Let’s be honest here: the Cubs farm system has fallen from its lofty heights in 2015. The Cubs had the best farm system in the majors two years ago and now they have a system that is almost certainly in the bottom ten. The best players on this midseason top ten prospect list would barely scrape the bottom ten of the 2015 list.
But the Cubs farm system has fallen for all the right reasons. A team builds a top farm system so that they can be the defending World Series Champions like the Cubs are. Of the Baseball America top ten Cubs prospects from 2015, five of them are currently on the Cubs and one pitched for them earlier this year but is back in Iowa. Two were traded for Aroldis Chapman and another was traded for Wade Davis. Only Duane Underwood Jr. is still in the Cubs system and pitching in the minors.
With that said, here’s my midseason update on my top 10 Cubs prospects. When I started working on this list, I said: “Eloy Jimenez is an easy number one and Dylan Cease is second. After that, things get murky.” So that’s why this list wasn’t published last week. This list is mine and whatever rankings look foolish in three years is my fault. (Heck, this list may look silly in January.) I will add, however, that the top ten is wide open right now. Someone else’s top ten could be very different and I wouldn’t disagree with it.
If you’re asking me if there is enough in this system for the Cubs to trade for a quality starting pitcher with multiple years of control like Sonny Gray, I’m going to say no. At least not without including a young major leaguer. But there is still enough talent here for a rental pitcher or a backup catcher.
1. Adbert Alzolay. Tennessee Smokies. 7-2 2.95 ERA. 90K/25BB in 91.2 IP between High-A and Double-A.
After Cease was traded, I asked myself “Which pitcher has the highest upside in the Cubs system?” The answer was Oscar De La Cruz, but he can’t stay healthy. So my second choice was Alzolay. In many way, losing Cease isn’t that big of a deal because Alzolay (and De La Cruz, if healthy) have the potential to be just as good as Cease.
Alzolay didn’t even end up in my top 30 in the preseason. But over the offseason, he worked hard to strengthen his legs and learn to use them to add about three miles per hour on his fastball. He now hits 94-96 miles per hour with good movement and touches 98 at times. He’s got a solid changeup and a slider that both give a solid different look to batters.
The other reason that Alzolay has rocketed up the list is that he’s spent a lot of time on mental skills. He used to carry one bad at-bat and he’d lose focus, leading to bad control and bad command that led to pitches that got punished. Besides just working with him to control his emotions better on the mound, the Cubs have sped up his time between pitches. This way, Alzolay no longer has time to think about anything other than the next pitch.
Alzolay may not have the ultimate upside of Cease as his ceiling is probably that of a No. 2/No. 3 starter, but he’s closer to the majors, has better control and a cleaner medical record. It would not surprise me at all if Alzolay turns out to be a better pitcher than Cease. For that reason, he’s my choice for the Cubs number one prospect at this time.
2. SS Isaac Paredes. South Bend Cubs. .266/.349/.412 7 HR 45 RBI.
Two years ago, Gleyber Torres tore up the Midwest League at age 18. Now South Bend has another successful 18-year-old shortstop.
Paredes isn’t quite the prospect that Torres is. Defensively, he lacks the quickness that you look for at shortstop, although he has the arm and the hands to be a solid defensive third baseman. He does show some power and the 23 doubles he has hit this year could be a sign of more home runs to come once he matures. Right now, he thrives on hard contact from gap-to-gap. He’s also only striking out in around 14 percent of his plate appearances. He’s could be a top 100 prospect after next season if he stays on the path he’s on currently.
3. C Victor Caratini. Chicago Cubs. .341/.382/.419 8 HR 54 RBI. (Stats are for the minor leagues only.)
Caratini was having a breakout year at the plate when he was called up. He has an aggressive approach at the plate that leads to a lot of hard contact. He already set a career high in home runs in a season before his promotion at the end of June.
I have little doubt that Caratini will be a major league hitter. I have more doubts about his defense behind the plate, which is why he doesn’t rate higher. Certainly the Cubs have some qualms about his defense and Willson Contreras has been catching a lot since Miguel Montero was released. Caratini could end up as a offense-first backup catcher, but I think the Cubs would like to trade for a different backup catcher and send Caratini back to Iowa to work on his receiving skills.
4. RHP Thomas Hatch. Myrtle Beach Pelicans. 4-7 3.49 ERA. 89K/35BB in 85IP.
The Cubs third-round pick last year was shut down with a minor elbow injury and a whole lot of college innings, so he made his professional debut this April in Myrtle Beach. It was an aggressive placement and Hatch struggled at first. But Hatch has been terrific since late-May, showing a 92-94 mph fastball with a hard slider. He’s shown good control and command with both pitches, at least since May. His ceiling is that of a No. 3 starter at the moment, but his stock is rising.
5. OF Mark Zagunis. Iowa Cubs. .275/.400/.440. 11 HR 43 RBI. (Minors only)
Zagunis didn’t get a hit in his brief callup to Wrigley earlier this season, but he did walk four times which is about par for the course for him. Zagunis has a patient approach at the plate that has been compared to Kevin Youkilis and I’ve taken to calling Zagunis the Greek Demigod of Walks. As you can see, he’s not without power either. Defensively, he’s just an average corner outfielder, although his arm is good enough to play right field. He’s obviously blocked in Chicago, so if I’m the GM of a team talking trade with Theo Epstein for a backup catcher or a reliever, I’m asking for Zagunis. If anything, he’s going to get on base.
6. LHP Brendon Little. No team.
The first of the Cubs’ two first-round draft picks slides in here. Little hasn’t pitched yet in the minor league, so nothing that I wrote here has changed. Little has a good fastball and a nasty curve. He needs to improve his command.
7. RHP Jose Albertos. Eugene Emeralds. 1-0 3.44 ERA. 14K/6BB in 18.1IP.
The 18-year-old Albertos has already set a career high for innings pitched in a season, but we’re still dealing with a tiny sample size. At least I’ve seen him pitch on video now. He’s young and he throws mid-90s. He’s got a solid changeup, which is unusual for someone so young. The Cubs are going to continue to baby him, but so far, what we’ve seen looks good.
8. 3B Jeimer Candelario. Iowa Cubs .257/.351/.494. 10 HR 44 RBI. (Minor leagues only)
It should be obvious to everyone that Candy needs a change of scenery, but his struggles at the major league level aren’t helping his stock, even if it’s in a minuscule 33 at-bats. At least he has that major league home run. Candelario is still a patient switch-hitting third baseman with solid defense and plus-average power. I don’t know what the Cubs could get for him at the trade deadline, but they need to move him to an organization that can give him at least a few months of regular playing time in the majors. He looks frustrated in Iowa to me.
9. RHP Oscar De La Cruz. Myrtle Beach Pelicans. 4-2 3.42 ERA. 42K/11BB in 47.1 IP.
As I wrote earlier, if De La Cruz were more durable, he’d be number one on this list. He throws a 93-95 mph fastball with a curve that’s just as nasty as Dylan Cease’s but with better control. He also has a better changeup that Cease. But none of that matters if he can’t stay healthy. De La Cruz hasn’t pitched since May 25 with a “tender” elbow, which sounds like Tommy John surgery just waiting to happen. I really hope I’m wrong and the Cubs say he just needs rest and rehabilitation for now.
10. 3B Jason Vosler. Tennessee Smokies. .269/.377/.482. 15 HR 63 RBI.
Vosler only hit three home runs last season, but he hit 32 doubles which was a sign that the power was close if he could just tap into it. Getting out of the pitching-friendly Carolina League undoubtedly helped, but Vosler has made some adjustments at the plate as well which has resulted in him driving the ball better. He’s also become more patient at the plate, as that career-high .377 OBP indicates. Defensively, he’s got the hands and the arm to be an above-average defensive third baseman.
Others of note: RHP Dillon Maples has resurrected his prospect status from the dead and could be pitching in Chicago this September. RHP Trevor Clifton has not lived up to lofty expectations this season, but he still has the potential to be a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater. Shortstop Aramis Ademan is showing some all-around but still raw skills in Eugene at only 18 years old. The Cubs’ other first-round pick this year, RHP Alex Lange, had his signing almost held up by a back problem, but he should be a top ten prospect once he shows he’s healthy and still has the stuff he had at LSU. Like Little, he has not pitched as a professional yet.