Heading into the season, near unanimity existed regarding the identities of the Cubs’ top prospects: shortstop Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, center fielder Albert Almora, right fielder Jorge Soler, and right handed pitcher C.J. Edwards. Some publications put Edwards higher than Soler, some put Edwards behind all the position player prospects, but these were the Cubs’ top five prospects. Now, with nearly two months of play, behind us, how are they doing, and when can we expect to see them in Wrigley Field? Just as a note, all of my estimated times of arrival for theses prospects presume that the Cubs do not do something crazy like win 20 of 25 games to get back into contention. Of course, should the Cubs miraculously end up competing for a postseason spot, the timelines for at least some of these prospects, particularly Baez and Bryant, could speed up to improve the Major League team for a stretch run.
Triple A Iowa Cubs, Age 21.
.225/.287/.437, 7 HRs, 33.5% K rate, 7.2% walk rate, 4 SB, 1 CS
Had this posted prior to May 17, just ten days ago, Javier Baez’s 2014 season would have been an unmitigated disaster. Through May 16, Baez was batting .145/.230/.255 with just 3 home runs and a 36.9% strikeout rate, looking wholly over matched as the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League. In the past ten days, on the other hand, Baez hit .439/.444/.927 with four home runs and a much more manageable 24.4% strikeout rate.
It’s possible Baez’s struggles were due in part to an early season injury. After struggling in his first few games of the season, Baez appeared to be turning it around early before going on the disabled list due to a badly rolled ankle, and struggled even more greatly upon his return. On the other hand, Baez may have been destined for a fairly extended struggle in his first season in Triple A. He had starts upon his promotions to both High A and Double A before making the adjustments that eventually allowed him to dominate the Florida State and Southern Leagues, and his approach, which involved swinging as hard as he could at any pitch he thought he could make contact with, was one that more advanced Triple A pitchers could take advantage of. There’s also the distinct possibility that this is just a hot streak, as opposed to Baez making real adjustments.
Either way, Baez’s extended early season struggles lead me to believe that Baez will not see the Majors until early to mid-2015. The extremely elevated strikeout rate, plus the extreme extent of Baez’s struggles through mid-May, give the front office more than enough reasons (or excuses, if you’d prefer to phrase it that way) to leave Baez in Iowa to get a full season of playing time at Triple A, and it’s unlikely the Cubs’ would add Baez to the 40 man roster in September, in turn removing someone else, to burn MLB service time in games that, for the Cubs, have a strong chance of being rather meaningless.
Double A Tennesse Smokies, Age 22.
.337/.431/.641, 14 HRs, 27.9% strikeout rate, 11.8% walk rate, 6 SB, 2 CS
If any prospect in the Cubs’ system has been close to a complete success, it’s Bryant. Not much could be said about Bryant beyond what the statistics already show you. Bryant is tied for the Southern League lead in on base percentage, leads the Southern League in home runs by 4, leads the Southern League in slugging percentage by more than 100 points, and leads the Southern League in OPS by nearly 130 points.
Bryant’s sole issues in his first full professional season have been an elevated strikeout rate and defensive issues at 3B. Bryant will always strike out a fairly high amount, but is a more complete hitter who can get around that issue as opposed to Baez, who has a greater chance of striking out too much to every reach his power. While prospect comparisons are dubious, I have been thinking something along the lines of a right handed Jim Thome as far as the contact/walks/power are concerned. Bryant has also made far too many errors at 3B, and the Cubs may be looking to move him to an outfield corner.
Which is precisely what I think the Cubs will do when they promote Bryant to Triple A in the next 45 days or so. As with Baez, I do not think the Cubs will promote Bryant to the Big League club this season, but he will an every day player in Wrigley Field sometime early of mid-season 2015. Meanwhile, I’d expect to see Bryant manning right field in the Pacific Coast League over the last two months of the season or so.
High A Daytona Cubs, Age 20
.266/.287/.364, 2 HRs, 10.5% K rate, 2.2% BB rate, 3 SB, 3 CS
No one’s start has me more concerned than Almora’s. His offensive struggles in the extremely pitcher friendly Florida State League is not exactly a surprise because Almora lacks elite power, but precisely due to that lack of power Almora needs to be able to get on base to succeed offensively. It’s not that Almora is Emilio Bonifacio as far as power is concerned, but he’s more a guy that will top out around 15 home runs at his peak.
A 2.2% walk rate is not going to allow Almora to get on base enough, even with the extremely low strikeout rate. The word on Almora when he was drafted in 2012 was that he had an extremely advanced approach at the plate. At some point, that approach will have to lead to Almora getting on base much more than he is now, or Almora will no longer be a top prospect.
I find it unlikely that Almora will get a mid-season promotion to Double A Tennessee this season. As such, best case scenario is likely an early to mid-2016 debut in the Majors, and that is dependent on Almora getting on base at a much higher clip than he currently is.
Double A Tennessee Smokies, Age 22
.333/.407/.625, 0 HRs, 18.5% K rate, 11.1% BB rate, 0 SB, 0 CS
That batting line on Soler looks really nice, right? The problem is that he compiled it in only seven games due to a couple of leg injuries leading to a pair of disabled list stints, including one he is on right now due to a hamstring pull. The injuries are of the minor variety, but his career to this point has been hampered by such relatively minor injures. He needs to show he can stay on the field.
If Soler can get healthy, stay healthy, and produce, he could still be looking at a mid-2015 promotion to the Majors.
Double A Tennessee Smokies, Age 22
4 GS, 20.2 IP, 2.61 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 8.71 K/9, 3.48 BB/9
Heading into the season, no one questioned Edwards’ stuff, which is top of the rotation quality. However, they did question whether his extremely thin frame could hold up to a starter’s work load. He started the season pitching quite well. Not as well as he pitched in 2013, but quite well nonetheless. Unfortunately, Edwards then felt some tightness in his right shoulder, and has been shut down since April 20.
The good news is that Edwards’ issues are not structural (in other words, they’re muscle related instead of joint and/or ligament related) , and Cubs’ brass indicated that, had Edwards been an MLB veteran as opposed to a young prospect, this is the sort of discomfort he likely would have pitched through. The bad news is that this adds fuel to the fire that Edwards’ future is in the bullpen, reducing his value in any trade, and that Edwards will not be back with the team until after the All Star Break (although it’s unclear whether the team was referring to the Southern League break in mid-June or the MLB break in mid-July).
Edwards was a pitcher some thought could see some time in the Cubs’ bullpen later this season. That is likely out the window at this point. Edwards could see the big league club as a reliever sometime in 2015, though, and potentially move into the rotation in 2016, if all else goes well.
Next time, we’ll look at a handful of the Cubs’ less known and less heralded prospects, including the two prospects most likely to make meaningful contributions on the Major League roster in 2014: right handed starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and switch hitting second baseman Arismendy Alcantara.