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BCB Top 20 Cubs Minor League Prospects: System overview and honorable mentions

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The Cubs minor league system has seen better days, but there is a lot to dream on in the low minors.

Christopher Morel
Eugene Emeralds

This week is time for my annual look at the top 20 prospects in the Cubs system and today we start off with a look at the system and some players who didn’t make the list for one reason or another. Then we’ll count down five prospects each day until revealing the top five prospects, including a new number one, on Friday.

To be perfectly honest, the Cubs have a poor farm system at the moment. It’s certainly one of the bottom five systems in the game. I’ve been doing these ranking for about 10 years and this is the worst that I can remember. Perhaps 2008 or 2009 were worse — I can’t really remember back that far. The system has been culled of talent by promotions, trades for major league players (a good thing, no doubt) and many of the top prospects who remained had poor years in the minors in 2018. Honestly, as I was doing the second-half of the top ten, I struggled sometimes to list anyone whom I thought was worth such a ranking. If you think that someone that I haven’t ranked should be in the 11 to 20 range, I’m going to admit that you may very well be right. After the first dozen prospects, there’s a whole lot of differing shades of “meh” here. I don’t think there is a single player in the system that you can’t add a “but” to any positive evaluation you’d give him. Part of that comes with success at the major league level—the Red Sox farm system isn’t very good at the moment either.

But that’s not to say there isn’t some talent here. The five guys at the top all have a chance to be pretty darn good major leaguers. The Cubs also appear to have had a pretty terrific 2018 draft — fully four of my top ten prospects were taken last June. All of them have the potential to step up and become prized prospect in 2019. If all four of them live up to their potential, then this system becomes a top 20 system pretty quickly. If also a few of those disappointing 2018 prospects return to form, then this system could be ranked in the top half or maybe even higher in 2020. It’s unlikely that it will improve that much, but it also seems highly unlikely that the system will remain this down for more than a season. And don’t forget, someone like David Bote went from “meh” to “hmmm” to “nice” pretty darn quickly.

This list is my own, based upon my watching hundreds of minor league games this past year and reading as many “expert” analysts as I can. I do have one rule that is unique to my ranking in that I don’t rank any player who hasn’t at least played in Arizona. That rules out some good prospects in the Dominican Summer League including one who hasn’t even started yet that I’ll write about today. The reason for that is that while I can read what scouts and expert analysts say about the player, I have no way of independently verifying what those people have written. For me to say “This guy is one of my top 20 prospects because a bunch of other people think he’s a top 20 prospect” just seems dishonest to me.

So here are some prospects who didn’t make the Top 20 list to talk about for today. They’re not in any particular order. These are not the players whom I would rank as the 21st through 25th ranked prospects, but they’d probably be in the top 30.

Also, players still need to have rookie eligibility to be listed.

Clicking on the player’s name takes you to his milb.com page.

Richard Gallardo. RHP. 6’1”, 187. DOB: 09/06/01. IFA Venezuela. Signed for $1 million 2018.

Gallardo was the prize international free agent signing of the Cubs this past July and you’re going to see his name on a lot of Cubs top ten or top twenty prospects lists. In fact, MLB Pipeline ranked him as the top international free agent pitcher available last year. I don’t have him ranked because he has yet to throw a pitch in an official game for the Cubs.

From the scouting reports, at 16 he was already throwing a fastball at 89-93 mph and had an advanced curve not just for someone that age. I’ve read reports that say he could move quickly through the Cubs system, but since he’s barely turned 17, “quickly” likely means he could be in the majors in 2022. Even that is pretty optimistic.

Gallardo is someone to watch and someone to dream on. He obviously has room to add some bulk and the velocity that would follow. There’s a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher in there, but clearly at 17 he’s miles away and there is so much that can still go wrong. He’s advanced enough that the Cubs may have him make his professional debut in Arizona rather than the DSL, but there are a lot of factors that go into that decision outside of just baseball talent.

Here’s Gallardo pitching at a showcase before he signed with the Cubs. You can see why some people are so excited. I was pretty impressed and I had to keep reminding myself “That kid is only 16 in that video.”

Christopher Morel. SS/3B. B:R T:R. 6’0”, 160. DOB: 06/24/99. IFA: Dominican Republic. Signed 2015 $800,000.

Morel started last season out in Eugene mostly because the new draftees weren’t ready when the Ems season started in June. He struggled there, but was much better after being demoted to AZL 1 in July. He was considered a team leader on the club that lost the Arizona League Championship Game.

Morel’s glove is ahead of his bat at this point and scouts praise his sure hands and strong arm. The Cubs would like him to add a some bulk which means he could end up as a third baseman rather than a shortstop. The Cubs think his swing is conducive to adding power. Morel also has above-average speed, but he only managed to steal one base in 2018 after swiping 23 in the DSL in 2017.

After his poor .165/.172/.220 in 25 games in Eugene, Morel hit a promising .257/.331/.363 with two home runs in 29 games for AZL 1. He strikes out a little too much at this point and he’d probably benefit from not trying to pull everything. But I expect that Morel will be much better in Eugene this summer than he was last year.

By the way, I feel I need to mention that he was seriously injured when he walked through a glass door after signing in 2015, costing him the 2016 season. That delayed his development as his wrist was pretty badly cut up. But he’s fully recovered now and is ready to take a step forward in 2019. Just not through a door again.

The Cubs signed his younger brother Rafael this past summer as well.

Here is Morel hitting an RBI single for the Ems.

Duane Underwood. RHP. 6’2”, 210. DOB: 7/20/94. Drafted 2nd round, 2012. Pope HS (GA).

I thought I’d be done writing about Underwood by now. He’s been a top 30 prospect since the Cubs drafted him. Since that time, he’s simultaneously disappointed and shown enough that you just don’t want to give up on him.

Underwood made his MLB debut on June 25 at Dodger Stadium and that start turned out to be a bit of a Rorschach test. If you were inclined to think favorably of Underwood, he kept a good Dodgers lineup to one run and two hits over four innings with three strikeouts. If you are down on Underwood, you can point out his three walks and the home run he gave up to Kiké Hernandez. He also labored in the first two innings and didn’t look all that great.

Underwood spent the rest of the season in Triple-A Iowa, making 20 starts before moving to the bullpen in August for seven relief appearances. He was 4-10 with a 4.53 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 119⅓ innings. He walked 37 and gave up six home runs, which isn’t bad for the homer-happy Pacific Coast League.

Here’s every pitch he threw against the Dodgers. Jim Deshaies and Len Kasper give a pretty good scouting report on Underwood in the broadcast as well.

Tyson Miller. RHP. 6’5”, 200. DOB: 07/29/95. Drafted 4th round, 2016. California Baptist.

If you just look at the stat line on Miller in 2018, it looks like he took a step forward in High-A Myrtle Beach. Miller made 23 starts for the Pelicans and went 9-9 with a 3.54 ERA. He struck out 126 batters over 127 innings. He walked 35.

But Miller’s stuff is the same as it’s always been—average. He’s got a fastball around 90-91 that sometimes hits 93, but he has good movement on it and when he’s on, he can locate it pretty well. His slider is mostly average and he needs to work on his change. So exactly like hundreds of other pitchers in the minor leagues.

What stands out about Miller is his mound presence and overall baseball intelligence. He gets the most out of his modest skills. He’s going to be tested in Double-A this year. If he succeeds, then maybe he’s the type of pitcher who can get by with craftiness to carve out a career as a back-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Here are highlights from Miller’s best start of the season when he struck out seven Mudcats over seven scoreless innings on May 2. As you can see, sometimes Miller looks pretty good out there.

Reivaj Garcia. 2B. B:S, T:R. 5’11, 175. DOB: 08/12/01. IFA: Mexico. Signed for $500,000, August 2017.

Garcia is the latest in the Cubs quest for talent in Mexico and he had a pretty impressive US debut in 2018. At only 16 years old, Reivaj (that’s “Javier” spelled backwards) hit an impressive .300/.362/.355 with seven steals in 40 games for AZL 2 against players who were at least two or three years older than he was.

Garcia is a little switch-hitter who makes hard contact to all fields. He hasn’t shown much or any power yet, but since he just turned 17 it makes it a little difficult to project at this point. If I had to guess, his power would project out to be 40-45 or slightly below average, but there is a whole lot of room for that to go in either direction. His speed is about average for a middle infielder—he’s not a burner but he’s pretty smart for someone so young so he can get the most out of the speed he does have.

Defensively, scouts think he’s probably a second baseman although his range and arm are good enough that he could play shortstop if necessary.

Someone who can hit .300 at any professional level at 16 has to be taken seriously, even if it’s hard to figure out exactly what kind of player he’s going to be. I love the sound of the ball leaving his bat in the video below.

Tomorrow: Prospects 20 through 16.