Feature Photo: Jose Albertos, RHP, Cubs
We hear a lot about the Cubs’ recent successes in the MLB First-Year Player Draft (officially known as the Rule 4 Draft), and rightfully so. The last six players they’ve selected in the first round (2B Javier Baez, OF Albert Almora, 3B/LF Kris Bryant, C/LF Kyle Schwarber, INF/OF Ian Happ, and most recently RHP Pierce Johnson) going back to 2011 are all at the major league level, and most are getting regular playing time with the 2016 Word Series champions. So while they’ve had tremendous success in developing their young talent so quickly, a consequence has been some added pressure on the Cubs’ talented scouting department to restock the farm system at the lower levels.
Of course it’s that same scouting department that also brought home the Cubs’ heralded 2013 international free agent (IFA) class that landed left fielder Eloy Jimenez, their current top prospect, and shortstop Gleyber Torres, whom they traded at last summer’s trade deadline to acquire closer Aroldis Chapman for their World Series run (and who is also now the Yankees’ top-ranked prospect in 2080’s 2017 Yankees organizational review).
The 2015 IFA class may not have that kind of star power, but it is a deeper class. Just as importantly, this class also demonstrated the ability of the Cubs’ front office – and their evaluators – to adapt to their changing player development needs, now that trades and major league graduations have taken a bite out of their farm system’s depth.
In an era in which the Cubs have had less money to spend on amateur talent, and with new MLB rules now constricting team’s budgets to sign IFA’s, the depth of talent that the Cubs compiled in their 2015 IFA class is playing an important part in the next wave of Cubs prospects that will quickly replenish what was among the deepest farm systems in the game just two years ago.
The following is a quick look at 20 of those players – players that I have had a chance to see and evaluate on a first-hand basis this season.
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The 2015 class is headlined by RHP Jose Albertos, 2080 Baseball’s fifth-ranked Cubs prospect and shortstop Aramis Ademan, who is ranked seventh. Both are just 18 years old. That they rank so highly in the Cubs’ system so quickly clearly speaks to their talent and advanced skillsets.
One of the Cubs shrewd signings out of Mexico, Albertos has been recovering from a minor injury this spring, but is back up into the 94-to-96 mph range, though he hasn’t shown the same consistency with his command yet. His curveball and changeup are also considered potential plus offerings. Albertos doesn’t offer much in terms of projection as his body is somewhat mature, but he is so advanced as a pitcher that the lack of physical projection is not of concern.
Ademan is a shortstop from the Dominican Republic who has the potential to have above-average tools across the board with the exception of his power. He’s not an explosive athlete, but he is fluid in his actions, with great footwork, soft hands and a quick release to go with a surprisingly strong arm. He has great feel for the position and has dazzled scouts repeatedly with his acrobatic play on an almost-daily basis. As a hitter, he has an all-fields, line-drive approach with good plate discipline for such a young player. He doesn’t have great power, but he can turn on it and take it over the fence to his pull side when pitchers make mistakes inside on him.
Cuban outfielder Eddy Martinez was a late signee, and he received the highest bonus of this class at $3 million. There are some mixed opinions on what kind of player he’ll ultimately be, but I see his best shot as a corner outfielder with plus power, plus defense, and an extremely powerful arm, which may be the best of his five tools. At the plate, he has good feel for contact but he can get overly aggressive at times. His speed is above average, leading some to think that he could eventually play center field, but his tools would presently play best in right field.
Isaac Paredes is 2080’s 11th-ranked prospect, and, like Ademan, he is a shortstop, albeit a very different type of player. Paredes has a thick frame and below-average speed, leading many scouts to think he may move to third base, second base, or even move behind the plate in the future. He will surprise you at shortstop, however. He makes up for his lack of speed with tremendous instincts and classic middle-infielder actions. His arm strength is above average to plus, and at the plate he is an aggressive hitter who attacks the baseball and has good feel for the barrel.
But the 2015 IFA class actually goes deeper than just those three players.
Signed out of Panama, Miguel Amaya has created some buzz among scouts both at the dish and behind it. He has shown advanced defensive polish and sub-two-second pop times as a catcher. On offense, he has a disciplined approach and a line-drive swing, but I expect him to grow into average power as he matures physically. Amaya has a high baseball IQ and possesses leadership skills well beyond his 18 years of age. He may already be emerging as the Cubs’ best all-around catching prospect in the system.
Like Albertos, Javier Assad was part of the Cubs’ creative foray into the Mexican baseball ranks. He is a polished pitcher who has three average to above-average pitches in his fastball, curveball, and changeup, with the ability to locate all three of them. Assad has had an exceptional spring training, and has seen his fastball tick up to 94-to-95 mph after mostly sitting 92-to-93 mph last year. He has also worked hard to get himself into shape, as he looked a little soft last season. He may be ready to take a step forward from what was already a solid 37 2/3-inning pro debut in 2016 in the Arizona Rookie League, where he struck out 42 and walked 13, and had a 2.87 ERA.
Dominican Jonathan Sierra received the highest bonus in the class during the regular signing period at $2.8 million but he is the most raw of all the players we have mentioned so far. He is tall, lanky and has a smooth swing, causing some scouts to compare him to Darryl Strawberry (OF, MLB 1983-1996, multiple teams). Other scouts were not as fond of Sierra. They saw some mechanical issues with his swing but the Cubs are enamored with Sierra’s intelligence and work ethic. One official told me they actually have to rein him in at times because he wants to work so hard at improving. Sierra has done a better job of attacking the baseball rather than settling for contact. He can spray the ball to all fields easily, but he is learning to turn on pitches and tap into his raw pull-side power. In the field, he is a good athlete with a strong arm who profiles best as a right fielder.
A sleeper in this class may be Venezuelan Jose Gutierrez, a fleet outfielder with a lean build and fluid athleticism. Thought to be somewhat raw-tooled when he signed, Gutierrez has surprised with his ability to compete against more advanced pitching this spring. He’s a switch-hitter who is better from the left side right now, but he projects as a solid overall hitter. He has good range and a strong arm from center field.
Another product out of Venezuela, powerfully built 5-foot-8 infielder Yonathan Perlaza is a switch-hitter with great body rotation and explosive hands. He has a thick, muscular lower half and he incorporates it well in his swing, generating the best bat speed of this class. He is a bit raw and can get overly aggressive, though he has worked hard at developing his plate discipline, and has made good strides in that area. In the field, he is a bit more rough. He has good athleticism and speed, but doesn’t have the kind of fluidity that you see in guys like Ademan, the instincts of Paredes, or the soft hands of either player. The Cubs have tried him at second base and third base, and have largely moved him off of shortstop for the time being. His future may be in the outfield, as he has the pop, above-average speed, instincts, and athleticism to succeed there.
Christopher Morel is a lean infielder who played shortstop as an amateur in the Dominican Republic but has since moved to third base, where has shown himself to be an above-average defender with a strong arm. Though he is still lanky with much physical projection remaining, Morel can hit for surprising power because of his ability to corral his loose build into plus bat speed, and he employs an attacking approach at the pate. Morel didn’t play organized ball at all last year because a freak injury in which he lacerated his arm, so the Cubs will start him in the DSL this month.
Kwang-Min Kwon signed for $1 million out of South Korea, and he’s a kid with a big frame at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, and big-time power potential. He won the Cubs’ instructional league home run derby two years ago but then proceeded to struggle mightily against live pitching. He is a patient hitter with a discerning eye, but there was a lot of swing and miss to his game. And even when Kwon did make contact, it wasn’t the kind of hard contact I saw in BP. He has since retooled his swing and after some early struggles again this spring, has begun to hit the ball well again. Kwon will surprise you with his athleticism and speed for a player his size. He actually leads the extended spring training squad with five triples. Signed as a first baseman, the Cubs are trying to see if he has enough athleticism for the outfield, and they’ll be moving him around out there this year.
Kevin Zamudio is a big-bodied kid at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds who was signed as a third baseman out of Mexico. The Cubs are converting him to catcher because of his strong arm, and his coaches at the complex in Arizona say he has improved substantially since arriving. Zamudio’s calling card is power bat, with a chance to become an old-school-type catcher that controls the running game and provides some pop at the plate. He’s prone to chasing high fastballs at times, but in general he makes consistent solid contact and should hit for average, which when combined with the defense is a nice overall prospect package to have.
Other than Albertos and Assad, there aren’t a lot of polished pitching prospects, but two arms out of the Dominican Republic offer some intriguing projection. Yunior Perez is an 18-year-old, 6-foot-4, 190-pound right-hander with a strong and solid frame. And as you might expect from a player his size, he can generate good velocity. He already reaches the middle 90s with his heater, and he has shown good rotation on his curveball, though it is very inconsistent at this point and still a work-in-progress.
Brailyn Marquez is a bit more polished than Perez but the 6-foot-4 left-hander has a leaner build though not as much present velocity as Perez. Marquez will mostly sit 90-to-92 mph but at just 18 years old and 185 pounds, there is plenty of time for him to mature physically and add a couple of ticks to that fastball. Marquez has an advanced feel for pitching and shows an aptitude for developing his secondary pitches. Right now he throws a curveball and a changeup to go with the fastball. He’s all arms and legs right now, but the combination of size, athleticism, feel, and physical projection make him an interesting pitcher to watch.
You would think this list would end right about now, but the Cubs signed 34 players in 2015, and they spent their money well. They brought in another promising catcher in Henderson Perez, who signed for $1.25 million. Like Sierra, Perez was a guy that Cubs’ scouts got to know better than other teams. I haven’t had much of a chance to see him here because other catchers are ahead of him in terms of development, but Perez is intriguing because of his good athleticism and strong arm. At the plate, he is similar to Amaya in that he has a line-drive stroke, but he is not nearly as advanced at this point. My guess is he goes back to the DSL for another season after having limited success in the league last year.
Here are a few others I’m following from the 2105 IFA class:
- Faustino Carrera is an undersized, 5-foot-10, 165-pound left-handed pitcher with fringy, high-80s velocity and not a lot of physical projection, but like many of his Mexican teammates, he is advanced in terms of his pitchability, and with his feel for his secondary pitches;
- 5-foot-10, 165-pound infielder Orian Nunez is a bat-first infielder with a grind-it-out approach, and a polished offensive game. I have seen him mostly at second base where he fits best in terms of his offensive game, which should be centered around getting on base and doubles power. He can also play third base;
- Luis Diaz is a speed- and defense-oriented second baseman, but the bat has been slow to come around. He will start the season in the DSL;
- Fernando Kelli was another switch-hitting, speedy center fielder the Cubs signed in this 2015 IFA class. He shows good range in the outfield, and his slight build (6-feet tall and 180 pounds) indicates his game will built around getting on base and taking advantage of his plus speed. He needs to add some strength, and his bat isn’t as far along as his baserunning and defense at present;
- Columbian prospect Carlos Ocampo has a good pitcher’s frame at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, and a good fastball sitting in the 92-to-93 mph range with projection for more. He was a bit wild when I saw him last fall, but the control has improved so far this spring.
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As the Cubs complete their transition from a rebuilding team to a perennial contender, it will be a challenge to keep their farm system further stocked from here, now that they hold later draft picks, and because of smaller spending pools in both the First-Year Player Draft and in the in the IFA market.
However, it appears the front office have been proactive as far as filling many gaps while those resources were still available to them. The 2015 IFA class was one where the Cubs combined a large-scale plan with a more nuanced, diversified approach. The class has more polished players like Albertos, Ademan, Martinez, Paredes, and Amaya, all of who could move quickly through the system.
At the same time, it’s a layered class that also features intriguing talents with high ceilings, but who will need more time to develop. Pitchers like Perez and Marquez – along with hitters Sierra, Perlaza, Morel, Gutierrez, and Perez – may offer a second wave of talent within the very same class. You can almost say the Cubs, who were very limited in their 2016 signings, and will be limited again this year in terms of spending, picked two to three years’ worth of players in this 2015 IFA class.
It was well-thought-out preparation for the foreseeable limitations that were coming because of potential signing penalties, as well as the simple fact that their success will mean they’ll be assigned lower spending pools and draft picks for the foreseeable future. The front offices’ ability – and their scouting department specifically – to adjust quickly to a changing environment, have brought success to the Cubs organization already, while also paving the road to sustained success for years to come.