I think we’re all a little weary of the Cubs and their play recently and we’re all excited about the future so here’s another prospect interview with one of the hardest working guys covering baseball, John Sickels. As you’ll notice I recycled a couple questions to get a comparison with the recent Jim Callis interview as well as interviews coming in the near future.
John Sickels is a baseball writer and analyst at SB Nation. He is the author of the annual Baseball Prospect Book and is the Senior Editor at MinorLeagueBall.com. You can also follow him on twitter @MinorLeagueBall.
Q: What do you look for when you are scouting a prospect [pitching & position]?
Sickels: I try to take a comprehensive approach. For pitchers, I look first at size, arm strength, mechanics, and consistency of mechanics. A guy with unusual mechanics doesn’t bother me that much as long as he repeats them well and his body is used to it. I look at his fastball, of course, how fast it is, but also how fast it plays. Oftentimes I don’t look at radar readings until after he’s thrown several pitches; I try to rate his fastball quality without looking at the gun or being prejudiced by the readings. My idea here is to get a read on how deceptive the fastball is, or how well it moves, and how well he locates it, before knowing what the radar says. All the standard questions apply from here of course: what kind of breaking stuff? Can he change speeds? Does his delivery change when he uses a different pitch? How fast does he work? Does he appear confident? How does he handle tough situations?
Statistically I look at all the normal things: K/IP, K/BB ratios, considered within league context, batting average against, statistical splits, ground ball and home run rates, etc.
For hitters, again, I try to look at everything: overall athleticism, arm strength, running speed, etc. Batting eye, plate discipline, etc…type of swing…does he go for line drives or is he an uppercut power type? Is he a fastball hitter or does he handle breaking stuff well? Is he too aggressive? Too passive? If he’s fast, how well does he USE that speed? And statistically I look at all the stuff you normally look at, the standard numbers, BB/K/PA ratios, home/road splits, line drive rates, etc.
Basically I look at everything I can.
Q: Who are the top 5 Cubs prospects and in what order do you rank them? Which Cubs prospects are in the mix for next year’s top 100 [or 150 if you go that high again]?
Sickels: Well I won’t be doing an exact ranking for a few months yet. Once the season ends, I have a very specific process that I go through for every organization, examining and ranking each prospect, and skipping steps in the process tends to trip me up. I would say off the top of my head that the top 5 are Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant in some order, Baez first but after that I’m not certain yet. I’d be looking at CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson and Arismendy Alcantara to round that out. The big international guys that were signed I need to study more before knowing where they will slot.
Q: You are higher than most on Dan Vogelbach, what do you see in him to rank him that high?
Sickels: The thing for me that stands out for DV is that he isn’t just some slugging masher. He has pure hitting skills, too, good plate discipline and feel for hitting to go with the strength. Obviously he has to keep his weight under control, but the guy can really hit.
Q: For good and bad, which Cubs prospects have surprised you the most this year?
Sickels: I thought Christian Villanueva and Gioskar Amaya would have better years. They haven’t been bad, but I thought they would be breakout guys and they weren’t. Alcantara ended up being the breakout guy.
Q: CJ Edwards is off to a great start in the Cubs system. Do you think his frame (6’2”/155), even if he fills out a little, can sustain the rigors of a 162 game schedule based on his power approach?
Sickels: It could be an issue but he’s a really good athlete and that gives him a chance to pull it off. As long as his workload is managed reasonably, I don’t think his injury risk is any higher than it would be for any other pitcher his age. Which is still pretty high, of course…young pitchers get hurt a lot even if they are handled wisely and even if they are good athletes. But I don’t think his risk is abnormally high.
Q: The Cubs are still pretty weak in pitching within their system but there are some interesting names and potential rotation pieces in the farm. What are your thoughts on some of the other Cubs top pitching prospects and when should we start seeing them? Is there any pitching help for next season?
Sickels: Pitching is still the weakness in the system but they are addressing it. Johnson has performed well, the trade for Edwards helps a lot, and they have been aggressive with international arms though of course we don’t know how those guys will pan out yet. I don’t see any super impact arms ready to help in 2014. Kyle Hendricks will get a shot but he is more of a control type. You could also see Alberto Cabrera make a return engagement. Eric Jokisch could get there, but like Hendricks he is more of a complementary arm than a future anchor. There should be more available in 2015 than 14.
Q: The knock on Christian Villanueva before the 2012 season was that he added a few pounds and lost a step in the process. Was that premeditated in order to boost strength and power numbers? His SB numbers have dropped significantly this season. As he progresses, could he regain the speed and possibly project to a 20/20 type guy?
Sickels: I don’t know if it was premeditated or not. It could just be the natural maturing process but at this stage either way he’s not likely a 20 steal guy at the major league level now. I’d be more concerned about his strike zone judgment than his speed frankly.
Q: I recently wrote about Baez; his contact problems and plate approach are very worrisome for me and I have him ranked 4th behind Soler, Bryant, and Almora because of that. I think he’s either going to figure it all out and be a superstar or be a huge bust with no chance of anything in the middle. Since I wrote about him, he’s been crushing it. How do you feel about him? Can he succeed at the majors with his ultra aggressive approach that has worked thus far or will something have to give if he is going to become a major leaguer?
Sickels: Baez is tough. He is very aggressive as you point out and yes, I do have some concerns about his approach. But his bat speed is so good that Double-A pitchers have been unable to expose this weakness. My guess is that Triple-A will be more of a challenge, though of course the environment in Iowa and the Pacific Coast League will play to his strengths. If I had to draw a scenario for next year, I’d say that he gets off to a slow start at first in Triple-A, but that after a couple of weeks he starts blasting the ball as the weather warms up, and by late June it is clear that the PCL won’t challenge him further. He’ll get to the point where only major league pitchers will teach him what he needs to know. That’s probably 11 months from now, although who knows…if he has a great spring, maybe they will accelerate that.
Q: Arismendy Alcantara was in the middle of a breakout year last season before injury. He’s been even better this year. What kind of future do you see for Alcantara at the majors?
Sickels: I think he has a 14 year career and some years as a regular, never quite an all star but solid and productive.
Q: The organization is very strong on the left side of the infield. What position do you think the following players will end up at and what kind of defensive ability will they have there.
- Starlin Castro -some other team
- Javier Baez -I think he sticks at SS for 5 years but is 3B by the time he’s 30.
- Arismendy Alcantara – second base, slightly above average
- Kris Bryant – decent enough to stick at 3B until he gets old, above average if moved to 1B
- Mike Olt - All facets of his game slipped this year, including his defense which was previously rated potential Gold Glove caliber. I don’t know what is wrong with him but something is. It isn’t just the strikeouts eating him up. The glove had declined too