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2018 Cubs top 20 prospects countdown: System overview

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We start our look at the Cubs minor league system with some players I like outside the top 20.

Dakota Mekkes
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Welcome to my annual list of the Cubs top 20 prospects. Each day this week I’ll list five of my top 20 prospects, counting down to number one. Today starts with a system overview and a write-up of some prospects who didn’t make the top 20, but whom I wanted to write about anyway.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: The Cubs farm system is bad at the moment. The good news is that it’s bad for all the right reasons. In recent seasons, the Cubs drafted (or signed internationally) and developed system Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras and Ian Happ. The Cubs traded for, and developed in their minor league system, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. They traded away Jorge Soler, Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez for major league help. Honestly, if Torres and Jimenez were still in the Cubs system, it would be a top ten system instead of a bottom-five one. But they’re not, and you can make the case that the Cubs farm system is in its worst shape in over a decade.

But would you rather have the best farm system in baseball, like the Cubs did in 2015, or win the Cubs first World Series title in 108 years? I thought so.

When Theo Epstein broke the Red Sox title drought in 2004, he was able to keep the farm system producing at a top rate through the rest of his time there by manipulating the rules to Boston’s advantage. Unfortunately, many other MLB owners (see Reinsdorf, Jerry) got tired of smart front offices staying good through amassing draft picks and smart international signings. So MLB made it much more difficult for a consistent winning team to maintain a strong farm system, which is what Theo and co. are fighting against now.

That’s not to stay the cupboard is bare. My top two Cubs prospects are borderline MLB Top-100 prospects. There are several players who could contribute in the major leagues in 2018. But there is no one on this list who doesn’t have a big flashing question mark over his head. To be clear, almost every minor leaguer has a question mark around him, but these are big neon signs that flash red and have sirens. They might have injury issues. For pitchers, they may have trouble throwing strikes. For position players, they maybe haven’t proven a consistent ability to hit or they don’t have a real position. Or maybe they do everything right but their upside is low. I can name a lot of players on this list and declare “that guy is going to be a major leaguer” with a fair amount of certainty. There is no one on this list that I can say “that player will be a star” and not feel like I’m deceiving you. Now that’s not to say that someone on this list won’t be a star. I was looking over some old Cubs prospect lists and thought to myself “Who would have predicted that Josh Donaldson or DJ LeMahieu would be stars?” Just three years ago, I would have predicted that Contreras would be a decent major league backup. Now some people are saying he’s second to Buster Posey as the best catcher in the National League.

One area of concern is that the Cubs have been very poor at developing pitching since the hiring of Theo Epstein. Some of that, of course, has been by design. The Cubs have used all of their top draft picks during their captivity in the basement of the standings on hitters. It was a calculated risk and I don’t think many can argue with the results. But the plan all along was that at least some of the pitchers taken in the later rounds of the draft (or signed internationally for lower bonuses) would turn out, not to be stars, but at least productive major leaguers. That hasn’t happened. In fact, the Cubs have been the worst team in baseball at producing pitching out of their farm system over the past five years. The one star the Cubs have produced is Hendricks, and he came over from the Rangers where he had already reached High-A Myrtle Beach. (They were a Rangers affiliate back then!) The Cubs realize that this is a problem and have made several new hires, including new special assistant to the president Jim Benedict, who receives a lot of credit for having developed pitchers in the Pirates system. The Cubs also spent both of their two first-round picks on college pitchers last year.

I will say that seven of my top ten Cubs prospects this year are pitchers. So while all of them have some warts, so to speak, there is some help coming. Some of those pitchers could be contributing in the majors in 2018.

My rankings are based on what I’ve seen watching the players, either in person or (mostly) on video along with what I’ve read about the players elsewhere. But the list is my own and all problems with it are my fault.

Before I start the countdown tomorrow, I wanted to give some background on some players who didn’t make the top 20. These five prospects would all be in my Top 30, but not necessarily numbers 21 to 25. I present them in no particular order other than the order they popped into my head.

Justin Steele. LHP. B:L/T:L. 6’2”, 195. DOB: 7/11/95. Drafted 5th Round, 2014, George County HS (MS).

Steele was supposed to be one of those players taken after the first round of the draft who provide the pitching depth that the Cubs need. He may still end up there, but it’s not going to be in 2018 as he’s likely going to miss the whole season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in early August.

It’s too bad, because Steele was having a breakout season in 2017 after a fairly miserable 2016. His biggest improvement this past year was in cutting his walk rate. From interviews with him, it just seems like he trusted his stuff more and worried less about throwing the perfect pitch. He finished 2017 with a 6-7 record and a 2.92 ERA over 98⅔ innings in 20 starts. He struck out 82 and walked 36.

When healthy, Steele can hit the mid-90s on his fastball, although he normally works a bit slower than that. His curve is good but he needs to work on his changeup if he wants to stay a starting pitcher. He’d definitely be in my top 20 if he hadn’t gotten hurt. Let’s hope he comes back in 2019 and picks up where he left off last season.

Here’s a video on Steele that was made for the WGN Leadoff Man last summer before Steele got hurt. You can see his whip-like over-the-top delivery that is a little unorthodox.

And here’s Steele talking about beginning to throw again:

Dakota Mekkes. RHP. B:R/T:R. 6’7”. 252. DOB: 11/6/94. Drafted 10th Round, 2016. Michigan State.

Mekkes is one of the weirdest pitchers around. He’s a big guy, but he has a funky sidearm delivery that doesn’t really take advantage of his height, at least not in the normal way. His fastball normally sits in the pretty average 90-92 range (and that’s below average for a reliever these days) but he gets a lot of swings and misses because of his deceptive delivery and that he releases the ball farther forward than other pitchers, giving him a higher effective velocity.

At times in 2017, Mekkes was practically unhittable. After being promoted to Myrtle Beach in early June, he did not give up a run in High-A until August 1. His final line between low-A South Bend and High-A Myrtle Beach was 8-2 with a 0.98 ERA. He made 42 relief appearances and threw 73⅓ innings. Mekkes struck out 92 batters and gave up just 39 hits. He did walk 34 batters and he will likely need to improve his control if he is going to have a career in a major league bullpen. But Mekkes could end up as a middle reliever who can throw multiple innings and mess up hitters with that odd delivery.

I couldn’t find a really good video of Mekkes pitching, but you can see him throw one pitch for a game-ending strikeout in this video at the 1:20 mark.

Jeremiah Estrada. RHP. B:S/T:R. 6’1”, 185. DOB: 11/1/98. Drafted 6th Round, 2017. Palm Desert HS (CA).

Estrada is a player I’ve never seen pitch, except in pre-draft YouTube videos, so I’m hoping he sees Eugene this summer so I can get a better read on him. Estrada was someone who had a chance to go in the top three of rounds in the draft coming into 2017, but he took a comebacker off his pitching arm in high school and his velocity and off-speed pitches weren’t the same when he returned. Still, the Cubs thought enough of his chances to bounce back to grab him in the sixth round and offer him a well above-slot $1 million bonus.

Before Estrada got hurt, he threw 90-94 with a terrific changeup for someone in high school. He also has a slider and a curve. I also think he’s got some projection in him so if he stays healthy (no sure thing) he could add a little velocity as he ages.

Estrada only threw 6⅓ innings in Mesa and he struck out six and he walked six. He only allowed one run. But those numbers are pretty meaningless, so ignore them. His velocity was clocked at 96 mph in a short outing in Arizona, so maybe he’s back to where he once was.

Estrada comes with all the standard caveats of young arms, but there is some real upside here. It would be nice to see the Cubs tap into that sometime soon.

Here’s some video of Estrada pitching in a showcase in high school.

Austin Upshaw. INF. B:L/T:R. 6’0”, 175. DOB: 7/28/96. Drafted 13th round (2017), Kennesaw State.

Upshaw is another one of those versatile infielders who can hit that tend to populate the Cubs farm system, like Chesny Young or Stephen Bruno. One thing I like about Upshaw is that I think he has the chance to have a little more power than those two, who are stalled out in Triple-A Iowa at the moment.

Upshaw’s Cubs career didn’t get off to a good start. Even though he signed immediately and the Cubs wanted to send him to Eugene, they couldn’t because he didn’t have a passport and the Ems had to play up in Vancouver. So the Cubs sent him to South Bend instead and instead of sinking after skipping a level, Upshaw thrived by hitting .290/.339/.381 in 52 games in the Midwest League. He split his time in the field between first, second and third base.

Yes, the upside is low and in a different year, Upshaw wouldn’t sniff the top 30. Even here, I’m stretching it a bit. But that was an impressive debut for someone in the Midwest League and I’m a sucker for players with a solid hit tool who have a glove for every occasion. But if he repeats that line in the tough-to-hit-in Carolina League this year, then maybe the Cubs might have something here. If he doesn’t, then he’ll fade into the ranks of organizational filler that we thought he was when he drafted. In any case, he’ll be fun to watch.

Here’s some video of Upshaw hitting a three-run home run. I like the compact swing and I especially liked the way the ball carried on this at-bat.

Bryan Hudson. LHP. B:L/T:L. 6’8”, 200. DOB: 5/8/97. Drafted 3rd round (2015), Alton HS (IL)

I swear I have never seen Hudson have a good outing. Hudson’s big frame means he has trouble getting a consistent delivery and that means both his fastball and potentially-plus curveball will drift out of the zone. But I’ve got to be Hudson’s secret kryptonite. When I saw him in person, he was all over the place. Whenever I checked in on him on the internet broadcasts last season, he was bad. Then he would turn in several good results and I’d think to myself “I’d better see if Hudson has figured things out and watch” and he’d turn in another stinker. I’m convinced that if I never watched Hudson, he’d be a top 20 prospect in all of baseball.

All kidding aside, Hudson’s biggest problem is control and consistency. But he did make some real strides in that area in 2017. Over 24 starts in South Bend, Hudson threw 124⅓ innings and posted a line of 9-3 with a 3.91 ERA. That kind of durability in a young pitcher impresses me. He did only fan 81 batters, but his big curve is more designed to get ground balls than strikeouts, and he did put up a good ground ball ratio. He did walk 52 batters, which is poor but a big improvement over 2016.

The bottom line on Hudson is that durable left-handed starters who are 6’8” don’t grow on trees. They couldn’t as their feet would scrape against the ground. But there is still a lot of upside here with Hudson, even if the likelihood of him reaching it is small. He’s still a guy to keep on eye on this season.

Here’s Bryan Hudson with a strikeout in a really good game.

Tomorrow: Prospects 20 through 16.