Chicago Cubs Top 15 Prospects (2012-13) by Marc Hulet November 8, 2012 I felt pretty comfortable ranking the first five prospects in the system and then things started to get murky. There were definitely some intriguing players that got cut from the list – such as Tony Zych, Juan Paniagua, Gioskar Amaya, and Robert Whitenack. I also stumbled across a few sleepers to keep an eye on, such as catcher Justin Marra. #1 Javier Baez (SS) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 19 381 98 15 20 16 83 27 .280 .331 .529 .381 Opening Day Age: 20 2012 Level: A/A+ Acquired: 2011 draft (9th overall) Projected 2013 Level: A+/AA Baez was a consensus first round draft pick in 2011 – and went 9th to the Cubs – but there were questions surrounding his defensive abilities and maturity. A scout I spoke with recently, though, never doubted Baez’ abilities in the field, stating that the shortstop possesses good hands, a strong arm and great instincts. He also down played concerns over his make-up, saying that Baez works hard, is a fierce competitor and is confident. I ranked him cautiously on the pre-2012 Top 100 prospect list at 52nd overall and he made huge strides during the season. Baez, 19, was slowed early in the year by injury but then hit for average, power and stole 20 bases in 23 tries in the Midwest League (A-ball). The Puerto Rico native received a late-season promotion to the Florida State League and appeared in 23 games. The scout I spoke to said Baez has “tremendous bat speed and a two-strike approach that allows him to hit with power to center field and right field.” He placed a future 60/70 grade on his hit tool and a future 70 grade on his power.I witnessed Baez’ solid bat speed and he showed good pop with an opposite-field double, although his aggressive nature almost got the best of him when he stopped between second and third base and almost got nabbed scrambling back to the keystone. He needs to show a little more control at times, as he tends to swing from his heels. When he gets two strikes, though, he tones down his approach and can make enough contact to keep fouling off pitches. However, he needs to learn to lay off pitcher’s offerings and choose better pitches to drive. Additional Notes Spoke with a contact who raved about Baez and was stunned at his defensive ability given the internet chatter about needing to eventually move to third base. Baez’ bat speed was also compared to Gary Sheffield and would allow for considerable power even though he was less physically imposing than the contact was expecting to see. (Mike Newman) #2 Albert Almora (OF) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 18 145 45 12 2 2 13 5 .321 .331 .464 .361 Opening Day Age: 18 2012 Level: R/A- Acquired: 2012 draft (6th overall) Projected 2013 Level: A Almora was the club’s 2012 first round draft pick out of a Florida high school and he had a reputation for being an exceptional defender and base runner. Those beliefs held true in pro ball and he played at two levels: the Arizona rookie league and the Northwest League. A talent evaluator that I spoke to said, “He’s been everything as advertised… His instincts are at the high end of any scale you can draw up… He’s got that extra sense, both on defense and running the bases. His instincts help his tools play up.” The baseball official added that the young player “sees plays before they happen.” Almora, 18, had an aggressive approach at the plate and walked just twice in 33 games – but he made good contract and struck out just 13 times. The outfielder hits with an open, squat stance. I felt that he was holding his bat too level to the ground, almost resting it on his shoulder, and that he should get it in a better position to attack the ball. The official I spoke to said that Almora needs to work counts better and that “he’ll figure out the pitches he can and cannot drive.” He should open 2013 in A-ball playing in the Midwest League and will probably reach Chicago around 2016, or possibly late-2015. He has an all-star ceiling. #3 Jorge Soler (OF) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 20 149 40 7 5 12 19 12 .299 .369 .463 .376 Opening Day Age: 21 2012 Level: R/A Acquired: 2012 international FA Projected 2013 Level: A/A+ The Chicago Cubs became enamoured with Soler, a Cuban free agent outfielder, and ultimately agreed upon a nine-year, $30 million contract with him. He appeared in 34 pro games after agreeing to terms and left lasting impressions. Reportedly 20 years old, Soler is listed at 6’3” 205 lb but appears capable of adding even more strength to his impressive frame. A talent evaluator I spoke to said the Cuban has a “strength/power game… as a prototypical right-fielder who can really throw.” When I saw him in the Midwest League he was taking very aggressive – and very uncontrolled – swings on breaking balls, getting under them. Soler looked like a dead-red fastball hitter and struggled with off-speed stuff. I did, though, see him take a hanging breaking ball back up the middle for a single. The baseball official I spoke with gave a future power grade of 70, with a raw power grade of 80. He also said that he expects Soler to hit for average: “He has pretty good contact skills… [He] should be at least an average hitter, maybe better,” adding that only time will tell how well he adjusts to the adjustments that the pitchers will inevitably make against him. With a plethora of international experience while in Cuba, Soler could move quickly through the minors and might reach double-A in 2013. Additional Notes The Cubs imported Soler, 20, by signing him to a whopping nine year $30MM contract. In Solar they’ve added muscular corner outfielder who generates immense bat speed from his natural strength, explosive hip turn and relatively simple load and stride. While the Cuban defector’s pitch recognition skills lag behind the rest of his tools, they should develop as gains stateside experiences. (JD Sussman) #4 Dillon Maples (P) Age G GS IP H HR K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP 20 6 4 10.1 6 0 10.45 8.71 4.35 4.65 Opening Day Age: 20 2012 Level: R Acquired: 2011 draft (14th round) Projected 2013 Level: A The 2011 amateur draft infused a ton of talent into the Cubs’ minor league system and Maples was one of the most promising players nabbed even though he wasn’t taken until the 14th round. He was considered a difficult sign due to his commitment to the University of North Carolina where he would have played both football and baseball. A $2.5 million contract got him to commit to baseball on a full-time basis. A scout familiar with Maples said he’s a great athlete with a “NFL leg… who could have kicked 50 yards, easy.” As a pitcher, the scout said the North Carolina native is a “horse of a kid” with a plus fastball that can touch 95-97 mph with a plus 12-to-6 “wipeout” curveball. “It’s as good a breaking ball as I’ve seen… while scouting,” he added. “He has a chance to throw three plus pitches.” Maples benefited from having former big league hurler James Baldwin as his high school baseball coach and a father who also played pro ball as a former second-round pick. The scout said Maples has the ceiling of a top-of-the-rotation starter. “He’s a very focus kid.” #5 Dan Vogelbach (1B) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 19 283 79 21 17 35 48 1 .322 .410 .641 .465 Opening Day Age: 20 2012 Level: R/A- Acquired: 2011 draft (3rd round) Projected 2013 Level: A When I started writing the Top 15 list for the Cubs I had Vogelbach lower on my list but, after speaking with people in the game about him, I changed my tune and ultimately felt compelled to rank him higher. When I saw him play, I immediately noticed his large physique that made him look more like a beer league hitter than a professional baseball player – even though he’s still a teenager. Initially he appeared to have a hole in his plate coverage down and away. He was overpowered by Jays’ top prospect Roberto Osuna in one game but then bounced back later, going the other way twice for singles against left-handed pitchers. He also took a poorly-placed high-80s fastball for a home run to dead center field that must have gone more than 400 feet. As one baseball evaluator I spoke to said, “He’s going to be a folk hero down the road,” and later added, “He’s a sharp, instinctive hitter… What you saw was not a fluke… He did it all year.” The baseball evaluator had no issues with suggesting Vogelbach will hit for both power and average at the big league level. As for his defense, though, the story was a little different. He has OK hands but below-average range. The talent evaluator stated, “He’s a player that’s always working, especially on his defense.” I was told that Vogelbach is a great team player with outstanding leadership qualities who likes to prove people wrong. Additional Notes I’m not going to lie, when I look at Vogelbach it’s hard to picture him playing professional baseball. He is listed as 6’0″ 250 lb. but he is shorter than that and may even be heavier too. Though, hefty lefty has a pretty swing. Its compactness grants him good contact ability allowing him to work deep into the count without fear of his strikeouts piling up. It’s an impressive bat but the body is scary bad and I still wonder if his power will play at higher levels. (JD Sussman) #6 Arodys Vizcaino (P) Age G GS IP K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA FIP WAR 20 17 0 17.1 8.83 4.67 35.4 % 4.67 3.54 0.1 Opening Day Age: 22 2012 Level: Injured Acquired: 2009 trade (from Atlanta) Projected 2013 Level: AA/MLB Obtained from the Yankees back in late 2009, Vizcaino suffered a torn elbow ligament shortly thereafter and attempted to rehab and play through the injury. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, he finally blew out his elbow prior to the 2012 season. He was then flipped to the Chicago Cubs near the ’12 trade deadline for veterans Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. There is debate over what the right-hander’s future role should be: starter or high-leverage reliever. Prior to the injury, the Atlanta organization was committed to keeping him in the rotation but it remains to be seen how the Chicago club views him as he recovers from the injury. When he was on the mound at the big league level in 2011, the sturdily-built Vizcaino showed a low three-quarter arm slot with easy velocity. He wasn’t using his lower half enough, though, which may have put a lot of stress on his upper body and helped lead to the injury. He showed some impressive changeups to left-handed hitters – especially since it’s widely considered to be his third-best pitch – as well as some sweeping breaking balls that looked more like sliders than the curveball he reportedly throws. Unfortunately he wasn’t locating the breaking ball for strikes and it was more of a chase pitch. He was hitting 96 mph with movement on the fastball. Additional Notes The closer of the future in Chicago? Prior to Tommy John Surgery, the debate as to whether Vizcaino would be a starter or reliever raged withing the industry due to his fastball/curveball mix. With the Cubs actively working to unload Carlos Marmol, a healthy Vizcaino should fill that void. (Mike Newman) #7 Brett Jackson (OF) Age PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld WAR 23 142 4 0 .175 .303 .342 .292 77 0.6 0.2 Opening Day Age: 24 2012 Level: AAA/MLB Acquired: 2009 draft (31st overall) Projected 2013 Level: AAA/MLB A former first rounder, Jackson has struggled in the upper minors and majors due to eye-popping strikeout rates, including 34% in triple-A and more than 41% with the Cubs. On the plus side, he showed a willingness to walk, which helps his on-base numbers even though he doesn’t project to hit for a high average. He also showed good pop in his 44-game debut. Even though his hit tool may be a 40 or 50 – when all is said and done – his power, speed and center field defense could make him a useful big league regular. When I saw him play, Jackson saw a lot of pitches and was able to foul off a number of tough offerings but he struggled mightily with breaking balls. Because his approach is geared to pulling the ball, pitchers have focused on pitching him on the outer half of the plate and down. I saw him have a lot of issues with laying off pitches away – especially breaking balls. With Chicago rebuilding on the fly, Jackson figures to have a prominent role at the big league in 2013. #8 Matt Szczur (OF) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 22 588 135 27 5 70 88 49 .267 .361 .386 .349 Opening Day Age: 24 2012 Level: A+/AA Acquired: 2010 draft (5th round) Projected 2013 Level: AA/AAA A standout football player at Villanova University, Szczur (pronounced Caesar) was bought away from his gridiron aspirations as a 2010 fifth round selection. Questions persist over his ultimate ceiling but the outfielder has plus-plus speed and average defensive skills. He hits with a wide, well-balanced stance and has some gap power but he’s not overly physical despite his athleticism. Szczur hit OK in the low minors but as one scout said, “He definitely hit the wall in double-A… and I truly believe a lot of it was experience. I don’t doubt that kid for anything… I am not worried about his struggles. The kid is smart and will make his adjustments.” That same scout said the prospect’s greatest strength is his desire to succeed and Szczur is known for having outstanding makeup. The scout added that he expects Szczur to break into the majors as a fourth outfielder but expects him to become an everyday player in center field or possibly left field in deference to fellow toolsy prospect Brett Jackson. #9 Christian Villanueva (3B) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 21 520 128 24 14 34 107 14 .279 .353 .427 .353 Opening Day Age: 21 2012 Level: A+ Acquired: 2012 trade (from Texas) Projected 2013 Level: AA Villanueva, 21, was stuck behind the likes of veteran MLB third baseman Adrian Beltre, as well as fellow prospect Mike Olt so a mid-season trade to the Chicago Cubs was probably one of the best things that could have happened for his career. Villanueva didn’t show as much power in 2012 as in ’11 but continued to hold his own at the plate. His over-aggressive approach could become an issue as he graduates from A-ball and will be under the microscope at the double-A level in 2013. When I saw him play the prospect showed a quick bat but there was some length to his swing. He could definitely stand to develop better pitch selection but he did a nice job going the other way for a single. He also has some room on his frame to add some weight/muscle. Villanueva’s defense at third base is outstanding. He has excellent range, good hands and a strong arm. Because he doesn’t have prototypical power for the hot corner a move to another position, such as second base, could benefit him but his best shot at the majors right now is probably the hot corner. Josh Vitters is really the only thing standing between Villanueva and a starting gig at third base in the majors. However, top prospect Javier Baez could eventually become a threat if he moves off of shortstop. Villanueva could be ready for The Show in late 2013 or – more likely – 2014. Additional Notes A personal favorite from the 2011 season, Villanueva apparently added weight to his frame resulting in his losing a step or two. After a slow start, he rebounded nicely, but I’m left to wonder what could have been had he shown up to spring training in “fighting shape”. (Mike Newman) #10 Josh Vitters (3B) Age PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld WAR 22 109 2 2 .121 .193 .202 .183 4 -3.3 -1.2 Opening Day Age: 23 2012 Level: AAA/MLB Acquired: 2007 draft (3rd overall) Projected 2013 Level: AAA/MLB The third overall selection of the 2007 amateur draft, Vitters has been a disappointment during the first six seasons of his pro career. Although he’s always hit for a high average, his overly-aggressive approach will not allow him to hit for average in the majors. He doesn’t have much power, and there are also questions about his ability to stick at the hot corner. The Pacific Coast League helped Vitters produce fairly solid offensive numbers but the bottom fell out when he reached the majors and he struck out more than 33% of the time. When I watched the young third baseman he took a four-pitch walk but none of the pitches were close to the strike zone. I was impressed with his quiet batting stance and short stroke. He went the other way in his second at-bat, and dumped the ball into right field for a single. Because there is very little organizational depth at the position, Vitters should receive a strong shot at winning the big league job in 2013 but I wouldn’t expect more than replacement-level production in his rookie campaign. Additional Notes Kudos to Josh Vitters for posting a .304/.356/.513 triple slash line in Triple-A, significantly improving on his 2011 numbers. The enigmatic player I saw in the Southern League playoffs made a push to Chicago and then struggled mightily. At the Major League level, his defense was expected to be poor, but a 30.3% strikeout rate really surprised me given his strong feel for contact. (Mike Newman) #11 Marco Hernandez (SS) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 19 454 109 14 7 19 76 10 .256 .284 .371 .302 Opening Day Age: 20 2012 Level: A/A- Acquired: 2010 international FA Projected 2013 Level: A Hernandez, 20, opened the 2012 season in A-ball but was overwhelmed and posted a 53 wRC+. Moved back to short-season ball he tightened up his game, producing decent offense and above-average defense. Hernandez isn’t flashy in the field but he’s reliable and steady. One talent evaluator I spoke with said the Dominican Republic native “presently has a decent chance to stay in the middle infield.” I personally saw the Boise team late in the year during the Northwest League playoffs and expect to be more enamoured with fellow infielder Jeimer Candelario but came away more impressed with Hernandez. The talent evaluator I spoke with said it was tough to gauge who the better prospect is at this point, but they’re also very different players. Hernandez doesn’t currently have a lot of strength in his swing but the baseball person I spoke with predicted future gap power with the ability to hit 30-40 doubles. The shortstop prospect will give the Midwest League another try in 2013. #12 Jeimer Candelario (3B) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 18 310 78 14 6 26 55 2 .281 .345 .396 .350 Opening Day Age: 19 2012 Level: A- Acquired: 2010 international FA Projected 2013 Level: A As I mentioned above, I expected to be impressed by Candelario when I watched him play but came away more impressed with some of the prospects around him. My first impression came with him playing third base in the playoffs and will refer to his efforts as lackadaisical. He looked very nonchalant at times and didn’t have great throwing mechanics or foot work. A baseball evaluator I spoke with about him said the prospect could face a position switch down the road, possibly to first base. He also suggested Candelario may add 10-15 pounds to his frame and “he may be a pretty big man when all is said and done.” At the plate, Candelario showed noisy hands but had decent bat speed. His swing got whippy at times and didn’t stay on a level plane. He would benefit from keeping the bat head in the strike zone for a longer period of time. Although I was a little lukewarm after his effort in the games I saw, the baseball person reminded me that Candelario was one of the youngest guys in the NWL and sometimes guys “get caught between style and substance… (but) I like his upside.” The evaluator added that Candelario has a chance to be an average to above-average hitter and just needs at-bats. He should move up to A-ball in 2013 to once again play on the left side of the infield with Marco Hernandez. Additional Notes Candelario is a physically imposing 18-year-old, but his athleticism and foot speed are lacking. At the moment he’s top heavy and as legs develop further he could out grow third base forcing a move to left or first base. Candelario, a switch hitter, deploys an upright stance and uses his legs to create a narrow base. From the right side of the plate his swing tends to get long and his balance is suspect but his natural hitting ability often shines through. Those problems persist from the left side of the plate but are compounded by his tendency to pull off the ball. (JD Sussman) #13 Junior Lake (SS) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 22 448 113 26 10 35 105 21 .279 .341 .432 .356 Opening Day Age: 23 2012 Level: AA Acquired: 2008 international FA Projected 2013 Level: AAA/MLB Lake has been bouncing around top prospect lists for quite some time because of his loud tools. Unfortunately, he remains a relatively raw project despite spending the 2012 season in double-A. When I asked a talent evaluator about Lake he was cautiously optimistic, “His pitch recognition has improved slightly and that’s a good sign… You have to wait and be patient with some of these high-ceiling players.” He said Lake is the type of player that looks like a “game-of-the-week player” who will then disappear for an extended period of time. When I saw Lake play his tools were evident. The wiry, quick-twitch infielder hits with a wide base but his hands are very busy and he excessively waggles the bat while awaiting a pitch. His swing gets long at times and he’s very aggressive – it’s clear that he’s up there to hack, not work the count. When he makes contact, though, the ball jumps off the bat. I saw him field a slow bouncer to shortstop and he threw out a very good base runner with ease. The baseball person I spoke with called Lake’s arm “one of the best in professional baseball” but admitted that he could eventually move to third base or right field. After spending all of ’12 in double-A, the prospect should spend a good portion of 2013 in triple-A, although he could eventually challenge Josh Vitters for the everyday third base job – assuming he can tighten up his approach against better pitching. As the talent evaluator asked rhetorically, “Can he make those adjustments?” Additional Notes Lake’s baseball skills are rough, but the tools stand out as amongst the best in the Cubs system. In hearing contacts refer to him as, “Ricki Lake”, there’s doubt as to whether or not he’ll ever surface as a contributing big leaguer. However, the tools will continue to earn him opporunities to figure it out. (Mike Newman) #14 Duane Underwood (P) Age G GS IP H HR K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP 17 5 5 8.2 7 1 7.27 6.23 5.19 5.51 Opening Day Age: 18 2012 Level: R Acquired: 2012 draft (2nd round) Projected 2013 Level: A- Underwood narrowly defeated Juan Paniagua for the next best pitching prospect in the system – mainly because he’s a more known commodity despite his limited pro experience. I fully admit, though, that Paniagua could easily make me regret the decision thanks to his electric arm and raw power repertoire. The former was a 2012 second round draft pick and was chosen 67th overall. The Georgia high schooler pitched just 8.2 rookie-ball innings after signing but didn’t turn 18 until July. Like a lot of young pitchers, one of Underwood’s biggest needs is to become more consistent. He has an impressive pitcher’s frame and is projectable. His repertoire includes a fastball that can touch the mid-90s, as well as a curveball and changeup. Due to his youth, Underwood will likely open 2013 in extended spring training before returning to rookie ball or moving up to the Northwest League in June. #15 Trey Martin (OF) Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA 19 262 68 10 3 15 51 8 .292 .344 .416 .355 Opening Day Age: 20 2012 Level: R/A- Acquired: 2011 draft (13th round) Projected 2013 Level: A One of the early pop-up prospects for me this fall was Martin. He caught my attention while I was watching the Boise Hawks (Northwest League) playoff series against the Vancouver Canadians and actually stood out more than Jeimer Candelario and others. Martin, 19, signed an overslot contract in 2011 as a 13th round draft pick out of a Georgia high school. When I saw him play he showed a balanced stance and did a nice job of staying patient and not trying to do too much. I did feel his hands were a little too busy and he could probably simplify his load a bit. When I asked about Martin, I was pleased to hear that he was also starting to appear on other radars around the game. “He’s super impressive and he has really good upside,” a talent evaluator said. “He’s definitely fun to watch… When he hits the ball… he really puts a charge in it.” I was also told that he’s about 20-25 pounds from his ideal frame and stands about 6’3” with good width to his shoulders. The added weight could help him become a serious power threat, to go along with promising speed (although he’s raw on the base paths) and defense. He was playing left field – showing outstanding range – in deference to Albert Almora but is a legitimate center-field prospect. I’m told Martin was hit in the face by a pitch during the fall instructional league and suffered a broken cheekbone but did not have any eye damage and is expected to be OK for spring training. With a solid spring he could receive an assignment to full-season ball in the Midwest League.