Is the Chicago Cubs farm system still the best in baseball? No, it’s definitely not anymore. The top farm system in baseball is now probably the Dodgers, especially once Minnesota Twins prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton become ineligible for prospect lists.
The Dodgers system is very deep and is headlined by shortstop Corey Seager and the 18 year-old lefthander Julio Urias that was already pitching very well in Double-A (3.00 ERA, 2.53 FIP) before getting eye surgery back on May 28th. Urias is now rahabing down in the AZL. According to MLB.com, Urias pitched two-innings and topped out at 97 on the gun during his rehab start last Friday.
However, even though the Cubs system isn't the best in baseball anymore it is still a very deep system and is still a top 5 system in all of baseball. This is after they graduated arguably their top 5 prospects (Bryant, Russell, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara) since this time last year. That's absolutely insane to think about.
For Me, Two of the Biggest Reasons are The 2014 Draft and the 2013 International Signing Period
2014 Amateur Player Draft
The headliner of the system right now is definitely the previously mentioned Kyle Schwarber. Very few doubt that Schwarber’s bat is ready for the Major League Level right now. This fact has many Cubs fan wondering why he isn’t playing in Chicago right now. He isn’t in Chicago right now because since he was drafted 4th overall in last June’s draft the Cubs have seemed pretty focused on keeping him at catcher. Schwarber has struggled behind the dish at times, but the reports on his defense behind the plate have been a lot better this year. A catcher with an above hit tool and slightly better than plus power is an insanely valuable player, so you can see why the Cubs want to keep him there. Schwarber is definatlely a guy that will see time at the Major League level again this year (probably late August or September), and the hope is that he can play catcher for at least a couple more years.
However, what made the 2014 Cubs so great in my mind was not the selection of Kyle Schwarber at fourth overall (although that was a really good pick), it was rounds 4-6 where the Cubs got High School pitchers Carson Sands, Justin Steele and Dylan Cease.
Carson Sands was drafted in the 4th round of the 2014 out of North Florida Christian High School in Tallahassee, Florida. As an amateur, scouts were intrigued by Sands because of his fastball, which was up to 94 mph, his solid 12-6 curve and his change-up, which he had a good feel for. Sands is left-handed and is currently a starter for the Eugene Emeralds in the short season Northwest League. So far this year he has a 2.78 ERA, a 3.68 FIP, a 5.16 K/9, and a 2.38 BB/9 in a small sample of 22.2 innings.
Justin Steele was drafted in the 5th round out of George County High School in Lucedale, Mississippi. When he was drafted, his fastball was low-to-mid 90’s and he had decent secondary offerings that he showed pretty solid command of. Steele is another left-handed starter with the Eugene Emeralds and has been very impressive with a 1.23 ERA, a 1.99 FIP, a 11.05 K/9, and a 2.05 BB/9 in a small sample of 22 innings this year.
Finally, we have Dylan Cease, the 6th round pick out of Milton High School in Georgia. This was a very high risk/high reward pick for the Cubs, as he had to undergo Tommy John Surgery almost immediately after he was drafted. When he an amateur he consistently worked mid to upper 90’s with his fastball and his Curveball was consistently graded as above-average to plus by scouts. With Cease, control has always been a legitimate issue, and according to people who have seen him down in the AZL this year, that issue continues.
However, Cease has also been clocked throwing 97 down in the AZL this year, so his velocity is back to where it was pre Tommy John. Cease was at one point considered one of the top pitchers in the 2014 draft and many thought he could go in the first 15 picks, before he suffered the UCL tear that shut him down for a good amount of his senior year. If scouts were that high on him before the injury, the upside is massive especially for a guy that the Cubs were able to get in the 6th round of the draft. Many think Cease could become a mid-rotation starter in the big leagues.
The 2013 International Signing Period
The two big headliners of this International Signing Period for the Cubs were Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres.
Eloy Jimenez is still 18 years old, so if he wasn’t an international player he would have been draft eligible this year. Many people think that if he would have been eligible for this years draft he would have gone 1st overall. That’s because Jimenez is 6’4" 205 and features some seriously good bat to ball ability for someone that size. Jorge Soler comps. are often thrown on him because of his good raw power and his stance at the plate, which is very similar to Soler’s (although Jimenez’ is a little more open). Last year in the AZL Jimenez struggled a little bit, hitting .227/.268/.367 in 150 at bats. This year Jimenez is also on the Eugene Emeralds and is hitting .302/.362/.413 in 63 at bats. Long-term Jimenez looks like he could be a starting corner outfielder with 25 homerun potential.
Next, is Gleyber Torres. Torres is another 18 year and is already in the Midwest League. In the Midwest League, Torres is hitting .305/.373/.394 and there are some that think Torres could even see time in High-A this year as a 18 year-old. Torres has a very advanced approach for someone his age and has shown the potential to have all 5 of his tools be above-average. For me, Torres is the second best prospect in the system (behind Schwarber). He recently was recently ranked on mid-season prospect lists as the #28 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America and 25th here at Minor League Ball, which you can see here.
Some of the other Top Prospects in the System
Of those not mentioned above one of the top prospects remaining in this system is Carl Edwards Jr. (previously C.J. Edwards). Edward’s Jr. features a fastball, curveball and change-up mix. The fastball and curveball both have plus potential, while the change-up has the potential to be at least an average big-league pitch. Edwards Jr. is currently pitching for Triple-A Iowa and he has a 3.06 ERA, a 3.36 FIP, a 11.72 K/9, and a 6.62 BB/9 this year. We will probably see Edwards Jr. pitching for the Cubs at some point this year, but the command and control still need a little work. He has previously been used as a started but has been used strictly as a reliever this year.
Albert Almora was the Cubs first round draft pick back in 2012 and he is still only 21 years old. He is a glove-first centerfielder in Double-A hitting .249/.294/.395 this year. However, his swing looks good and it features good use of the legs and he has correct sequencing, using the lower half first then the upper half of his body. His swing mechanics look pretty good and many people, myself included, think he could become at least an average hitter at the Major League Level. A centerfielder with a plus glove and average hit, that’s a solid starter on a major league team.
Billy McKinney was an overlooked part of the Jeff Samardzija/Addison Russell trade last summer. He was drafted by the Athletics in the first round of the 2013 draft out of Plano West High School in Texas. He is currently in Double-A and has a .321/.390/.489 slash line this year. McKinney definatly profiles more as a corner outfielder long-term despite him mostly being used as a centerfielder so far in his minor league career. He has potential to become a solid major league regular.
Pierce Johnson was drafted in Compensation Round A in 2012 out of Missouri State. He missed much of the early part of this season with a lat injury, but he is back in Double-A now and has been very impressive with a 1.26 ERA and a 3.57 FIP in a small sample size. Johnson has the typical 3 pitch of fastball, curveball and change-up and all 3 pitches have above average potential. However, he struggles with command a little at times. Johnson looks like he could be a fourth or fifth starter long term.
Duane Underwood Jr. was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft out of Alan C. Pope High School in Marietta, Georgia. Underwood Jr. is 20 (soon to be 21) years old. He has been pitching for the High-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans this season before getting injured back in late June. So far this year in High-A he has 2.66 ERA and a 4.12 FIP. He also features a pretty standard fastball, curveball and change-up mix. The fastball is far and away his best pitch, but the other two also both have above-average potential. Underwood Jr. has a chance to be a mid-rotation (number 3) starter at the major league level.
Jen-Ho Tseng was signed by the Cubs during the Cubs in the 2013 international signing period. He is 20 years-old and is currently in High-A. He has a 3.91 ERA and a 3.65 FIP this year. According to people who have seen him this year, he has primarily been 90-94 t95 with his fastball and has shown a good change-up and curveball (it appears Tseng might've also just started throwing a cutter). He also features plus command and has a chance to be a very solid 4th or 5th starter.
Dan Vogelbach was the Cubs second round draft pick in 2011 out of Bishop Verot High School in Florida. He is currently in Double-A and has a .284/.410/.431 slash-line this year. His size will limit him to being strictly a 1st base/designated hitter. However, this guy has legitimate plus power potential. He is rule-5 eligible this upcoming winter and due to the fact the Cubs are a National League team and have a legitimate super-star signed to a team friendly contract through 2020, many believe Vogelbach will be traded in the very near future.
A couple more guys that are very interesting
Frandy De La Rosa: He was signed by the Cubs during the 2012 International Signing period. He is just another 19 year old middle infielder hitting .295/.350/.420 for Eugene this year.
Jake Stinnett: Drafted in the second-round of the 2014 draft as a senior out of Maryland. He’s disappointed a little in the Midwest League this year with a 5.24 ERA and a 4.66 FIP. He features a fastball, slider and change-up, all of which have at least average potential. He still has potential to be a fourth or fifth starter.
Corey Black: The Yankees fourth round draft pick in 2012, he was acquired by the Cubs as part of the Alfonso Soriano deal back in 2013. He’s currently in Double-A with a 3.41 ERA and a 3.19 FIP this year. He is basically a fastball/slider because his other pitches lag behind. He has starting experience, but long-term the Cubs see him as a reliever. Black is also rule-5 eligible this upcoming offseason.
Mark Zagunis: The Cubs third round pick in 2014 out of Virginia Tech. He is currently in High-A and he has been used strictly as an outfielder this year after being used a a catcher when he was playing for Virginia Tech. He has a .296/.423/.440 slash line this year. Zagunis has a good hit tool and he has a very solid approach at the plate.
Willson Contreras: Contreras is gaining a lot more recognition this year among people that follow the Cubs minor league system. As a catcher for Double-A Tennessee he has hit .322/.398/.485 this year. While his offensive performance this year has been very solid, the glove is still holding him back a little bit and he just isn't ready to be catching at the Major League Level yet. This is another guy that is rule 5 eligible this upcoming offseason.
Wladimir Galindo: He was signed by the Cubs as a International Free Agent in December of 2013. Scouts have always liked his size, arm strength and raw power. He has been used mostly at third base so far this year, but many people see him moving to a corner outfield spot long term. He is still 18 years old and has hit .349/.394/.508 in the AZL so far this year.
All that and I didn't even mention what the Cubs did just last month in draft. With their first two picks they took Ian Happ (a centerfielder/2nd baseman from the University of Cincinnati) and Donnie Dewees (an outfielder out of the University of North Florida). While these guys are nowhere near as good as Kyle Schwarber, they were still two of the top college bats available in the draft this year. Both of these guys are now playing with Eugene and so far Happ is hitting .244/.389/.442 and Dewees is at .281/.347/.391.