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Down after graduations and trades.
The Cubs have binged on drafting and signing pitchers in recent years—they spent a pair of 2017 first-round picks on lefthander Brendon Little and righthander Alex Lange--thus turning what had long been an organizational weakness into the biggest strength of a thin system. The majority of those pitchers are still years away from Chicago, however. And some of the most talented pitchers have yet to log a full season of work in the minors.
The Cubs haven’t drafted a position player in the top four rounds in the past two drafts, and they traded away outfielder Eloy Jimenez, shortstops Isaac Paredes and Gleyber Torres and third baseman Jeimer Candelario in the past 18 months. Coupled with graduations, this leaves the thinnest group of Cubs minor league position players in years.
Notable Graduations: OF/2B Ian Happ (2) and OF Albert Almora (3), both first-rounders, carved out roles.
Ademan, who played for the Dominican Republic's 15U national team in 2013, trained with Amaurys Nina, and the Cubs have had success with Nina's players before, most notably Eloy Jimenez. The Cubs traded Jimenez to the White Sox in 2017 in the Jose Quintana deal, one of many trades that thinned the farm system considerably and made room at the top for Ademan, who signed in August 2015 for $2 million. He was considered a light-hitting yet smooth infielder when he signed, but he started to change perceptions in 2017, his first year in the U.S., by skipping Rookie ball and jumping straight to short-season Eugene. The Cubs kept pushing him with a promotion to low Class A South Bend for the final 29 games of the season, where he replaced Isaac Paredes after he was traded to the Tigers. Ademan has a high-waisted, projectable frame with solid athleticism, good body control and natural feel for the game. He plays under control and has savvy for his age, which is most evident offensively. He has surprising strength in his wiry frame and can drive balls to the gaps consistently and even over the fence. He has a feel for barreling the baseball, repeats his smooth swing and has shown some selectivity as well, allowing his average power to play. He should be a steady above-average hitter. Ademan is steady at shortstop with quick feet, excellent hands and a solid-average arm. He's still a teenager who makes some mistakes on routine plays, though scouts project him as an above-average defender, if not better, with time and experience. In 2017 he made 17 errors in 67 games at shortstop, 10 of them on throws. Ademan is an average runner with times in the range of 4.2 to 4.3 seconds to first base, though he will need to be a more selective basestealer at higher levels. Ademan has a high floor as a middle infielder who can hit, and he already has hopped on the fast track by reaching full-season ball. He'll have to gain strength and improve his ability to learn which plays he can make and which he cannot to be a future regular at shortstop. He likely will continue to move quickly because the Cubs need trade chips more than they need another middle infielder. Ademan should return to South Bend to start 2018, but if he heats up before July, his name will be involved in trade talks for pitchers.
Alzolay signed as a 17-year-old, and he's never been a priority prospect. He had his best year by far in 2017, finishing the year at Double-A Tennessee to emerge as the Cubs' most advanced pitcher with upside. A better fastball--up to a consistent 93-95 mph and touching 96, up from 91-92 last year--made Alzolay a better pitcher and better prospect. It started with a greater commitment to the club's throwing program, then continued with an improved delivery, drawing more power from his lower half. Alzolay always had shown the athleticism to repeat his delivery and pound the strike zone, but now he was beating hitters with his plus heater thanks to both its velocity and his in-charge, up-tempo pitching style. He locates his average low-80s curveball well enough to throw it for strikes when behind in the count, keeping hitters off his fastball. The Cubs are focused on helping his below-average changeup make progress. The lack of a second plus pitch to go with his fastball profiles Alzolay as a future No. 4 starter. A strong start would make him an early candidate for a 2018 callup if Chicago needs help either in the rotation or in the bullpen.
Albertos had pitched just four innings as a pro thanks to forearm tightness in 2016, but the Cubs awaited his 2017 season as much as any of their minor leaguers. Signed for $1.5 million out of Mexico in the Cubs' loaded international class of 2015, Albertos made 12 starts overall, including in the short-season Northwest League playoffs, after one start in 2016. A clean arm action, smooth delivery and athleticism helps produce the premium fastball velocity that Albertos has shown. He dialed back a bit to 93-94 mph for most of 2017, showing the ability to hit 97 when needed, and he's hit 99 in extended spring training. His fastball has solid life as well, and he has harnessed it more, improving his control and hinting at future command. His changeup earns some plus-plus grades from scouts thanks to its action and the arm speed he uses to sell the pitch. He pitches backward at times and locates his changeup; it's his best pitch, and he trusts his fastball-changeup combination. That has inhibited the progress of his slider. He can spin a breaking ball but doesn't throw it enough for it to play to its above-average potential. Throwing his slider enough to improve his feel and consistency will be one key for Albertos in 2018. The other will be staying healthy again as he makes the jump to low Class A South Bend. He has a higher ceiling than any Cubs pitching prospect.
A Puerto Rico native who attended Southern and then Miami Dade JC, Caratini progressed from converted catcher to big leaguer by 2017, replacing Miguel Montero in late June when the Cubs designated the veteran for assignment. Caratini got sporadic playing time after Chicago traded for veteran Alex Avila in July. A bat-first catcher, Caratini was hitting .343, ranking fourth in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, when promoted. He repeats his short, strong swing from both sides of the plate and gained the confidence to hunt his pitch and get out front a bit more to produce improved power. He has modest bat speed but average raw power and a feel for hitting that allows the power to play. Caratini's arm plays average at third base but fringe-average behind the plate, where he has solid footwork to go with his soft hands. He's worked at refining his average receiving and blocking skills and at calling games, but the Cubs didn't think he was ready to carry the load when Willson Contreras was hurt. Caratini's overall profile resembles that of Avila, an impending free agent whom Caratini could replace as the backup in Chicago in 2018.
A first-team All-American as a freshman in 2015, Lange went 30-9, 2.91 in three seasons at Louisiana State and helped the Tigers reach the 2017 College World Series finals. His heavy reliance on his curveball, one of the best in the 2017 draft class, dropped his stock a bit as a junior, and the Cubs got him with their second pick (30th overall). An undisclosed issue with his physical prompted him to sign a below-slot deal, at $1.925 million, the only first-round bonus below $2 million. Lange earns plus-plus grades for his curveball from his admirers, and even skeptics grade his curve as plus. He spins it with mid-80s power at his best. When he locates his curveball and can throw it for strikes whenever he wants, it opens up his whole arsenal and increases his confidence in his fastball. Lange has sat 92-96 mph at his best, but he rarely if ever did that in 2017, instead pitching at 90-93 with some 94s mixed in. The Cubs will force Lange to throw his changeup as a pro more than he ever did in college and try to get him to pitch inside and up in the zone with his fastball to make him less predictable. With his current two-pitch mix, Lange could move quickly as a closer, with one club official likening him to a more physical, better version of Justin Grimm. The Cubs will push the 22-year-old to high Class A Myrtle Beach to see if his competitiveness can help him learn a changeup quickly.
An infielder before signing as a 17-year-old, de la Cruz shifted to the mound after signing with the Cubs for $85,000. He seemed poised to bust out after his 2015 U.S. debut with short-season Eugene, but he has pitched less than 100 innings the last two seasons with a variety of ailments, from forearm soreness to muscle pulls to oblique strains. In 2017 he missed nearly three months before returning to pitch in August, then was pulled from the Cubs' Arizona Fall League contingent. At his best, de la Cruz features an athletic delivery with excellent extension that helps his 92-94 mph fastball pop, and he has touched 97 in the past. He can show above-average fastball life and downhill angle as well, eliciting weak contact. His curveball and changeup both have had their moments, with the curveball earning above-average grades. Its consistency is about as good as his health track record, and he hasn't had the reps to gain proper feel for his changeup. It's all about staying healthy for de la Cruz, who rivals Albertos for ceiling in the system as a potential No. 2 or No. 3 starter. The Cubs won't waste his bullets in the minors; if he stays healthy, he'll zoom to Wrigley Field.
A top 200 prospect out of a Pennsylvania high school, Little attended North Carolina as a freshman but decided to transfer after getting just four innings. He pitched very well in the Cape Cod League in 2016 and then pitched his way into the first round at State JC of Florida in the spring of 2017. He was the Cubs' first pick and struggled a bit after signing for $2.2 million. A lefthander with two plus pitches, Little lacks precise command but can be effectively wild in the mold of Gio Gonzalez or Francisco Liriano. His fastball has above-average life even at high velocity, and he touched 96 mph in the spring. He pitches more at 90-94 mph, though he sat at the lower end of that register in his pro debut. His tight 12-6 curveball has firm upper-70s power and has flashed plus as a pro. His average changeup gives him a true third pitch and grants him some pitchability. His inconsistent delivery costs him command and can get choppy and robotic. When Little's delivery stays athletic, he's a three-pitch lefty with plus stuff who projects as a mid-rotation starter. He's younger than fellow first-rounder Alex Lange but also less polished and should earn a spot at low Class A South Bend in 2018.
Hatch had tremendous success as an amateur, first at Jenks (Okla.) High, then at Oklahoma State, where he missed a year with a strained ulnar collateral ligament. A platelet-rich injection helped him recover without surgery to lead Oklahoma State to the 2016 College World Series, and he made every start in 2017, his first as a pro, while ranking fifth in the high Class A Carolina League with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Hatch has diversified his sinker-slider repertoire as a pro by adding a four-seam fastball and throwing his average changeup much more often than he did in college. He can reach 95 mph with his four-seamer and is learning to work up in the zone, particularly against lefthanded hitters, to change their eye level. Improved pitch sequencing would help his whole arsenal play up. His low-90s sinker with plus life remains his bread and butter, and his above-average slider pairs with it to allow him to pitch to both sides of the plate. His pitch mix and late life in the zone helped him give up just two homers Command was Hatch's bugaboo in 2017. The Cubs believe he's a good enough athlete, one who fields his position well and holds runners, to make the leap. He'll be tested at Double-A Tennessee in 2018 and profiles as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Signed for $1.625 million out of Taiwan, Tseng received the third-largest bonus in the Cubs' 2013 international class, behind Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres. Tseng had made slow, steady progress since then, taking it one level at a time before repeating Double-A Tennessee in 2017. He earned organization pitcher of the year honors and made his first big league start against the Mets in September. Tseng has the same stuff he has had, for the most part, since signing. His above-average changeup remains his best pitch. He locates his 90-93 mph fastball consistently to both sides of the plate. He's confident enough to throw his average curveball and cutter-type slider, a fringe-average pitch, in any count. Tseng trusted his catchers more and sequenced his pitches better in 2017, staying out of pitch patterns and using his offspeed stuff to different locations than he had in the past. Tseng's offseason preparation also was better, and he stayed strong throughout the season. Tseng profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter with durability a key attribute. After throwing more than 150 innings in 2017, he's the upper-level Cubs arm most likely to earn a big league rotation spot in 2018.
The Cubs invested in Puerto Rico by hiring former big leaguer Edwards Guzman as a scout focused on the island's prep talent. He gave the Cubs the information to crosscheck Velazquez early, so when he popped at May's Excellence Games event--Puerto Rico's top predraft showcase--the Cubs were ready and made him the first position player they drafted in 2017. Velazquez showed some rust in his pro debut because he sat out about six weeks after the draft before playing in the Rookie-level Arizona League, but he showed electric tools once he played. His eight homers tied for third in the league, and he produces power with bat speed, present strength and more feel to hit than was expected. His plus-plus raw power grades above his hitting ability, but he has some natural feel for the barrel. His approach is raw, as are some aspects of his defense, but he's a plus runner if not better underway and has a solid-average arm. With his power and athleticism, Velazquez likely will fit the right-field profile, though any outfield spot is possible. His aptitude will determine how quickly he moves, but he likely will be in extended spring training to start 2018.
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