Minor League Minor Leaguers: 2018 Sleepers, Chicago Cubs

cubs

Prospects highlighted with 2019 age/projected assignment: C Michael Cruz (23, A+), RHP Jesus Camargo (23, A), RHP Cory Abbott (22, A+), OF Fernando Kelli (20, R-SS), LHP Brailyn Marquez (20, A), RHP Paul Richan (22, A), LHP Justin Steele (23, AA), RHP Keegan Thompson (23, AA), RHP Tyson Miller (23, AA), SS Zack Short (24, AAA)

 

This is the second installment of a look at sleeper prospects for all thirty MLB teams. There is no sense in covering the Cubs’ top prospects, such as Miguel Amaya, Nico Hoerner, Aramis Ademan, and Adbert Alzolay, because you’re already going to hear a lot about those players this winter and throughout the season ahead.

For our purposes, we’re going to consider prospects as young players who have not yet become established MLB players, rather than ignoring young, unestablished players once they have exhausted their rookie eligibility.

 

Chicago Cubs Minor League Affiliates (2018)
AAA: Iowa Cubs, Pacific Coast League (Des Moines, IA; since 1981)
AA:
Tennessee Smokies, Southern League (Knoxville, TN; since 2007)
A+:
Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Carolina League (Myrtle Beach, SC; since 2015)
A:
South Bend Cubs, Midwest League (South Bend, IN; since 2015)
R-SS:
Eugene Emeralds, Northwest League (Eugene, OR; since 2015)
AZL: Arizona Cubs / DSL: DSL Cubs

 

C Michael Cruz – 2016 7th round (224th overall), Bethune-Cookman
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: A+
(Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Carolina League)

Chicago’s top prospect, Miguel Amaya, is the catcher who gets more attention, and rightfully so. But that doesn’t mean that the other half of South Bend’s battery isn’t a prospect in his own right. Cruz played first base and served as designated hitter in close to two thirds of his starts to at least get him at bats, since Amaya would corral most starts behind the dish. Cruz had a lot of runners attempt to steal on him, nearly two per game, but so did Amaya. The high volume of attempts is characteristic of the low minors and not in of itself an indictment of Cruz’s arm or his ability to stay behind the plate at the upper minors. Nonetheless, he only caught 25% of attempted base stealers; league average was 32%.

It’s worth noting that, as with shortstops or centerfielders, many low minors catchers will not play the position in MLB if they advance to the highest level. Shortstops become second basemen, centerfielders move to right, and that’s why the up-the-middle defensive positions have lower bars to clear for average offense. Many catchers end up at corner infield. Most MLB catchers would not last as starting first basemen because most minor league catchers only have enough offense to play behind the plate. Any catcher that can’t clear wherever that bar is set become non-prospects unless there is enough bat to become a viable option elsewhere. Hall of Famer Craig Biggio and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson began their careers as catchers, but each player also moved to more difficult positions than not, second and third base, respectively.

My guess would be Cruz will keep seeing time at catcher but might not be more than a 3rd option at the big league level, rather than a true backup catcher. It’d be ideal if Cruz could both produce some offense and provide defensive adequacy behind the plate in MLB, but it may not be necessary for him to fake it as a catcher. Cruz might have enough bat to develop into a bench or platoon bat with some power.

The Midwest League doesn’t see a lot of scoring compared to most other leagues. The Great Lakes states and “Rust Belt” (alternate: “Tommy Boy Belt”) have cold, precipitous early springs that make it less easy and fun to try to hit a baseball. The league only saw 4.3 runs per game in 2018 and slugging percentage across the league was a meager .373. Cruz slugged 35 extra base hits in beating that rate by nearly a hundred points. He also ran strong 8.1 BB% and 10.6 K% rates. An OPS in the mid .700s is not going to jump off the page, but running an ISO greater than .200 in the Midwest League is difficult to do, and his 24 doubles tied for ninth in the league. He received less playing time than everyone tied with or above him on the list; he received 100 fewer PA than all but one of them (94 PA).

The safe bet is Cruz isn’t a catcher in the majors, so being the writerperson, I’ll lean that way. He showed power potential this year, but it was during his age 22 season. That’s a little older than average for low A, but we can also cut Cruz some slack since the demands of catching slow development, and 22 isn’t egregiously old for the level.

What would a good outcome look like? Craig Wilson produced 4.6 WAR for a total of eight million dollars across six seasons of cost control for Pittsburgh in the 2000s. He provided emergency coverage at catcher but generally was used as a RHH platoon bat splitting time between first base and right field. Wilson is by no means a memorable, core player, but he provided utility in a platoon role, and you’re better off having one of those ready to go in AAA than paying for one in trade.

What would a bad outcome look like? Ryan Lavarnway was an extremely confusing prospect to follow, as his defense pretty clearly precluded him from becoming a starting catcher, but Boston refused to give up the ghost, yet also gave him only one legitimate opportunity and declined to trade him. There was probably a useful bench player here once upon a time; after all, it’s not easy to find 23-year-old players who rock 59 XBH, an .OPS well over .900 and walk and strikeout rates respectively above 10 and below 20 in the upper minors, including an ISO over .300 at AAA. That’s a very strong offensive profile, and perhaps it’s why Lavarnway still attracts annual interest to be some team’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency veteran catching option on the AAA bench.

Cruz is a year behind Lavarnway’s development track. He could maintain or even demonstrate further growth of power and plate discipline in the upper minors, and like Lavarnway, he might not ever get a real opportunity anyway. Lavarnway couldn’t break in when bullpens carried one fewer reliever and one more position player. How’s Cruz going to manage it?

It’s worth keeping an eye on Cruz’s doubles power, especially as doubles power can come before home runs show up. I think it’ll be more about his catching defense, because without projecting to stay there as a bat-first timeshare type catcher, he’s going to have a hard time claiming a hotly contested roster spot and holding it as something beyond a temporary injury call up. I feel better about the offense continuing to show than I do about saying he’s going to accumulate a few WAR over a few years on an MLB bench.

 

RHP Jesus Camargosigned as IFA: 2014, Mexico, bonus n/a
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: A (South Bend Cubs, Midwest League)

Camargo made his Cubs debut in the AZL as a 19-year-old and struck out 57 in 46.1 innings while walking just 12 and surrendering a single home run. He missed the entire 2016 season due to injury but has had opportunities to start at Eugene in 2017 and South Bend in 2018, where he continued to show ability to limit walks and home runs while putting hitters away.

His K/9 dipped to 8.1 in his full season debut this year, but he still ran a 2.62 ERA thanks to his control (and the run environment), and his K rate sits at above ten for his career in 151.1 IP. He reportedly sports an above average changeup that gets 10-12 MPH of separation from his low 90s fastball. A solid changeup is the ingredient missing from many young starting pitcher profiles.

Camargo didn’t appear after June, and having appeared in only 11 games to that point, it would certainly figure to be injury related. He made two appearances in the Mexican Winter League in October, but it’s unclear if he had an injury issue or if he was simply replaced with someone else on the team, which is not uncommon for MLB prospects playing in winter leagues. Having appeared in professional games less than four months later, we can at least conclude that any injury that ended Camargo’s summer was clearly not a catastrophic one, and perhaps not a cause for concern.

Still, it’s frustrating to find so little detail about Camargo’s injury history, because it would help guide us in deciding whether we’re more interested in his above average changeup and strike zone command than we are worried about whether this pitcher will have persistent problems staying healthy. Camargo was starting to hit his stride, throwing at least five innings in each of his final five starts of the season. He put together a nice three game stretch in there, shutting out his opponents for 16.2 innings while surrendering 11 hits, walking three and striking out 17. He might have been about ready to spend August getting his feet wet in hi A.

Camargo will be 23 next season, and I think he should go back to low A to start the year and move up to hi A by the time 2019 draftees start arriving. He will need to be added to the 40-man after the 2019 season to avoid being exposed to the Rule 5 draft, and although the Cubs would surely like to get a look at how he adjusts to the upper minors first, it might be best to avoid being aggressive since he has already missed a season and a half of development time.

 

RHP Cory Abbott2017 2nd round (67th overall), Loyola Marymount
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Level: AA (Tennessee Smokies, Southern League)

Abbott threw the first perfect game in LMU history and just the 26th in NCAA Division I history by shutting down Brigham Young (BYU) on March 25th, 2017, en route to becoming the West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year.

He was also very successful in his first full season of pro ball, ending the year with 13 starts for Myrtle Beach after thoroughly dominating Midwest Leaguers like a 22-year-old college arm ought to. Abbott surrendered only three home runs in 67.2 A+ innings, and given that he produces grounders at roughly a league average rate, a 4.2 HR/FB% is going to crawl up as he ascends the ladder. He continued to strike out nearly ten per nine, however, and while his control wavered at the more difficult of his two assignments, he kept it to about three and a half walks per nine, which is higher than we’d prefer, but decent enough for now.

Abbott finished the season on a strong note by allowing just two runs across five August starts spanning 27 innings. He actually got better each month with Myrtle Beach. Lefties hit him to an OPS .200 higher than righties managed, but it wasn’t a disastrous split. It’ll be something to keep an eye on, especially if Abbott ends up in relief in the end. I’d expect his H/9 and HR/9 to come up a bit in the upper minors, as environment and age relative to league are surely factors that affected his A ball performances. Managing walks will be the real key to Abbott’s ability to play at the back end of a big league rotation by the end of 2020.

Abbott may very well be sent back to Myrtle Beach to get his feet under him before the AA transition, but if there’s room, I think I’d just give him a rotation spot in Tennessee from the start of the season and leave him parked there for an entire season. There might be growing pains, but perhaps he could earn a taste of AAA if he keeps it going. I don’t think a 23-year-old pitcher with college experience is going to learn anything in A ball at this point. The point is to produce an MLB pitcher, and minor league statistics are just a byproduct of whatever is done to try to achieve that end. It might be good for Abbott to get knocked around for a couple months and learn how to adjust to better hitters.

It doesn’t really matter if he’s a 4.50 ERA pitcher in AA in 2019. He seems like a fairly safe bet to at least reach the majors, and once in a while, a back end starter overachieves and all of a sudden offers someone you’d consider having start game 4, or in a 90th percentile outcome, game 3 of a playoff series. As a win-now team with a great, young core, the Cubs drafted Abbott because they expect him in the majors soon, ready to contribute in at least some kind of role.

 

OF Fernando Kellisigned as IFA: 2014, Venezuela, $60,000
2019 Age: 20
2019 Projected Assignment: R-SS (Eugene Emeralds, Northwest League)

Because the minor leagues are weird, Eugene was a sub .500 regular season team that went undefeated in the Northwest League playoffs to claim a short season championship. Kelli started in center for the team all year long, just as he had in two DSL stints before coming stateside for 2018. He’s a raw player at the plate, but not completely lost. The limiting factor on his profile is clearly strikeout rate before you even get to figuring out how much bat might be in here. I’ll cut him some slack because I bet it’s not especially easy to go work in a different country when you’re 19.

Kelli is a speedy switch hitter who racked up 58 stolen bases in his second DSL summer in 2017, although Northwest League catchers were able to better keep him in check, limiting him to a success rate under 70%. He has a walk rate above nonexistent and it offers some hope for progress on the strikeout rate. Kelli will be a real nuisance on the bases, but you’ve got to get on base first. As some centerfielders split time almost evenly across the three outfield spots in the low minors, I’m encouraged to see Kelli getting used almost exclusively at the premium position in each of his first three years.

This is a very raw player who does not look ready for full season ball. He needs another summer at Eugene in 2019 and will probably be a one-level-at-a-time guy over the next few years. Or, his strikeout rate continues in the wrong direction for a couple years, and he won’t get out of A ball in spite of speed and defensive utility.

 

LHP Brailyn Marquezsigned as IFA: 2015, Dominican Republic, $600,000
2019 Age: 20
2019 Projected Assignment: A (South Bend Cubs, Midwest League)

Marquez is a 6’4” lefty who spent his summer at Eugene and pitched well enough to earn two end-of-season starts at South Bend, where he’ll return to begin 2019. He’s a flyball pitcher at this point who has been very fairly hittable so far in his brief career. However, Marquez was two years younger than the average Northwest League hitter, and he will be once again in the Pioneer League.

Marquez wasn’t overmatched in his brief seven inning tester at the higher level, and for the whole year, he struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings across twelve starts. He also was able to limit walks to an above average rate of 2.6 BB/9 against the older competition. This is a good start. Health permitting, Marquez is on a trajectory to have a handful of AA starts under his belt by the time the Cubs need to decide on him after the 2020 season. He’ll get most of a season at South Bend, but the keys are in his pocket. Performance could push him to hi A over the summer.

 

RHP Paul Richan2018 2nd round (78th overall), University of San Diego
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment: A (South Bend Cubs, Midwest League)

Richan will probably head to South Bend in April with Marquez, but he figures to spend less time there, and it wouldn’t shock me if they sent him straight to high A. Marquez is two years younger and offers more upside than Richan, but Richan’s going to be a finished product sooner.

The pitcher Richan more closely resembles in the Cubs system is Abbott. They are actually the same person, except one of his two characters wears the old fake glasses with mustache for his appearances. The two pitchers were selected at basically the same draft slot as college righties who will move quickly through the minors. You can think of Abbott as Richan plus one year. Abbott is the blueprint for what happens next year. It will be a successful season if Richan continues pitching very well, like a polished college arm is supposed to in the low minors against younger competition, and more importantly if he’s most of the way through conquering hi A by the end of 2019.

Richan struck out more than six batters for every batters across 29.2 innings for Eugene. It doesn’t really prove anything except that he can strike out raw, toolsy 19-year-old players. He faced an arguably more polished pool of college hitters with San Diego. We won’t learn anything substantial about Richan until the AA transition that probably won’t come until early 2020, but he’s surely a pitcher to monitor.

 

LHP Justin Steele2014 5th round (139th overall), George County HS (Lucedale, MS)
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Tennessee Smokies, Southern League)

The Cubs gave Steele a million dollars, more than double slot value, to encourage him to forego a chance to pitch for UCLA and begin his professional career. Steele showed a decent strikeout rate as he advanced one level at a time through 2017. He struggled some with control but pitched well enough to make more progress than not.

It’s a huge plus that Steele was able to pitch at all this year. After his August 2017 Tommy John surgery, Jim Callis reported as recently as April of this year that he was in danger of missing the entire minor league season. Instead, Steele surprised by being ready for AZL rehab by July, and he was able to get his first exposure to AA hitters to close the season, allowing four earned runs in ten innings across two starts. The samples are small, but Steele showed a better strikeout rate than he did during last year’s residency in Myrtle Beach, and most importantly, he cut his walk rate slightly.

Even if the results aren’t there right away in the most-of-a-full AA season Steele’s going to be getting in 2019, we’re ahead of the curve on him because he only lost a half season of development time to TJ thanks to his quick recovery. Also, although none of his full season lines jump off the page, he’s shown enough in bits and pieces to keep alive hopes of converting this prospect into a viable MLB starting pitcher.

As a flyball pitcher, the key to Steele’s success will be limiting walks at the higher levels of the minor leagues. He was less hittable this season than he had ever shown prior to the surgery (again, a small sample), and he’s never been particularly homer prone. AA will tell us a lot, but this looks like a good-as-most outside shot at a starting pitcher in the end.

 

RHP Keegan Thompson 2017 3rd round (105th overall), Auburn
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment: AA

Thompson, an Alabama native, had Tommy John surgery and missed his junior season at Auburn. The righty had the option of rehabbing as Detroit’s 33rd round pick, but he bet on himself and it paid off. He delivered a 2.41 ERA in 93 1/3 innings in the SEC and became the third round pick of the Cubs.

Thompson isn’t the first MLB prospect Auburn coach Butch Thompson (no relation…?) has managed and he surely won’t be the last, but the six foot righty earned high praise for his competitive drive and clubhouse presence, calling Keegan the leader of the 2017 team even though he couldn’t take the field during his recovery.

He has a four pitch mix. There’s a fastball that reportedly has touched 95 previously, but that sat 89-92 for one AA start featured in the video above. He also throws a slider, curve and change. He used all four to tear apart the Carolina League before closing out the year with 13 solid starts in AA.

Thompson was by no means bad in his first try at the high minors. But the noticeable slip of all three of his hit, walk and strikeout rates demonstrate how AA will be the real test for the potential fast moving college arms right behind him. It’s important to understand that the statistics can and often do look a little sketchier at the high minors, and yet this doesn’t mean a prospect is failing. It’s hard to reach the majors. It doesn’t help that the Cubs arms specifically are coming out of Myrtle Beach, a slightly below average run environment that is especially helpful for making pitchers look a little better by suppressing hit rate. This means they might pitch just as well through their first real test in Tennessee, but running an ERA a run higher leads to being dismissed by some observers who had previously bought in. Changing numbers don’t mean that a player himself is changing.

Unless Keegan is one of those uncommon Magic Juju home run suppression skill guys that I’m not sure how we’re supposed to identify without way more track record than we have the luxury of, you can expect a few more bombs ahead against the better competition. The low HR/FB% he compiled this year, as well as in a brief stint in Eugene after signing last season, is why his xFIP has been roughly a quarter to a half of a run higher than his ERA at each stop. He ran a 1.4 WHIP at AA and he’s going to have to tighten up on walks or hits.

Thompson has survived AA, but he hasn’t conquered it. His progress will determine whether he needs a half season or most of a season to master the level. The good news is he’s survived it. That’s half the battle, and there are some positive ingredients here. It’ll be time to get excited if Thompson conquers AA with a tamed walk rate, rather than getting pushed to AAA just because.

 

RHP Tyson Miller2016 4th round (134th overall), California Baptist
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Tennessee Smokies, Southern League)

Looks like Tennessee is going to have a sneaky interesting rotation next spring, so, congratulations if you like minor league baseball players and live around Knoxville. Miller was hittable in Eugene and across a full season in South Bend, but all four of his component ratios went in the right direction during his age 22 season in Myrtle Beach.

You’ve read this four or five times already, but we’re waiting on his 2019, the most important data point that we don’t have yet. The smart money says he pitched more okay than very well last year, that much of his improvement was South Carolinian ocean air. Miller’s a nice looking prospect if he not only survives AA but hangs onto some of those gains. We’ll settle for him surviving AA with an eye towards a brief AAA trial in August.

 

SS Zack Short2016 17th round (524th overall), Sacred Heart
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment: AAA (Iowa Cubs, Pacific Coast League)

Short isn’t a tools-heavy player and he doesn’t have the pedigree of a high draft pick, so perhaps this is why he didn’t get much prospect love after showing off a broad base of skills during an outstanding 2017 season split across the Cubs’ A-ball affiliates. Short struck out 136 times, which jumps off the page for a middle infielder, but he started 124 games and the K% rate was fine at 18%.

Sure, in a perfect world he’d strike out a little less, but it’s easier to swallow when the player in question clubs 47 extra base hits in environments less conducive for power, walks 94 times, and even chips in 18 stolen bases (64% success rate). Short was playing the three difficult infield positions in South Bend but was installed as the Pelicans’ starting shortstop upon his promotion. It seems that Short may have hit his way out of being looked at as a utility player hopeful. How can you not try a guy named Short at short?

Short started at short for the Smokies in 2018 and held the job all season as a 23-year-old. He demonstrated exactly the same skill set as he did in A ball: lots of walks, more than some strikeouts, 50 XBH power, and a little speed. That’s an interesting bat, especially if the glove can play.

There were two yellow flags that emerged with Short this season. First, he struck out nearly 50% more than he did in 2017. He struck out 22 times in his first 12 games but improved his rate throughout the year as he adjusted to life in the high minors. However, we can’t assume that a below average strikeout rate isn’t simply what Short’s true talent level is going to play as against more competitive pitching. Short hasn’t run exceptionally low BABIPs, and yet he’s hitting below .250 over more than 1300 minor league PA. So, I tend to assume he’s going to run a K% around 25 in the big leagues if he’s given a chance to settle into a role, but it might be considerably higher as he learns to sink or swim.

You might as well give Short a full year in AAA from the start. He had more than five hundred AA plate appearances, he survived, he was less overwhelmed as the year went on, and this is probably a finished product as far as projection is concerned. It’s time to get him ready to help the big league club in 2020 and get a taste in September, or as an injury callup, in 2019. He needs to be added to the 40-man after this coming season anyway.

This isn’t a sexy prospect. If the glove is good enough (and it might be, because Chicago would have kept grooming him at 2B and 3B if he needed to max out as a utility player), there’s enough in his offensive profile to project him to be a useful piece in the big leagues, even in spite of contact problems.

He ran a steep platoon split at AA that was less pronounced in A ball; monitor how he handles righties in AAA in 2019. He could be a very nice platoon shortstop, or the guy who comes in the game as a double switch when the swiss army knife type, like Chris Taylor or Marwin Gonzalez, moves off short to replace someone who needs to be pinch hit for against lefties. I’d love to carry this player on my NL bench if the strikeouts don’t spiral out of control, but I’d be prepared for him to be completely overmatched and run a strikeout well above 30% in his first cup of coffee before hopefully adjusting with experience.