The Cubs run to the World Series title in 2016 did not start in 2016 or even in Chicago. The foundations of the championship run came on the diamonds of Des Moines, Tennessee and Myrtle Beach. They even came on the fields of Daytona, Peoria, Kane County and Boise, teams no longer affiliated with the Cubs. It came in the training complex in Mesa and especially through the work of the dozens of scouts (79 at last count) who crisscrossed the country trying to find the next superstar, or even just the next role player. While the major league team went through the dark ages of 2012-14, those were the crucial years down on the farm.
The challenge for the Cubs today is to continue to supply the major leagues with a fresh supply of talent despite no longer having the low-number draft picks that came with a bad ballclub. And while the talent-level in the minors is certainly down from the lofty heights of 2014-15, this is still a good system.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the talent level is down this year over last. Of last year’s Top 20 prospects, five are no longer eligible, either because they’re in the majors or they got traded. (Miss you, Gleyber!) But that’s a good reason to have your farm system go down.
On the field, however, it was a very successful season for the Cubs, who beyond winning the World Series, were named Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. In their article announcing the Cubs winning that award for the first time in its 35-year history, BA wrote:
What was built was something to last, something that Cubs fans could hold onto and love and devote themselves to without fear of disappointment for the long-term, an incredibly rare occurrence in the franchise’s sordid history.
Not only did the Cubs win the World Series, but Myrtle Beach won their second Carolina League title in two years in the Cubs organization and Eugene won their first Northwest League title since 1975. South Bend and the Arizona Rookie Ball team also made the postseason.
Over this week, I’m going to count down the top 20 prospects in the Cubs system. Today, I’m going to look at the "honorable mentions" of players who didn’t make the top 20 but whom I wanted to mention anyway. You should not consider these players to be prospects number 21 through 25, although all five of them would be in my top 30.
Clicking on the player names will take you to their milb.com profile.
Zach Hedges, RHP. 6’4", 210. B:R, T:R. DOB: 10/21/1994. Drafted 26th Round, 2014, Azusa Pacific.
Hedges dominated the Carolina League last year over 16 starts, going 7-8 with a 2.89 ERA over 96 2⁄3 innings. He used his sinker and his three-quarters arm slot to throw strikes and get ground balls. That got him promoted to Tennessee in July where he was even better over eight starts, going 3-3 with a 2.47 ERA. He doesn’t get a lot of swings and misses, although he did strike out a respectable 95 batters over 144 innings between High-A and Double-A. What’s most impressive is that he only walked 27 batters last season. There will always be room in the majors for a pitcher who gets ground balls and doesn’t walk people.
Although Hedges has the size and stamina to start, I do think his stuff would play better as a reliever. I think major league hitters would have more success off of his sinker seeing it a second and a third time, but he could be very valuable coming into a game in the sixth inning when the manager needs a double play. He’s definitely someone to watch to 2017 and the Cubs deserve a lot of credit for finding a talent like Hedges in the 26th round out of Azusa Pacific.
Here’s a story from the Leadoff Man this past season on Hedges. He’s apparently pretty handy in the kitchen as well, which is actually more important than you might think, considering how poorly some minor leaguers eat.
Projected 2017 Team: Tennessee Smokies to start.
Ryan McNeil, RHP. 6’3", 210. B:R, T:R. DOB: 2/1/1994. Drafted 3rd Round, 2012, Nipomo HS (CA).
The Cubs selected McNeil in the third round out of high school as a big, projectable right-handed starter with a good fastball. They planned to make him a starter, but Tommy John surgery caused him to miss all of 2013 and most of 2014. His fastball, which could touch 95 mph before surgery, now tops out at 93. This has caused him to rely more on his slider and luckily, it became more and more of a good pitch in 2016. He took over the closer duties for Myrtle Beach this year and saved 22 games in 24 opportunities.
Overall last season, McNeil struck out 61 batters and walked 21 over 54 innings. He posted a 2.33 ERA. He struggled badly in the Arizona Fall League, which meant he got left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft this year. However, it also meant that no one took him.
McNeil is definitely a reliever at this point, but he misses enough bats that he could find a spot on a major league roster one day. His brother is also a second baseman in the Mets organization who was ranked as their #27 prospect by Baseball America last year.
Here’s some video of McNeil pitching in the Arizona Fall League:
Projected 2017 Team: Tennessee Smokies
Ian Rice, C/1B. 6’0", 195. DOB: 8/19/1993. Drafted 29th Round, 2015, Houston.
Ladies and gentlemen, the next Dan Vogelbach! Actually, that comp is not fair to either Rice or Vogelbach. But despite having pretty different body types, there are a lot of similarities between Vogelbach and Rice. Although the Cubs continue to think that Rice can catch, he’s most likely destined for a 1B/DH role on a team that has no need for one of those. Also like Vogelbach, Rice can really hit. Rice destroyed the Midwest League last spring, hitting .310/.417/.587 with nine home runs in only 39 games.
That showing obviously got Rice promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach, where he wasn’t quite as dominating, but he was still solid. Although his batting average dropped to .238 in 210 at-bats in Carolina, he did draw 36 walks to get his OBP up to a very good .357. Overall, in 97 games and 336 at-bats between South Bend and Myrtle Beach, Rice hit .265/.380/.461 with 21 doubles and 15 home runs. He also makes contact better than a lot of power hitters. Although his strikeout rate did spike in High-A, it was still a solid 21.8%. With more experience, he has the ability to drop that number even further without sacrificing power.
Here’s Rice with a monster home run for Myrtle Beach last August.
Projected 2017 Team: Tennessee Smokies
Duane Underwood Jr., RHP. 6’2", 210. DOB: 7/20/1994. Drafted 2nd Round, 2012, Pope HS (GA).
Easily the most disappointing thing about the 2016 Cubs minor league season was the huge step backwards taken by Underwood. I had Underwood ranked as my 4th best prospect last season with the comment "I’m a believer." I am no longer a believer. I’m fickle that way.
Underwood got his first taste of Double-A last season and it was ugly, as he went 0-5 with a 4.91 ERA in 13 starts. Most worrying were his peripherals, in which he walked 31 batters and struck out just 46 in 58 2⁄3 innings. Then the Cubs shut him down with elbow soreness and when he returned, his fastball was 90-91 mph instead of 93-95. He briefly made national news for all the wrong reasons in the Arizona Fall when he gave up Tim Tebow’s first professional hit. The Cubs shut him down right after that game.
If you’re looking for a positive, Underwood made a pair of solid starts for the Pelicans in the Carolina League playoffs.
Underwood’s ranking is based on the hope that he finally shakes the many injuries that he’s suffered the past two seasons and returns to his 2014 form. That seems like a longshot at this point.
Here’s Underwood throwing in a rehab start in South Bend in August.
Projected 2017 Team: Myrtle Beach to start.
Ryan Williams, RHP. 6’4", 220. DOB: 11/1/1991. Drafted 10th Round, 2014, East Carolina.
Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and remind yourself that there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Williams was one of the great success stories of the Cubs system, winning the 2015 Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award after getting drafted in the tenth round for a $1,000 signing bonus as a senior out of East Carolina. Williams doesn’t throw hard, but he locates the ball well, keeps it in the park and doesn’t walk anyone. It’s a story that is pretty familiar to Cubs fans after watching the rise of Kyle Hendricks. After a successful start to the year in Iowa, Williams looked like a sure bet for a major league call-up as a fill-in starter when needed.
Then Williams got knocked out for the season with a shoulder injury. For all the talk about elbow injuries and Tommy John surgery, it’s shoulder injuries that are really scary for pitchers. If Williams were healthy, I’d probably be looking to see if I could squeeze him into the Top Ten.
As it is, Williams ends up here. The good news is that as far as I’ve heard, Williams hasn’t needed surgery, just rest and rehabilitation. If he can return to his 2015 form in 2017, that could be a big boost to the Cubs major league pitching depth.
Here’s Williams pitching in Iowa before the injury:
Projected 2017 team: Iowa Cubs (I hope)
Tomorrow: Prospects 16 through 20.