Which Cubs Rookie Might Have “Next” in 2016?

2015 was magical for Kris Bryant and his fellow rookie teammates, namely Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. Most people saw Bryant as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate before the season began, but few saw Addison Russell or Schwarber having a significant impact in 2015. While some might have pegged Russell as a mid-season call-up, Schwarber wasn’t expected until 2016. A lot can happen in a year.

If you look at any of the Cubs top prospect lists, they are a mix of 19- to 22-year-old players who have only a few years of minor league experience. Trying to determine the next prospects to come up in 2016 is a little challenging. 2015 saw 3 prospects develop at the major league level; none of them came up fully formed. Part of the reason they were called up was their pure talent. Part of it was the needs of the big league team. Injuries to Olt, LaStella, and Montero necessitated the promotions of Bryant, Russell, and Schwarber.

The bottom line for all three was that at least some major facet of their game was MLB-ready. Bryant was ready to go as a hitter, but needed to work on his defense. Russell was athletically and mentally ready to shift to a new position on the fly and then back to his old one at a moment’s notice. Schwarber’s bat and attitude (battitude!) was more than ready. On the other hand, Schwarber had not played one inning in the OF this year at AA and AAA as he focused on catching.

This leads us to the question of the day: Who’s got next in 2016?

I think at this point it’s still a little hard to project which prospects can make it to Chicago in 2016. A simple adjustment at the plate, a different grip on the ball, and a change in work ethic or mental approach can accelerate development beyond what we see in the field. Sometimes a player is working on some very specific aspects of his game in an effort to best matriculate through the system. The most important aspect of whether a prospect comes up is if the team needs the player and his particular skill set.

almora 86While the Cubs look for a CF on the free agent market and via trade, Albert Almora is waiting in the wings. When will be ready to take over as the everyday CF at Wrigley? He is ready, at least if you ask him. And that’s true…to an extent. Defensively, I don’t know if you could find as good a defender as Almora on the open market. He gets great reads and jumps and is always hustling to make the play. Joe Maddon could plug him in the lineup and he would be an asset in the field every game he plays.

The problem for Almora has been his approach at the plate, in that he hasn’t traditionally walked a lot. He knew he could make contact on almost any pitch, but that’s the issue: determining which pitches to sit back and take. What the Cubs were trying to work with him on in 2015 was being more selective, looking for a pitch in a certain zone, a pitch that he could do something with, not just hit or make contact with.

In the middle of last summer, Almora went to play for Team USA in the Pan-Am games. Before the trip, he was hitting around .250 and it had been a bleak year at the plate. When he came back, he was a different player. In August, he hit .352 with an OBP of .432 and took an amazing 11 walks in a month – that is about what he had averaged per year throughout his career in the minors. Something clicked, something changed. What I think gets left out when discussing Almora is how strong his mental game is. He might be the toughest-minded Cub out there. His changes from August point to him starting out 2016 in Iowa. We will see if the changes stick at the plate in a notorious hitter’s league.

willson 85 2015

Willson Contreras is close to ready. The problem is that there is not a spot ready for him…yet. Miguel Montero is still signed to play for two more years and David Ross for one. Through 2014, Contreras never hit above .273, but he was highly thought of by many for his athletic prowess. It was a common thought among those who really pay attention to prospects that it was a matter of time before Contreras put it altogether.

In 2015 he did. His batting average jumped 60 points in a year, which was shocking and also not shocking. There’s never been a question of talent, but what he always drew rave reviews for was his defense and handling of pitchers – something Willson attributed to adjustments made in Winter League. Just this fall, in the Arizona Fall League, Contreras earned the respect of many including Jim Callis.

On Monday, November 16, David Ross announced that 2016 would be his last year. As a result, a spot may be opening up for Contreras sooner than we think.

As for pitchers…

With Carl Edwards, Jr. now likely relegated to the bullpen, the top two starters closest to the majors in terms of readiness are Pierce Johnson and Ryan Williams. That’s right, the same Ryan Williams who started 2015 at low-A South Bend. He shot across three levels in 2015, something I’m pretty sure no one saw coming.

Williams 73 2015What has served Williams best is the ability to command the ball. It led to great success in April and May at South Bend, and then again at AA Tennessee. In addition to his 14-3 record with a 2.13 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP, Williams put in 179 innings on the year. For me, that’s probably his biggest attribute after his command: he has the body to work in the majors.

In addition, Williams’ best chance of making it to the Bigs quicker than Johnson might also be his versatility. Williams did it all in college, both closing and starting. The possibility of him coming out of the bullpen gives him the better shot at getting to Chicago. Oh, the command helps too. However, his arsenal is likely to be what it is now. He might add a new pitch here or there, but he will not add any giddy-up to his fastball unless he goes to the pen.

Pierce Johnson just keeps plugging away. Despite minor injuries the past three summers, Johnson appears to be have a chance at the big leagues soon. After two shortened seasons at AA and a stint in the Arizona Fall League, Johnson is close to a breakthrough. He has command of four pitches and can throw all of them for strikes. With a fastball that regularly works at 93 and can get up to 95, Johnson’s Achilles heel has always been walks. He’s been able to get by the past three summers because he can pitch around them, but the Cubs would like him to not have to pitch that way.

Johnson has been pitching for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League and it has been a rough go. He has, however, pitched well the past two starts. His most recent outing saw him go five innings without allow a run. He will start out the year at AAA Iowa and there is only one way to go from there, which means 2016 could be his year to break through.

You can’t predict baseball, and that’s particularly true when it comes to young ballplayers trying to find their way. The guys the Cubs called up last year were as close to sure things as you’re likely to find and they pretty much cleared all the ready-to-wear talent from the system. That doesn’t mean we won’t see the impact of another rookie or two in 2016, just that it may take a little more time to find out just who it’ll be.

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