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ESPN’s Keith Law lists top Cubs prospects

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ESPN’s prospect expert reveals his thoughts on the Cubs farm system

COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAY 12 Auburn at LSU
Alex Lange
Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last week, ESPN’s Keith Law announced his top 100 prospects and two Cubs prospects, shortstop Aramis Ademan and right-handed pitcher Adbert Alzolay made the bottom of his list and a third, right-handed pitcher Jose Albertos, was listed as a “just missed.” Today Law released his recap of the NL Central systems (ESPN Insider subscription required but it’s not hard to find a cheap subscription to ESPN the Magazine and Insider access is included) and he listed his top 21 Cubs prospects for 2018.

Late last week, Law ranked all 30 farm systems and the Cubs were ranked 25th. That’s not good, but it’s three spots better than where Baseball America ranked the Cubs on Monday. But no one is disputing why the Cubs system is down. The Cubs have graduated a ton of talent to the major leagues over the past three seasons and much of what they had left, they traded away in deals for Aroldis Chapman, Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila. Much of that minor-league talent would have had trouble cracking the Cubs loaded starting lineup in the near future in any case.

Law writes that the Cubs relatively-barren farm system was “strip-mined” for three straight NLCS appearances and a World Series title. Obviously, that’s a trade that every team makes, but it doesn’t alter the situation that the Cubs don’t have a lot of top talent in the system.

Having said that, there still is some talent in the Cubs system, even if it either has a low ceiling or is high risk. Here are the top 21 prospects in the Cubs system in Law’s estimation:

  1. SS Aramis Ademan
  2. RHP Adbert Alzolay
  3. RHP Jose Albertos
  4. LHP Brendon Little
  5. RHP Thomas Hatch
  6. RHP Oscar De La Cruz
  7. RHP Alex Lange
  8. C/1B Victor Caratini
  9. RHP Jen-Ho Tseng
  10. C/1B Miguel Amaya
  11. RHP Dillon Maples
  12. 2B David Bote
  13. OF Nelson Velazquez
  14. RHP Erling Moreno
  15. RHP Michael Rucker
  16. RHP Jeremiah Estrada
  17. RHP Keegan Thompson
  18. LHP Justin Steele
  19. OF Mark Zagunis
  20. OF D.J. Wilson
  21. OF Eddy Martinez

If you have Insider access, you can read Law’s full write-ups of the each player.

I had a chance to talk to Law in a conference call last week and asked him about the state of pitching in the Cubs system.

Q. There have been a few articles lately about the lack of major league home-grown pitching for the Cubs since Theo Epstein took over. I was hoping you could talk about the general state of pitching in the Cubs’ farm system at the moment, and if you could speak about Alzolay in particular. How common is it for someone like him to come out of nowhere and become a top-100 prospect in one year’s time?

KEITH LAW: It’s very common. If you look at my 100s over the years, I’ve had lots of guys who didn’t even merit a mention in their report one year and then make the Top 100 the next year. I think it’s particularly true for very young pitchers. It probably -- this is probably something I could verify, but off the top of my head, I would guess you see it more with international guys than with drafted guys because they come into pro ball so young, and so the distance they have to travel in terms of development is larger and gives them the chance to really make up a ton of ground in an offseason.

The philosophy under Theo and company has always been draft bats and trade for pitching, and if you look at their draft classes really until the last two years, that’s really what they’ve done. They’ve focused on going for bats early, and they would draft some lottery ticket type high school arms a little bit later. They did hit enough on Dylan Cease to be able to use him in the trade for Jose Quintana, which I would say that’s a win.

Now the last two years, they have shifted to drafting more pitching up top, which I think is just a reflection of the fact that they have a very young, affordable position player corps in the big leagues. Now they’ve been going for some college arms up top, who may not have a ton of ceiling, but look like they can move fairly quickly through the system, whether it’s potential starters like Hatcher or Little or a guy like Lange, who I know he was a starter at LSU, but I very strongly believe he’s going to go to the bullpen, and he could be a guy who just races through the minors as a reliever this year to pitch in the Major League pen at some point maybe in the second half.

A few thoughts on his answer. One, I very much liked that he called Dylan Cease a “win” for the Cubs farm system. It can’t be stressed enough that the purpose of a farm system is not just producing major league talent for your own team, but to give the team trade chips to acquire talent from other teams. In fact, you could argue that for a team in the Cubs current position, having trade chips is even more important than bringing talent to majors themselves. Cease was the second piece in the Quintana trade, but the deal doesn’t get done without the White Sox wanting him.

His comment on Lange is something that I’ve heard elsewhere. In his write-up today, Law says that Lange’s delivery is going to be difficult to repeat enough for him to last as a starter. However, it is good to hear that he could move through the system quickly and help the team soon.

Law also questions Little’s ability to stay in the rotation in today’s piece, as he’s short and while Little’s fastball has velocity (96 mph), Law says it lacks movement. He does think Hatch can stay in the rotation and be a 4th starter, which would be a huge win for a 3rd round pick. He also thinks that the cutter that Tseng added last season could make him a back-of-the-rotation starter instead of a reliever.

I also asked Law about Oscar De La Cruz because I knew that he had spoken highly of him in the past.

Q. What should the Cubs do with someone like Oscar de la Cruz, who just seems to have loads of talent and just can’t stay healthy?

KEITH LAW: I don’t think there is something to do because he can’t stay healthy, and I don’t know that changing his role is going to do a whole lot to keep him healthy. Unfortunately you are, to some extent, you’re kind of just crossing your fingers that one of these years will be the year he goes out and can make 22, 23 starts. I mean, they’re cautious with him, and they absolutely love what he brings when he is on the mound, but you can’t make a guy stay healthy if his body is not going to permit it, and that’s why -- for two years I thought he’s going to break out, he’ll be a top-100 guy for sure in the next year because scouts who did see him, the reports were always glowing. But if a guy can’t stay healthy, I really can’t justify putting him on a list like this.

I was kind of hoping Law would suggest that moving De La Cruz to the pen would help him stay healthy or maybe they could alter his delivery or something. But instead he affirmed what we already knew: De La Cruz is incredibly talented and he can’t stay healthy.

A few final thoughts on Law’s list. He’s down farther on Caratini than I’ve seen elsewhere, and his explanation is that he just doesn’t think Caratini’s defense will ever be good enough to be a starting major league catcher. In today’s game that values catcher defense far more than it did, say, 15 years ago, it’s fair to think that Caratini will never be a starter. However, Law does think Caratini can be a valuable bench piece who could provide OBP off the bench and play at either corner infield or corner outfield spot as well as be a backup catcher.

He ranks Amaya so highly because despite his rough season at the plate in Eugene last summer, he thinks Amaya will hit one day. In fact, he thinks his bat could end up as being good enough that he has to be moved off the plate to get his bat in the lineup every day.

He thinks Bote could be a “second-division” starting second baseman. That’s not the Cubs, but it could make him a good trade piece for a rebuilding team that needs a place-holding second baseman.

He thinks Velazquez is a big lottery ticket. No surprise there.

If you look over all the pitching in the second ten, it’s a lot of arms that either have injury issues, low ceilings, or both. Rucker is an interesting name to include because while his ceiling is low, he’s healthy and Law believes he has what it takes to stay a starter.

Law writes that Wilson was better in the second half after the Cubs worked on his swing, but progress has been slow and he feels that he’s behind in his development.

He calls Martinez a “huge disappointment” and is not happy with his swing. Law writes that Martinez is trying to hit for power too much and that’s leading to a lot of ground outs to the shortstop. I have to quote his final comment on Martinez when Law writes “His contact rate is fine, but it’s the wrong kind of contact.” Amen.

Anyway, if you have ESPN Insider access, you should certainly go read Law’s full write-up of the Cubs system and the entire NL Central. If you don’t have Insider access, you should consider getting it, just to read Law if for nothing else.