J. Wilson, CF. B:L, T:L. 5’8”, 177. DOB: 10/8/1996. Drafted 4th Round, 2015, Canton South HS (OH).
I finally got to see Wilson play in person this past summer and I was disappointed. As it turns out, I saw him at the wrong time.
Wilson got off to a terrible start in Eugene, hitting 12 for 76 to start the season. When I saw him, his swing looked a mess and the “quick hands” that I had read about were moving through the zone with no discernable purpose. But I’ve read that after that terrible start he went to his coaches and asked what he could do differently. They flattened out his swing and he started scorching the ball for line drives the rest of the year. While his season total batting line of .257/.320/.371 doesn’t look like the numbers of a top ten prospect, his second-half figures were .313/.338/.453. That’s more like what I was expecting to see out of Wilson when I went to see the Emeralds play in early July. Also, like pretty much all of the Emeralds hitters, his final numbers were deflated by PK Park, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him put up better numbers than that in South Bend this season.
Wilson is an athletic outfielder whom the Cubs gave an overslot $1.3 million bonus to get him out of a commitment to Vanderbilt. He’s also one of those little guys who leaves it all on the field and gets called a pest by opposing teams. Wilson is also pretty fast and uses that speed both on offense and defense. He has great range in center field and he stole 21 bases in just 64 games in 2016. I’ve seen him compared to both Adam Eaton and Ben Revere.
The downsides on Wilson is that he’s struggled to hit left-handers so far and you’d like to see him demonstrate a little more plate discipline if he’s going to end up as a major league leadoff hitter. His arm is just adequate for center field, although his range is good.
Did I say good range? Take a look at this jaw-dropping catch.
And here’s Wilson hitting a triple. He reaches for an outside pitch so it’s not the best look at his normal swing, but you do get a good look at his speed as he rounds the bases.
Projected 2017 Team: South Bend
9. Jose Albertos, RHP. B:R, T:R. 6’1”, 185. DOB: 11/7/1998. Int’l Free Agent, 2015, Mexico.
I hate ranking players I haven’t seen personally and I haven’t seen Albertos play, not even on an internet broadcast. This is understandable since he’s only pitched in one rookie league game. But sources I trust who have seen him pitch, including Baseball America and the excellent John Arguello over at Cubs Den, rave about this kid’s potential.
From what I’ve read about Albertos, he throws a 93 to 94 mph fastball with good command, although in his one start I’ve read he was hitting 95-96 and even touched 98. He also showed a pretty advanced changeup for a 17-year-old. Even his slider was promising. He struck out seven, walked one and allowed just one hit in four innings. After his one start, he experienced some minor forearm tightness and the Cubs took no chances, shutting him down for the season. I’ve read that a concern of the Cubs is that Albertos’ stuff is too good for his body, and that he’ll need to “grow into” his velocity, so to speak, in order to avoid injury. Because of that, Albertos will be babied through the Cubs system. Since he just turned 18, there is plenty of time on him.
Albertos was the prize of the Cubs international signings in 2015, signing for $1.5 million out of Tijuana, Mexico. I hope he makes it to Eugene next summer so I can see him on video, but I suspect that the Cubs will keep him in Arizona in order to limit his work.
I’m sorry I couldn’t find any video of Albertos pitching. The best I could do is this piece from Tijuana television on him when he was 15. But it’s all in Spanish and he doesn’t actually pitch.
Projected 2017 Team: AZL Cubs, to start. Hopefully Eugene by season’s end.
8. Trevor Clifton, RHP. B:R, T:R. 6’1”, 170. DOB: 5/21/1995. Drafted 12th round, 2013, Heritage HS (TN).
First off, don’t believe those height and weight numbers. That’s what is listed, but Baseball America notes that he’s closer to 6’4”, 220 and I’d agree with that from what I’ve seen. He’s an intimidating presence on the mound, even with just slightly above-average velocity. Clifton throw 92-93 mph and is known to touch 95, but his size and aggressiveness allows him to get the most out of that. He’s also got a curve and and changeup that project out to be at least average on the major league level.
Clifton was both the Carolina League and the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2016. (He also got his number retired by his high school.) He made 23 starts for Myrtle Beach last year and went 7-7 with a 2.72 ERA, which led the league by a wide margin. He struck out 129 batters in 119 innings and kept opposing hitters to a .225 batting average. Even better, he used his changeup effectively to keep left-handers to a .205 batting average. Much of his stellar season was the result of his improved control, as he walked just 41 batters, a career-low BB/9 ratio for him.
Clifton’s upside is a major league workhorse, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He may not ever be an ace, but he’s going to eat innings and get enough weak contact and strikeouts to keep his team in the game. He is a bit of a flyball pitcher, which isn’t ideal for Wrigley Field. He’s an easy guy to cheer for and even his floor is probably a major league reliever.
Clifton has improved every season in the minors and while I don’t expect it, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the majors this season.
Here’s Clifton getting a strikeout on a left-handed batter.
Projected 2017 Team: Tennessee, which has got to excite his family since it’s 45 minutes from home.
7. Jeimer Candelario, 3B. B:S, T:R. 6’1”, 210. DOB: 11/24/1993. Int’l Free Agent, 2010, Dominican Republic.
It seems we’ve been talking about Candelario forever, yet he’s still only 23. Candy finally made his major-league debut this past summer and while it didn’t go all that well (1 for 11 with two walks), he did have a career-best minor league season after being promoted to Triple-A Iowa.
Candelario started 2016 out in Tennessee and it superficially looked like a step backwards as he only hit .219 with four home runs in 56 games. But he increased his walk percentage to a career-best and that gave him a .325 on-base percentage. Plus, he was hitting into bad luck as his BABIP was .261, far below his career norms.
Promoted to Iowa in June, Candelario put up the best numbers of his career. He hit .333/.417/.542 with 22 doubles, three triples and nine home runs in just 76 games. He also hit .326/.414/.535 batting left-handed, which was an area he needed to improve on as a switch-hitter. Candelario can drive the ball to all fields and he’s at his best when he’s not trying to do too much at the plate. He’s strong enough that he can hit home runs with his line-drive stroke.
His defense is a bit controversial, with some observers thinking he’s adequate at third base and others saying he needs to move off the position. Personally, I think Candelario’s range is a bit limited, but he makes the plays he gets to and he has a strong arm that turns some slow rollers or bunts into outs.
But his defense at third is irrelevant to the Cubs because he’s not playing there. He’s not playing first base either. Nor is left field really an option. We all know Candelario is blocked in Chicago and the Cubs are going to have to find a different team for him. He could see time in Chicago this summer if Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo gets injured, but otherwise, he’s going to be playing in Iowa until the trade deadline. At least he got to make his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform.
Here’s Candelario hitting a home run for Iowa. That’s a nice swing from the left side. Good speed through the zone and just a little bit of lift to it.
6. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP. T:R, B:R. 6’4”, 200. DOB: 3/4/1995. Int’l Free Agent, 2012, Dominican Republic.
De La Cruz is another guy whom you can throw out the listed height and weight for, meaning he’s really huge. De La Cruz was an amateur infielder in the Dominican Republic that the Cubs spent two years converting to the mound. After his breakout season with Eugene in 2015, De La Cruz missed the entire first half of the minor league season with a tender forearm.
De La Cruz made his season debut in July and after one rehab start in Arizona and two in Eugene, he moved up to South Bend where he made six starts. He went 1-2 with a 3.25 ERA in 27⅔ innings. De La Cruz struck out 35 and walked just eight. On August 11, he struck out six and walked only one over five no-hit innings against Dayton before exiting.
De La Cruz has been known to hit 97 mph on the radar gun, although he mostly sits 94-95. His size allows him to get good downward movement on the pitch that makes his fastball even harder to hit. He’s also got a hard curve that projects to be a plus pitch and a changeup that needs work, but is promising. He’s only been pitching for four years, so there is still a lot of unrealized potential in his huge frame.
You can make a strong argument that De La Cruz has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Cubs system. His size along with two and potentially three plus pitches means his upside is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The thing that holds him back is questions about his health and the fact that he’s yet to pitch an entire season. He’s never thrown more than 75 innings in a season yet.
De La Cruz is still only 21 and is a long-term project. He’ll likely start the season in either South Bend or Myrtle Beach and the Cubs will try to get him to throw something closer to an entire season. But they won’t push him. Don’t expect to see him in Wrigley Field for a while.
Here’s the final out of his August 11 start. You can see the easy gas he throws with five fastballs.
Projected 2017 Team: South Bend or Myrtle Beach.
Tomorrow: The top five prospects.