Every year there are prospects that take the next step. Maybe it’s a player that has been around a while, but hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. Or maybe, it’s a player that hasn’t really been on anyone’s radar all that much and is finally ready to make a name for themselves. We’ve taken a group approach with this and have individually identified our biggest riser and our sleeper picks for Chicago Cubs prospects in 2016. You may find some names that you’re familiar with and some that you’ve never heard of. Here are our prospects that are ready to wake up.
Biggest Riser: Bryan Hudson, SP
Bryan Hudson is a big man. Check that—Bryan Hudson is a big kid. At just 18 years old, Hudson stands at 6′ 8” and weighs about 220 pounds. There are a few things I really like about Hudson, and his size is certainly one of those things. Though he tops out in the high 80s to low 90s right now, his frame and age suggest he could easily grow into a true flamethrower. The second thing that really excites me about Hudson is his curveball, which he already has a great feel for. So many of the top prospects we talk about reach their lofty rankings on the strength of their fastballs, and we often talk about how we’re just waiting for that 2nd plus pitch to boost the prospect to the next level. Well, Hudson already has that strong second pitch; now let’s see if he can crank up the heat on his first pitch.
Sleeper: Adbert Alzolay, SP
Alzolay is a 21 year-old (as of March 1) starter who signed with the Cubs out of Venezuela in 2013. His first couple of years in the Cubs system were nothing to write home about, but he finally seemed to figure things out last year in short-season ball with the Eugene Emeralds. What caught my eye was his 0.83 WHIP in 53 innings of work. Alzolay has maintained a consistently high K/9 everywhere he’s played, so his dramatic improvement in WHIP tells me he is starting to figure out how to pitch more effectively in the zone. Alzolay will probably start the year in South Bend and will have to play well to stick out among a field of high-upside pitchers.
Biggest Riser: Rashad Crawford, OF
Drafted in the 11th round in the 2012 draft (the first of the Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod era) out of a Georgia high school, Crawford has slowly climbed up the ladder and has improved at the plate at each step. Back in 2013 in the Arizona Rookie League, he hit a measly .210/.299/.275 in 43 games. The following year he was promoted to Boise where he once again struggled at the plate, hitting .259/.297/.360. However, this past year things began to come together for him at the plate. At South Bend the athletic Crawford hit .280/.322/.382 and improved as the year progressed. John Arguello of Cubs Den, noted that Crawford has filled out his frame, and I expect to see some more power from him this season. In the field the 6’3” outfielder can play all three positions and has above-average to plus speed, which helped him steal 20 bases last season. There’s a chance he sticks in Center, and if his power develops he could jump into the Top 10 of our list come the end of the year.
Sleeper Pick: James Norwood, SP/RP
For the 2nd year in a row, I believe Norwood will breakout in a big way. Last season he suffered from an injury and inconsistencies, but when healthy he shined on the mound for South Bend. In Spring Training, he was sitting 94-96 mph with his fastball and was working on a slider according to John Arguello. If he can stay healthy, the 6’2”, 205 pound Norwood could be a force in the rotation or back-end of the bullpen for the Pelicans.
Biggest Riser: Willson Contreras, C
For me it’s all about the Cubs 2015 minor league player of the year, Willson Contreras. I am a bit bias as he is my favorite prospect, but his athletic ability as a catcher and hitter are hard to ignore. His 2015 numbers were good enough for most scouting outlets to name him the best catching prospect in baseball. With Double-A Tennessee, the 23 year-old slashed .333/.413/.478 in 126 games. You can most likely attribute the rise in his power numbers to his 10.9 BB% and 11.9 K%. Behind the plate, Contreras is still raw and athletic but possesses a cannon for an arm. We’ve seen the rise in value in a defensive catcher who can frame and manage a rotation so that will be the main focus for him in Triple-A Iowa this season. There is a reason he broke camp with the big league club in Arizona this spring, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in Chicago in September.
Sleeper Pick: Donnie Dewees, OF
When going through the list of prospects for my choice here, it didn’t take me long to go with Donnie Dewees. The speedy outfielder went undrafted out of high school and went on to play college ball at North Florida. He was named a freshman All-American after hitting .347 and in 2015 was named Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the year after hitting an absurd .422 with 18 homeruns and 68 RBI’s. In his first professional season at Eugene, Dewees slashed .266/.306/.376 with 19 steals. He has a nice compact swing and makes a lot of contact with the baseball. The speed translates well to the outfield as he only had two errors in 59 games in 2015. The ceiling could be Brett Gardner, and the floor could be Reed Johnson. Regardless, I think Dewees makes big strides in ’16. (Bonus points for best name in the system)
Biggest Riser: Jeimer Candelario, 3B
If spring training is any indication of the season ahead, Jeimer’s looks about as bright as the Arizona sun. Candelario, signed out of the Dominican in 2010, and was recently optioned to Double-A. Maddon had high praise for him saying, “How can we possibly send you out? You’re the best hitter in the Valley right now.” Sure, Spring Training might be a small sample size with only 15 games, but if you add his Spring Training stats to his Arizona Fall League Stats it is more eye opening. He’s slashing .336/.377/.632 with 8 homeruns and 20 RBI’s. That is very hard to overlook. Look for him to start the year in Tennessee, but to be promoted quickly to Iowa if he stays healthy. Even though the Candy Man is blocked at third base by Kris Bryant, batters are assets, and Jeimer is just another addition to that massive stockpile.
Sleeper Pick: Bryan Hudson, SP
Hudson is sometimes forgotten in prospect talk. Both his fastball and his curveball have been graded as plus pitches with the hope that his fastball will pick up a few ticks as his body fills out. According to John Arguello, Hudson is now topping out at 94 and his curveball is “nasty”. That is extremely encouraging for the young pitcher. Out of all the young arms the Cubs have, I personally believe Hudson has the highest potential to be a Top of the Rotation arm. In order to do that Hudson must work on his change-up. If he can develop all three pitches, look out. This is a guy you will be hearing a lot of in the coming years. Look for Hudson to reach Eugene this year, which is where his first real test will be.
Hudson 90-91, T94, struck out side, got each batter with CB one player repeatedly described as nasty/gross
— John Arguello (@CubsDen) March 26, 2016
Biggest Riser: Albert Almora, CF
Since being drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Albert Almora has certainly had his ups and downs. Almora is no longer the shiny new toy and some are starting to doubt if he will ever become the player people expected when he was drafted. 2016 will be a big year for Almora and I am predicting that he’ll start putting it all together. The once highly touted prospect has fallen on prospect lists, mainly over concerns that he won’t hit enough. He’s been working on adjustments and started seeing results in the second half last season, where he went on to hit .301/.370/.464 compared to .244/.285/.340 in the first half. If he can carry what he did in the second half over to Triple-A, Almora should start climbing back up lists and reclaim his status as a top prospect.
Sleeper Pick: Ryan Kellogg, SP
It would be easy to pick someone like Justin Steele here because he’s often overlooked when compared to names like Dylan Cease, Carson Sands, and Bryan Hudson. Instead, I am going to go with Ryan Kellogg here. Kellogg was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2015 draft out of Arizona State University. The 6’6” 230 pound left-hander didn’t quite live up to expectations in college and slipped in the draft. He wasn’t bad at all, but people were expecting more out of him. He works in the low 90’s, and has a solid pitch mix that is capable of generating whiffs. I think working with a professional coaching staff will help him unleash some untapped potential and will boost his stock going into next season.
Video Credit: Pac-12 Networks