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BCB Top 20 Cubs prospects countdown: 6 to 10

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Day 4 has three pitchers, one infielder in the upper minors and a promising 2018 draft pick.

Cory Abbott
Cory Abbott
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

It’s day four of Prospects Week here at Bleed Cubbie Blue and that means we’re into the top ten with the prospects ranked sixth through tenth. Maybe this list of prospects isn’t as impressive as the prospects ranked here in years past, but I think all of them have a decent chance to have a significant major league career. We also have two players from last June’s draft, which is exciting because we’re not really sure what they are capable of yet.

Also, while he’s not one of my Cubs top 20 prospects, check out this piece on Cubs minor league catcher Tyler Alamo and his family history with bullfighting. Alamo says he might have followed his father’s footsteps and have become a bullfighter had the Cubs not drafted him. (And to be clear, this is a California version of Portuguese bullfighting where they don’t kill the bull.)

Also, good luck to Cubs minor league infielder Stephen Bruno, who announced his retirement. He made a few of my Top 20 lists before he stalled out in the upper minors. He was always someone I enjoyed watching play.

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

6. Cory Abbott. RHP. 6’2”, 210. DOB:09/20/95. Drafted 2nd round, 2017. Loyola Marymount.

A quick reminder on Abbott’s history. He was a fairly ordinary college pitcher at Loyola Marymount when he decided to teach himself Noah Syndergaard’s slider. He studied it from Syndergaard talking about it and watching video of him throwing it. The results were a success. Abbott doesn’t throw Thor’s hammer nearly as hard as he does, but it is still a plus pitch. He threw a perfect game his junior year in college and became a second-round pick of the Cubs.

Abbott’s first full season in the Cubs system was a success. He started the year out in Low-A South Bend, where he made nine starts and went 4-1 with a 2.47 ERA. He struck out 57 and walked just 13 over 47⅓ innings. That got him promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach where he was almost as good. In 13 starts for the Pelicans, he was 4-5 with a 2.53 ERA. His walks were up slightly and his strikeouts were down a touch (26 BBs and 74 Ks in 67⅔ innings), but he kept the ball on the ground more and gave up fewer home runs despite throwing more innings in the Carolina League. An encouraging sign was that his best month was actually his final month of August, so he didn’t tire out from the strain of a full-season workload. He made five starts in August and allowed just two runs over 27 innings. That got him named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Month for August.

Beyond Abbott’s plus slider, he’s got a solid changeup that’s gives hitters a different look. His fastball doesn’t have a lot of velocity (89 to 92 mph) but it at least has some good movement and he can locate it well. He mostly uses the fastball to set up his slider and change. If Abbott can’t nibble the corners with his fastball, he can get into trouble because it’s not going to blow anyone away. Abbott also has a curveball for four pitches, although the curve is clearly his fourth-best pitch.

Abbott will likely start 2019 in Double-A Tennessee and the Cubs will see how it goes from there. Seeing the majors in September isn’t out of the question. He’s probably a #4 starter in the majors, but there’s a small chance he could be better than that.

Here’s Abbott notching a strikeout for the Pelicans this past summer.

And if you’re interested, LMU made a short documentary about the perfect game he threw against BYU. He shows some skill with the glove here as well.

7. Justin Steele. LHP. 6’2”, 195. 07/11/95. Drafted 5th round, 2014, George County HS (MS).

Steele was on his way to the best season of his professional career for the Pelicans in 2017 when it was all interrupted by Tommy John surgery. Steele made a quick recovery from elbow surgery and was back on the mound in Arizona just about 11 months after going under the knife. The Cubs were understandably cautious with Steele, but by the end of July he was back in Myrtle Beach where he made four starts for 18⅓ innings. He struck out 19, walked 6 and went 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA. He finished the regular season with two starts for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, where he allowed four runs on eight hits and three walks over ten innings. Steele struck out seven Double-A batters.

Steele continued to make up for lost development time with a trip to the Arizona Fall League. Steele threw 18⅔ innings over six starts and went 1-1 with a 5.79 ERA. (Not that bad for the prospect-laden AFL in the thin, dry air of Arizona.) Steele struck out 16 and walked 11. The 11 walks weren’t good, but the main point is that Steele was healthy enough to handle the workload. The Cubs added him to the 40-man roster after the season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

Steele is just getting re-acclimated to pitching. His fastball was in the low-90s after his return, which was about where it was when he got injured. But he has touched as high as 95 mph on radar guns, so there is the possibility that he could add a few mph onto his fastball as he regains strength. He has a curve with a big bend in it and a sharper slider. He also has a change for four pitches, although it’s behind the other three pitches.

If Steele doesn’t start the season in Triple-A Iowa, I expect he’ll get there quickly enough, health willing. He’s on the 40-man roster, so he’s obviously a candidate to make his major league debut if and when there’s an opening in the starting rotation. His upside is probably that of a #4 starter, but we’ll have to see how he looks in his second season after Tommy John.

Here’s some video of Steele pitching in the AFL:

8. Zack Short. SS. B:R, T:R. 5’10”, 175. DOB: 05/29/95. Drafted 17th round, 2016. Sacred Heart.

Short has always been a favorite of stat guys for his combination of power, on-base skills and a strong glove at shortstop. That should be a recipe for a major league regular—there aren’t a ton of guys in the majors who can give you plus defense at shortstop, 80 walks and 15 to 20 home runs. Short played the entire season for Double-A Tennessee in 2018 and he hit 28 doubles, two triples and 17 home runs in 524 plate appearances. He also put up a solid .356 OBP thanks to 82 walks. On top of that, he was widely considered to be the best defensive shortstop in the league. He’s got good range, sure hands and a strong arm.

But scouts have always been a little more dubious, and looking at his numbers explains why. For one, he hit only .227 and he struck out 136 times: a career-high 26% of his trips to the plate. On top of that, he really swings with an uppercut. Fully 54% of the balls he put into play were hit in the air. That would lead the major leagues if it was done at that level. Hitting the ball in the air is a good thing, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, especially when there is that much swing and miss in his swing to get there.

I don’t want to be too critical of Short. I wouldn’t have ranked him in my top 10 had I not thought he had a chance to be a major leaguer. Former Cubs shortstop Jose Hernandez had a similar skill set to Short and he had a long and productive major league career. I’m not saying that Short is going to be that good, I’m just saying I see one possible future where he is that good.

Most likely, Short’s major league future is as a utility player, where his versatility, strong defense and power would make him a valuable asset off the bench. He’ll head to Triple-A Iowa this spring and that’s going to be a real test for him. If he can still get on base at a healthy clip and still hit double-digit home runs in the Pacific Coast League, he’s going to be a major leaguer.

Here’s Short hitting a grand slam in August.

9. Paul Richan. RHP. 6’2”, 200. DOB: 03/26/97. Drafted 2nd round supplemental, 2018. U. of San Diego.

The Cubs took Richan out of San Diego last June as an advanced arm and sent him straight to Eugene, where they limited his innings but he was very good when he did pitch. Richan made nine starts and one relief appearance for a total of 29.2 innings. He struck out 31 batters and walked just five, which is excellent, and posted a strong ERA of 2.12. He benefited a bit from pitcher-friendly PK Park, but even on the road his ERA was only 2.87. (And really, those home/road splits are too small a sample size to really be meaningful.) He held opposing hitters to a .179 average.

Richan is a command and control right-hander who has four pitches, all of which can accurately be classified as “average.” But he really does a terrific job setting up batters and working all parts of the strike zone. He rarely walks batters which makes his job a whole lot easier.

Richan is a potential back-of-the-rotation arm who should move through the minor league system pretty quickly. He could start the season in South Bend, but I expect he’ll spend a good chunk of the year, if not all of it, in Myrtle Beach.

Here’s Richan striking out a Hillsboro batter in Eugene this past summer. You can really see how he set the batter up to chase a slider out of the zone.

10. Brennan Davis. OF. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 175. DOB: 11/02/99. Drafted 2nd round, 2018. Basha HS (AZ)

No one in the Cubs system likely has more upside than Davis. A terrific athlete and incredibly mature for an 18-year-old, Davis is still raw as he didn’t commit full-time to baseball until his senior year in high school. Before that, he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award for his state champion high school basketball team. He’s got plus speed and a plus arm. Davis has always been thin, but he’s starting to hit the weight room and he’s been adding some strength over the past year. Even better, the added weight doesn’t seem to have impacted his speed much or at all.

The Cubs took Davis is the second round last year and gave him an above slot bonus of $1.1 million to keep him from going to Miami. He played 18 games for the AZL Cubs 2 this past year and hit .298/.431/.333 with six steals in 57 at-bats. (As an aside, I wonder if he just lived at home, since he’s from nearby Chandler.) He showed a good eye in rookie ball with ten walks (and four hit-by-pitches) to just 12 strikeouts, although the sample-size caveats apply here.

Right now, he doesn’t have any power as he’s still developing his swing. He primarily concentrated on making contact his first year in pro ball and using his speed to get on base. But the Cubs feel that as he gets older and stronger, he has potential plus power. But in order to tap into it, he’s going to have develop his hit tool. If he can do that, Davis is a five-tool player and a potential all-star center fielder. But he’s a long way away from that and as you know, a lot can go wrong between now and then. More raw athletes like Davis fail than succeed on their path through the minors. But when they do succeed, the payoff can be huge.

And remember that maturity I mentioned earlier? He raises alpacas in his spare time. He’s got two named Marco and Polo, per Baseball America. How many 18-year-olds take it on themselves to raise exotic livestock? As far as I know, there’s no correlation between raising alpacas and major league success, but you never know.

Here’s some video of Davis taking batting practice before the draft. You can see he’s a long and lean young man, but his swing has enough lift in it that once he adds strength, there should be some power there.

Tomorrow: The top five.