With so much information available these days, it’s rare for a prospect to sneak up and have a good year out of nowhere. When it comes to identifying players who I think could break out or be identified as sleepers in an organization, I prefer seeing them play live. Stats are great and I do lean on them, but being there in person affords a better sense of a player’s plate approach, swing plane, ability to see the ball into the zone, and just the sound of the ball coming off their bat.
There’s also the matter of seeing their fluidity and athleticism, or lack thereof, and how they carry themselves. That’s all very important when trying to determine whether prospects have that “it” factor. As legend holds, the late John Arguello was among the first to recognize that special something in Willson Contreras and the way he enthusiastically attacked the game.
There were a few key prospects who broke out in some form or fashion this past season. Shortstop Zack Short comes to mind, along with catcher Ian Rice, third baseman Jason Vosler, outfielder Charcer Burks, and shortstop Aramis Ademan. The biggest breakout, however, was 2017 fifth-round pick Nelson Velasquez, who destroyed Arizona Rookie League pitching in his short tenure as he pummeled 10 home runs in a seven-week span after being drafted.
When it comes to 2018, there’s a whole new crop that could show marked improvement. Some showed flashes of being capable of more than what the numbers showed, others came on strong in the second half of the season (or at least in August).
So let’s take a look at a dozen position players scattered throughout the Cubs system who I believe could really take off next season. The teams listed are where you should be able to find them in 2018.
The summer of 2018 could finally see Eddy Martinez putting it together. He hit .276 with seven home runs in the second half of 2017 and I think he is finally acclimated to playing professional baseball and living in the United States. He’ll turn 23 in January, so he is still young enough to believe there’s a lot of room to grow.
High-A Myrtle Beach
This could be the year DJ Wilson‘s physical maturity and his baseball maturity mesh to produce his best year. I don’t know if he’s going to hit a lot of home runs because the Carolina League is just not very hitter-friendly. However, I do believe we’ll seem improvements in both his approach and batting average. The one thing you don’t have to worry about is his defense.
Kevonte Mitchell‘s time has come. He has grown into a physical specimen at 6-foot-5 and right around 240 pounds. But what impressed me even more than his stature was the way that he was able to track the ball into the catcher’s mitt. He did have an up-and-down year from a statistical standpoint, but he put in a lot of work behind the scenes to make himself more consistent. It would not surprise me to see him hit 20 home runs at this level and to begin to carry a team for games at a time.
Low-A South Bend
Once you see Miguel Amaya, you tend to fall in love with his arm behind the plate. His bat, however, was sorely lacking at the outset of the 2017 season. He did much better after being moved to the seventh spot in the lineup, hitting almost .300 in the month of August. This leads me to believe that Amaya is going to come into 2018 with a much better approach than he had at short-season Eugene and I would not be surprised to see him hit 12-15 home runs in the Midwest League.
Jared Young is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t scout the stat line. He began his pro career at Eugene after being drafted last summer and he got off to a terrible start, hitting a measly .131 in July. But if you actually watched his at-bats, you saw an outstanding approach in which he worked counts to see a lot of pitches. Batted balls just were not dropping in for hits. My friend John and I would comment to each other about what bad luck Young was having. It all came together over the last two weeks of August, when he tore the cover off the ball and batted .323 for the month.
One of the highlights of watching the Eugene Emeralds play in August was watching Austin Filiere hit on a nightly basis. The 2017 draft pick out of MIT still has some work to do on defense, but his approach at the plate is top notch. He hit .261 with a .392 OBP and showed some nice pop. He has the potential for 20-home run power next season; I’m not saying he’s going to hit that many, but he could.
My favorite hitter at Eugene in the months of June and July was none other than former Boise State linebacker Joe Martarano, who hit .340 for the Emeralds in that time. When he went to South Bend, though, the poor guy just got off to a horrible start. When I saw him play in Beloit, he had a super high leg kick that didn’t necessarily show up on video. Thankfully, that morphed into a toe tap and he hit much better in August (.273), including his first Midwest League home run. He should start out at South Bend unless he completely terrorizes spring training pitching. I just love the way the ball jumps off his bat and the sound is incredible.
At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, the long-and-lean Jonathan Sierra is a physical replica of Darryl Strawberry. He just turned 19 in October and has an opportunity to grow by leaps and bounds over this past season. His approach is fine, if a bit shy of spectacular, and he hit .259 with a .332 OBP in rookie ball. He only hit two homers in 48 games and needs to do better in the power department. That’s where his real breakout potential lies. There’s a chance we’ll see that in 2018 but he is more likely to really round into form at South Bend in 2019.
Though Delvin Zinn is only 20 years old, he is one player I think everyone should watch in 2018. He’s an extremely athletic player who had an up-and-down season while manning primarily short and second at Mesa last summer. If Zinn can learn to be more consistent, he is going to be a terror on the basepaths.
Others to watch
Brandon Hughes is a speedy, switch-hitting outfielder who, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, has the perfect size to develop a power stroke. I don’t know whether he’ll ever put it all together, but I know it’s not all going to happen next year. Improving his approach next year at South Bend should help.
Cam Balego played all over the infield for Mesa in 2017 but was converted to catcher this fall at instructs. He was extremely consistent at the plate, hitting .286. on the season. I’m interested to see what he can do in a larger sample size.
Marcus Mastrobuoni led Mesa in almost every hitting category until Nelson Velasquez passed him up late in the season. The young catcher should be at Eugene in 2018, but the problem for him is that there is nowhere to go in system that is suddenly stocked with backstops.
It may take more than a year before we can really know whether most of these prospects have what it takes to force themselves onto those national lists, but it’s sure going to be fun watching them try.