Chicago Cubs

Baseball America unveils Top 10 Cubs prospects for 2017

Baseball America unveils Top 10 Cubs prospects for 2017

As "next year" has rolled into "last year," the focus on the Cubs prospects has taken a backseat to a big-league core that will live on forever in Cubs history.

The Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years with a homegrown group of players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell who appeared on top prospect lists over the last few years.

So who's next to make an impact on the North Side?

Baseball America released their Top 10 Cubs prospects looking ahead to 2017 Thursday with a trio of hitters leading the way:

1. Eloy Jimenez - OF
2. Ian Happ - 2B/OF
3. Albert Almora - OF
4. Dylan Cease - RHP
5. Oscar de la Cruz - RHP
6. Mark Zagunis - OF
7. Jeimer Candelario - 3B
8. Trevor Clifton - RHP
9. D.J. Wilson - OF
10. Jose Albertos - RHP

Jimenez put the baseball world on notice with his performance in the Futures Game last summer and finished 2016 with a .901 OPS, 40 doubles and 14 homers in 112 games as a 19-year-old.

Happ was the Cubs' first-round draft pick in 2015 (ninth overall) and sported a .279/.365/.445 slash line last year while splitting time between Advanced Class-A and Double-A.

Almora spent a good portion of the 2016 regular season in Chicago, but did not exceed his rookie limits, thus still qualifying as a prospect. He figures to be a key part of the Cubs' outfield in 2017 in his age-23 season.

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Trevor Clifton was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 with a 2.72 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 in 23 games started for Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach.

Dylan Cease is the most intriguing arm in the Cubs system. He was one of the top high school pitchers in the 2014 Draft, but arm injuries have forced the Cubs to move slow with the former sixth round pick. The 21-year-old has just 68.2 professional innings under his belt, but he has posted a 2.36 ERA and 91 strikeouts in that span, topping out at short-season Eugene in 2016.

Cease also appeared on the 2016 BA prospect list  that looked like this:

1. Gleyber Torres - SS
2. Willson Contreras - C
3. Ian Happ - OF/2B
4. Duane Underwood - RHP
5. Dylan Cease - RHP
6. Albert Almora - OF
7. Billy McKinney - OF
8. Oscar de la Cruz - RHP
9. Eloy Jimenez - OF
10. Jeimer Candelario - 3B

Obviously, Contreras was promoted and a huge part of the success in Chicago.

Torres and McKinney were traded to the New York Yankees in late July in the Aroldis Chapman deal.

That leaves Happ, Cease, Almora, de la Cruz, Jimenez and Candelario as the holdovers on the top prospect list year-over-year, with Jimenez making the largest jump.

Underwood — selected in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft (Theo Epstein's first draft) — is still only 22, but pitched only 73 innings in 2016 across 18 starts with arm issues, posting an 0-6 record, 4.32 ERA and 1.507 WHIP.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.