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.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."