One of the exciting things about the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod regime coming to run the team is that they have a proven track record of building strong farm systems. Theo Epstein did it with the help of Hoyer and McLeod in Boston, and Hoyer left the Padres with what is considered one of the best farm systems in baseball, rebuilding their farm system after just two short years on the job. But what do they have to start with as their first spring training running the Cubs comes to an end? Below is the official View from the Bleachers Top 20 Cubs Prospects list for the start of the 2012 season.
1) Brett Jackson (OF): Jackson is solid average to above average in every tool. He gets on base, hits for enough power and runs well enough to be a potential 20-20 guy for several years, and should profile as an at least average defensive center fielder. The only concern, and it is a fairly significant one, is the contact rate. He has struck out in 24% of his minor league plate appearances, including a near 30% rate in AAA last season. If he can get the contact rate up, he could be a star. If he cannot, he will probably peak as a league average center fielder. He should see time with the Cubs in the second half of this season after starting the year in Iowa unless the rumors that Marlon Byrd interests several teams heading into the beginning of the season. Should Byrd get dealt, Jackson could find his way to the Majors sooner rather than later.
2) Anthony Rizzo (1B): Rizzo is fairly similar to Brett Jackson with the bat. He draws walks (although not quite as many as Jackson) and he strikes out more than you would like (although not quite as often as Jackson). His hit tool is better than Jackson’s, but not good enough to project more than a .270 batting average at his peak. He should hit for more power than Jackson, but Jackson’s defensive abilities in center field put Jackson above Rizzo for the panel. Rizzo will start the year at Iowa, but will probably become the Cubs’ starting 1B sometime in the second half of the season. A lot will depend on what amount of production the Cubs get from Bryan LaHair, who will start the season at first. If LaHair plays well, it takes a lot of the pressure off of Theo and Jed to call up Rizzo early. Rizzo is the future at first and Jed has said they don’t want to rush his promotion.
3) Javier Baez (SS): Baez, the Cubs’ first round pick in the 2011 draft, probably has the highest ceiling of anyone in the Cubs’ minor league system. He reportedly had the quickest swing in the draft, and is projected to hit for average and power. However, most of the scouting gurus believe he will probably have to move off shortstop to third base as he fills out, as well as reports existing of some potential attitude issues. But as Josh Vitters taught us, just having a beautiful swing doesn’t mean a prospect knows when to use it. The attitude issues could just be a matter of maturity for a young kid like Baez, but only time will tell. Despite that, Baez should be fun to follow and has huge potential. We initially thought Baez was going to start the season in Low A Peoria, but it appears he will stay in extended spring training in Arizona. It is unclear if this because: (1) the Cubs have things they want Baez to continue to work in the extended spring training environment; (2) the Cubs would prefer Baez to have his first extended professional experience in short season ball; or (3) the Cubs want both Baez and Marco Hernandez, our number 14 prospect, to get regular repetitions at shortstop this season. It could be a combination of all three, and we do not know if Baez will make his initial appearance this season in Peoria or when the Boise Hawks start playing in June.
4) Dan Vogelbach (1B): When Noah rated Dan Vogelbach as the ninth best prospect in the Cubs’ system, he thought he might have rated him significantly higher than anyone else would. He was wrong. Vogelbach, the Cubs’ second round pick in the 2011 draft, has huge power and is reported to have an advanced approach at the plate. The issues with Vogelbach are that he is not athletic and had significant issues throughout his high school years with his weight. As such, he is limited to first base, and is unlikely to be anything better than average defensively even if he is able to keep his weight under control. He could be the next Prince Fielder, or weight and conditioning issues could make it so he never sniffs the big leagues. With all of us rating him in our Top 10 this early in his career, we expect his bat to carry him to the Majors in relatively quick fashion. Vogelbach is another guy we thought would start in Peoria that will stay in Arizona to start the season. He is not blocked by a legitimate prospect at Peoria, and it is not clear if the Cubs are planning on having him make his season debut later in the season in Peoria or at the start of Boise’s season.
5) Matt Szczur (OF): There is no prospect that we have seen the scouting gurus be more divided on than Szczur. Jim Callis and John Sickels both like the athleticism, think he is advanced for a former college two sport athlete, and are extremely excited to see what happens now that he has had a full year playing solely baseball, and a real off season to recuperate and work on advancing his baseball skills. Keith Law and Kevin Goldstein think he lacks baseball skills, and Goldstein doesn’t think he is as fast as the others do. Szczur has the ability to be a very good defensive center fielder with at least solid gap power, but it’s unclear how likely he is to reach that potential. Of everyone on this list, though, he probably has the highest potential of moving up or down in 2012. If his baseball skills do show significant improvement, he could be a consensus top fifty prospect in all of baseball next off season. But if those skills do not improve, he will probably drop off the prospect map entirely. Szczur will return to the High A Daytona Cubs to start the season, although he could receive a quick call up to Tennessee if he performs well.
6) Dillon Maples (RHP): Maples, the top pitcher on the list, was a first round type of talent last season who fell to the fourteenth round because of signability concerns. The Cubs kept him from going to the University of North Carolina to play baseball and kick for the football team by giving him a $2.5 million bonus. Maples has great stuff, with a mid-90s fastball and a strong curveball. Like many young pitchers, whether he’ll be able to add an effective change up will be one of the two biggest indicators of if he will be a starter or a late innings reliever. The other concern is whether he’ll be able to handle a starter’s workload. He reportedly has a nonathletic delivery that makes some concerned about his ability to stay healthy as a starter long term, and it effects his command. Maples reportedly has better control of the curveball than the fastball at this point. However, he has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system. Maples will remain in extended spring training to start the season. A with the other two 2011 draftees on this list, it is not clear if Maples debut this year will be with Peoria or Boise.
7) Wellington Castillo (C): Castillo has been the Cubs’ top catching prospect ever since Geovany Soto lost his prospect status in 2008. Castillo has a stronger arm than Soto, and his game calling skills have reportedly improved over the last couple of seasons. While he is a relatively impatient hitter, his walk rate has steadily improved over the last several seasons. Castillo does have significant power potential for a catcher. He probably will never be as good offensively as Soto’s 2008 or 2010 seasons, but he could be better defensively by a fair margin. Castillo “lost” the competition to be Geovany Soto’s backup to Steve Clevenger, but that was a move Castillo regular playing time in Iowa instead of an indication that the Cubs like Clevenger better as a potential starting catcher. If Soto is injured or traded, Castillo will receive the call up to the big league club and will likely get the majority of starts.
8) Trey McNutt (RHP): Following the Matt Garza trade last season, McNutt was the Cubs’ clear top pitching prospect. However, he struggled with injuries and inconsistency for Tennessee in 2011. The injuries, blister problems and a bruised rib, were more fluke occurrences that should not be a long term concern. The bigger concern is that he has had trouble finding a consistent throwing motion. McNutt already has a mid-90s fastball that can reach 98 mph and a strong slider. If he can find some consistency in his throwing motion and improve his change up, he has top of the rotation potential. If it does not all come together, he instead will probably be pegged for a late inning bullpen role. McNutt is currently pegged to start the season in Tennessee. But, if everything comes together for him, he could be up with the Big League club by the end of the season.
9) Dae-Eun Rhee (RHP): Had this list been made at the All Star Break last season, it is not clear that Rhee would have made an appearance on it. After undergoing Tommy John Surgery in 2009, Rhee had a slow recovery that did not appear to end until the back end of the season. His fastball ticked up from the 88-92 mph range most of the season to the 90-94 range at the end of the season, and his breaking ball improved as well. He also has a strong change up. If he is able to stay healthy, Rhee has middle of the rotation potential, and the quality change up gives him good odds for a back of the rotation role at least. He will probably start the season in Tennessee.
10) Gerardo Concepcion (LHP): Chris Carpenter being sent to the Red Sox for Theo Epstein compensation bumped Concepcion up to the top ten. The new Cuban signee has an advanced approach for his age, but a limited ceiling due to a lack of elite stuff with a fastball that sits in the high 80s. It would not be a surprise to see him move quickly up the Cubs minor league system, but his ceiling is probably a middle of the rotation starter. Concepcion will stay in extended spring training to start the season. Like everyone else starting in extended spring training right now, it is not clear where he will make his U.S. professional debut.
11) Josh Vitters (3B/1B/OF): Vitters still has one of the prettiest swings in all of baseball. But he also needs to be able to learn to lay off pitches he should not be swinging at, and instead waiting to use that pretty swing on pitches he can drive. He also still has not shown that he can handle third base. He will probably start at third base in Iowa this season, but if he does not show improvement defensively could be fairly quickly moved off the position to either left field or first base. Late in the season and into the Arizona Fall League, he saw time away from third, primarily at first. With the addition of Rizzo to the organization, Vitters needs to start figuring things out or he’s going to be a man without a position with the potential to be labeled a bust.
12) Junior Lake (SS): Lake is one of the most physically gifted players in the Cubs’ system. He has big power potential and stole 38 bases last season. But, as Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law say most succinctly, someone needs to teach him how to play baseball. He both does not walk and strikes out a lot, which is a troublesome combination. Lake also will probably have to move off shortstop to third base. He will probably return to Tennessee to start the season.
13) Jeimer Candelario (3B): Candelario had a great age 17 season in the Dominican Summer League in 2012, showing an extremely advanced approach at the plate for his age. He hit for power and walked significantly more than he struck out. If he puts up similar results playing rookie ball in the Arizona League next season, he could easily jump well into the organization’s top ten lists. However, DSL statistics are not as predictive as their American minor league counterparts, and it is not clear that Candelario will be able to stay at third base long term.
14) Marco Hernandez (SS): Hernandez is one step ahead of Candelario in the Cubs’ minor league system, playing in the Arizona League last season. He put up impressive numbers in rookie ball, posting a .333/.375/.486 triple slash. He does not walk much and does not have Candelario’s power potential, but he has strong contact skills. He also has pretty strong odds of sticking at shortstop defensively. He will start the season as Peoria’s starting shortstop.
15) Rafael Dolis (RHP): Rafael Dolis has an electric fastball and strong slider, and is nearly MLB ready. The only problem is that he’s a relief pitcher, which limits his value as a prospect. He is a fastball/slider pitcher with great stuff but control issues. There is a concern, though: he has yet to turn that great stuff into gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors. A strong spring won appears to have won him a spot with the Cubs, where he could be the pitcher the Cubs use as a setup man on days Kerry Wood is not available.
16) Reggie Golden (OF): When the Cubs picked Golden in the second round of the 2010 draft, he was viewed as a raw player with big potential tools. He actually showed significantly better baseball skills than was expected with the short season Boise Hawks last season. While he struck out in a quarter of his plate appearances, he also posted a walk rate above 10% and posted a very healthy .177 ISO. His athleticism allows him to be an above average defensive center fielder, and a strong year with improved contact skills in 2012 would push him up a lot of prospect lists. He will start the season in Peoria, and is likely to spend the majority of the season there.
17) Ronald Torreyes (2B): Torreyes was one of the two prospects the Cubs received along with Travis Wood in the Sean Marshall trade. After tearing up both the Venezuelan Summer League and the Arizona League in 2010, he kept on hitting in at Low A Dayton in 2011, posting a .356/.398/.457. Torreyes has elite contact skills, striking out in just 6.2% of his plate appearances last year. But he is also absolutely tiny: Baseball America has him listed at 5’7” and 139 lbs. The size is going to limit any power potential he may have. He is reportedly above average defensively at second base, but probably could not play shortstop on more than an emergency basis. Torreyes will go as far as his contact skills will carry him. He will start the season in Daytona, but it would not be a shock to see him spend much of the year in Tennessee due to the advanced contact skills.
18) Zack Cates (RHP): Cates was the other prospect the Cubs received in the Anthony Rizzo trade. A converted catcher, Cates has a fastball that can reach the mid-90s and a solid change up, although the breaking ball reportedly needs some work. Cates takes this slot over Ben Wells due to a superior K/9 rate (8.47) and the fact that his arm held up fine to full season duty (118 innings pitched in 25 starts). Depending on who you ask, Cates’ ceiling is somewhere between the middle and back end of a starting rotation. We thought Cates would start the season in High A Daytona, but he is not listed on either Daytona’s or Peoria’s opening day rosters. It is possible the Cubs are pushing him straight to Tennessee, but we will not know until the Smokies officially announce their rosters.
19) Ben Wells (RHP): Wells (no relation to Randy) is a more refined pitcher than Cates, showing great control for an 18 year old at Boise in 2010 (2.21 BB/9). But Wells did not strike a lot of hitters out (6.17 K/9), and the jump to full season ball is a significant one. Wells has a hard sinker that spent most of the year in the 87-90 range, but reportedly increased to the 90-94 range in August. He also has a slider that could be a plus pitch and the change up is reportedly coming along. If the velocity increase holds up and he is able to hold up to full season ball, Wells could jump up a lot of prospect lists. He will start 2012 in Peoria.
20) Dave Sappelt (OF): When the Cubs sent Chris Carpenter to the Red Sox as compensation for Theo Epstein, Sappelt, the other prospect in the Marshall trade, moved on to this list. Sappelt is essentially Major League ready, but probably has a fairly limited ceiling. Sappelt is fast enough that he should be able to play an adequate center field, but he apparently takes poor routes in the outfield. He also does not have a strong enough arm to play right field on more than an emergency basis. That leaves left field as the only place where he is above average defensively, but he does not hit enough to be the sort of guy you would want to start at the position. He will likely fill Reed Johnson’s role if Reed Johnson being traded sometime this year or in 2013, but it would be great if his route running could improve enough so that the Cubs could be more comfortable with him in center field. With the Cubs outfield for the season currently appearing set (Soriano, Byrd, DeJesus, Johnson and Mather), Sappelt will start the season in one of the outfield corners in Iowa.
Potential Early Season Additions to the List: Other players receiving votes were left handed relief pitcher Jeff Beliveau, right handed pitcher Aaron Kurcz (who was the other player sent to the Red Sox as Theo Epstein compensation), right handed relief pitcher Tony Zych and right handed pitcher Jay Jackson. A strong performance from any of the three remaining Cubs pitchers could easily propel them into the top twenty. Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler would probably slot in at number four behind Javier Baez if the Cubs sign the Cuban phenom. This has as much or more to do with lack of familiarity with Soler for the four of us as being able to definitively say he should be slotted below Baez. The two Cubs who were taken by other teams in the Rule 5 draft, utility man Ryan Flaherty and middle infielder Marwin Gonzalez, would have been in the discussion in the 16-20 slots, but it is possible neither would have made the list. Flaherty does not have a single position he is above average defensively at and had to cheat for power at AA before being exposed in Iowa, but could be a poor man’s left handed version of Mark De Rosa. Gonzalez is above average defensively at second base, but reportedly fairly fringe at shortstop. A poor spring by Gonzalez and fairly solid spring by Flaherty has made it more likely that Gonzalez will be returned to the Cubs. However, the fact that both play for cellar dwellers, Gonzalez for the Astros and Flaherty for the Orioles, means that both players might stick on their new teams’ active rosters.