Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system.
Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Chicago Cubs.
MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs spent the better part of this decade assembling the finest group of position prospects in recent memory, perhaps the best the game has seen since an Athletics contingent in the 1960s headlined by Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando and Bert Campaneris. Just as Oakland parlayed its talent into three consecutive World Series titles from 1972-74, Chicago leveraged its young hitting stars into a championship last October.
• Cubs' Top 30 Prospects list
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Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kristopher Bryant, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber all played memorable roles to bring an end to a 108-year title drought. They also have the Cubs positioned well to emulate those A's clubs and not stop with just one championship.
And here's a scary thought for 29 other teams: Chicago isn't done cranking out hitting talent. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez, the low Class A Midwest League MVP last year at age 19, is one of the best power-hitting prospects in the Minor Leagues. Second baseman/outfielder Ian Happ, the ninth overall pick in the 2015 Draft, exhibits 20-20 potential and reached Double-A in his first full pro season.
Cubs farm director Jaron Madison beams when asked about the organization's seemingly never-ending supply of impact position players.
"We're fortunate in that regard," Madison said. "We've done a really good job with guys who can swing the bat and bought into our approach. That's made it a lot easier to integrate them into what we're doing."
• Q&A with Dylan Cease
Chicago doesn't have enough room in its lineup to accommodate all of its worthy hitters. Jimenez needs at least another year in the Minors and Happ could use another half-season, but corner infielder Jeimer Candelario has nothing left to prove in Triple-A and is hopelessly blocked by Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Outfielder Mark Zagunis, an on-base machine, could challenge for a big league job on many clubs but is destined to return to Triple-A.
For all the hitters the Cubs have brought to the big leagues in the past five years under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, they haven't had the same success developing their own pitching. They didn't have a fully homegrown pitcher on their World Series roster, and only C.J. Edwards spent significant time in their system.
Chicago does have some high-ceiling pitching prospects, though right-handers Dylan Cease, Oscar de la Cruz and Jose Albertos have combined for just six appearances (all by de la Cruz) in full-season ball. Righty Trevor Clifton is the most accomplished of the organization's top mound hopefuls, but he has yet to advance past high Class A, where he was the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year in 2016. The Cubs have high hopes for all four righties, but they acknowledge they're still a couple of years away from Wrigley Field.
"We definitely have some pitching coming," Madison said. "We had a different emphasis when we took Kris and Kyle early. You have to be patient with pitchers, have them hit their checkmarks with innings and what they're built up to. You can't rush that."
Chicago's two best prospects are having strong big league camps. Jimenez is batting .321/.355/.607 with a pair of homers in 28 at-bats in his stated quest to make the Opening Day roster. While that won't happen, he's a gifted hitter and slugger who should reach Double-A at some point in 2017 and may force his way onto the Cubs at some point next year as a 21-year-old.
Happ, 22, has put up even better numbers, leading the Cubs in all three slash stats (.452/.469/.839) as well as in homers (three) and RBIs (nine) in 31 at-bats. It's unclear where he'll fit in a Chicago lineup that has Baez at second base and a logjam in the outfield, but the switch-hitter has pure hitting ability, deceptive strength, solid speed -- and not much left to do in the Minors besides polish his defense.
Right-hander Jose Albertos has made just one pro start since the Cubs purchased him from the Mexican League's Tijuana Bulls in July 2015, but that four-inning outing last June created quite a stir. Shut down afterward as a precaution when he came down with forearm soreness, he returned to the mound in instructional league. Albertos is still just 18, so he'll probably spend this summer in the Rookie-level Arizona League or at short-season Eugene.
"I knew who he was and knew he had a really good arm, but he's not the most physical guy," said Madison, who witnessed Albertos' pro debut. "I didn't expect him to come out sitting at 96, 97 mph and throwing a 70 changeup [on the 20-80 scouting scale]. After the first inning, I sent texts and video to Theo and Jed, telling him he was the best pitcher I had seen all year. It is funny how everybody says they saw those four innings, and there were only 40 guys there."
Another product of Chicago's strong efforts in Mexico, second baseman Carlos Sepulveda was acquired from the Mexico City Red Devils in December 2014. He made his full-season debut last year, batting .310/.366/.373 in low Class A at age 19 while playing steady defense at second base.
"He's one my favorite guys to watch," said Cubs senior vice president for player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod. "He's so gifted at second base with his hands and he can really hit. He looks like he does everything in slow motion -- in a good way. He defends and has an approach at the plate like a big leaguer."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.