For the better part of two years, Kris Bryant was the Cubs’ top rated prospect. He had a great run and was soon followed up by Addison Russell. That didn’t last very long as Russell followed Bryant to the majors last year within a month. By the middle of summer, shortstop Gleyber Torres was the consensus number one prospect in the organization.
Gleyber is not your typical number one prospect. He hits for a high average, he lead South Bend in RBIs from the number two hole, but he only hit 3 homeruns and he still has a couple of issues to work out as a fielder and as a baserunner. Overall, he’s a pretty complete player who does everything well. His biggest attribute at the plate is that he can drive the ball the other way naturally. In the field, he has elite footwork to get to the ball and put himself in a position to make a great throw.
This spring it has been noted that he has put on some muscle and appears to have grown another inch, which would put him closer to 6’2”. The thing I like is that he is still only 19 years old, his birthday is in December. Reports are that he is driving the ball better than he did last year. I cannot wait to see what he can do in the Carolina League, a noted pitcher’s league where hitting .290 could win you a batting title. I am interested to see what adjustments he makes at Myrtle Beach to the advanced pitching.
During the off-season there was a a bit of argument about Baseball America ranking the Cubs as having the 20th best farm system in the minors. The reason for that ranking was that even though the Cubs do have a lot of talent, they don’t have a lot to elite talent as they did with Bryant, Russell, and Schwarber. On the other hand, a lot of the talent that they do have has not yet fully developed, Gleyber being case number one. Nevertheless, there are a few prospects who I think might be able to overtake Gleyber for the number one prospect spot in the next two years, if not this year.
First Up: Dylan Cease
He’s the closest prospect the Cubs have to a top of the rotation starter profile heading into 2016. To date, Cease’s career consists of only 24 innings. Shortly after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, Cease underwent Tommy John surgery. Within a year, he was back playing ball for the Cubs in 2015 in the Arizona Rookie League. He was limited to three innings or 40 pitches per game.
Even just a year out of surgery Cease was throwing in the mid to upper 90s. In spring training this year, he has been topping out at 100 mph with a curveball that has an 11 to 5 break with a lot of depth. However, the Cubs have not let him loose. He is still only throwing 2 to 3 innings. For Cease to topple Gleyber, it’s going to take him a couple of years to get up to 6 to 7 innings a start. Just based on his talent and projection, five innings a start by the end of this year would put him pretty close to the top, but not quite.
Batting Second: Eloy Jimenez
I don’t think it’s any secret that I am enamored with the possibility of what Eloy can be. The 6 ‘4” 200 pound 19-year-old resembles an an outside linebacker more than he does a baseball player. But once he steps into the box, it is pretty clear that he is a baseball player.
2016 is an extremely important year for Eloy. His greatest weakness has always been his lack of game play. He did get in 57 games in 2015 at short season Eugene, but he was also on the disabled list. This year he is scheduled to be at class A South Bend who has a 144 game schedule. I don’t expect he will play 144 games, but I don’t think 120 is out of the question.
And I don’t think 20 homeruns is out of the question either. While it will be cool in April and May, Jimenez and his power stroke should really take off in June and July when the weather gets warmer in northern Indiana. If he is to overtake Torres as the number one prospect, Eloy needs to begin to turn his power on this year.
I think Eloy can hit for a solid average (.280), but I don’t know how many homeruns he is going to hit. I know how many I would like him to hit, 30, but that’s an amazing amount for the Midwest league. Last year 27 homeruns lead the Midwest League. Second place was 16. I think he will or can get 20, I don’t know about 25. If he does, this conversation gets really interesting, really fast.
Third Up: Ian Happ
Happ has an advantage, a distinct advantage, over Cease and Jimenez. He’s already an extremely polished hitter with an extremely advanced approach at the plate. in 2015, Happ was drafted by the Cubs in the first round. He was coming off double hernia surgery and was also struggling with his father’s illness. It’s a wonder to me that he was able to focus as well as he did at Eugene and South Bend.
I first got to see Happ in a three-game series at Beloit in August. After noticing his great approach at the plate, I was mesmerized when watching video of how his hands going through the zone. It didn’t matter what side of the plate he was on, the switch hitter looked like he was born to drive the ball from either side of the plate. In the outfield, I was surprised by what a fluid athlete he was and the natural speed he had.
The 20 year old Happ has shown up to spring training this year in great physical and mental condition. I have read reports about his approach being at a “deluxe” level compared to the rest of the prospects. In addition, he is driving the ball at all times into the alleys and over the fence.
While Cease may take two years to possibly oust Torres, and Eloy might take a full year to usurp Torres, I think Happ might be able to get the job done by August 1, maybe even July. What Happ would need to do to be the king of Prospect Mountain would be to have sustained excellence – to dominate high A pitching. He would need to hit for average and to hit for power at a consistent level. I think Happ has a better chance than either Eloy or Cease, but I don’t know if he will be able to hit for as high an average as Torres. It’ll be easy to tell because of the two will be playing right beside each other every night for at least the next three months. What will separate Happ from Torres will be power and that Happ can do it from both sides of the plate – a rare commodity at any position. If Happ can crank out 10-15 HRs by the middle of June, let the discussion begin.
Currently, Gleyber sits at #28 and Happ is at #76 on MLB.com’s Top 100 list. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time. Don’t sit there and think that Gleyber is going to be the same Gleyber we saw last year. He’s going to improve. He’s going to become better. The question is: Will he be better than the other players when their games are fully developed? It’s a fun question to ask and hopefully it will be a fun question to see answered as all four players improve throughout the course of this year. Then it really doesn’t matter who number one is, to be honest. If the Cubs have four prospects developing at an inclined rate, they could all be in the top 20 out of all MLB prospects in a year, that would be amazing.
Honorable Mention: In the Hole – Bryan Hudson – It is still a little early for him, but I think in a year, you could add his name to the list. He is a 6’8” lefty with a power curve and developing fastball. He has seen a large increase in the mph on his fastball into the low 90s (90-91) this spring, topping out at 94. If he gets to 93-95 on average, with a changeup, then, yeah, you can put the big lefty in the discussion.
*Editor’s Note: This article will also appear on Cubs Insider with a few minor changes.