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BCB Top 20 Cubs prospects countdown: 16 to 20

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Day 2 of our prospect list has four pitchers and a power-hitting outfielder.

Nelson Velazquez
Nelson Velazquez
Jared Ravich/MiLB.com

Welcome to day 2 of my countdown of the top 20 prospects in the Cubs minor league system. Today I’ll take a look at my 16th- through 20th-best prospects in the Cubs system.

As I wrote in yesterday’s preview, the Cubs system is pretty down right now. There is some talent there, but the system of 2014 and 2015 that was the best in baseball has been gutted by promotions, trades and flame outs. This is a good thing — there was a World Series championship in there somewhere — but the Cubs have failed to adequately replace that talent over the past two seasons. A lot of that isn’t their fault — they’ve been hamstrung by picking at the bottom of the first round (or losing picks altogether to free agent signings) of the draft and by the new international signing rules. In some ways, they’ve actually done fairly well considering the handicaps. But there have been some players who were thought of highly before this past season who haven’t performed as expected.

When writing about players in the bottom of the top 20, I’m struck by how there are a lot of players who could be ranked in here. It really depends on what you value. With these five, there are three high-upside players with major red flags attached to their development mixed with two safer but low-upside prospects. I guess I manage my prospect lists like an investment portfolio—I like to have a diverse mix of risk and potential. Ideally you’d like a ton of “high-ceiling, low-risk” players, but those are few and far between and the Cubs really haven’t had one since Kris Bryant was promoted. (On the other hand, Jorge Soler could reasonably have been classified like that and those players aren’t always as sure bets as they seem. Also see Jurickson Profar.)

With that said, here are the BCB top Cubs prospects 16 through 20. Clicking on the player’s name will take you to his milb.com page.

16. Jose Albertos. RHP. 6’1”, 185. DOB: 11/07/98. IFA, Mexico. Signed 2015, $1.5 million.

Albertos was my third-best prospect coming into this past season and I’m being generous ranking him this high this year. No one had a more disappointing season in the minors. Albertos looked fine in Spring Training but when he reported to South Bend for his first chance at full-season ball, he couldn’t find the strike zone. In his first start, he only lasted one inning after taking 30 pitches to get through it. His second outing was a little better (40 pitches over two innings) but in his third start, it took Albertos 51 pitches to get through one inning of work. He gave up eight runs on four hits, four walks and a hit batter. He also struck two batters out.

Albertos’ season continued like that until late-May, when the Cubs gave up on him figuring things out in the Midwest League. They returned him to Extended Spring Training and sent him back to Eugene in June where he found success in 2017. Things were a little better there at first, but Albertos still had trouble finding the strike zone. Eventually, the wheels fell off in Eugene too. The nadir was on August 15, when Albertos allowed three runs on one hit and three walks in a third of an inning relief appearance.

Just for the record, between South Bend and Eugene in 2018, Albertos threw 30⅓ innings. He struck out an impressive 38 batters. That was all that was impressive. He walked a whopping 64 batters, hit four more and had 27 wild pitches. He posted an overall ERA of 14.84. By the end of the season, his fastball was being clocked in the mid-80s as he was just trying to get the ball over the plate.

Does Albertos have the yips? I don’t know what the technical definition of “the yips” are, but I do know that the Cubs think his problems are more mental than physical.

Albertos is still ranked in the top 20 because of the promise he showed in 2017. He had an upper-90s fastball and probably the best changeup in the minor league system. Even his slider had potential to be a plus-pitch. There were some concerns, mostly about conditioning and health. But there was a future top-of-the-rotation pitcher in there. The hope is that he’s still in there and he can overcome whatever is messing him up. He’s still only 20 years old, so he has time.

Here’s some video of Albertos in South Bend in May.

17. Nelson Velazquez. OF. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 190. DOB: 12/26/98. Drafted 5th round, 2017. PJ Education (PR).

In some ways, Velazquez had a similar season to Albertos. He was my ninth-ranked prospect last winter after a solid season in Eugene in 2017. He went from Extended Spring Training to South Bend in May and like Albertos, he struggled badly, hitting .188/.242/.196. When the Ems started their season in June, the Cubs sent Velazquez back to the Northwest League. The difference was that once Velazquez returned to Eugene in June, he was actually fairly good for the rest of the season. He put up an triple-slash line of .250/.322/.458.

Velazquez has potentially plus to plus-plus power if he can ever tap into it. In South Bend he couldn’t, hitting no home runs and just one double over 112 at-bats in the Midwest League. Returning to Eugene, Velazquez had 18 doubles, two triples and 11 home runs over 264 at-bats. He also has decent speed with 12 steals in 16 attempts in Eugene.

Making consistent contact has been a big problem for Velazquez. Even in Eugene where he played well, Velazquez struck out 81 times in 293 plate appearances. That’s almost 36% of the time in a league that isn’t exactly known for having a lot of flame-throwers. The power is there, but Velazquez is going to have trouble reaching it if he doesn’t cut down on the strikeouts.

Velazquez has a strong arm and profiles as a prototypical power-hitting right fielder. His defense should be good in right and maybe even passable in center. There’s a solid middle-of-the-order major league hitter in there, but there are a lot of questions that Velazquez needs to answer before he even becomes a solid player in the Midwest League.

Here’s video of Velazquez crushing a home run. This clip explains why Velazquez is a top 20 Cubs prospect.

18. Dakota Mekkes. RHP. 6’7”, 250. DOB:12/6/94. Drafted 10th round, 2016. Michigan State.

At some point you have to stop worrying about the raw “stuff” and just admit that the guy gets results. Mekkes is a terrific example of “effective velocity.” His fastball is just in the 91-93 mph range, but his delivery hides the ball well from the hitter and his huge frame allows him to release the pitch a lot closer to the batter than other pitchers do. On top of that, his fastball has some solid movement to it. In any case, no one in the minor leagues has ever been able to hit it. In Mekkes’ three seasons and 170⅓ innings in the Cubs system, opposing hitters have a .170 average off of him. He’s only given up four home runs in his professional career.

Mekkes was expected to be challenged when he reached Double-A this year. Instead, Mekkes went 3-0 with eight saves and a 0.81 ERA over 16 relief appearances. That earned him a promotion to Triple-A Iowa where he pitched in 25 games. Mekkes went 1-0 with a 1.17 ERA and three saves. Between the two levels, Mekkes pitched 53⅔ innings and struck out 71 batters. The downside is that he walked 29 batters, although five of those were intentional. (Some of those intentionals, as well as some unearned runs, were the by-product of the new extra-innings rule.)

There is the possibility that the deceptive release that has been so successful for Mekkes in the minors won’t work in the majors, but that seems unlikely. If Triple-A hitters can’t hit it, then most major league hitters are likely to only be slightly more successful. But what major league hitters will be a lot better at is laying off pitches out of the zone. So lowering his walk totals is probably all that stands between Mekkes and a spot as a major league relief pitcher.

Mekkes is a right-handed reliever without the stuff to be a closer, so the upside here is going to be low. A best-case scenario for Mekkes is likely a solid seventh-inning arm. But I would be surprised if Mekkes doesn’t get the chance to earn that job at Wrigley Field this summer.

Here’s some video of Mekkes pitching for Iowa last summer.

19. Brendon Little. LHP. 6’1”, 195. DOB: 08/11/96. Drafted 1st-round, 2017. State College of Florida-Manatee.

It’s a little difficult to say what Brendon Little is at this point. When the Cubs drafted him and fellow pitcher Alex Lange in the first round in 2017, Little was considered the rawer, higher-upside guy. His fastball was clocked as high as 96 and his curveball was seen as a plus pitch. Even his changeup had potential. Little was never a potential ace, but a solid left-handed mid-rotation starter is still very valuable.

That made Little’s first full season of pro ball in South Bend such a disappointment. The biggest issue was that he couldn’t maintain his velocity as the season went on and his fastball was in the mid-to-upper 80s by the time the year ended. His changeup hasn’t gotten any better. His curve was good when it was on, but that’s not enough for a starting pitcher.

It’s not unusual for pitchers to lose velocity under the increased workload of a professional baseball season. But if Little doesn’t regain that velocity, his upside goes from a mid-rotation starter to a left-handed relief specialist. And if he lost that velocity because he’s injured, then that’s an entirely different problem.

In South Bend this year, Little made 22 appearances (21 starts) and threw 101⅓ innings. In that time, he went 5-11 with a 5.15 ERA. He struck out 90 batters and walked 43. So beyond the loss of velocity, he’s had some problems throwing strikes as well.

Little is on this list because of his curveball, which can be a major weapon. But Little is going to have to show more than that if he’s going to have a major league career.

Here are the highlights of what may have been Little’s best game of 2018 when he threw five scoreless innings against Clinton. You can just watch the first five seconds to see Little’s filthy curve. If Little pitched like that every game, he’d be ranked a lot higher.

20. Alec Mills. RHP. 6’4”, 190. DOB: 11/30/91. Traded from Kansas City, 2017.

I like Alec Mills. I really do. He’s a command and control right-hander with three pitches. Although none of the pitches are all that special, he gets by with what he has. He doesn’t walk very many batters and he relies on his defense to get outs. There should always be a place in the game for a pitcher like that.

After missing most of the 2017 season with injuries, Mills bounced back in 2018 to make 23 starts for Iowa. Mills pitched 124⅔ innings and went 5-12 with a 4.84 ERA. That’s not that bad when you consider that Iowa had a bad defensive team behind him most of the season and the Pacific Coast League is a hitters’ paradise. (Although Des Moines’ Principal Park is a pitcher’s park compared to the rest of the league.) Mills struck out 108 and walked 41, which was a bit high for him, but good for most pitchers.

That earned Mills a call-up where he made two starts and five relief appearances. He had a good start against the Reds and a bad one against the Mets. Overall, he pitched 18 innings in the majors and went 0-1 with an ERA of 4.00. He struck out 23 and walked seven.

Mills’ most-likely major league role is that of a 5th/6th starter and a long reliever. But I think he can be a pretty decent back-of-the-rotation arm.

When Mills is on and gets help from his defense, he can be really good. Here’s the highlights from his start on August 1 against Salt Lake when he threw six perfect innings

Tomorrow: Prospects 11 through 15.