Mere years ago, the Chicago Cubs owned one of the best farm systems in the game of baseball. Just four seasons ago, in 2014, the Cubs sported a top-ten prospect list headlined by Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Carl Edwards Jr. All of those names are currently on the big league roster, with one of them having already won an MVP award and another named as a finalist for the award this season.
Not only did 2014 serve as a beginning point for the Cubs’ latest parade of prospects to the big leagues, but it also firmly kicked off some names that fans of the North Siders would like to forget. In 2013, Brett Jackson was the club’s fourth best prospect while two years earlier, in 2011, names like Trey McNutt, Hayden Simpson and Josh Vitters still appeared in the Cubs’ top-ten.
Thankfully, Theo Epstein and company struck gold in the amateur drafts since taking over the day-to-day operations in October of 2011. Epstein and Jed Hoyer, not to mention all of the scouts and player development staff, are largely responsible for winning Cubs fans their first World Series title in better than 100 years.
Winning that title took graduating top prospect after top prospect, while at the same time trading Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees for a lock-down closer. Aroldis Chapman cost the Cubs their best prospect in 2016 while a trade with the Chicago White Sox a year later further gutted their system. That deal, which shipped left-handed starter Jose Quintana to the Cubs, cost top prospect Eloy Jimenez and number four prospect Dylan Cease.
Those moves, along with Jeimer Candelario‘s departure for Detroit and graduations of Ian Happ and Albert Almora, left the Cubs system looking frail, to say the least. Nevertheless, the Cubs’ drive to draft and development home-grown pitching seems to finally be paying off. With Cease out of the picture, right-hander Adbert Alzolay assumed the title of best pitcher in the farm system.
Adbert Alzolay, RHP
Trailing only 19-year-old catcher Miguel Amaya, Alzolay is touted as the second best prospect in the Cubs’ system according to mlb.com. At 23 years old, the right-hander has been in the Cubs system since late-2012. His $10,000 signing bonus out of Venezuela quickly paid dividends as the six-foot tall Alozlay posted a 1.07 ERA across 67 innings in his first taste of professional baseball.
While able to find success as an 18-year-old in 2013, Alzolay’s development came with its fair share of disappointment. One year later, in 2014, the youngster struggled to the tune of a 7.90 ERA across two different levels. His 24 earned runs and 33 hits over 27.1 innings didn’t do much to help his 1.646 WHIP, but his 28 strikeouts flashed his strike-throwing potential.
Essentially a two-pitch pitcher, both Alzolay’s fastball and curveball have a future grade of 60 by fangraphs.com. Currently at a 60- and 55-grade respectively, those two offerings are easily better than the change-up Alzolay is developing. Nothing more than a third pitch used only sparingly, the offering grades below average at 40 with the potential of reaching only slightly below average.
Alzolay’s 60-grade fastball has come a long way as it sits solidly in the mid-90’s and at times operates like a cut-fastball, making hard contact on the pitch an extremely difficult task.
In today’s game, a mid-90’s fastball is common among pitchers, with batters able to adjust quickly to velocity. Thus far in his career, Alzolay has not proven to be a consistent strikeout pitcher, logging a career strikeout rate of just 17 percent. However, Alzolay has seen that number rise as high as 24.5 percent in 2015 and sit in the low-20’s all of 2017. More recently, the right-hander managed to strike out just 15.8 percent of batters in 39.2 innings at Triple-A.
Alzolay’s work at Triple-A was cut short last season due to a lat strain suffered in late-May. Prior to his injury, rumors surfaced suggesting Alzolay could be nearing a call-up, a necessary step due to the injury of Yu Darvish. When the right-hander was pulled after four perfect innings in his eighth start of the season of Triple-A, it signaled to most that time had come for the top prospect to make his debut. However, it was later reveled Alzolay was taken out for health reasons and would be shut down for the rest of the season.
Because of his injury, Alzolay compiled less than 40 innings in 2018, working to a 4.76 ERA in the process. This latest set-back will mean Alzolay is likely to start 2019 in Iowa’s rotation. With a staff of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels at the big league level, plus Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery as depth starters, it seems likely Alzolay will have to wait until September for his call-up.
With that being said, Alzolay possesses enough talent to be a huge x-factor out of the Cubs’ bullpen down the stretch. For his career, the right-hander has never posted a walk rate in double-digits and has improved his command since the early portions of his tenure with the Cubs. In 2016, the youngster posted a walk rate of just 5.6 percent over 120.1 innings, a number that ticked up to 7.6 percent in 2018. Both of those numbers are significantly less than the 9.9 percent mark the Cubs pitching staff posted in 2018 (third highest in baseball), with the bullpen sporting an 11 percent mark (second highest in baseball).
Beyond 2019, Alzolay’s importance to the Cubs multiplies ten-fold. Both Quintana and Hendricks are free agents after 2020 with Darvish able to exercise an opt-out following the 2019 season. The pitcher with the most guaranteed years left on his deal is Jon Lester. With a vesting option available for 2021, the southpaw could be as old as 38 when he hits the free agent market.
Nico Hoerner, SS
A major headline following the wild-card loss to the Rockies in early October did not center around the club’s performance, but rather a player’s issues off the field. Hours after the Cubs’ 2-1 defeat, it was announced Addison Russell had been dealt and would serve a 40-game suspension for violating the Joint Domestic Violence policy set forth by major league baseball.
While the details of Russell’s actions are better outlined here, reports surfaced during the GM meetings suggesting the middle infielder’s future with the club may not be over. While it’s still some time until the Cubs will be forced to make a decision, bringing Russell back would not only be a mistake, but it has the possibility to divide the club’s fanbase and suggest domestic violence can somehow go unpunished.
Russell, who was placed on administrative leave on September 21, had become a non-factor on the field. In 130 games, Russell slashed just .250/.317/.340/.657, setting career-lows in slugging percentage, OPS, OPS-plus (74) and total bases (143). His five home runs and 38 RBI coupled with his suspension, signal rock-bottom for the youngster.
Addison’s potential absence in 2019 and beyond will leave the Cubs with an interesting question. Who plays shortstop? The obvious answer right now is Javier Baez, who is fresh off his MVP-caliber 2018 campaign. That shift would left a vacancy on the right side of the infield, one that could be filled by Ben Zobrist, David Bote or a free agent this winter.
With all of their outfield depth, the Cubs are relatively void of solid middle infield depth in the minor leagues. Of the six shortstops listed after Russell on the club’s organizational depth chart, none of them posted an OPS higher than .773 last season.
Perhaps due to their lack of shortstop depth, the Cubs drafted Nico Hoerner with the 24th pick in the 2018 draft. Hoerner, 21, is the first college hitter selected by the Cubs since Ian Happ in 2015 and signals the team’s shift in focus back to hitters after two years of drafting pitchers.
Signed for the slot value of $2.72 million, Hoerner followed in Alozlay’s foot steps of getting hurt in 2018. While the minor injury limited the youngster’s production in the regular season, Hoerner has been participating in the Arizona Fall League as a member of the Mesa Solar Sox.
Graded as a 50 overall by mlb.com, Hoerner possesses an above average hit tool with a knack for making hard contact to all fields. In a small sample size of just 28 plate appearances at the Low-A level, Hoerner posted an OPS of 1.010, collecting seven hits, four stolen bases and five walks. With that limited sample size, the youngster displayed his line-drive approach, notching a line-drive rate of 31.6 percent and an opposite field contact percentage of 36.8 percent.
Overall, Hoerner has collected 60 plate appearances since draft night and has impressed with just about every one of them. Currently, the 21-year-old owns a slash line of .327/.450/.571/1.021 with his best production coming at Class-A, the highest level Hoerner reached in 2018.
Without the injury to his elbow, it’s possible Hoerner could have reached Double-A last season. Hoerner’s seasoned college bat thus far has impressed and could suggest a quick rise through the Cubs’ system. One question mark, however, surrounded Hoerner on draft day, his defensive ability at shortstop. Graded at a 50, some believe Hoerner is better suited for second base due to his only slightly above average arm. However, the Cubs’ actions suggest they want Hoerner to stick at shortstop.
Across his 106 innings of play prior to injury, Hoerner played error-less baseball, recording 16 put-out and 34 assists in 50 chances. More recently, the youngster has received reps at shortstop in the Arizona Fall League while spending just nine innings at second base. In 140.2 innings at short, Hoerner has committed four errors while turning 14 double plays and posting better range numbers than those he posted in the regular season.
Hoerner’s make-up — first round pick, line-drive hitter, potential fit atop a major league batting order — has me thinking a lot about Dansby Swanson. Selected number one overall in 2015, Swanson possessed similar tool grades in his draft profile as Hoerner. While clearly better defensively than Hoerner, Swanson moved quickly through the Arizona Diamondbacks’ and later, the Atlanta Braves’ farm system, debuting just one year after being drafted.
Set to begin the season at Class-A, Hoerner could follow in Swanson’s tracks and make his big league debut at 22. Without much depth at the shortstop and second base positions, plus Hoerner’s ability to make contact and steal bases, the Cubs may decide to continue pushing the youngster through their system.
Hoerner’s impact on the Cubs’ offense could come as soon as late-summer 2019. While his bat will never be the caliber of some current big name free agents, it could go a long way in replacing what Dexter Fowler brought two years ago.
Of these two prospects, Alzolay is the most likely to make his debut in 2019. However, if the offense continues to struggle, I would not imagine the front office holding a polished bat like Hoerner’s in the minor leagues. A lot can happen in a season, as we saw in 2018. With a thinned farm system, Alzolay and Hoerner could represent the next wave of Cubs prospects to appear at Wrigley Field, ones that could help this club reach its goals in 2019 and beyond.
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