Baseball has always been a game of “What have you done for me lately?”, so it’s a bit misleading to say that some minor league players in the game have more riding on the 2019 season than others. Even a top prospect is just one bad season away from a big drop in trade value. Two bad seasons in a row and even the highest-ranked players will go from prospects to suspects.
Here are some prospects in the Cubs minor league system that are at the crossroads of their career. I’m not going to say that 2019 is a “make-or-break” season for any of these players because if a player has the tools, teams will keep giving him a chance until they need the roster space for someone else. A player like Dillon Maples was given five years to figure it out and it’s still open to debate whether he actually has or ever will. (And honestly, he could have been on this list as well.) But for the following five players, if they don’t take a step forward this year, then the Cubs will have to start thinking that these guys may not be in their future plans.
1. Aramis Ademan, SS
I’ve written about Ademan’s poor 2018 season before in my Top 20 prospects list. The Cubs were very aggressive promoting the then 19-year-old shortstop to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach after just 29 games in South Bend in 2017—and it should be noted that he didn’t exactly tear up Midwest League as an 18-year-old. So Ademan gets a bit of a pass on his 2018 season. He was too young and he clearly wasn’t ready.
But ready or not, Ademan looked bad last season. So poor that people began to wonder if his struggles were less that that he was promoted too fast and more that he maybe wasn’t that good to begin with. That August was his worst month of the year doesn’t help his case. if he were just promoted too fast, you’d hope that he’d start to get better as he got more experience.
So I’d expect that Ademan will be given another chance to succeed in Myrtle Beach, although he may have to fight for playing time at shortstop with top prospect Nico Hoerner. (EIther could play games at second base to get both into the game at the same time.) Ademan isn’t too young or too inexperienced for Advanced-A anymore. If he doesn’t show some improvement in 2019, we may have to conclude that he was never that good in the first place.
2. Nelson Velazquez, OF
Velazquez’s story is similar to Ademan’s. In early May, the Cubs sent the Velazquez, then also 19, from Extended Spring Training to Low-A South Bend. To put it mildly, he was terrible there, managing to hit just .188 over 31 games and with only one extra-base hit, a double.
That terrible start got him sent down to Eugene when their season started in mid-June. In short-season ball, he was solid, hitting .250/.322/.458 with 11 home runs over 72 games. He also was a solid contributor in the playoffs as the “Bad News Ems” won the Northwest League title despite the worst regular-season record in the league.
Velazquez is a corner outfielder with average defensive range and a good arm, so he’s going to have to hit to move up the system. He should get another shot at South Bend this year and he’d best not blow it.
3. D.J. Wilson, OF
Wilson is one of those great “athletes” that scouts and fans alike love to dream on, but he’s had troubles both hitting and staying healthy throughout his minor league career. Promoted to Myrtle Beach after just a so-so season in South Bend in 2017, Wilson missed about six weeks starting at the end of April with an injury and then another five weeks in June and July. In the 64 games that he did play, Wilson didn’t hit. He managed just a .219/.315/.287 line.
Wilson is a good glove in center field now and potentially a great one going forward, so at least he’s got that going for him. He’s not going to have to hit a ton to be a productive major leaguer. But he’s going to have to hit more than that. Staying healthy would clearly help, but if it was easy to just not get injured, then everybody would do it.
4. Jose Albertos, RHP
A lot of people thought Albertos was the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system coming into the 2018 season. Unfortunately, pretty much nothing went right. He was supposed to be the ace of the South Bend but he made four starts and didn’t see the third inning in any of them. A trip to the bullpen didn’t help any, so the Cubs sent him back down to Extended Spring Training until Eugene, where he had a lot of success in 2017, started in June. He wasn’t any better in Eugene than he was in South Bend, although he did make it to the fourth inning in a couple of his starts.
I don’t want to say that Albertos has the “yips” because that has a pretty specific meaning. But I don’t want to say that he doesn’t have the yips either.
Albertos showed some impressive stuff in the 2017 season and if he can return to that this year, the disaster of 2018 will be forgotten. But if 2019 is more of the same, we may be writing stories about Albertos in 2035 like the ones we wrote about Luke Hagerty this year.
5. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP
De La Cruz has always had a lot of potential and he’s shown it when he’s been on the field. But he’s never thrown more than 78 innings in a season. The good news is that 2019 was his first healthy season since 2015. The bad news is that he was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for a masking agent, so he still missed a chunk of the season.
There are a lot of different directions that De La Cruz could go in the 2019 season. The best case scenario is that returns from his suspension and heads to Iowa, shows that he can still throw 96 mph with a strong changeup and makes his debut at Wrigley mid-season. I guess the worst case scenario is that he gets suspended again, but a more realistic worst-case scenario is that he gets injured and misses most of the year. Most likely, he ends up somewhere in the middle, pitching for the Smokies and I-Cubs and flashing promise but struggling to find any consistency after the long layoff.