Assessing Concerns, Strengths of Cubs System Heading into Busy Month of Roster Moves

It’s going to be a busy month for minor league news at Cubs Insider. This Friday, November 20, is the deadline to protect prospects from the Rule 5 Draft by placing them on the 40-man roster. The deadline by which to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players follows on December 2, at which point the Cubs will probably open up some more roster spots. Then there’s the Rule 5 Draft, which includes a minor league portion, on December 10.

The Cubs currently have six open spots on the 40-man roster, but odds are they will only fill three or four with players from the system. Righty Cory Abbott and third baseman Chris Morel look to be locks while catcher PJ Higgins is a pretty safe bet as well. Pitchers Michael Rucker, Trevor Megill, Dakota Mekkes, and Ryan Lawler are all possibilities. One other longshot is reliever Ben Hecht, who took off in 2019 after embracing nutrition management and the weight room to maintain his strength during the season.

Even if they found a way to protect all of those players, the Cubs are almost certain to lose a few prospects as financial concerns across the league will have teams looking to find lottery tickets in the Rule 5. Among those who could be changing organizations are pitchers Keegan Thompson, Duncan Robinson, Bailey Clark, and Erich Uelmen.

Predictions are made difficult by the unique set of circumstances facing MLB this winter, but let’s take a look at the state of the Cubs system heading into late November to see how things could play out.

Because the Cubs took so many pitchers in the 2016, 2017, and 2019 drafts, they don’t have elite hitters in the upper levels of the minors. That lack of depth may impact decisions in Chicago because there aren’t any position players who can step in as injury replacements or bench bats. Outside of Alfonso Rivas, who has looked great since coming over from Oakland, there might not be one hitter who could produce in an everyday role for at least another year.

At the same time, most of those recently drafted arms are untested beyond rookie league or short-season Eugene. Ryan Jensen, Michael McAvene, Chris Clarke, and Josh Burgmann have yet to be stretched out as professionals, while undrafted free agents from this year did not get any experience. That means Max Bain, Scott Kobos, Jerrick Suiter, and Sam Thoresen have faced very little competition, though Suiter did look good in instructs as he transitions to the mound on a full-time basis.

The Cubs’ widespread layoffs this year included several coaches, scouts, and player development personnel, all of which will affect the development of current and future prospects. There were supposed to be two hitting coaches at each affiliate, but the inclination is that there’s only going to be one per squad as a result of all the personnel cuts.

A final concern heading into the 2021 season is where these guys are going to be playing since the locations of the four full-season affiliates are still up in the air. Iowa, Tennessee, and South Bend look to be returning, but it’s uncertain what leagues they are going to be in. Myrtle Beach is more than likely to return, possibly with a move to the low-A South Atlantic League. That would put South Bend at high-A in the Midwest League.

When you lay all of that out, it’s easy to start feeling down about the immediate future of the system. Looking to the horizon, however, we see that the strength of the Cubs’ minor league system is an abundance of talent in the lower levels. They have pitching depth throughout, but the real key to remaining competitive at the big league level is getting some of these prospects to take a leap forward in development come 2021.

The Cubs have plenty of young athletic talent in the form of Morel, Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, Nelson Velazquez, and Jordan Nwogu. Infielder Chase Strumpf has some pop in his bat and Miguel Amaya has shown an advanced feel for catching at a young age. How fast those guys make up for a lost year of competition could take the Cubs system up into the top half of the rankings a year from now.

One other interesting trend to follow is that the Cubs appear to be collecting all the shortstops again with Ed Howard, Andy Weber, Luis Vasquez, Kevin Made, Luis Verdugo, and soon-to-be signed Cristian Hernandez. They also have some young catching depth in Ethan Hearn, Ronnier Quintero, Brayan Altuve, and Moises Ballesteros, an international free-agent the Cubs expect to sign in January of 2021.

That dynamic youth and the pitching depth — particularly when it comes to some hard throwers who can miss bats — offers hope that the Cubs can create a wave of elite players again as they did from 2014-17. Except, of course, that these waves would actually include pitchers and players drafted beyond the first round. Just don’t expect any movement overnight. Development isn’t linear under ideal circumstances and it’s hard to get players ready for the majors if they can’t play any games in the minors.

Starting in late November, Cubs Insider will be breaking down each position in the system, starting with third base and going around the horn. That all begins after Thanksgiving, prior to which we’ll get some of the decisions listed above and even some early top prospect lists.

Get ready for the offseason to pick up its pace, at least when it comes to the minors.

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