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A Deeper Look at the Cubs

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An attempt to look at the depth of the Cubs, both present and future

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Cardinals play other members of the NL Central a shocking amount. Well, not shocking. I mean we all watch baseball every year and understandably notice that they play them a lot. But while I somehow knew the Cardinals played each team 19 times a year - I didn’t know that exact number but I wasn’t surprised - when you add it all up, it’s 76 games a year against the NL Central. Somehow that shocked me. Brain’s funny that way. Or maybe I’m just bad at math.

In any case, we learn a lot about those teams. And for as much as we get to know their MLB squads, I’ve never really thought to learn about their minor league systems. Back when the Cubs had the best system in baseball, I knew they had the best system. I even knew a few of their top prospects. But I didn’t seek out that information, it was just a part of the worry about the Cubs and their future at the time. And when I was doing my organizational overview of the Cardinals, I realized I don’t know squat about the Cubs system or any of the NL Central. Well this is my way of educating myself and hopefully the readers as well.

Catcher

When I envision organizational depth at a specific position, my ideal setup is probably the Cubs catcher situation. Willson Contreras would probably not be my ideal catcher though. His defense is his clear weak spot, but defense doesn’t matter as much when you hit for a 127 wRC+. Conteras entered arbitration for the first time and will make $4.5 million. His backup, Victor Caratini, is one of the better backups in the league. He is still making league minimum and has four years of team control. An injury to either and former Athletics starter Josh Phegley will replace them. He’s not good at all, but is an acceptable backup if he’s facing a lefty.

The real prize though is 21-year-old Miguel Amaya, a name we will probably know soon. He is the 65th ranked prospect in baseball by Fangraphs and curiously the 4th ranked prospect by Bleed Cubbie Blue. He’s a year ahead of Ivan Herrera and only a few months older, but if Herrera wants to go ahead and have Amaya’s 2019 season at High A, that would be great. (122 wRC+) . His MLB clock is ticking officially as the Cubs were forced to put him on the 40 man roster.

Outside of that, they drafted Ethan Hearn out of high school in the 6th round of the 2019 draft. He was the 15th ranked prospect by Fangraphs in 2019, but he had a 60 wRC+ and a 38 K% in the AZL last year. He’s ranked 19th by BCB this year. They also spent $2.9 million on Ronner Quintero in last year’s international free agent class, but he’s a loooong way away.

First Base

Not much to say here. Anthony Rizzo has one year and one option year remaining on his contract. Both years are for $16.5 million. The farm system below him.... indicates they’ll probably re-sign him. Then again, they did trade Tony Kemp for the only interesting name this offseason. 23-year-old Alfonso Rivas spent 2019 with the Athletics and posted a reasonably promising season, although the .125 ISO probably would lower any excitement.

Second Base

Joe Maddon isn’t manager anymore, so it’s hard to say how flexible positional assignments will be, but 2B is very much up for grabs, and if David Ross follows Maddon’s example, will be split among a few players. Former top prospect Ian Happ, Cubs regular season hero David Bote, and former Cardinal Dan Descalso could all see time at 2B. The Cubs also invited Jason Kipnis and Hernan Perez to spring training, but neither are currently on the 40 man roster.

The formerly promising but I just don’t see it Robel Garcia will probably begin the year in AAA. He’s essentially their version of Ramon Urias, but he actually made the big club and is 27 (and was scouted out of the Italian League, not Mexican). But I’m actually getting Jose Adolis Garcia vibes from him. He appears to have a rather severe strikeout problem, striking out 43.8% of the time in the majors and 33.1% in AAA. Projection systems don’t buy into this guy unsurprisingly.

2019 2nd rounder Chase Stumpf is expected to follow Nico Hoerner’s path (who I’ll get to at SS, but will see time at 2B as well). At least, he’s expected to by BCB, who have him as the 8th ranked prospect and starting the 2020 season in High A. He had a 146 wRC+ in short-season A ball, but didn’t do as well in six games in A ball. Six games though. Looking at his numbers, he doesn’t seem like a guy you skip to High A - he struck out 25.2% of the time against much weaker competition - but I’m no scout.

Third Base

At third base most of the time, you’ll see Kris Bryant, who sure seems like he’s leaving Chicago. The question is if he leaves via a trade or if he makes it to free agency and signs with another team. He’s under contract for this season at $18.6 million and one more season with a currently unknown figure (but north of $25 million is my guess). Occasionally, Bryant will play the OF and when that happens, Bote will play 3B (and if he makes the team, Perez who plays all over the field).

In AA, they have a 3B who had a 125 wRC+ with a 12.8 BB% and .287 BABIP last year. Which would be more exciting, except Cam Balego is turning 25 in June and his highest level is currently High A. His replacement at High A, Christopher Morel, is an actual prospect. I’m quoting BCB here, but he missed his entire 2016 season from “walking through a glass door and injuring his wrist.” In his defense, he was 17, but also what? He was somewhat aggressively promoted to short season A ball in 2018, failed pretty bad and went back to rookie ball. They again somewhat aggressively sent him to full season A ball in 2019, and things went well (124 wRC+) before his season ended with an injury in July. He’ll turn 21 in June.

And lastly, I’ll make note of a player named Josue Huma, who has absurd plate discipline skills thus far. He’s incredibly far away - his highest level was short season A ball and he’s only 20. But he played at both the AZL and short season A ball and combined he walked 40 times to 41 strikeouts in just 237 PAs. Which is a 16.9% BB rate. He has shown no power though thus far.

Shortstop

Javier Baez, with two years of team control left, is the expected starter. 1st round pick of the 2018 draft Nico Hoerner has already made the big leagues. He is the 46th ranked prospect by Fangraphs and fares similarly by other sites. He had a relatively unimpressive debut in the big leagues, but this ignores context. The Cubs started him in AA in 2019 despite playing in just 14 games in 2018, with only four of them at A ball. It was the right decision with a 117 wRC+. While one could argue about his promotion to the big league so soon, they saw the writing on the wall that he would likely make the club at some point in 2020 anyway, and they would not be likely to need all three minor league options - and they didn’t burn any for his promotion either.

In AAA, they have another shortstop prospect, but he’s more of the Edmundo Sosa variety than a top prospect. Not that the two players are similar, just he’s more “solid backup middle infield prospect” than future starter. He turns 25 in May. His 2019 was cut short by injury, and his results in AAA were not particularly impressive when he was healthy, with an 84 wRC+ in 160 PAs. He also struck out 31.3% of the time. If that sounds high, it’s not too terribly at odds with who he’s expected to be at the MLB level, with some more pop than your average shorstop (.203 ISO with the juiced ball in AAA).

Okay, with our next shortstop prospect, I would be happy to have Fangraphs Cubs top prospect lists available for 2020, but they are insanely slow this year. Be grateful the Cards have been done because nobody else in the Central is yet. Aramis Ademan was the #3 Cubs prospect in 2019, but his stock is probably down after he repeated High A and was still a below average hitter. BCB didn’t even put him on the top 20, saying that the 21-year-old is off the bandwagon and is organizational depth until he proves otherwise. Harsh.

The last prospect of note is Pedro Martinez. This Pedro is the 14th ranked prospect by BCB. He’s a switch hitting prospect who lit up the AZL at 18-years-old and saw a promotion to short season A ball. In 27 games there, he was more overmatched, with a 32.1 K%, but he did manage to have a .400+ BABIP, so he still put up an above average line.

Outfield

The Cubs only have five outfielders on their 40 man roster, all of whom are familiar: Happ, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, and Steven Souza. Heyward is still due $96 million over the next four years. Schwarber is getting paid $7 million in 2020 with two years until free agency. Almora is in his first year of arb with a $1.5 million salary, but he’s in danger of being nontendered before he hits FA. Souza signed a 1 year, $1 million salary after being non-tendered by the DBacks after missing all of 2019 to injury. And I mentioned Happ in the 2B blurb, but he’s more of an outfielder at this point.

You have to go all the way to High A to find an interesting outfield prospect for the Cubs. With apologies to Ian Miller and Noel Cuevas, who’ve both seen MLB time, I’m guessing the Cubs are simply praying nobody gets hurt at the MLB level. Or they’ll just stick Bryant in the OF with an injury. Probably that. But in High A, you do have one of their best prospects in Brennen Davis, a 2nd rounder from the ‘18 draft. He just cracked the Baseball American top 100 at #94, although BCB is higher on him, naming him the 2nd best prospect in the system. The Cubs sent him to A ball in May and his season ended in August from injury, but between then, he had a 160 wRC+, which yeah I can see why BCB likes the 20-year-old. Yeah he did that at 19 in A ball. Shortened season, but still.

Also drafted in that draft, 77th overall, was Cole Roederer, another high scool draftee who had a solid season at A ball. His performance was less impressive, but he actually played the whole season there with a 101 wRC+. He was the 9th ranked BCB prospect. 21-year-old Nelson Velasquez was his teammate at A ball last year, and he had one of those solid season where none of his stats really gets me personally excited - not quite enough walks, too many Ks, not much power - but it led to a 121 wRC+ from a .390 BABIP. He gets an honorable mention outside of the top 20 from BCB. This post is running long, so I’ll stop there.

Starting Pitcher

As always, the Cubs weakness is their pitching depth (not that it’s mattered much). Their starting 4 are strong with Yu Darvish (4 years, $81 million left), Jon Lester ($20 million + $25 million option with $10 million buyout), Kyle Hendricks (4 years, $54 million), and one more year of Jose Quintana. Their fifth rotation spot, apparently, is going to Tyler Chatwood. If not him, they have two prospects on the 40 man - #5 Adbert Alzolay and #11 Tyson Miller - or they can go to more experienced guys struggling to get back to majors after injuries - Colin Rea and Jharel Cotton.

24-year-old Cory Abbot had a tremendous AA season striking out 27.8% of batters. BCB ranks him the #10 prospect. #17 Cubs prospect Justin Steele only started 11 games last season in AA and they weren’t particularly impressive. 22-year-old Javier Assad had a solid, unspectacular season at High A, but he’s not thought of highly as a prospect. He wasn’t even protected in the Rule 5 draft.

In High A, the Cubs have Brailyn Marquez, the #37 overall prospect in baseball by BA (only 114th by Fangraphs). He’s 21 and got a head start at High A last year, so I wouldn’t expect him there for long. The 7th ranked prospect by BCB is also going to start the year there. The 23-year-old Riley Thompson spent the year at Single A and was pretty good, but obviously 22-year-old prospects in Single A have to do well or they aren’t prospects.

The full season A team has a few prospects. There’s Michael McAvene, 3rd round pick in 2019, who is a probable reliever, but appears to be trying starting for now. 2019 1st rounder Ryan Jensen is another guy who might not start. His debut was not that encouraging with 14 BBs in 12 IP (along with 19 Ks). Ryan Fraklin’s newphew Kohl is the 13th ranked prospect - he had a very good season in short season A ball last year. 5th rounder Josh Burgman was not ranked by BCB, but did have a 27.9 K% and 3.8 BB%. Lastly for starters, born in 2001 #18 prospect Richard Gallardo was the Cubs $1 million international signing.

Bullpen

The Cubs bullpen is in an interesting spot. Recent free agent signing Craig Kimbrel is the closer with former Cardinal farmhand Rowan Wick, former Brewer Jeremy Jeffres, and lefty Kyle Ryan fighting for important innings behind him. After that, well, they have a few guys who absolutely have to be in the majors, but might not be good enough to be in the majors? 29-year-old Casey Sadler only have one year of service time and most of that was played in 2019, but with his 2.14 ERA came a 4.38 FIP and a 4.78 xFIP. Duane Underwood Jr has 15.2 career MLB innings. 28-year-old Alec Mills has a 4.83 FIP ZiPS projection.

In addition to those three, they also drafted Trevor Megill in the Rule 5. They can’t possibly go into the season with all four of those guys still on the team, but if they do that’s pretty much their bullpen. Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler are both vets coming off below replacement seasons. Both actually have options and less than 5 years service time. Dillon Maples and James Norwood aren’t any more impressive than the four stuck guys but they both have one option and that may win out.

In terms of non-roster invitees who may make the team, they signed Brandon Morrow, Tyler Olson, and Rex Brothers. If Morrow looks good in spring, they will absolutely cut one of the no option guys for him (though his latest update is a calf strain...) . Dakota Mekkes got ate up by AAA last year, but looked fine there in 2018, so he might be something. And Manuel Rodriguez is actually on the 40 man, but spent last year in High A. He’s a bonafide relief prospect, ranking 20th in BCB rankings. He’s only 23 and struck out 33% of batters last year. Easy to see him making the majors next year.