Last offseason was an exciting time for Cubs fans, because they had the futures of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez to anticipate. Only Baez saw big league action in 2014, and Theo Epstein’s master plan of rebuilding the Chicago Cubs from the ground up had proven to be, in its first phase, a success.
With the Cubs winning 97 games in 2015 and all of the above names now established in the majors, the Cubs entered this offseason in “win now” mode. They were big players in free agency and filled roster holes with Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist (all while, in the first two cases, subtracting from the NL Central rival St. Louis Cardinals), and look to field one of the game’s most vicious lineups in the 2016 regular season.
Yes, the Cubs finally look to be there after years of rebuilding efforts that tested the patience of fans. However, if there’s one thing the Cubs learned from the last front office regime, it’s that a winning big league club doesn’t mean long-term success with a depleted farm system. Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer know this, and the rebuild effort that began in 2012 sought to not only utilize high draft picks to sign the best players but to also extensively scout both US and foreign talent to find players that fit the system and can thrive.
Despite not having names like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber to boast, the Cubs are still flaunting a rich farm system very deep with talent that could be used as quality trade pieces or even see time in the majors in the not-so-distant future. Here are ten Cubs prospects to keep an eye on in 2016, along with their numbers from 2015.
Gleyber Torres (19, SS) – .287/.346/.376, 3 HR, 64 RBI, 22 SB
The 19-year-old middle infielder put together a terrific showing in South Bend last season, coming along much more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. MLB Network ranked Torres in their Top 50 prospects list at the midway point of 2015. The Cubs have a surplus of middle infielders, but Torres is so young that he may be able to find a home on the big league roster in a few years.
He does have some holes in his game. While his 22 stolen bases look good on the surface, it was over 36 attempts giving him a stolen base success rate of 61 percent. His three home runs over a full season is also too low for comfort.
Here’s the thing: he’s only 19. Jorge Soler has terrific raw power but he wasn’t tearing the cover off the ball when he arrived in Peoria in 2012. Torres is young enough to fix some hitches in his game and has time on his side, and posting a slash of .287/.346/.376 in a full season at 19 indicates an incredibly bright future.
Willson Contreras (23, C/3B) – .333/.413/.478, 8 HR, 75 RBI, 217 TB
Contreras very quickly became a fan-favorite in Kodak with the Smokies in 2015, with references connecting his first name to the famous scene in Castaway making him popular on Cubs social media.
This popularity was well warranted, because for as good as Gleyber Torres and Billy McKinney were in 2015, Willson Contreras was the Cubs’ breakout minor league star last season. Miguel Montero even went on Twitter to sing Contreras’s praises mid-season. He had shown various offensive and defensive skills since joining the organization in 2009, but finally put it all together in 2015.
His on-base percentage never stretched past a mediocre .320 up through 2014, largely due to low walk rates while accumulating a lot of strikeouts. Contreras significantly altered this in his game, striking out a career-average 62 times, but setting a career-high in walks with 57. An increase in power (his 34 doubles in 2015 were 20 more than his previous career high) combined with this patience made Willson Contreras a name to remember.
If he continues his breakout success into 2016, it will be interesting to see if/how Contreras is utilized in conjunction with Schwarber, assuming Contreras is MLB ready when Montero’s Cub tenure ends.
Duane Underwood (21, SP) – 6-3, 2.41 ERA, 1.009 WHIP, 2.25 K/BB, 78.1 IP
Underwood was drafted in the second round of the 2012 Amateur Draft, the same round in which Alex Wood and Paco Rodriguez were scooped up. He hasn’t seen big league innings yet, but he’s starting to make a strong case for himself.
He made 16 starts in 2015 — mostly with the A+ Myrtle Beach Pelicans — and posted a sterling 2.41 ERA with an even finer 1.009 WHIP. He only pitched 100 innings once, in 21 starts with the Kane County Cougars in 2014. He hasn’t proven the ability to handle a significant workload as a starter, but he’s only 21-years-old entering 2016.
A full season with the Tennessee Smokies can go a long way for Underwood in 2016, especially if he can prove his effectiveness and health across an acceptable starting pitcher’s workload. Come 2018, when John Lackey and Jake Arrieta are eligible for free agency, Underwood may be ready for the big time.
Billy McKinney (21, OF) – .300/.371/.454, 7 HR, 64 RBI, 31 2B
The 2013 first rounder (24th overall) for the Oakland Athletics wasn’t the biggest piece of the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Bay Area in 2014 (that was Addison Russell), but the acquisition of McKinney was a wildly understated part of the deal when it happened.
McKinney was just okay splitting 2014 between the A’s and Cubs organizations, though his 11 home runs at 19-years-old was unbelievably encouraging. He struck out 100 times in 466 at bats, logging a fine .354 OBP despite a .264 average. At just 19, there was so much time for McKinney to refine aspects of his game and continue working himself into a major league-ready outfielder at a young age.
2015 was a step in the right direction, bringing his average up almost 40 points and also increasing his on-base and slugging numbers, significantly. His overall season numbers were boosted by an astounding 22 games in Myrtle Beach, but he still did a respectable job during his extended stay with the Smokies. Another season in Kodak and perhaps Iowa could make McKinney MLB ready by mid-2017 or 2018.
Ian Happ (21, OF) – .259/.356/.466, 9 HR, 33 RBI, 10 SB
Ian Happ is a stud, and the Cubs’ scouting department and front office knew that when they drafted him ninth overall from the University of Cincinnati in last year’s draft. The Epstein/Hoyer regime has seen tremendous success drafting in the first round since coming to the Cubs, bringing in Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Both were instrumental in the Cubs’ 2015 season.
Like Schwarber, Happ didn’t waste much time acclimating himself to professional baseball. In 67 games between Eugene and South Bend, he showcased impressive patience at the plate leading to a fine .356 OBP. His power was more impressive, logging nine home runs in just 251 at bats. And his speed combined with awareness on the basepaths led him to 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts.
Happ will be 21 through most of the 2016 regular season, and it’s worth wondering if his performance continues to impress whether or not Happ will be fast-tracked to the Cubs, like Russell and Schwarber successfully were. Only time will tell.
Ryan Williams (24, SP) – 14-3, 2.16 ERA, 0.896 WHIP, 5.44 K/BB, 141.2 IP
Williams might not make this list as a 24-year-old minor league starter were it not for his absurdly good 2015 regular season between Kodak and South Bend. It’s one thing to post a 14-3 record and 2.16 ERA, it’s another to do it over 142 innings.
You really can’t have a better season than Ryan Williams did in 2015. After posting a microscopic 1.17 ERA in eight South Bend starts, he earned his promotion to Kodak and continued to dominate. All told, his absurd 5.44 strikeout-to-walk rate total is genuinely impressive, and his 6.9 H/9 showcases unbelievable command. In his 141 ⅔ innings, Williams only walked 18 batters.
Williams was a tenth round selection for the Cubs in the 2014 Amateur Draft, and his meteoric rise through the system has been a pleasant surprise. If his dominance resumes, it will be fascinating to see just how soon Williams finds himself in the majors.
Albert Almora (22, OF) – .272/.327/.400, 6 HR, 46 RBI, 8 SB
Almora was the Epstein/Hoyer regime’s first draft selection as the sixth pick overall in the 2012 Amateur Draft. He was selected before the likes of Addison Russell, Corey Seager and Michael Wacha. Fans were hoping and expecting Almora to perform at the same level as Bryant, Schwarber and Soler and serve as the center fielder in the Cubs’ outfield of “the future.”
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Following an impressive 61 game season with Kane County in 2013, when he slashed .329/.376/.466, he continued posting these numbers with Mesa in the Arizona Fall League. Since joining the Smokies, he’s stagnated; the speed and power that was expected to arrive by now just hasn’t, and he’s struggling to get on-base at consistent clips. While his esteemed minor league peers have taken great strides into the big leagues, Almora is plodding behind.
So why is he worth watching? 2016 is his age-22 season. He was drafted at a very young age, and there’s still an enormous amount of upside. He makes a lot of contact, and if Willson Contreras is any evidence, some players are late bloomers. The Cubs have been wise not to give up on Almora yet. If he remains stagnant for the next several years, they may regret it.
Pierce Johnson (25, SP) – 6-2, 2.08 ERA, 1.137 WHIP, 2.25 K/BB, 95 IP
His age is a concern, as is his history with injuries, but when he’s healthy there’s no doubt Pierce Johnson can be a lockdown pitcher that may well be ready for the big leagues.
He was pristine with Double-A Tennessee in 2015, with a microscopic 2.08 ERA in 95 innings pitched. Johnson’s excellent season in Kodak gives him a 22-13 aggregate record in his four years within the Cubs system, posting an even more impressive 2.50 ERA and 2.75 R/9.
The issue is, Johnson has logged just over 100 or more innings in two of the last three seasons, which isn’t an acceptable amount for an aspiring starting pitcher. There’s no denying his stuff is good, but he’s yet to prove his arm can handle any significant mileage. If he can pitch at the same level across 150 innings in 2016, he may find himself in a rotation near the end of this year or in 2017. He’s also not getting any younger.
2015 was the second season in which Oscar de la Cruz logged more than 70 innings, this time with the Cubs Low-A affiliate in Eugene. It’s still a relatively small sample size, but with his high strikeout-to-walk rate and low ERA and baserunner totals, he’s showcasing superb command for just 21-years-old.
If he can maintain his control as he works his way up through the system, the Cubs will have another starter to watch when 2018 rolls around, assuming he can handle a significant innings workload in due time. His consistency over the last two years certainly leads one to assume that possibility.
Mark Zagunis (23, OF/C) – .271/.406/.412, 8 HR, 54 RBI, 24 2B
Zagunis was drafted in the third round in the 2014 Amateur Draft and saw full-time play last year with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. His low average is the result of a lot of strikeouts, but he compensates for this with a high on-base percentage generally due to high walk rates (86 strikeouts to 80 walks in 2015).
His eight home runs and 24 doubles in Myrtle Beach were an impressive showing of power for an outfielder, but he does have some holes in his offensive game to work on, notably on the basepaths. His speed earned him 12 stolen bases, but he was also caught 10 times giving him a rather poor success rate. It’s encouraging that he compensates for his strikeout totals by walking roughly the same amount, but it would be nice to see him make a little more contact.
Mark Zagunis wasn’t really on anyone’s radar (at least on the outside) entering 2015, but his fine season at Myrtle Beach makes him worth watching. Unlike Torres or McKinney, however, Zagunis doesn’t have as much time, entering his age-23 season in Double-A. He also has the tools to make quick adjustments.