As is customary for this time of year, FanGraphs recently released their list of the top 23 Cubs prospects. Their rankings were compiled by factoring in scouting reports and Chris Mitchell’s KATOH projection system, which projects how much WAR a minor leaguer will produce over his first six MLB seasons. Like other baseball projection models, KATOH has its imperfections; even Chris Mitchell warns readers to “take these projections with a grain of salt.” They are, nevertheless, “useful in identifying prospects who might be overlooked or underrated.”
I’ll highlight the players I think are noteworthy in the rankings below and will include KATOH’s WAR projection.
Like mostly every other prospect list, Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ top the rankings. Jimenez, still only in A-ball, is projected to produce 7.5 WAR though his first six MLB seasons. He has 80 raw power — the highest scout grade — and only struck out at a 20.4% rate as a 19-year-old playing against competition that averaged two and a half years older. Scouts, though, are wary of his low walk rate (5%) and ability to play average outfield defense.
Behind Jimenez, KATOH projects Happ to post 4.5 WAR through his first six years. The reason his projection is so much lower is partially driven by Happ’s propensity to whiff (23.6% at low-A; 23.5% at high-A). I was worried about the whiffs too, but I’m giddy that he lowered his strikeout rate to 21.9% at AA Tennessee. Athletic, versatile (2B and OF), and able to switch-hit, Happ could be another cog in Joe Maddon‘s merry-go-round machine.
The real juice of the list comes after Jimenez and Happ.
At #3 is Oscar De La Cruz, who has done nothing but excel in the Cubs system after being signed out of Venezuela. Despite the organization exercising extreme caution with De La Cruz’s 2016 forearm injury, he pitched 36 innings between two levels of A-ball, with a combined 13+ K/9 and a minimal BB/9 of just under 2.5. In addition to the forearm scare, scouts knock his arm-slot inconsistency and lack of a third plus pitch. Still, his 96 mph tailing fastball and sharp curve have been nightmarish for competition. De La Cruz has no KATOH projection because of a small sample size.
While De La Cruz is undoubtedly my favorite pitcher in the system, I’m surprised to see him ranked fourth. Truth be told, I would actually rank Jeimer Candelario over Happ, but that’s splittng hairs. KATOH believes Candelario to be a 3.9 WAR player, but this is where I think the model’s limitations show. What I like most about the 22-year-old corner infielder is his ability to see lots of pitches (12.3% walk rate in AAA), make frequent contact (17.2% strike out rate in AAA), and hit for power (.208 ISO in AAA), all while doing so as a switch hitter. If Eloy Jimenez hadn’t ascended in 2016, Candelario would be my favorite Cubs hitting prospect.
Did you have to figure out why you haven’t really heard of Jose Albertos? You’re not alone. The 18 year old out of Mexico has only pitched 4 innings in rookie ball, yet scouts love him so much that FanGraphs slotted him 5th in their rankings. That’s over Albert Almora Jr, who you might remember as a guy who played a significant role for the World Series champs. Think about that. Albertos throws between 93-98 MPH, spins in a curve/slider hybrid, and has a fading changeup (his best pitch according to scouts).
Can we just take another second to dwell on the fact that he was ranked over Almora? High praise.
Speaking of Almora, he is still considered a prospect despite scoring the go-ahead run in Game 7 of the World Series. He’s also projected to produce 2.7 WAR in the next six seasons, which seems a little low. Simply put, KATOH hates Almora because he only walked at a 2.7% rate and had a .113 ISO in AAA last year. Although he had a low ISO, scouts still rate his raw power as 50/80 (average), which could translate to game power if he hones his discipline. Combine even a smidge of offensive value with elite defense, and, well, you get the idea.
Dylan Cease, Trevor Clifton, Mark Zagunis, and Jose Rosario round out the top 10. Cease, Clifton, and Rosario are all interesting pitchers with an injury history and stuff in need of refinement, but my favorite of this bunch is Zagunis. I watched play in the AFL, and my first impression of Zagunis was weird. He’s a quirky, awkward hitter who reminded me of Hunter Pence.
Zagunis, projected to be a 3.8 WAR player for six years, shares Pence’s contact ability (Pence career K% is 18.6% while Steamer projects Zagunis at 20%), patience (Pence has 7.5% career BB% vs. a 10% projection for Zagunis), and power (Pence career ISO: .184; Zagunis AAA ISO: .212). Zagunis producing even a fraction of Pence’s value is his ceiling, but the awkwardness shared between the two is uncanny.
From 11-23, the two players who stand out are Eddy Martinez and Duane Underwood, but for unfavorable reasons (more on both can be found in these notes/clips from the Down on the Farm panel at CubsCon). You might remember the 21-year-old Martinez as the Cubs’ most recent Cuban signee in the 2015 international free agent pool. He’s notable because Theo Epstein and Co. paid him more than any other IFA that year ($3M bonus, $6M with taxes). Martinez, in my opinion, underperformed in A-ball when he finished with a sub-par .332 wOBA and .126 ISO.
Also disappointing was Underwood, only for reasons of non-performance. It was only one year ago that FanGraphs rated him as the third best Cubs prospect behind Happ and Gleyber Torres and. But after experiencing elbow discomfort and facing the possibility Tommy John surgery, Underwood’s 2016 was halted. While he still possesses two plus breaking pitches and a fastball that sits between 92-94 MPH, some scouts foresee him strictly as a reliever due to questions of his durability and control (4.76 BB/9 in AA).
In summation, we need to sit back and realize just what the Cubs front office has done here. Not only have they graduated a plethora of prospects who contributed mightily to a World Series championship team, but they continue to stock the farm system in such a way that it’s the envy of most other executives.