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2017 Cubs Top Prospect Countdown: The Top 5

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We finish our week of reports with my top five prospects in the system.

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

We have finally arrived to my top five prospects in the Cubs system. When drawing up my rankings, I felt there was a clear number one. (Gleyber Torres! Just kidding. Although Torres would be my number one if he were still in the system.) After that, there were two prospects who could be ranked second and third in either order and then a clear number four, one step behind those two. Then there was this mass of players that I ranked fifth through eleventh that I just didn’t feel there was that much difference between. I settled on this order and while I am happy with it, I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s the only way to rank them. So if you think Rob Zastryzny, whom I ranked as number 11, should be number five . . .well, I think that’s a stretch but I wouldn’t say you were wrong.

As we finish up, a quick reminder that you can find all the stories in this week’s countdown in this StoryStream. Clicking on the name of the player will take you to their milb.com page.

5. Mark Zagunis, OF. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 205. DOB: 2/5/1993. Drafted 3rd Round, 2014, Virginia Tech.

Zagunis was having the best season of his career when he got hit in the foot with a pitch in late July, breaking his toe and ending his season. But before that, Zagunis split his time between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, putting up exactly 179 at-bats and 211 plate appearances in each location. Between the two locations, he hit .288/.384/.469 with 10 home runs in 101 games. He hit for a better average and OBP in Tennessee, but had more power in the more hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

Zagunis has always had the best plate discipline in the Cubs system and he has a minor league career OBP of .401. What moved Zagunis up to number five, in my mind, is that he started to grow into some power in 2016. Ten home runs may not sound like a lot, but his season did end early and the .469 slugging percentage was a career-best. Because Zagunis is limited to being a corner outfielder, I was skeptical that he could be a major league regular with limited power. But he got more aggressive in 2016 and started to muscle some balls over the fence, without really suffering any drop in reaching base. That power could increase even more in 2017. While I doubt that he’ll even crack 30 home runs in the majors, a guy with his on-base skills who hits 20 home runs a year is a first-division regular, even as a corner outfielder.

And let’s take a moment to appreciate his on-base skills. In Baseball America’s write-up of Zagunis last week, they said that Cubs’ officials compared his plate discipline to that of Kevin Youkilis. (And they would know, wouldn’t they?) For most of Youkilis’ career, he only hit 13 to 19 home runs, and Youkilis was still a terrific offensive force. Zagunis might not ever hit .300 like Youkilis did, but he could hit .280 and if he provide 90% of the offense of Kevin Youkilis, then he’d still be a terrific ballplayer. Call him the Greek Demi-God of Walks.

It’s ironic that since we’ve talked a lot about the issues that players have converting to catcher from the outfield in this countdown that Zagunis was a college catcher who has had trouble converting to the outfield. But I don’t think that there is anything wrong with Zagunis’ defense that more reps won’t take care of. He doesn’t have the range for center field, but his arm is probably good enough for right field. That helps a lot.

Unfortunately, as you can probably guess, it doesn’t help him force his way into the Cubs starting lineup. With Jason Heyward in right and Kyle Schwarber in left, Zagunis is just as blocked as Jeimer Candelario. Unlike Candy, he’s probably not quite major-league ready since he needs more reps in the outfield, but he should make his debut in the Show sometime this season. What is yet to be determined is if Zagunis will be wearing Cubbie blue when he takes his first trot out to the outfield in a major league stadium.

Here’s a story from the Leadoff Man on Zagunis from 2015 when he was in Myrtle Beach.

And here’s him hitting a home run off of Jose De Leon in Oklahoma City. You get a good sense of his improved power in this video.

Projected 2017 Team: Iowa.

4. Dylan Cease, RHP. B:R, T:R. 6’2”, 190. DOB:12/28/1995. Drafted 6th Round, 2014, Milton HS (GA).

Cease would have been a first-round draft pick in 2014 if he hadn’t had Tommy John surgery, but the Cubs took a chance on him in the sixth round and gave him a $1.5 million bonus, which was late first-round money. So far, it’s looked like money well spent.

Cease returned to the mound in 2015 and the Cubs babied him, letting him thrown only 24 innings in Arizona. They still had him on a tight leash in 2016 as he pitched just 44⅔ innings over 12 starts. But they were 44⅔ very impressive innings. Cease went 2-0 with a 2.22 ERA in the Northwest League. He stuck out 66 batters and held opposing hitters to a .175 batting average. His only weakness was his control, and he did walk 25 batters. In his final start of the regular season, Cease struck out 10, walked no one and allowed just one hit over five scoreless innings.

Cease’s fastball sits at 95 to 97 mph and can touch higher than that. There are reports that he’s been clocked over 100 mph in Arizona. As good as his fastball is, there are some scouts who think his sharp-breaking curve will be an even better pitch one day. His changeup is something he’s just learning to throw and it’s not very good at this point. But it won’t really have to be that good if he’s throwing it off of those two other pitches.

Before you start pencilling in Cease at the head of the Cubs rotation, there are some warning signs. First would be his health. He’s already had one Tommy John surgery and young arms that throw that hard are always at risk. The time off from pitching did give the Cubs a chance to make a few alterations to his pitching mechanics that they hope will keep him healthy and improve his control. But he’s yet to throw an entire season and we don’t know how his body will stand the rigors of throwing over 100 innings a year. Heck, he’s never even thrown 50 innings in a year.

The other red flag on Cease is his control. Now control is often the last thing to come back after Tommy John surgery, so it’s not something to get too worried about yet. But he needs to learn to locate his fastball and his curve somewhere near the plate consistently if he wants to pitch deep into games.

If Cease can’t handle the rigors of starting (and there are some doubters), then he could end up as a closer. That’s not all bad, as some scouts have compared his stuff to that of Craig Kimbrel.

Cease will finally get a chance to pitch a full season this summer in South Bend. Make the drive out there to see him. If he looks anything like he does on this video, it will be worth it.

Projected 2017 Team: South Bend.

3. Ian Happ, 2B/OF. B:S, T:R. 6’0”, 205. DOB: 8/12/1994. Drafted 1st Round, 2015, Cincinnati.

There’s a lot to like about Ian Happ and if you think he should be ranked second, well, most of the other lists probably agree with you. Happ has a pretty special bat.

As a first-round college hitter should be, Happ is on a fast-track to the majors. He spent half a season in 2015 in Eugene before finishing up the year in South Bend. Last year, Happ hit .296/.410/.475 in Myrtle Beach before earning his promotion to Tennessee. He did “struggle,” relatively-speaking, in his first taste of Double-A, hitting a respectable .262/.318/.415. That’s good for anyone other than Happ. He didn’t have a particularly good Arizona Fall League campaign either, at least until the Championship Game. Happ hit .236/.375/.403 in the regular season, but he powered the Solar Sox to a title when he went 4 for 4 with a double and two home runs, one from each side of the plate. He said that was the first time in his life that he’d ever homered from both sides of the plate in one game.

As you can tell from his OBP numbers, Happ is a patient hitter who has the plate discipline that the Cubs look for. He also has a nice power/speed combination that could end up putting him in the 20/20 club one day in the majors. He hit 15 home runs last year and stole 16 bases in 21 attempts. He has a nice swing from both sides of the plate and can drive the ball to either field, right-handed or left. He is slightly better batting left-handed, which is the side you want your switch-hitters to be better at. But there isn’t a big platoon difference on Happ in any case. Happ does strike out a lot, but much of that is a result of him going deep into counts.

If there’s a downside on Happ, it’s his defense. After a year of watching him play second base, the good news is that he didn’t embarrass himself out there. But he doesn’t appear to be an asset there either. Essentially, Happ is the type of player whom you stick at second base because you want to get his bat into the lineup and you live with his defense. In that way, he reminds me a lot of Daniel Murphy, and he could end up being a kind of switch-hitting version of Murphy. I do think that Happ could end up being a better hitter, with more power and on-base skills than the pre-2016 Murphy. It would be asking a lot of Happ for him to replicate what Murphy did in 2016 though.

If Happ has to play left field, he should have a bat that can play there. Currently there’s no room for Happ at either left field or second base, but he might just be the type of player that the Cubs make room for. If not, then he’ll be attractive trade bait.

Here’s a Leadoff Man feature on Happ and (sob) Gleyber Torres from last July.

Here are both of his home runs in the AFL Championship Game as well as a nice catch in left field:

Projected 2017 Team: Tennessee, to start.

2. Albert Almora Jr. , CF. B:R, T:R. 6’2”, 190. DOB:4/16/1994. Drafted 1st Round, 2012, Mater Academy (FL)

I’m pretty sure that Almora is the first player ever to score the go-ahead run in game 7 of the World Series before he even exhausts his rookie eligibility. (checking) Yep, Edgar Renteria, Dan Gladden and Muddy Ruel were not rookies. (Although Renteria was actually younger than Almora.)

With 117 plate appearances in the majors last season, Almora comes in just shy of the 130 that are the cut-off for this list. The reason I have him ranked this highly is crystallized in that 10th inning, when he went to second base on Kris Bryant fly ball. Almora’s speed is only slightly above average, but his baseball instincts are off-the-charts. He read that ball off the bat, tagged up and made it into second easily. Without that play, we might be talking about 109 years right now. Oh, and he did that with about a third of a season of major league experience under his belt.

Almora started the season in Iowa, where he played 80 games and hit .303/.317/.416. Yes, he’s an aggressive hitter who puts the ball in play a lot and doesn’t walk or strike out much. That gives him a mediocre on-base percentage, which has been mentioned frequently around here. But he does have some power and should hit 10 to 15 home runs a year and steal 10 to 15 bases in a full season in the majors. If he can hit .280 or so, you can live with that in the lineup to get his glove on the field.

It’s a terrific glove. It’s amazing how much ground Almora can cover despite not really being fast. If you watch him long enough, you’ll see that he will start to break on the ball before the batter even makes contact. His ability to read the ball is that good. Combine that with his very good arm and Almora could easily win several gold gloves in center field. With all that we are learning about the importance of defense, that makes Almora a potential All-Star to me, whether he draws walks or not.

Almora just has “it.” Maybe he doesn’t have the best tools in the system except one. His baseball intelligence is already fantastic, and it is just going to get better as he gains experience. He is also, from all reports, just a terrific person in the clubhouse. In the minors, he took it upon himself to help Jorge Soler get acclimated to life in America. He’s equally fluent in English and Spanish and will be a clubhouse leader wherever he goes, no matter how young he is.

I’ve got a baseball crush on Almora, and I suspect most of you will too by the time the year is out. Sure, there’s going to be some groaning when he struggles at the plate in 2017, and he will have to fight through some slumps. That’s why Jon Jay is here. He’s still a rookie adjusting to major league pitching. But instead of getting mad at him, just remember that base he took in game seven. Or just remember this catch in Game 3 of the National League Division Series:

Although I suspect that catch will be somewhat forgotten after all the similar catches he makes in 2017.

Projected 2017 Team: Chicago.

Number 1: Eloy Jimenez, OF. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 205. DOB: 11/27/1996. Int’l Free Agent, 2013, Dominican Republic.

With a breakout season at only age 19 in the Midwest League, there really isn’t any question who the top prospect in the Cubs system is. Jimenez hit .329/.369/.532 with 14 home runs and a whopping 40 doubles in 464 plate appearances. He also made a trip to the Futures Game in San Diego where he homered and made a terrific catch in right field:

He was named the MVP of the Midwest League and the Cubs Minor League Player of the Year. That might not be the last time he wins that award from the Cubs.

Jimenez is a huge young man with strong wrists and the ability to hit the ball out of the park to all fields. But what makes him the top prospect is that he’s not a one-dimensional slugger, as his .329 batting average indicates. He makes a lot of hard contact and he should hit for a solid average wherever he goes. He certainly has it in him to hit .300 on the major league level one day. He’s hasn’t shown much ability to draw a walk yet, but he improved on that as the season went on. He’s intelligent and open to coaching, so I suspect that his walk totals will increase as he gains experience. Plus, a low walk total in the minors is less of a red flag when a slugger doesn’t strike out a lot, and Jimenez kept his strikeouts to 20% of his plate appearances last season. That a good total for a young slugger.

Jimenez has average speed and a decent glove. He will have to improve his throwing strength and accuracy in order to be a major league right fielder, but he should be able to handle left field without too much difficulty. One worry on Jimenez is that he’s already a big guy at 20 and the fear is that he’ll add weight as he ages and have to move to first base. Watching his conditioning will be important as he moves up the system, but there’s little indication that is going to be a problem at this time.

Jimenez’s ceiling is as big as a cathedral’s. Baseball America tossed out a Giancarlo Stanton comp and while that would be a best-case scenario, it’s not a ridiculous outcome. Because of what he’s already accomplished and what he is capable of, Eloy Jimenez is the Cubs top prospect for 2017.

Here is a really detailed look at Jimenez’s swing. Not embeddable at this point, but this guy really loves Jimenez’s swing.

Here’s a monster home run Jimenez hit at Four Winds Field against Peoria. It gives you a sense of the kind of power he has.

Projected 2017 Team: Myrtle Beach.

Thanks for reading! Let’s hope 2017 is as exciting as 2016 was!