By Chris Emma–
(CBS) In 2015, the Cubs saw a dramatic turnaround, reaching the NLCS with four rookies playing prominent roles.
Kris Bryant will likely be named NL Rookie of the Year, Kyle Schwarber hit a franchise-record five home runs during the postseason and Addison Russell was a reliable shortstop who flashed big potential. So too did Jorge Soler, when healthy.
That quartet — along with infielder Javier Baez, whose — represented the first wave of Cubs prospects rising up through the farm system. In time, there will be more to come, so let’s take a look the next set of names to watch.
These six players are ranked among the top seven Cubs prospects by MLB.com. The other is right-hander C.J. Edwards, who’s expected to have a bullpen role, at least, with the big league team next season after a September call-up in 2015.
RHP Pierce Johnson, 24
Acquired: Cubs’ supplemental first-round pick in 2012
MLB projection: 2016
2015 stats: 6-2, 2.08 ERA, 72 Ks, 32 BBs, 95 IP in 16 starts
Note: The Cubs will chase pitching on the free-agent market because their young hurlers still need more seasoning in the minors, but Johnson has a chance to be the first one (outside of C.J. Edwards) to accept a role in 2016. He uses four pitches, including a fastball that hits the mid-90s, but he needs to show better control.
OF Albert Almora, 21
Acquired: Cubs’ first-round pick in 2012
MLB projection: Late 2016
2015 stats: 6 HRs, 46 RBIs, .272 AVG, .727 OPS in 106 games (all in Double-A)
Note: The first draft pick of the Theo Epstein era in Chicago was Almora, who has taken a slow route through the minor leagues, overcoming injuries and struggles. It’s likely that Almora will start 2016 in Triple-A Iowa and attempt to show readiness for the majors. Still, at age 21, there’s no reason to rush the developing talent.
OF Billy McKinney, 21
Acquired: Traded from Oakland in 2014
MLB projection: Late 2016 as a potential call-up, 2017 for a chance at bigger role
2015 stats: 7 HRs, 64 RBIs, .300 AVG, .825 OPS in 106 games (77 in Double-A)
Note: The other top prospect that was part of the Addison Russell deal, McKinney is considered to be another important prospect in the Cubs system. He put together a solid season, finishing in Double-A Tennessee, as he displayed a good bat and occasional power.
P Duane Underwood, 21
Acquired: Cubs’ second-round pick in 2012
MLB projection: 2017
2015 stats: 6-3, 2.58 ERA, 48 Ks, 24 BBs, 73.1 IP in 14 starts
Note: A second-round selection in the 2012 draft, Underwood has dealt with injuries that have hampered his development. In July, he received a break when his right elbow didn’t require Tommy John surgery. When healthy, Underwood can hit near triple digits on his fastball, and he also boasts a quality breaking ball.
SS Gleyber Torres, 18
Acquired: Signed by Cubs in 2013
MLB projection: 2017 or 2018
2015 stats: 3 HRs, 62 RBIs, .287 AVG, .739 OPS in 126 games (119 in Low-A)
Note: Another promising shortstop is waiting in the Cubs organization. Torres impressed with Low-A affiliate South Bend and is viewed as a talented hitter with a quick swing. He could run on the fast track to the majors.
OF Ian Happ, 21
Acquired: Cubs’ first-round pick in 2015
MLB projection: 2017 for potential call-up, 2018 for a chance at bigger role
2015 stats: 9 HRs, 33 RBIs, .259 AVG, .822 OPS in 67 games (38 in Low-A)
Note: The Cubs picked up another lively bat in Happ in their 2015 draft, adding the outfielder out of Cincinnati. Happ is another piece for the outfield, showing some pop. While he has college seasoning, it’s most realistic to look at him as arriving late in the 2017 season or to start the 2018 campaign.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.