When the farm system rankings came out this winter, the Cubs were rightly dinged by every reputable prospect guru for having a bottom heavy system. In other words, the vast majority of the Cubs’ high ceiling talent started this season in High A Ball or below, largely because the Cubs have only significantly increased spending on the draft and international amateur market since current ownership took over the team prior to the 2011 season. So much of the best talent was brought into the system in 2011 (Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach, Dillon Maples, etc.) or 2012 (Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Pierce Johnson, Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, etc.)
But the Cubs are not completely bereft of prospects who could contribute in the near future. Below are the five prospects who are either playing in Iowa right now, or are only not playing for the I-Cubs because they are on the DL, and are the most likely to play significant roles on the 2014 Chicago Cubs.
Arodys Vizcaino (RHP)– When the Braves’ farm system was touted as having probably the best high minors pitching in baseball in 2011, many thought that Vizcaino was the best of the bunch in a group including Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado. With a mid-90s fastball, a strong breaking ball and a solid curve, he has the three pitches necessary to be a very good starting pitcher. As far as stuff is concerned, Vizcaino’s ceiling is an ace. Aside from the fact that most players don’t reach their ceilings, Vizcaino has another problem: at just 6′ and 190 lbs, many are concerned that his body will not be able to hold up to a starter’s workload. An elbow injury requiring Tommy John Surgery in April 2012 may have proven the doubters right.
Even if Vizcaino is destined for the lighter workload of a reliever, he should be a very good late innings pitcher, which the Cubs have not been able to count on for the past couple of seasons. But if he can start, it would be an even greater boon for the Cubs. Vizcaino, though, has the least “ifs” for being a solid contributor the the Cubs. If he’s healthy, he’ll contribute. The only other question is in what role?
Brett Jackson (OF)– I’ve discussed Jackson extensively this offseason, so I’ll keep it simple: if Jackson can cut the strikeouts down, he’ll be at least an above average regular. If he can’t he’ll be a platoon player or a bench player. Jackson has struggled over the first week and a half of play in Iowa. If the strikeouts don’t decrease by the end of May, it’s unlikely that the changes he made to his swing will have any real effect on his strikeout issues.
Logan Watkins (2B)– Watkins is a prospect in the mold of Darwin Barney. By that I mean a prospect who has moved along the minor league system, performing well but never putting up the sort of gaudy numbers that make someone an elite prospect. Watkins hits left handed, takes walks, steals bases and could handle any defensive position aside from catcher and either be above average, or at least not awful. Watkins could either replace Darwin Barney at second base if the Cubs can find a team to pay above market value in a trade for the slick fielding second baseman, a stopgap at third base who won’t hit for power but will get on base and add value on the base paths, or a utility player in the mold of a Mark DeRosa type who can play better defense.
Junior Lake (3B/OF)- The question with Lake, who has yet to play this season due to injury but should be in Iowa soon, is what it has been for years: will he turn his generous physical gifts into on the field baseball skills. He might have the strongest arm of any non-pitcher in baseball. He could hit 20 plus home runs and steal 30 plus bases a year, but despite his considerable speed succeeded in only 2/3 of his stolen base attempts last season. And despite his considerable power potential, he’s never hit more than 16 home runs in a minor league season. He also reportedly has an approach at the plate that leaves a lot to be desired. But, if he can make good on those physical tools, he could be a very good third baseman, center fielder or right fielder. In any of those positions, his fantastic arm strength would be a great help.
Josh Vitters (3B)– I debated whether to put Vitters on this list or not. Some point to his strong showing in Iowa last season for reasons to still consider him a prospect. Others point to the fact that he’s never shown an ability to wait for his pitch and just looking awful at the Major League level last season for reasons to not consider Vitters a prospect anymore. My biggest problem with Vitters is that the reports of him defensively at the hot corner are still bad. So while I listed him as a third baseman, even if the bat does play at the Major League level he will probably need to move to another position. And since he won’t supplant Anthony Rizzo at first base, that pretty much leaves left field, which will only be open if Soriano is traded. This is not to say that Vitters won’t be the starting third baseman for the Cubs in 2014. But that might be from a lack of better options instead of Vitters clearly deserving the role.