In a comment last week, a VFTB reader inquired about the prospects at different positions in the Cubs’ system. He noted that while the Cubs seem to have a good amount of depth in the outfield, starting pitching at the upper levels of the minors appears to be a weakness. As such, we thought a positional breakdown of the Cubs’ prospects that have a decent chance to contribute would be useful, and could shed some light on the system’s strengths and weaknesses.
Generally, the Cubs’ farm system is stronger on position player side of things than it is on the pitching front. The Cubs’ top three prospects are position players (Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora), and of the Cubs’ highest ceiling pitching prospects, only Arodys Vizcaino has pitched above short season ball. So we’ll start with the position players.
The outfield is the Cubs’ strongest prospect area, largely because Almora and Soler, two of the top three prospect in the system, are outfielders. There has been a lot of discussion on each of these near consensus Top 50 prospects, so I’ll only summarize them briefly here. Almora, the Cubs’ top draft pick in 2012, is a center fielder who is quite advanced for his age due in large part to a ton of experience on national teams. He’s the sort of high ceiling, great make up guy pretty much everyone loves. He’ll miss the first month or two of this season after having the hamate bone in his wrist removed, but it shouldn’t significantly impact his development.
Soler, the Cubs’ big Cuban signing prior to the new international spending limits, is a right fielder with a ton of potential at the plate. He’s become the trendy choice to be this year’s guy who shoots up from the 30-50 range on top prospect lists into the top ten, a la Mike Trout in 2010 or Oscar Taveras in 2012
The other big outfield prospect, and one of the Cubs’ few high ceiling prospects in the upper minors, is Brett Jackson. Jackson’s issues with strikeouts have been well documented all over the internet, including by me. If Jackson is able to cut down the strikeouts, it would be huge for the Cubs’ rebuilding plans.
There are several other Cubs’ outfield prospects who are worth noting. Matt Szczur has been a darling of Baseball America for some time, but others have concerns that his swing is too slappy to be more than a reserve outfielder. Even Baseball America has cooled on Szczur, and he struggled significantly after getting called up to Double A Tennessee in the middle of last season.
Reggie Golden is an extremely athletic but raw outfielder the Cubs drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft. Unfortunately, his full season debut last season got cut very short due to an ACL tear just 7 games into the 2012 season. He’ll return to Kane County, and still has the high ceiling.
Others to keep an eye on are Jae-Hoon Ha, Taiwan Easterling, Trey Martin, Xavier Batista, Shawon Dunston, Jr., and Jeffrey Baez.
The Cubs’ top infield prospect is also their top prospect: Javier Baez. Baez’s ceiling is through the roof, especially if he can stick at shortstop. He very well could still switch over to 3B due to outgrowing the middle infield or because Starlin Castro has shortstop held down, but scouting types consider him a shortstop at this juncture.
There is one middle infield prospect who could make an impact on the Major League team in the next year or year and a half: Logan Watkins. Watkins can play all over the field, but if he sticks at one position it would be second base. While he won’t be Darwin Barney there defensively, he should still be above average. On the other hand, Watkins, who bats left handed, should be an improvement at the plate over Barney. Watkins has drawn a solid walk percentage throughout his minor league career, and, while he won’t ever be mistaken for a power hitter, he should hit for more power than Barney. Watkins will start the season in Iowa, but could move up to the Cubs mid-season to either play a super utility role or if a spot opens up due to injury or trade.
The Cubs have a couple of younger, high ceiling middle infield prospects in Gioskar Amaya and Arismendy Alcantara. Both have significantly higher ceilings than Watkins, but also have significantly lower floors. Alcantara will likely be Tennessee’s shortstop to start the season, while Amaya will make his full season debut as Kane County’s second baseman. Another couple of players to keep an eye on are Ronald Torreyes and Zeke DeVoss, who will be the second basemen for Tennessee and Daytona respectively. Both have issues, but also have at least one elite tool. Torreyes makes a ton of contact, but is too small to be likely to ever add any sort of power. DeVoss has good speed, but has contact issues. Marco Hernandez is also a young talented shortstop who will get a second shot at full season ball this year.
The Cubs only have one first base prospect really worth watching: Dan Vogelbach. Vogelbach has extremely high offensive upside, but can only play first base. And some question whether Vogelbach will even be able to handle first base defensively at the Major League level. He absolutely destroyed short season ball last year, posting a .322/.423/.608. While the defensive concerns have kept him off top prospect lists, if he hits like this at Kane County and Daytona, he’ll get his spot on the top prospect lists.
The Cubs have a lot of prospects (or at least guys who can’t be called non-prospects) at the hot corner, even without considering Javier Baez as a part of this group. Josh Vitters and Junior Lake will probably split time at third base in Iowa, while also getting chances at other positions. However, if either see time in the Majors in 2013, it will probably be at third base. Vitters and Lake are pretty well known, as are their problems. Vitters both has issues with his plate approach and defensively. Even if the offense comes around, Vitters might be better suited to an outfield corner long term. Lake has all the physical talent in the world, but hasn’t turned that into consistent baseball skills. He also has one of the strongest arms in baseball, but makes a lot of mistakes in the field.
The safest of the Cubs’ third base prospects is Christian Villanueva, who they acquired in the Ryan Dempster trade. Villanueva will start the season at Double A Tennessee, and should be an above average defender at third base. He has the lowest offensive ceiling of the Cubs’ third base prospects, as he lacks the power potential you’d want out of a third baseman, but he’s gotten on base enough to at least be average offensively. If neither Vitters nor Lake can get a hold on the position by the middle of 2014, Villanueva could end up being the bridge to whatever the Cubs decide to do at third base when Baez is ready.
Jeimer Candelario might be the most interesting of the Cubs’ third base prospects. As an 18 year old in short season ball, the switch hitter posted a solid .281/.345/.396 line. He has an advanced approach at the plate for his age, and most think he’ll grow into a good amount of power. The real question is if, as he fills out, he can still handle third base, as some think he’ll be ticketed for either first base or left field long term.
There are two differences between the Cubs’ pitching prospects and hitting prospects. Well, two differences aside from the fact that pitchers pitch and hitters hit. The first is at the upper levels of the minors. On the position player front, the Cubs have several offensive prospects in the upper levels of the minors who either have high ceilings if they put it together (Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Junior Lake, Matt Szczur) and players who may not have top ceilings but have good shots of being average regulars (Logan Watkins, Christian Villanueva). The Cubs have all of one pitcher above A ball who has a legitimate ceiling above fifth starter, and that is Arodys Vizcaino, the big return in the Paul Maholm trade. Vizcaino is nearing his return from Tommy John Surgery, and has the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter. The problem is that most scouts don’t think he’ll be able to handle a starter’s workload due to his size. Most see at least an elite late innings bullpen dominator, but Vizcaino solidifying himself in the rotation would be vastly preferable.
Everyone else in the high minors either has fifth starter or bullpen ceiling. Chris Rusin, Brooks Raley and Nick Struck don’t have the stuff to be more than fifth starters. Trey McNutt seems destined for the bullpen due to control issues. And I sincerely doubt the Alberto Cabrera conversion back to a starting pitcher will work.
The second difference is the ceiling between the Cubs’ top offensive prospects and top pitching prospects. The Cubs really do not have pitchers with ceilings similar to Baez, Almora and Soler, and those that come close on potential are much further away from realizing it.
This doesn’t mean that the Cubs are devoid of talent on the pitching side outside of Vizcaino, though. Pierce Johnson was a first round talent who fell to the Cubs in the supplemental round a year ago because of a forearm injury. His ceiling is as a number 2 in the rotation pitcher, and he has as good of odds of speeding through the system as anyone, including the big three position prospects. He will probably start in Kane County this season, but could end as high as Tennessee.
The Cubs also have three high ceiling young arms who have yet to pitch much. Dillon Maples was a 2011 bonus baby who barely pitched due to injury last season, but reportedly has matured greatly over the past season. We’ll see if that converts to solid performance on the mound this season. Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood were two high round high school draftees by the Cubs last year with a ton of ceiling, but they are VERY far away from it at this point. Blackburn and Underwood won’t pitch in a game that counts until June at the earliest, and the highest either will pitch this year is Boise.
One Cubs’ pitching prospect that does not get enough attention is Ben Wells. Wells is a sinker ball pitcher who induces a lot of ground balls. Despite that, he posted a healthy strikeout rate in his full season debut as a 19 year old for Peoria last year, striking out 7.36 per 9 innings. More importantly, he has great control at a young age, walking less than 2.5 per 9 innings.
The big question with Wells will be health. An elbow issue that nearly necessitated Tommy John Surgery limited Wells to just 45 innings in 2012. If he can stay healthy, he could move up the system quickly. He doesn’t have top of the rotation ceiling, but I could easily see him as a three or four if he can handle the workload.
Additionally, if we have this conversation again in 5 months I would bet that the pitching in the Cubs’ farm system will be very improved. To start, odds are that the Cubs will pick either Stanford star right hander Mark Appel or 2012 Cape Cod League darling and Indiana State Ace Sean Manaea, a left hander, with the number two pick in the draft in June. I also expect that the Cubs will focus on adding pitching depth to the farm in any trades they make this season.