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.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."