As I mentioned last week regarding the Boston Red Sox’s farm system, there’s arguably no such thing as an "underrated" prospect. If the player has a pulse, then it’s likely he’ll become over-hyped while ascending the organizational ladder.
Well, the same can be said about the Cubs' fanbase, which possesses a similar passion for hyperbole.
As Jed and Theo continue to retool and, in turn, cultivate the team’s future, they’ve already assembled an impressive collection of potentially high-level and under-the-radar talent.
Here’s a look at the five most underrated prospects in the Cubs’ system.
Struck, a 39th-round draft pick in 2009, pitched at three levels in 2011 during his full-season debut, but he struggled to miss bats over the second half of the season at Triple-A Iowa. (Perhaps it was just the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League environment.) However, he rebounded this past season at Double-A Tennessee, registering a 3.18 ERA with 123/44 K/BB in 155.2 innings.
The 5’11”, 185-pound right-hander will get another crack at Triple-A Iowa next season and should pitch significantly better than he did at the level in 2011. Despite his ascent through the Cubs’ system, the 23-year-old isn’t especially projectable in the major leagues. However, he’s established a relatively high floor as a potential No. 5 or 6 (spot) starter capable of eating innings.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft out of Louisville, Zych is on the fast track to the major leagues after reaching Double-A Tennessee in his full-season debut. Assigned to High-A Daytona to open the year, the 22-year-old registered six saves and a 3.19 ERA with 36/7 K/BB in 36.2 innings. His command was challenged following a promotion to Double-A, where he posted a 4.38 ERA with 28/12 K/BB in 24.2 innings.
A 6’3”, 190-pound right-hander, Zych relies on deception with a tense, jerky delivery and fast, whippy arm that generates fastballs at 94 to 97 mph with some weight. His slider has late bite in the high-70s, low-80s and projects to be an above-average offering. After seeing him in the Arizona Fall League, Zych doesn’t strike me as a future closer. However, his upside as a seventh- or eighth-inning guy is obvious.
Signed out of Venezuela in 2009, Amaya is an impressive young hitter with the potential for an above-average bat and present plus speed. As a 19-year-old last season, the right-handed hitter posted an .877 OPS with 12 triples, eight home runs, 15 stolen bases and 65/33 K/BB in 69 games for Short-Season Boise.
Amaya’s power emerged ahead of schedule last season, as he jumped the yard eight times and led the Northwest League with 12 triples. Although he’s undersized at 5’11”, 175 pounds, his compact swing generates hard contact to all fields. An above-average runner, the 20-year-old has speed that makes him an extra-base threat each time he steps to the plate.
A versatile infielder capable of playing several positions, Amaya will look to break into the major leagues at either second or third base. He manned the keystone for the entire 2012 season and showcased above-average range, quick feet and a consistent glove.
Acquired from the Rangers in the Ryan Dempster deal in late July, Hendricks, a 6’3” right-hander, flew below the radar during his full-season debut. Pitching for each team’s respective High-A affiliate as a 22-year-old, he registered a 2.99 ERA with 123/18 K/BB in 147.2 innings. Adept to getting outs and eating innings, Hendricks has a legitimate feel for a three-pitch mix that’s highlighted by a low-90s fastball and plus changeup. He’s not a sexy prospect, but I think there’s something there.
Selected in the second round of the 2011 draft, Vogelbach absolutely mashed last season. A massive left-handed hitter, he opened the season by batting .324/.391/.686 with 21 extra-base hits (seven home runs) and 14/12 K/BB in 24 games in the rookie-level Arizona League. Vogelbach’s performance earned him a promotion to Short-Season Boise where it was more of the same, as he went on to bat .322/423/.608 with 20 extra-base hits (10 home runs) and 34/23 K/BB in 37 games.
He’s the definition of a bad-body-guy at 6’0", 250 pounds, but he will need to work hard to retain a playable weight throughout his career. Given his size, he'll likely continue to be overlooked until he reaches the high minors. Luckily, he boasts absolutely jaw-dropping, plus-plus raw power thanks to a compact swing that allows him to track the ball deep and effortlessly drive the ball to all fields. His advanced feel for the strike zone, direct bat path and strong top hand give him the potential for an above-average-to-plus hit tool. However, he’ll have to continue to rake, as his value will always be tied to his power.
*Shout-out to my good friend and former college teammate, Colver, who shares a similar admiration of Vogelbach's mighty bat.