Members of Theo’s First Draft Class Should Be Coming into Their Own in 2016

In 2012, Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod made their first selections for the Cubs in the MLB Draft. The Cubs had a few key prospects in the minors at the time, but the system was largely bereft of talent, especially pitching. As a result, the Cubs stocked up on pitching after taking OF Albert Almora, Jr. with the first pick. In fact, 22 of their 40 selections were arms. In 2016, the member of the 2012 draft class will begin their fifth season of pro ball. Some players are just getting close to Chicago, while others are running out of time to make it to the majors.

Still with the Cubs

Of the 40 picks the Cubs made that year, only 15 are still with the organization and should be spread throughout high-A Myrtle Beach, AA Tennessee, and AAA Iowa in 2016. This class has yet to produce a major leaguer for the Cubs, but several prospects are very close and could be high-impact players. Remember, it can take 5-7 years to develop a player; Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are not the norm. Most who make it are usually debuting at 23-26 years of age, with pitchers generally being at the higher end of that range.

How Close Are They?

Pierce Johnson is the closest pitcher to the majors in this draft class, while Duane Underwood, Jr. is not far behind. After two injury-filled seasons, pitcher Josh Conway is making a huge comeback as a reliever and had an outstanding second half at Myrtle Beach (1.35 ERA in 17 appearances) in 2015. In addition, Paul Blackburn had the best half of his career this past season with a 1.31 ERA in 8 starts.

As for hitters, Albert Almora, Jr. should be knocking on the door come middle to late summer of 2016. A few other position players (Stephen Bruno, Bijan Rademacher, David Bote, Jacob Rogers, and Ben Carhart) are still in the system but they all project to be bench players at this point.

Below is a chart of the players drafted, their 2016 assignment, and when/if I think they will make it to Chicago. A question mark represents uncertainties about their profile and tenure as a Cub. For example, Stephen Bruno could make it to the majors, but will it be as a Cub? Bruno can swing the bat, there’s no doubt of that. But as of now, there’s not really room for him or a place to play – even as a bench player.

Player 2016 Affiliate Chicago ETA
Albert Almora, Jr. Iowa Late 2016
Pierce Johnson Iowa Late 2016
Paul Blackburn Tennessee 2018
Duane Underwood, Jr. Tennessee 2017
Ryan McNeil Myrtle Beach ?
Josh Conway Tennessee 2017?
Stephen Bruno Iowa ?
Rashad Crawford Myrtle Beach 2018?
Bijan Rademacher Iowa ?
Corbin Hoffner Myrtle Beach ?
David Bote Myrtle Beach ?
Stephen Perakslis Tennessee/Iowa 2017?
Jasvir Rakkar Tennessee ?
Ben Carhart Tennessee ?
Jacob Rodgers Tennessee ?

I can see Underwood, Jr. making it faster than Blackburn because of his abilities, and rightly so. On the other hand, the ascension by any of these prospects is not guaranteed. We could be looking at only 3-4 players making it, or we could be looking at 5-6. It’s hard to tell until they get to Chicago to show what they can do at that level.

Sleeper Prospects

Most of this class was drafted when they were 17-18 years old. Many, like Blackburn, just turned 22 and Underwood just turned 21. They are still young, yet it seems they have been prospects for a long time. One who is slowly emerging is Rashad Crawford. The 11th round pick just turned 22 and had an impressive season at South Bend in 2015 when he hit .280, stole 20 bases, and drove in 50 from the nine spot. The 6’3”, 185-pounder displayed the ability to play all three outfield spots well and could break out as a bigger prospect in 2016 if he can produce some more gap power. A key element to Crawford’s potential is that he has improved incrementally from year to year. I look for better things from him in 2016.

Stephen Perakslis is another sleeper. After spending most of 2015 on the DL, the young right-handed reliever should return healthy in 2016. Perakslis is known for having mid-90’s heat, but it usually takes him until June to warm up before having dominant second halves in 2013 and 2014. If he can come out of the gate warm in 2016 (likely at Tennessee), his career path could take a decidedly different arc.

The Hope

If you listen to Cubs Director of Scouting Jason McLeod, a good draft is one in which 3 or 4 of the players you chose make it to the majors. Doesn’t seem like much does it? By 2019-2020, we will have an answer on how many from this class made it. The bigger question, though, is how many from this draft class will have a major impact at the major leagues?

What has changed for the development of all of these players — or at least our assessment of it — is that we now can watch them on a daily basis. From most of them coming through Kane County or South Bend and the presence of MiLB.TV, it is now easier than ever before to follow a prospect all the way through the minors. It’s sad knowing they all won’t make it, but it’s fun rooting for them to get to Chicago.

While Almora, Jr., Underwood, Jr., Johnson, and Blackburn have good shots in the next two years, nothing is for certain. Conway, Crawford, Perakslis, and Ryan McNeil still have a chance to get there, but they need to have a lot of things fall into place. One of the highlights of this upcoming summer will be seeing how this draft class does at the upper levels of the minors against elite competition. I find it exciting that Almora and Underwood, not to mention Johnson, are so close. That fact that Blackburn had a great second half in 2015 bodes well for 2016 too. And I am extremely hopeful for Josh Conway because his story is a great story of perseverance.

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