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2018 Cubs top 20 prospects countdown: The top 5

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The top five prospects prove the Cubs farm system may be down, but it’s not out.

Adbert Alzolay
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Welcome to the final installment of my countdown of the top 20 Cubs prospects. I know I said the Cubs farm system is down (and it is), but I think after reading about these players today you’ll agree that there is still some value down on the farm.

Before introducing the final five, I want to mention some other prospects who didn’t make my list but whom I’m going to be keeping an eye on this coming summer: C Ian Rice, RHP Jake Stinnett, C PJ Higgins, LHP Jose Paulino, 3B Austin Filiere, C Miguel Amaya, RHP Javier Assad, RHP Keegan Thompson and SS Luis Vazquez.

All five of the top Cubs prospects hail from Latin America.

All the articles in this series are available in this storystream.

5. Oscar De La Cruz. RHP. B:R/T:R. 6’4”, 200. DOB: 3/4/95. International free agent (2012), Dominican Republic.

Is he ever going to stay healthy? De La Cruz has as much upside as any pitcher in the Cubs system, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him pitch. But that’s because you can’t watch him pitch because he’s always hurt.

De La Cruz was enjoying a solid start to the season in High-A Myrtle Beach. Then after his May 25 start he was shut down with a tender elbow. No surgery was required, just rest, but he didn’t return to the mound until mid-August. He was scheduled to make up the lost development time in the Arizona Fall League, but once again the Cubs had to shut him down with a “sore arm.” Overall, he made 12 starts, threw 54⅔ innings and went 4-3 with a 3.46 ERA for the Pelicans. He struck out 47 and walked just 13.

It wasn’t just 2017 either. Injuries kept De La Cruz from making more than nine starts and throwing 39 innings in 2016. He hasn’t pitched 100 innings total over the past two years combined.

But if you were fortunate enough to see De La Cruz pitch, you’d probably be impressed. He’s got a mid-90s fastball with good side-to-side movement. His curve is above-average and his change is solid with the chance the be even better than that in the future. He’s an imposing figure on the mound at 6’4”, even if the movement on his pitches is more horizontal than vertical. That’s a potential No. 2 starter if he ever manages to put together a healthy season.

The weird thing about De La Cruz’s health is that he hasn’t had any major injuries that required any significant surgeries. No Tommy John, no arthroscopic knee surgery or anything like that. His injuries have always been termed “soreness” or “tenderness” requiring rest. That sounds like a precursor to Tommy John surgery, but so far, he’s avoided the knife.

It should also be mentioned that as an amateur in the Dominican Republic, De La Cruz was an infielder. The Cubs converted him to the mound after he signed, so it’s not like there are a ton of miles on that elbow.

If De La Cruz ever does get healthy, expect the Cubs to rush him to the majors before he breaks down again.

Here’s De La Cruz finishing off a complete-game, seven-inning shutout against Lynchburg in May. It only took him 71 pitches to get the complete game. He only had one strikeout in this game, but he didn’t walk anyone either.

4. Victor Caratini. C. B:S/T:R. 6’1”, 215. DOB: 8/17/93. Trade with Braves (2014).

I have no doubt that Caratini can hit. The switch-hitting converted infielder from Puerto Rico hit a whopping .342/.393/.558 with 10 home runs, 27 doubles and three triples in 292 at-bats for Iowa last summer. He was named to the World team at the Futures Game and then got his first call-up to the majors, hitting a very respectable .254/.333/.356 in 66 plate appearance for his first crack at the big show.

Caratini can hit from both sides of the plate, although generally he has more power batting left-handed and hits for a better average from the right side. Another promising development is that Caratini’s strikeout rates have generally been decreasing each year and they hit a career low with the Iowa Cubs this season. (His K% jumped in the majors, but that’s to be expected.) His walk numbers were down this year, but he’s generally displayed good patience and since he hit .342 in the Pacific Coast League in 2017, he was probably smacking a mistake for a double before he could get four balls. His career OBP is .369, so getting on base isn’t his problem. He’s got a quick bat and he hits to all fields, so I think he can keep his batting average up in the majors if he gets regular work.

What keeps Caratini from being an elite prospect, besides just average power, is his defense. The Braves drafted him as a third baseman and converted him to catching a year later. The position does not come natural to him. Caratini works hard and I’d say he gets better at playing the position every year, but it’s slow improvement. His arm is slightly below average for a catcher. He’s good at getting in the dirt and blocking pitches, but pretty much every other aspect of his defense at the moment could be described as slightly below average. He is a solid defensive first baseman, but his bat really doesn’t play at first, except as a backup.

It’s still possible he gets better and as I said, he’s a hard worker. But unlike Willson Contreras, another converted third baseman, catching just doesn’t come naturally to Caratini. There may be a point where he just doesn’t get any better, and that day may be soon.

Front offices today are demanding strong defense from their starting catchers. That means that Caratini may be doomed to a career as a backup. But how many teams would want on their bench a switch-hitting catcher with plus on-base skills and solid power who won’t embarrass you on defense? Most of them, probably. And there’s still a chance that he either 1) gets better on defense or 2) adds power and becomes a legitimate first base prospect.

Here’s Caratini hitting a triple for the I-Cubs.

And to refresh your memory, here’s Caratini doubling to the opposite field for his first major league hit.

3. Jose Albertos. RHP. B:R/T:R. 6’1”, 185. DOB: 11/7/98. International free agent (2015), Mexico.

I finally got to see Albertos pitch in 2017 and I was impressed. His fastball wasn’t quite as fast as advertised, but it had good movement and sat at 93-94 mph. He could get it up to 97 mph when he needed that extra oomph.

But equally impressive was his changeup, which had great arm action and could totally befuddle hitters looking for the fastball. It’s rare for a pitcher so young to have as good a changeup as Albertos has. His breaking pitch had promise too, although he had trouble throwing it for strikes. He’s only thrown 47 innings as a professional, but he has yet to give up a home run. Last year for Eugene (he had two starts in Mesa), Albertos was 2-1 with a 2.86 ERA. In 34⅔ innings in the Northwest League, he struck out 42 and walked 14. Opposing hitter hit .184 off of him.

There’s a top of the rotation pitcher in there somewhere and he didn’t turn 19 until after the season ended.

Of course, a lot can go wrong on the road to the majors. Albertos missed much of 2016 with an injury and the Cubs kept him on an 80-pitch count all year in 2017. He’s yet to pitch in the sixth inning as a professional. In 2½ years in the Cubs organization, he’s got 47 innings under his belt.

Albertos has trouble with consistent command, which is not unexpected for a guy in what is really his first professional season. While his walk rates were decent, Albertos threw a lot of balls in the dirt, and not intentionally. In those 34.2 innings, Albertos had ten wild pitches.

Finally, while he has a nice, clean delivery, Albertos is not the most athletic pitcher in the system. At 18, he’s already “big-bodied,” to put it nicely. Conditioning is going to be an issue his entire career.

Albertos is going to be the main attraction in South Bend this spring. Should he stay healthy and build on last season, he’s going to be the number one prospect in the system in 2019 and probably even a Top 50 prospect in all the game. But for now, I rank him here.

Here’s Albertos getting a strikeout in Eugene last summer.

2. Aramis Ademan. SS. B:L/T:R. 5’11”, 160. DOB: 9/13/98. International free agent (2015), Dominican Republic.

Let’s start off with the obvious. With a name like Aramis, he was meant to be a Cub.

The Cubs signed Ademan for $2 million as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic. He was supposed to be a good glove at shortstop with a questionable hit tool. As it turned out, the defense at short has been good but not as outstanding as we may have hoped. But his bat has been a pleasant surprise, showing an advanced approach at the plate and surprising power from the left side in a small frame.

After playing in the Dominican Summer League in 2016, Ademan skipped Mesa and started the 2017 season in Eugene, a challenging assignment for an 18-year-old. But Ademan handled the Northwest League with ease, hitting .286/.365/.466 with nine doubles, four triples, four home runs and ten steals in 161 at-bats. He was promoted to South Bend at the end of July when Isaac Paredes was traded to the Tigers. He didn’t hit as well in the Midwest League, which is to be expected, hitting .244/.269/.378 in 127 at-bats. But you can see the power was still there with three more home runs. In fact, most of his hitting problems in the Midwest League came against lefties, even though he hit them fine in Eugene.

Ademan is still young and could grow into more power. But that would likely mean that he lose some speed and be forced off of short. He’s reportedly already slowed down a bit from when he signed. On defense his arm is just a tic above average and his quickness and speed are pretty average for a shortstop. But his hands are sure and his instincts on defense are excellent for someone so young. Even if he does trade some quickness for power, he could be an excellent slugging second baseman with a terrific glove.

In fact, Ademan’s strongest tool could be his head. He’s got great baseball instincts on both sides of the ball. At the plate, he’s got quick hands but also good pitch recognition and he has no problem driving outside pitches the other way. His tools on defense play up because he knows how to use them properly.

Ademan will likely start the season in South Bend again, but if he hits, he won’t stay there too long. In the end, Ademan’s future is going to be determined by how well he hits.

Here’s Ademan hitting a home run in Eugene and you can see the impressive power in a small package.

And our number one prospect is...

1. Adbert Alzolay. RHP. B:R/T:R. 6’0”, 179. DOB: 3/1/95. International free agent (2012), Venezuela.

I’ve been on the Alzolay bandwagon since he started the season in Myrtle Beach, looking like a completely different pitcher than before. Before this season, Alzolay was a guy who didn’t really make anyone sit up and take notice. Sure, he’s always had decent velocity and a solid curve, but he made some important adjustments over the past year that turned him into the top prospect in the Cubs system. (Sure, the Cubs trading Eloy Jimenez helped on that front too.)

Physically, Alzolay worked on strengthening his legs and lower body. He altered his delivery and he’s been able to add two to three mph onto his fastball. Now he consistently sits in the 94-96 range and can reach back and hit 97 when he needs it. The cleaner delivery has also improved his control of his curve.

But Alzolay also made some mental adjustments as well. The Cubs told him to work faster, and now he’s easily the fastest worker in the system. Doing that did two things. One, it gives hitters less time to think about what’s coming. Two, it gives Alzolay less time to think about his pitch. He no longer overthinks things—he just does what his catcher tells him to do.

Alzolay began yoga and meditation last offseason to calm his nerves on the mound. He said he found it “boring” at first, but then he really noticed it helped him calm down and be more aware of his body when pitching. Now it’s a part of his pregame routine.

Alzolay dominated the Carolina League last summer, going 7-1 with a 2.98 ERA over 15 starts. He pitched 81⅔ innings for the Pelicans, struck out 78, walked only 22 and held opposing hitters to a .217 batting average. Promoted to Double-A Tennessee, he made seven starts and went 0-3 (mentioned merely out of respect for tradition, not because it’s meaningful.) with a 3.03 ERA in 32⅔ innings. That gave Alzolay an overall ERA of 2.99 over 114⅓ innings. He struck out 108 batters and walked 34.

The other thing that Alzolay has going for him is his durability. He pitched 120 innings in South Bend in 2016 and 114 last year. He’s a good athlete who should be less of an injury risk than a lot of other pitchers. Of course, you never know with pitchers and I’m hoping I don’t come to regret writing this paragraph.

Cubs team president Theo Epstein is a fan too. He called Alzolay a “high-ceiling guy” who “if he reaches his potential, . . . will someday be one of the five [starters] and closer to [a one] than a five.”

Alzolay’s future is going to be determined about how well he can develop his changeup. Currently his fastball is plus, with both velocity and movement, and curve will be plus with more consistency. But his changeup, which he’ll need to be a successful starter, is not close to major league quality yet. But with how much he’s been able to improve his other two pitches over the past season, I’m betting he can do the same with the change.

The change, along with the fact that he’s a “short” right-hander, is the reason some observers think he’ll end up in the bullpen. He could be a dominating pitcher there, so he’s often considered a “high-floor” guy. But if he develops the change into even an adequate pitch, he’s a No. 4 starter in the majors. If it turns into an average to plus pitch, and he can continue to improve his control, his ceiling is that of a No. 3 starter.

The thing is, Alzolay has already blown through one ceiling. I think there’s a decent chance he can do it again. Even if he doesn’t, he should be a quality major-league pitcher in some role. For that, I make Alzolay my number one Cubs prospect for 2018.

Here is Alzolay striking out a batter looking while pitching for South Bend. You see a few things in this at-bat. One is the velocity on his fastball. The other is the way the fastball set up the breaking pitch, which froze the batter and got a strikeout. The final thing on display here is how quickly he works.

Thanks for reading. The system may not be as thrilling as it has been in recent years, but it’s certainly not barren at the moment.