Cubs

Baseball America unveils Top 10 Cubs prospects for 2017

Baseball America unveils Top 10 Cubs prospects for 2017

As "next year" has rolled into "last year," the focus on the Cubs prospects has taken a backseat to a big-league core that will live on forever in Cubs history.

The Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years with a homegrown group of players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell who appeared on top prospect lists over the last few years.

So who's next to make an impact on the North Side?

Baseball America released their Top 10 Cubs prospects looking ahead to 2017 Thursday with a trio of hitters leading the way:

1. Eloy Jimenez - OF
2. Ian Happ - 2B/OF
3. Albert Almora - OF
4. Dylan Cease - RHP
5. Oscar de la Cruz - RHP
6. Mark Zagunis - OF
7. Jeimer Candelario - 3B
8. Trevor Clifton - RHP
9. D.J. Wilson - OF
10. Jose Albertos - RHP

Jimenez put the baseball world on notice with his performance in the Futures Game last summer and finished 2016 with a .901 OPS, 40 doubles and 14 homers in 112 games as a 19-year-old.

Happ was the Cubs' first-round draft pick in 2015 (ninth overall) and sported a .279/.365/.445 slash line last year while splitting time between Advanced Class-A and Double-A.

Almora spent a good portion of the 2016 regular season in Chicago, but did not exceed his rookie limits, thus still qualifying as a prospect. He figures to be a key part of the Cubs' outfield in 2017 in his age-23 season.

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Trevor Clifton was the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 with a 2.72 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 in 23 games started for Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach.

Dylan Cease is the most intriguing arm in the Cubs system. He was one of the top high school pitchers in the 2014 Draft, but arm injuries have forced the Cubs to move slow with the former sixth round pick. The 21-year-old has just 68.2 professional innings under his belt, but he has posted a 2.36 ERA and 91 strikeouts in that span, topping out at short-season Eugene in 2016.

Cease also appeared on the 2016 BA prospect list  that looked like this:

1. Gleyber Torres - SS
2. Willson Contreras - C
3. Ian Happ - OF/2B
4. Duane Underwood - RHP
5. Dylan Cease - RHP
6. Albert Almora - OF
7. Billy McKinney - OF
8. Oscar de la Cruz - RHP
9. Eloy Jimenez - OF
10. Jeimer Candelario - 3B

Obviously, Contreras was promoted and a huge part of the success in Chicago.

Torres and McKinney were traded to the New York Yankees in late July in the Aroldis Chapman deal.

That leaves Happ, Cease, Almora, de la Cruz, Jimenez and Candelario as the holdovers on the top prospect list year-over-year, with Jimenez making the largest jump.

Underwood — selected in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft (Theo Epstein's first draft) — is still only 22, but pitched only 73 innings in 2016 across 18 starts with arm issues, posting an 0-6 record, 4.32 ERA and 1.507 WHIP.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

maddon_pic.jpg
USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.