Gone are the days where Cubs fans would set their offseason clocks by national prospect rankings, treating each new release like Christmas morning and daydreaming about the day all these young kids would be starring at the corner of Clark and Addison.
In fairness, some Cubs fans may still spend their winters that way, but regardless, the daydreams have generally stopped and not just because there are vivid memories of the 2016 World Series to relive over and over again.
The Cubs farm system has not been ranked among the best in the game for a few years now and it currently sits 29th out of 30 in Keith Law's ESPN ranking. But the reasons for that are wide-ranging — from trading away top prospects for MLB talent (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Gleyber Torres) to lack of early draft picks (picking late in the first round or losing picks as compensation for signing top free agents) to the obvious graduations of guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr.
So no, the Cubs probably don't have any future stars knocking on the door of the majors. But they do have a few guys they are genuinely excited about and infielder Nico Hoerner and catcher Miguel Amaya are at the forefront of that next wave of prospects.
The Cubs have plenty of pitching prospects worth keeping an eye on (as we detailed this week), but Hoerner and Amaya have become the face of the farm system, so to speak.
Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs all had the pair ranked 1-2 in the Cubs system in some order (BA and BP had Hoerner No. 1 while FanGraphs topped their list with Amaya).
Hoerner, 21, was the Cubs' first-round draft pick out of Stanford last June (24th overall) and flew through the system immediately after signing — from rookie ball in Arizona to short-season Class-A in Eugene, Oregon, to Class-A in South Bend, Indiana. But in total, he only got about two weeks of playing time before going down with a left elbow injury that sapped the rest of his minor-league season.
When he got healthy, the Cubs sent him to the prestigious Arizona Fall League, where he showed out against some of the game's top young talent.
In total, Hoerner hit .333 with a .396 on-base percentage and .529 slugging percentage (.925 OPS) in 35 games in 2018 while clubbing 15 extra-base hits (3 homers, 6 doubles, 6 triples), stealing 7 bases and walking 11 times vs. 20 strikeouts.
When a fan at the "Down on the Farm" panel at Cubs Convention asked about exciting prospects in the Cubs system, director of player development Jaron Madison eagerly threw out Hoerner's name.
"Not just as a player and how athletic he is and how dynamic he is, but also the person and teammate and the leader he is," Madison said. "He has a chance to be really special. He's on his way; he should be a pretty quick mover."
One of the best tools at Hoerner's disposal is his versatility, as he can play second base and shortstop and also got some work at third base last fall.
Already, Hoerner’s swing has changed. He was making lots of hard, low-lying contact at Stanford, but since signing he has added a subtle little bat wrap that has made a substantial difference in how he impacts the ball. He hit for much more power than was anticipated in the summer and fall, and the identifiable mechanical tweak is evidence that the change is real and not small-sample noise. Hoerner makes routine plays at short and so long as scouts are okay with his funky throwing motion, he has a chance to stay there. There are scouts who have him projected to second base or to center field. Hoerner’s previous swing enabled a bit of a jailbreak out of the batter’s box, exaggerating his home-to-first speed. With the new swing, he’s a 55 runner. Hoener’s bat and probable up the middle defensive profile mean he’s likely to be at least an average regular, and he could move quickly.
Hoerner's game speed may not be elite, but he has been described as smart baserunner and this is an athletic freak who has no problem dunking despite his 5-foot-11 frame.
I mean, look at these hops:
Amaya won't turn 20 until next month and even though he might not be on the cusp of the big leagues, the Cubs love the potential and he's turned heads of prospect evaluators of late.
Here's why FanGraphs ranked him first in the Cubs system:
Even as he struggled early as a pro to perform on paper, Amaya drew trade interest from clubs hoping to leverage the Cubs’ championship aspirations to convince the club to part with him. The Cubs refused and have been rewarded, as the offensive potential promised by Amaya’s graceful swing and burgeoning physicality began to actualize in 2018. Amaya’s hands have life, and work in a tight little loop as he accelerates them to swing. He can pull and lift balls in various parts of the zone with regularity, and the impact of his contact is only limited by his average bat speed. The physical grind of catching is likely to dilute his in-game offensive production a little bit, but unless the beating he takes back there starts to take away from his defensive abilities (which sometimes happens to young catchers), Amaya is a pretty good bet to have some kind of big league career, and, if the bat maxes out, he’ll be an above-average regular. He turns 20 in March and will likely head to Hi-A next year. How his advanced defensive ability and less-advanced bat develop could affect how quickly the Cubs push him: slowly if they want to wait for the latter or, depending on how much he hits early as a big leaguer, quickly if they don’t.
Amaya's defense has always been ahead of his bat, but he started putting it all together last year. With Class-A South Bend as a 19-year-old, Amaya hit .256/.349/.403 while slugging 12 homers, 21 doubles and 2 triples and knocking in 52 runs in 414 at-bats. He also walked 50 times compared to 91 strikeouts.
"We really like the defensive package and everything he brings on the defensive side of the ball," Cubs senior VP Jason McLeod said while also touting Amaya's advanced plate approach and ability to use the entire field at such a young age.
McLeod is excited about the talent the Cubs have added the last couple years between the draft and internationally. Hoerner and Amaya are getting the most fanfare, but the Cubs have several recent prospect additions that have also received high marks from outside the organization — from other position players (Cole Roederer, Brennan Davis, Aramis Ademan) and some young arms in the lower levels of the minor-league system (Brailyn Marquez, Alex Lange, Paul Richan, Cory Abbott).
While Amaya and most of the aforementioned names are still probably a couple years away from Chicago, it's not crazy to think Hoerner could impact the big-league club in 2019. He already got to know most of the guys last July on a visit to Wrigley Field and the Cubs are one big injury away from needing middle-infield depth in the majors.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.