It’s Day 2 of my countdown of the Top 20 Cubs prospects and the first day that I’m actually counting down prospects.
20. Manuel Rodriguez. RHP. DOB: 8/6/96. 5’11”, 205. B:R, R:R. International Free Agent (2016), Mexico.
The Cubs signed Rodriguez as part of their foray into the Mexican League while they served their penalty for going over the bonus limit in previous seasons. Rodriguez was one of the better-regarded prospects from those years, earning. $400,000 signing bonus.
Rodriguez has a hard, sinking fastball that clocks in the 95-97 mph range. His slider, when it’s on, has a sharp bite to it. His problem in previous seasons is that he just couldn’t throw strikes consistently. His 2018 season in South Bend was a disaster, posting an ERA of 7.59 after walking 36 batters in 40 innings over 32 appearances.
But this season, Rodriguez found the strike zone in Myrtle Beach. In 35 relief appearances, Rodriguez only walked 17 batters (and only hit one) over 47 innings, a huge improvement. He also missed just as many bats, striking out 65 batters. He kept the ball down with that sinking fastball, getting tons of ground balls and and only allowing one home run all season. That gave Rodriguez an ERA of 3.45 and a record of 1-3 with two saves.
The Cubs added Rodriguez to the 40-man roster this winter after a big season in High-A Myrtle Beach. He’s not ready to be a major-league reliever yet, but his future is as a guy who can relieve a pitcher in a jam when the manager wants a strikeout or a ground ball. He could also end up as a setup man who would start an inning.
Introduction to Manuel Rodriguez: a 95-98 mph fastball with movement you’re going to want to see. pic.twitter.com/wQqDrG49A3— Cubs Prospects - Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) November 21, 2019
If you speak Spanish, here’s an interview with Rodriguez back home in the Yucatan this past offseason. Maybe you can tell me if he says anything worthwhile.
19. Ethan Hearn. C. DOB: 8/31/00. 6’0”, 200. B:L, T:R. Drafted 6th round (2019), Mobile Christian HS (AL).
Hearn was the top-ranked high school catcher in the 2019 draft and signed for $950,000, which was the third-largest bonus the Cubs gave any draft pick last year.
Hearn is a well-built catcher with a strong power stroke from the left side. He does have a lot of swing and miss in his game and in fact, I had trouble finding any game video in which Hearn didn’t strike out or walk. But it’s clear from his swing in batting practice that he’s got a lot of pop in that bat. Hearn also has a strong arm and can get the ball to second base quickly and accurately. Obviously the tools are raw as they are for any high school catcher, but the potential is there.
Scouts also rave about his work ethic and intelligence, which might be the most important tools for any catching prospect to have.
Hearn played 23 games in Arizona this past summer and he reinforced the idea that he’s raw and talented. He hit two home runs but struck out 36 times and had a .163 batting average.
Obviously high school catchers are the most risky demographic among prospects, which is why I have him ranked this low despite his considerable upside. But he should be among the most watched players in Eugene this coming June.
Here’s a pre-draft story about Hearn and how he dealt with the unexpected death of his mother. There’s footage of him playing baseball as well, but the video speaks more to his mental toughness.
Here’s some video of Hearn taking batting practice and making throws if you’d prefer that. This is from the Under Armour All-American high school game that was played in Wrigley Field in 2018.
18. Richard Gallardo. RHP. DOB: 9/6/01. 6’1”, 187. B:R, T:R. IFA (2018), Venezuela.
Gallardo was the jewel of the Cubs’ 2018 international class, signing for $1 million. He made his US debut this past season at only 17 years old. He even made two appearances with Eugene by the end of the year.
Gallardo has a solid fastball in the 90-93 mph range and there’s some hope that he could still add a few mph onto that as he matures. His changeup is considered pretty good for someone who is only 17 years old, although that means he still has work to do on it. His slider shows promise as well.
The big debate on Gallardo is whether or not he still has much growth left in him and whether or not he can add some velocity. Some observers think he can and that would make him a potential No. 3 starter in the majors. Others think that he’s pretty much maxed out, but what he has still makes him a low-ceiling/high-floor back-of-the-rotation pitcher. I tend to conservatively lean towards the latter, but I admit that I haven’t seen enough of him to get a real good sense of that yet. But any 17-year-old who can pitch in the Northwest League and not embarrass himself has got to be taken seriously. If he can do it again at 18, then he’ll rise up this list next season.
Here’s some video of Gallardo pitching in Extended Spring Training this past year.
17. Justin Steele. LHP. DOB: 7/11/95. 6’2”. 205. B:L. T:L. Drafted 5th round (2014), George County HS (MS).
Steele bounced back from Tommy John surgery in 2018 to establish himself as one of the better Cubs pitching prospects last winter. This past season was a step back and an injury-plagued mess. He went on the injured list in late June and never returned. Before his season ended prematurely, Steele made nine starts and went 0-6 with a 5.13 ERA with Double-A Tennessee. At least he struck out 36 batters in 33⅓ innings, although he did walk 18 as well.
When healthy in 2018, Steele had a fastball in the 93-95 mph range and he could occasionally throw it even harder than that. His slider had some bite to it and he also boasted of an upper-70s curve that played well off those other two pitches. There’s also a changeup that needs improvement but gives Steele a full four pitches.
None of that matters if Steele can’t stay healthy. He’s got a starter’s repertoire and a starter’s mentality, but his body might not let him stand up to the rigors of starting. The Cubs may have to consider moving him to the pen just to keep him on the mound. A healthy 2020 could move Steele back into the Top 10 prospects and since he’s on the 40-man roster, into the major leagues. But a poor or injury-filled 2020 could see him looking for another team at this time next year.
16. Zack Short. SS. DOB: 5/29/95. 5’10, 180. B:R, T:R. Drafted 17th round (2014), Sacred Heart.
Short finally made Triple-A Iowa this past summer and he looked like the perfect candidate to take advantage of the rabbit ball and the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Instead, Short got hit in the hand with a pitch the first week of the season, broke a finger and never really found his groove all year. He even got demoted to Double-A late in the season, although he was back in Iowa for the end of the year and the playoffs. He did get passed over for Nico Hoerner when the Cubs needed late-season infield help, however.
In 2019, Short hit .211/.338/.414 with six home runs over 41 games. He struck out 50 times in 133 at-bats and 21 walks. He said he never really felt right all year long after breaking the finger.
When healthy, Short projects out to be a power-hitting shortstop with a low average but a lot of strikeouts and walks. He’s a very good defensive shortstop with a terrific arm. He could play anywhere on the infield in the major leagues and be a plus in the field. He doesn’t run as well as he used to, but he’s hardly a sloth on the bases. That’s a formula for a valuable major league bench player at minimum, with the possibility of more if he is able to make more contact.
Short may have to work on his approach at the plate. He might have to sacrifice some of that power in order to make more contact to succeed in the majors. Short has said in interviews that he knows he needs to make some adjustments, so that’s a positive sign. The Cubs did put him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter, so his major league debut could come soon.