Jim Callis is the Executive Editor at Baseball America and you can follow him on twitter @JimCallisBA. In my opinion, he’s one of the most knowledgeable and more approachable guys in the industry and I enjoyed getting the opportunity to get inside of his head for a while.
Q: Hi Jim, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule. What exactly does your job with BA entail?
A: I work out of my home rather than in our main office, so I’m not as involved with day-to-day issues. My biggest responsibilities are headlining our draft coverage and overseeing all of our prospect rankings, including being the primary editor on our annual Prospect Handbook. I write a weekly Ask BA column where I answer reader questions, and do a weekly chat as well. I also write a draft/prospects-related column in ever issue of the magazine.
Q: What is your off-season schedule like?
A: Our offseason is busier than most people realize. From October through December, I spend nearly every waking hour editing the Prospect Handbook, which contains 900 detailed scouting reports and plenty more. After that goes to print, I write our Early Draft Preview and then start preparing for the draft in the spring.
Q: What do you look for when you are scouting a prospect?
A: I’d consider myself more of an analyst than a scout. A lot of our information comes from talking to scouts, not going out with a radar gun and stopwatch and seeing games on a daily basis. I look for a combination of tools and performance, with performance mattering more as you get closer to the major leagues. I could give you thousands of words on this subject, but the short answer is power and speed for hitters and arm strength and command for pitchers from a tools standpoint, and ability to make consistent hard contact for hitters or miss bats for pitchers from a performance standpoint.
Q: It’s been reported that the Cubs previous regime was well behind modern front offices. How has the new front office changed scouting and player development within the organization?
A: I can’t quote specific philosophies or practices, but the obvious answer is that they’ve made sweeping changes. Jason McLeod oversees the entire scouting and player development operation and vice president of Oneri Fleita is gone. Former scouting director Tim Wilken has been promoted to special assistant, with Jaron Madison taking over as director. Joe Boehringer was hired to fill the new position of pro scouting director. Those are the most significant changes.
Q: I’m a little disappointed the Cubs moved Tim Wilken out of the Scouting Director position as he’s been so successful for such a long period of time. How do you feel about Wilken’s first round picks since joining the Cubs? Do you know anything about his new role with the team? And what can you tell us about his replacement Jaron Madison?
A: Wilken’s first-round picks were, in order, Tyler Colvin, Josh Vitters, Andrew Cashner, Brett Jackson, Hayden Simpson, Javier Baez and Albert Almora. Colvin has gotten back on track since being traded to Colorado, and I could see Andrew Cashner eventually emerging as a closer in San Diego. I don’t see Vitters as a big league regular on a contender, and Simpson has been a disaster. I do like Jackson, despite the increased strikeouts this year, and think he can be a solid regular. Baez and Almora are the two best prospects in the system. In his new role, Wilken still will contribute to the draft, but he’ll also contribute in other areas as well, such as major league and international decisions. Madison was the scouting director for the last three years with the Padres, and had some promising drafts to help rebuild the system. He was hired by Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod in San Diego.
Q: Right now, who do you think are the Cubs top 5 prospects?
A: In order: Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Arodys Vizcaino, Christian Villanueva.
Q: Age relative to league is very important when evaluating prospects. After seeing Jeff Samardzija break out this year after being all but written off, should two-sport college athletes be given more leniency when being evaluated?
A: Yes, they should. Age relative to league is important, but so is “baseball age,” i.e. how long the player has focused on baseball. With Samardzija, though, the toughest thing to reconcile always was his overpowering velocity and relatively low strikeout rates in the minors. He just didn’t miss as many bats as he should, and he didn’t at Notre Dame either. The Cubs have done a nice job developing him, and the finished major league product is a different story.
Q: Speaking of two-sport college athletes, Matt Szczur had a roller coaster season which saw him finish the year struggling at AA-Tennessee. You’ve always been pretty high on Szczur. What are your thoughts now that you’ve had another season to evaluate him?
A: I still like him but I’ve also cooled a little on him. I still think he can be a big league regular, though he might have a hard time keeping the center-field job away from Albert Almora. Szczur is fast but not a blazer, and he can hit but doesn’t have a ton of power.
Q: The Cubs have recently signed Juan Carlos Paniagua for 1.5 million. This is the third time Paniagua has signed with a club but only the first time it was approved after he used an assumed identity and fraudulent identification papers in his first two attempts. His listed date of birth is still unconfirmed by the MLB. Is this something that could come back to bite the Cubs later? What can you tell us about Paniagua’s pitching ability and where would you guess he fits in the Cubs top prospects?
A: It can’t come back to bite the Cubs in terms of having this deal voided. They know his birth date is unconfirmed and made the decision to sign him anyway. He has a tremendous arm, clocked up to 98 mph with his fastball and backing it up with a hard slider. I think he’ll fit in the 6-10 range when I do our Cubs Top 30 Prospects list in the offseason, but I don’t have a great feel for him yet.
Q: Josh Vitters had a mini-break out at AAA this season but he’s really struggled since being called up to the majors. The swing is still there but so are the defensive, plate patience and work ethic concerns. What are realistic expectations for the former #3 overall pick moving forward?
A: He has been tough to figure out, because he’s always been young for his league and made some progress here and there. I just don’t see him as a regular on a contender. I think he can hit for a solid average, but I don’t think the power and defense profile well enough at third base. I could see him hitting .275 with 15 or so homers, not a lot of walks and substandard defense if he played every day.
Q: It seems the only starting pitching prospects worth mentioning in the Cubs’ system have been recently acquired. Are there any holdovers from the Hendry days that Cubs fans should still be interested in?
A: I don’t see any Hendry holdovers that look like good bets to pitch in the front half of a big league rotation. The old regime had those hopes for Dillon Maples after signing him for $2.5 million next year, and maybe he’ll fulfill them, but he has barely been able to pitch this year. Robert Whitenack was making some encouraging progress before having Tommy John surgery last year. There are some lower-level guys like Starlin Peralta who are pretty far away. There’s not much in the way of upper-level pitching in the system.
Q: The Cubs drafted Albert Almora with their first round pick this year. I’ve been surprised by the amount of power he’s shown in limited playing time thus far. What are his current and potential tools on the 20-80 scale? How quickly should he move through the minors?
A: Almora has advanced instincts for a high school player, so he could move quickly than most. Projecting him down the road, he could have plus tools across the board. He handles the bat very well, could develop into a 20-homer guy as he fills out and he’s an above-average defender with a quality arm. His stopwatch speed is closer to average, but he plays above those times.
Q: It feels like Junior Lake has been around forever but hasn’t made much progress in developing all those tools. He had another solid yet unspectacular season statistically in 2012. What kind of future do you think he has with the Cubs? Is there any chance they try him out as a pitcher in the near future?
A: You described Lake well. He has one of the strongest infield arms in the minors, above-average raw power and speed to match once he gets going. The problem is he hasn’t been able to refine his tools into skills. He doesn’t control the strike zone, which holds him back at the plate, and he’s really too big to be a full-time shortstop. I don’t see him as a regular on a contender, but he could get a shot at third base in the near future if Vitters doesn’t work out. He’s showing enough as a position player that I don’t think the Cubs are going to try him on the mound anytime soon.
Q: Top 5 guys aside, if you had to bet your life on one guy being a successful big league player, who would it be?
A: I definitely wouldn’t want to bet my life. There aren’t a lot of upper-level guys, especially after all the promotions, to hang your hat on. Dan Vogelbach has had a great year, but he’s an all-bat first baseman, and those guys are typically boom or bust. If I’m betting my life, I’m picking Szczur, but he might be more of a Reed Johnson than a true regular. I do think he can hit and run and play defense well enough to have a long-term role in the majors.