Welcome back to my annual off-season series that has a quick-and-dirty review of all 30 minor league systems around baseball. This feature began way back in 2008.
If you were perusing this series back in 2015:
The Riser: Willson Contreras, C: Our very own Carson Cistulli was all over Contreras like a fat kid on a Smartie this past season. The catcher came out of nowhere to become one of the Cubs’ more intriguing prospects. He significantly improved his plate discipline while moving up from A-ball to Double-A for the first time in his career. Contreras, 23, averaged a strikeout rate of about 20% between 2012-14 but saw it drop to just 12% in 2015. Not only that, he showed more pop and took more walks. With Kyle Schwarber likely relocated to the outfield from catcher for good, Contreras is the catcher-of-the-future in Chicago.
Now on to the new stuff:
First Taste of The Show: Duane Underwood Jr., RHP: Underwood Jr. is a bit of an enigma. He was a highly coveted pitcher coming out of high school but he’s battled injury, seen his stuff take a step back and questions have been raised around his effort/maturity. Still, he made it to The Show in 2018, albeit for one game. He’s athletic but he has a stiff delivery and could stand to use his legs more but that might also lessen his command/control. As with most pitchers, he’s at his best when he’s down in the zone and avoids the middle of the plate. His stuff is good but it’s not overpowering. Underwood Jr. might be better suited to relieving where he can focus on his fastball and breaking ball while perhaps adding back some velo on his heater.
The Draft Pick: Nico Hoerner, SS: There are a few teams that are very good at identifying college talent. The Cardinals might be the best, but the Cubs have had quite a bit of success, as well, so I trust their instincts on Hoerner — even if I seem him as a future solid but unspectacular regular (and thought he was more of a second round talent in the 2018 draft). With that said, the Eric and Kiley recently made note of a change in the middle infielder’s swing that has made a big difference since turning pro. In the video I’ve seen of him in pro ball, he really struggled with changing speeds and seemed geared predominantly for straight-plane heat. Hoerner is also not a sure thing to stick at shortstop and might be a second baseman long-term.
The Riser: Miguel Amaya, C: Back in April, I wrote a piece about how good Amaya was looking and that he could really zoom up the prospect rankings in 2018. Well, he now tops the Cubs system in terms of prospect value and had more staying power over the last year than I expected. With that said, he did fade in the second half of the year (.865 first half OPS vs .634 second half OPS) but that’s not uncommon first players in their first year of full-season ball. And it’s often more pronounced for catchers. Amaya may very well earn a shot in The Show on his defensive skills alone and the development of his bat could make him an everyday guy.
The Fallen: Jose Albertos, RHP: This young right-hander entered 2018 as one of the most exciting arms in the Cubs system; I had him ranked third overall. But then he stopped throwing strikes. After walking just 17 batters in 43 innings in 2017, he issued 65 free passes in 33.1 innings in 2018. The good news is that all his raw ingredients remain and he’s still just 20 so there are reasons to be optimistic. He’ll need to show a lot of mental fortitude and it could be slow going in 2019.
The 2019 Contributor: Thomas Hatch, RHP: There are a few pitchers that could help the Cubs in 2019 but Hatch has the best combination of near-MLB-ready stuff and future upside. He’s athletic and fields his position well. My two biggest concerns are the arm action (effort) and the fact he doesn’t always finish his pitches and leaves his shoulder open, which hurts his command. He has the stuff — the potential for three average-or-better offerings — to be a No. 4 starter in the Majors with some maturation. I really like the way the changeup works off his fastball. Oscar de la Cruz has a chance to help in 2019, too, but needs to rebound from a performance enhancing suspension and is probably best suited for bullpen work.
The 2019 Sleeper: Jhonny Pereda, C: I think he’s going to continue to hit. He has a quiet set-up at the plate, a controlled swing and a great base for balance. I’m not sure he’s going to grow into much more power unless he chances his stance and/or swing. But his current approach allows him to make a lot of contact and he has a good eye so he doesn’t strike out much and he gets on base at a good clip via the free pass. Defensively, he has a good reputation and does an excellent job throwing out base runners. I see a big league back-up here with the potential to be a second-division starter if the bat continues to develop.
The 2019 Lottery Ticket: Cole Roederer, OF: So I’ve thrown a little cold water on the Cubs’ first pick of the draft (see above) but I really liked their third selection (77th overall). The Cubs actually went with two toolsy high school outfielders after selecting Nico Hoerner in the first round but Roederer is a lot more polished than Brennen Davis, and arguably has more upside (Davis looks like the greek god of everything on the baseball diamond until he swings a bat). He does something a little funky with his hands during his load — he pulls them back and drops them ever so slightly. Limiting that movement (he did this in high school and pro ball) might help create more consistent contact (He struck out 23% of the time during his debut). Roederer has a chance to grade out as average across the board with his offensive tools. If he continues to polish his raw power, he could be a 15-20 homer guy despite not having the largest/strongest frame.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.