By Todd Johnson
For the past five summers, the strength of the Cubs’ minor-league system was always their hitters. The sheer talent level of prospects to make it Chicago has been amazing with Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Javy Baez, and Kyle Schwarber. Add in the fact that Jeimer Candelario and Albert Almora are just waiting for their chance. After Candelario and Almora make it, the herd thins away for elite hitters. However, there are still some good hitting prospects to keep an eye on. Some are more well-known than others. Here are what I think should be the top storylines to follow for position players in the Cubs minor league system in 2017.
Eloy Jimenez – I was quite surprised to see that Eloy assigned to the Arizona Fall League at the end of 2016. It is very rare that a class A player, in fact, low class A, would be given such a task. On the other hand, I think it was a way to speed up his development. Eloy hit for a higher average than anyone thought he could at .329 in 2016. As future pitchers will have more control than what he saw in the Midwest League, he could be even better. The power profile is still there, and he is my number one prospect in the system, but he still has a lot of room to improve. 14 home runs are nothing to sneeze at, but I think the magic number for his rapid development lies somewhere between a 20 and 25 HR pace.
Ian Happ – In the last three weeks of June, the 2015 number one draft pick of the Cubs hit close to .600 at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. Then, things began to cool off quickly as he hit under .240 for July and August. Most recently, he played in the Arizona Fall League where I imagine the Cubs were going to take a look at how he did against advanced competition. My feeling is that the better the pitching he faces, the better he will hit. He’s been a pretty streaky player for the Cubs. He’ll hit around .230 to .240 for a couple weeks and then goes on a tear and then he will rinse and repeat. I’d like to see him be more consistent when it comes to hitting. However, you cannot overlook his approach at the plate and his ability to draw walks. It should be interesting to see what he will do next season. He will likely return to Tennessee.
Wladimir Galindo – The young third baseman stayed healthy for the first time in 2016. What we did see was a bat that produced a lot of doubles, triples, and home runs for Eugene. We also saw a bat that was not very selective. During the first part of August, he had a nice run over two weeks where he hit for a good average, he drew some walks, and he hit some home runs. I think South Bend is in for a treat in 2017. Manager Jimmy Gonzalez has done an excellent job of teaching plate discipline for the prospects at South Bend the last two years. I am really excited to see how Wladimir takes to Jimmy!
Eddy Martinez – in the second half of 2016, his approach was much improved and he displayed that he could hit for a decent average with decent power. He has an awesome cannon for an arm on the defensive side of the ball. Now that he has his first year of development in, I expect to see an improvement across the board as he becomes acclimated to playing baseball every day in the US. Like his compadre, Eloy, I don’t think he will be long at Myrtle Beach.
Donnie Dewees – Like a fish to water, Dewees came on strong last year in his first full year of baseball, especially at Myrtle Beach. While the power was not as proficient as first thought, the speed was advertised and he showed he could go get a ball in the outfield. I think he could start the year at AA Tennessee and will likely spend the whole year there. I would like to see him hit for more power this year, but I would also like to see more walks.
Yasiel Balaguert – He’s only got one issue. He has trouble hitting the curve. However, there’s not a lot that he can’t do with a fastball. Last year at Myrtle Beach, he led the entire Cubs’ system in RBIs and home runs. At AA Tennessee I think those numbers are only going to increase because he’s not playing in the stadium where the wind blows in most every day. I’m hoping he can get his average consistently above .250 and take a few more walks. Right now, his power profile and performance are above where I think anyone thought they would be.
Matt Rose – I think I’m gonna find it really interesting to see if he can pick up where he left off at the end of 2016. He hit seven home runs just in August. I don’t think he can do that every month, but it would be nice to see that power in some form continue at Myrtle Beach in 2017. In addition, he showed the ability to hit for average in his second go-around at South Bend.
Jonathan Sierra – This tall left-handed hitting outfielder debuted in 2016 in the Dominican Summer League. He did not get off to the greatest start hitting only .194 in June. But as the summer wore on, Sierra begin to do something that most normal 17-year-olds don’t do. He began to walk. For most prospects, they begin to develop their plate approach somewhere around low class A. It is quite surprising that he started to develop discipline this early and that well. I think he will debut stateside at Mesa in 2017.
DJ Wilson – DJ had a good August after a poor June and July at Eugene. It’ll be interesting to see the start that he gets off to in 2017. I think his defense is going to be exciting to watch for many Cub fans in South Bend, but I think they’re also to be surprised by the pop he showed at Eugene. While he can hit home runs for power, he can hit a lot of doubles and those doubles can easily turn into triples at some of the bigger Midwest League parks.
Delvin Zinn – He is 100% pure athlete, maybe the best in the system. The 2015 and 2016 draft pick signed and got some work in at Mesa in 2016. Zinn also showed much development in a short time at fall instructs. I think that in two years, he could become one of the top prospects in the system. He should begin 2017 in Eugene.
David Bote – I don’t think there was a more valuable player to a Cubs team than Bote was the last two months at Myrtle Beach in 2016. He hit close to .400 after August 1 and he did it easily. He started off the year as an organizational guy in 2016. Once he settled into an everyday role at Myrtle Beach, his bat really took off. I’m hoping next year at AA Tennessee that he can continue this trend. He’s already major league ready when it comes to his defense. I could see that when he was at Kane County 2014 and South Bend in 2015.
PJ Higgins – In his first full year as a pro, Higgins showed immense plate discipline that reminded many of Mark Zagunis. He did not display much power but he did show the ability to hit for average. I think he is the best catcher in the system as his defense and arm are far superior to anyone else. If he develops any power I think you can add the words fast track to your vocabulary.
2017 #1 Draft Pick – With a poor free agent class coming up this winter, I don’t think the Cubs will be in the market to acquire any player from free agency who has a compensation pick tied to them. As a result, the Cubs will actually have a first round pick in 2017. I don’t think the Cubs will break the trend and pick a starting pitcher. I think they’re going to stay with the talented hitter. Jason McLeod should be able to get a pretty good one at that position. The question is whether it’s going to be a high school player or a college player? If Dexter Fowler signs elsewhere, the Cubs would have two picks in the top 35-40.
AAA Iowa – There are five bats that I’m gonna find very interesting to watch in the early part of 2017. Chesny Young, Mark Zagunis, Victor Caratini, Bijan Rademacher, and Jeimer Candelario should all start the season at AAA Iowa. Hopefully, none of them gets traded this winter. So, when they arrive in Iowa I wonder how long their bats keep them down. Young, I think, is the one I’m most interested in watching to see how his that plays at the AAA level. We’ve already got a good glimpse of what Zagunis and Jeimer can do at that level. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Jeimer spend the shortest amount of time and AAA. Caratini, a switch-hitting catcher, is now extremely close to the show after hitting close to .300 at AA Tennessee.