The Cubs have the deepest system I’ve written up so far and the most impact talent, with much of it at the upper levels. There’s a case to be made that this is the best system in baseball and it has to be in the top five, but I’ll hold off on an official determination until I’ve formally evaluated all of the candidates. The rebuilding of the organization and system is evident in looking at the types of players I rank below; a number of prospects from the 2013 July 2nd spending spree, aggressive over-slot bonuses on high upside draft prospects, solid low minors prospects acquired in trades along with hitting on nearly all the high profile, big money signings in recent years.
There’s still some position fits to work out before the fanboys will see their ideal lineups of the future in living color (see Russell and Schwarber reports for new information on that front), but the Cubs are being proactive to try to solve this, with multiple position players converting to a position of long-term need (catcher) during instructs this fall (more notes below). There’s a reason this system seems a lot like the last team I evaluated, the Red Sox, because both are among the best systems in the game and were put together with the same kinds of principles and resources along with some of the same top executives.
Here’s the primer for the series and a disclaimer about how we don’t really know anything. See the links above for the ongoing series about how I evaluate, including a five-part on the ever-complicated hit tool.
Most of what you need to know for this list is at the above links, but I should add that the risk ratings are relative to their position, so average (3) risk for a pitcher is riskier than average risk (3) for a hitter, due injury/attrition being more common. I’d also take a 60 Future Value hitter over a 60 FV pitcher for the same reasons. Also, risk encompasses a dozen different things and I mention the important components of it for each player in the report. The upside line for hitters is the realistic best-case scenario (a notch better than the projected tools, or a 75% projection while the projected tools are a 50% projection) and the Future Value encompasses this upside along with the risk rating for one overall rating number.
Below, I’ve included a quick ranking of the growth assets that the Cubs have in the majors that aren’t eligible for the list and Dave Cameron shares some general thoughts on the organization. Scroll further down to see Carson Cistulli’s fringe prospect favorite. I’m currently doing research on the next three team at the same time and I’ll post them as I complete the research process: the Phillies, White Sox and Reds.
Organizational Overview by Dave Cameron
The Cubs rebuild has methodical, but it’s almost over. After spending the last few years collecting prospects and building up an internal base of talent, the Cubs are on the verge of being one of the best teams in baseball. Sequencing aside, they played like a .500 team this year, and there’s some serious talent that will contribute in 2015 that should only make the team better. If the Cubs make a few notable Major League acquisitions, as is expected, they could very easily be legitimate contenders for the NL Central next year, and if their group prospects develop at a normal rate, they will probably be the favorites for the title in 2016. And perhaps for quite a while after that. The Cubs are going to be really good, and it might happen as early as next year.
50+ FV Prospects
1. Kris Bryant, 3B
Current Level/Age: AAA/22.8, 6’5/215, R/R
Drafted: 2nd overall (1st round) in 2013 out of San Diego by CHC for $6.7 million bonus
Hit: 40/50+, Raw Power: 75/80, Game Power: 55/70, Run: 50/45, Field: 40/45+, Throw: 60/60
Scouting Report: Bryant was a lanky kid in high school with huge power potential that was seen as a risky swing-and-miss type prospect, but he blossomed at San Diego into the #2 overall pick. He’s steamrolled through the minor leagues since signing; the concerns that his long limbs and power approach would lead to contact issues have been somewhat founded with high strikeouts rates, but minor league pitching isn’t challenging Bryant enough where that matters right now.
Bryant’s raw power is anywhere from a 70 to 80 for scouts and he creates it with strength, bat speed, long levers and a high finish without having to create length to his bat path like many other sluggers. His long arms create some length naturally and he’s a power hitter, so scouts don’t see much more than a 50 or 55 bat here and he’ll always come with strikeouts but there isn’t much doubt that he’ll get to most of his raw power in games. I hedged a little on the game power because it’s pretty tough to expect a guy to hit 40+ homers (80 game power) with that mark getting hit less and less often now.
Defensively, Bryant is also a little long physically to play third base, but he’s a good athlete (average to slightly above runner now) and makes the most of his tools. He takes a lot of pride in his defense but is still working on the slow roller and grounders to his back-hand side. Some scouts compare him defensively to Troy Glaus, but Bryant is a slimmer and more athletic player that has a chance to stick at the position for another 5-7 years for some scouts. He would fit well in right field and would be average or better defensively should third base not work out.
Summation: With Javier Baez looking like he may be able to stick at second base and Starlin Castro and Addison Russell at shortstop, third base is a position of need long-term with the outfield-rich Cubs and Bryant is good enough to justify leaving him there. He should spend most of the season in the big leagues, though hitters of this type often struggle in their first few big league seasons, so manage expectations in the short-term but everything is here for a star.
Upside: .275/.360/.540, 35-40 homers, average defense
FV/Risk: 70, Low (2 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: AAA/MLB, 2016: MLB
2. Addison Russell, SS
Current Level/Age: AA/20.7, 6’0/195, R/R
Drafted: 11th overall (1st round) in 2012 out of Florida HS by OAK for $2.625 million bonus
Hit: 30/55, Raw Power: 60/60, Game Power: 30/55, Run: 55/55, Field: 50/55, Throw: 55/55
Scouting Report: In the summer between his junior and senior years in high school, Russell shifted off shortstop for the first time in his career to play third base for Team USA. This was all the motivation he needed to drop some of his new bulk (not all bad weight) to maintain the quickness to play up the middle: Russell went from 225 to 185 that winter, became a true shortstop and went from a fringy runner to a plus runner. He’s since matured a bit since then, but Russell has some of the broadest shoulders in baseball and scouts know his frame can handle more weight/strength and he then becomes another type of player: an average runner that plays third base with 70 raw power.
There’s no signs of that bulkier player coming back, as Russell has settled in with above average tools across the board talent that flash some 60’s on the right day. He’s got big bat speed, a solid approach, great plate coverage and the raw power to punish mistakes. The concern that scouts and the Cubs have about Russell is related to his arm action: one scout described it as “quirkiness.” There’s some length to his release and it shows up on plays deep in the hole or relays from the outfield.
As Russell gets older, loses a step and plays deeper at shortstop to compensate, this would become even more of an issue. Since he may not have the raw speed to play center field and lacks the quick actions/release for second base, his best fit if he can’t stay at shortstop would then be third base, which is the reason I explained his history in the first paragraph. A permanent move to third base would potentially change the trajectory of Russell’s career.
Scouts like Russell’s actions, hands and footwork and think he stays at short for at least the next 5-7 years, as his arm action could be corrected and he’s shown aptitude thus far in pro ball, but the standard for sticking at shortstop is different with the Cubs. Starlin Castro is entrenched at shortstop and, if Bryant can’t stick at third base, there’s a big hole there that Russell could fit into perfectly.
Summation: Russell should spend most/all of 2015 in AAA while the Cubs get a full season to work on shortening his arm action, cleaning up the few remaining weak points in his game and evaluating how their many offensive pieces fit together.
Upside: .285/.350/.470, 20-25 homers, above average defense
FV/Risk: 60, Low (2 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: AAA/MLB, 2016: MLB
3. Jorge Soler, RF
Current Level/Age: MLB/22.6, 6’4/215, R/R
Signed: International Free Agent, signed for 9 years and $30 million out of Cuba on 6/30/12
Hit: 50/60, Game Power: 55/65, Raw Power: 65/65, Run: 50/45, Field: 45/45+, Throw: 55/55
Scouting Report: Soler is a fun player to watch. He’s an explosive quick-twitch power hitter with easy plus bat speed and raw power along with just enough huge cuts and erratic stuff to his game that you never know what you might see. The erratic aspects of his game slowly melted away this year as he matured mentally and had his first full year in the system with a full set or reps and without major injuries.
Coming into last year’s list-making season, I had Soler comfortably in my top 50 overall but was told by multiple scouts to move him out after an especially up-and-down showing in the Arizona Fall League. These scouts agreed that some minor makeup/maturity questions on Soler ballooned into actual on-field concerns and the Cubs have now admitted in retrospect that it may have been a bad idea to send Soler to the AFL.
After recovering from a leg injury, the club wanted him to get quality at bats, but to also take it easy on his leg, so he was instructed to essentially not go full effort to first base. This is a huge turnoff to scouts (who mostly didn’t know of these instructions), though it appeared Soler took the “take it easy” suggestion to other parts of his game and may have gotten a little lazy. To clarify, these concerns weren’t about his character, but mostly focus and maturity type stuff; something many players grow out of (Soler is still 22), but snowball for others. Those concerns haven’t evaporated, but it’s amazing what raking can do for one’s reputation. I ranked Soler 52nd on my year-end list and he’ll be much higher this year.
Soler is a good athlete for a a 6’3/225 power hitter, turning in average run times and sometimes a bit better, but I’d expect him to lose a step by his peak and he’s never been a huge hustle guy on the bases, so it doesn’t always show up in games. It’s a right field profile and he should have enough speed/defense to be around average in those areas and not be a value suck on a potential impact bat.
After asking multiple sources what happened to Soler this year, they all agreed there wasn’t a silver bullet, but a confluence of regular playing time, maturity, slight adjustments and confidence from repeated reps. Soler controlled the zone well as a teenager in Cuba against older pitchers, so the Cubs never had a doubt that would show up in the hitting line as it did this season.
Summation: Soler was fantastic in his 97 plate appearance taste of the big leagues last year after demolishing both AA and AAA. One scout compared him to Yasiel Puig, calling Soler a better hitter but not as fast as Puig. In response to these leg injuries, the Cubs medical staff used biometrics to revamp the way he runs and hopefully cut down on future injuries. He should be the right fielder from day one next year and due to this certainty, it was hard to put two prospects with no big league time ahead of him, but it’s hard to ignore a near-ready 55 bat/power shortstop and a big league ready potential 80 power third baseman.
Upside: .285/.360/.485, 25+ homers, average defense
FV/Risk: 60, Very Low (1 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: MLB
4. Kyle Schwarber, C/LF
Current Level/Age: Hi-A/21.6, 6’0/235, L/R
Drafted: 4th overall (1st round) in 2014 out of Indiana by CHC for $3.125 million bonus
Hit: 30/55, Raw Power: 70/70, Game Power: 40/60, Run: 40/40, Field: 40/45+, Throw: 50/50
Scouting Report: When I first got an extended look at Schwarber last summer on a loaded Collegiate team USA, I thought the middle linebacker looking dude wasn’t a good bet to stick at catcher, but he was surprisingly nimble for his size with enough ability to think about it. I wrote that he was good enough to allow him to play there in the minors and develop him as a potential defensive backup that plays once a week but is a primary at left field or first base. The problem with this is it takes time to polish defensive skills behind the plate and, in the case of advanced hitters with work to do defensively like Bryce Harper, Wil Myers and Alex Jackson most recently, clubs didn’t want to wait for the glove to develop and hold back the bat.
Schwarber signed, played mostly left field and raked like crazy; the Cubs intentionally didn’t let him catch in pro ball after a full load in college as a way to save his legs. Instructs just wrapped up in Arizona and the Cubs sent him out there with all their catching instructors specifically to see if they thought he was good enough defensively to send him out next year as a catcher and try to derive some value that way. The reviews were very positive, with an average arm, some 1.9 pop times and essentially what I and many scouts saw the summer before; enough is here to be average in time. Given his thick, muscular build, some had concerns that Schwarber can’t sit deep in a crouch, which he can’t, but the Cubs feel that he’s found a comfortable stance that can work for him.
In the last week or two, the Cubs decided to send Schwarber out next season, likely to AA, as a primary catcher playing there 4-5 times a week and DHing or playing left field on others days to get more at-bats. It’s still too early to know how well this will go and if it will affect his bat, but it’s a potential game-changer if it works. There simply aren’t advanced bats with 70 raw power that play catcher and it would also further solve some problems the Cubs could have shuffling various pieces to move a limited defensive value LF/1B fit to catcher, where there isn’t a clear long-term solution. To that end, the Cubs have been converting other position players to catcher this offseason to help solve this problem.
Schwarber is limited laterally in left field to where I think he’d only be fringy, but he isn’t exactly a dynamo at first base, so it’s still a better option if catching doesn’t work. Some scouts would go 60 on the bat and a full 70 on the game power, but especially with the catching thing now being a real option, I chose to hedge both grades a bit.
Summation: Schwarber is going to spend time this offseason with the Cubs catching coordinator on his own dime; you need buy-in from the player to successful attempt something like this and the Cubs rave about Schwarber’s makeup. At Indiana, Schwarber didn’t call the game or focus on the advanced elements of catching, so there’s still plenty to learn and some risk it never works at an every day level defensively. I’ve hedged a bit on the position and hit/power grades and think my original suggestion of a backup catcher that plays some left field and first base may be the outcome here.
Upside: .280/.360/.480, 25 homers, average defense
FV/Risk: 60, Medium (3 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: AA/AAA, 2016: AAA/MLB, 2017: MLB
5. Albert Almora, CF
Current Level/Age: AA/20.5, 6’2/180, R/R
Drafted: 6th overall (1st round) in 2012 out of Florida HS by CHC for $3.9 million bonus
Hit: 20/55, Raw Power: 55/55, Game Power: 20/50, Run: 55/55, Field: 65/70, Throw: 60/60
Scouting Report: I was a huge Almora fan in high school and I still am, but there’s been a few more bumps than expected in the ride. As I expected, the game power is coming along slowly (a broken hamate bone is a further excuse) and the strikeout rate is very low while the defense has continue to be potential Gold Glove level. He’s actually improved a tick as runner with physical maturity and his plus bat control and feel for the zone has led to lots of contact at every level.
The issue is that Almora is such a gifted hitter that’s never really needed much of a plan at the plate and, as he keeps going to higher levels, this becomes more clear via his walk rate: 3.1% and 1.4% in stops at High-A and AA last year. Almora’s challenge going forward is to find a balance between allowing his enormous skills to play at the plate while adjusting his approach to lay off enough pitches in order to get more hittable pitches. I’d love to further elaborate on this, but it’s that simple; his raw power, speed, defense and arm have never really been in question.
Summation: The Cubs saw some progress in selecting better pitches to drive late in the season and Almora had a mostly healthy year, though a nagging hamstring and the old hamate injury both bothered him at times. 2015 could be the right confluence of factors for a Soler-type breakout in the upper levels for the center fielder of the future.
Upside: .290/.340/.450, 15-20 homers, plus-plus defense
FV/Risk: 55, Medium (3 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: AA, 2016: AAA/MLB, 2017: MLB
6. C.J. Edwards, RHP
Current Level/Age: AA/23.1, 6’2/160, R/R
Drafted: 1464th overall (48th round) in 2011 out of South Carolina HS by TEX for $50,000 bonus
Fastball: 55/60, Curveball: 50/60, Changeup: 45/50, Command: 45/50
Scouting Report: Edwards was a near unknown pitcher as an amateur; you don’t see many pitchers this high on prospect lists that signed for $50,000 out of high school in the 48th round. The Cubs smartly grabbed him from Texas in the Matt Garza trade late in his breakout season in 2013. He’s still a rail-thin righty that some think will never add the necessary bulk to throw 200 innings in the big leagues, but the stuff and command projects for the middle of the rotation. Edwards sits 91-95 with some life, a curveball that could be more consistent but pretty regularly flashes plus potential and a changeup he needs to throw more that’s average. He’s super athletic with average command to match and fields his position well.
Summation: Edwards should start next year in AA and how quickly he can make adjustments and improve his consistency will dictate how fast he gets to the big leagues.
FV/Role/Risk: 55, #3/4 starter, Medium (3 on 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: AA/AAA, 2016: AAA/MLB, 2017: MLB
7. Duane Underwood, RHP
Current Level/Age: Lo-A/20.2, 6’2/205, R/R
Drafted: 67th overall (2nd round) in 2012 out of Georgia HS by CHC for $1.05 million bonus
Fastball: 60/65, Curveball: 50/60, Changeup: 50/60, Command: 40/50
Scouting Report: Underwood is a very loose, athletic righty, which is apparent from the first pitch on the video above from high school. He was mostly 90-94 mph with an above average to plus changeup but very inconsistent feel for a curveball along with velocity and command that would vary by a few ticks start-to-start with scouts questioning his mental makeup as a result. After signing, Underwood gained weight, threw mostly in the high-80’s and seemed like a real problem.
This year, he showed up in great shape and everything took off. He was working 93-97 mph, he was throwing his curveball harder and with more conviction in the mid-to-upper-70’s and his changeup was good as usual. The off-speed stuff still varies from start to start and may settle more at 55, but it’s still early to call it. Scouts are being cautious as they know Underwood’s history and he can still get around his curveball and have trouble commanding his pitches, but there’s frontline stuff here if he can make strides to polish the package.
Summation: Underwood has a big opportunity this off-season to get in even better shape and if he takes another step forward next year, he could be near the top of this list.
FV/Role/Risk: 55, #3/4 starter, High (4 on 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: High-A, 2016: AA, 2017: AAA, 2018: MLB
8. Pierce Johnson, RHP
Current Level/Age: AA/23.4, 6’3/175, R/R
Drafted: 43rd overall (sandwich round) in 2012 out of Missouri State by CHC for $1.196 million bonus
Fastball: 55/60, Curveball: 55/60, Changeup: 45/50+, Command: 40/45+
Scouting Report: There were some arm action/delivery/reliever question on Johnson out of college and, while his command still isn’t rotation-ready and his finish can be a little stiff, he’s still on track to be a solid rotation piece in a few years. He’ll sit 91-95 and his curveball gets 60 to 65 grades from scouts with a changeup that’s a 55 at times. Since there’s still some command/reliever risk and #3 starter upside, he’s just behind Edwards and Underwood.
Summation: Johnson should head back to AA to start next year, but he’s another case of a player in the upper levels with the skills to be a big part of the Cubs future that will set his own timetable with his performance. If things don’t work in the rotation, he has the stuff to potentially be a closer.
FV/Role/Risk: 50, #4 starter, Medium (3 on 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: AA/AAA, 2016: AAA/MLB, 2017: MLB
45 FV Prospects
9. Gleyber Torres, SS Video: The Venezuelan-born Torres was one of the top bonuses in the 2013 July 2nd class ($1.7 million) and was my top prospect in the group, with domestic scouts really buying into his broad tool package in his stateside debut this year. He’s an ordinary 6’1/180 with average at best power and speed, but his bat, field and throw tools are all above average and Torres has an advanced feel for all aspects of the game with outstanding makeup.
10. Billy McKinney, LF Video: McKinney came over with Russell in the Samardzija deal and is the kind of player that grows on you over time, because, despite being a 2012 first round pick, the tools aren’t huge. He has average at best power, 55 speed that fits in left field due to a below average arm and a swing where he bars out (locks lead arm), but he makes this stroke work for him, in part because his arms aren’t so long that they lengthen his bat path. He just turned 20 and he’ll likely get a taste of AA next year with a chance to be an everyday player, but is more of a high probability very good 4th outfielder.
11. Dan Vogelbach, 1B Video: I’ve written about Vogelbach a lot in recent weeks; he’s got a surprisingly loose swing and some feel to hit for a 5’11/250 bowling ball. He’s hit at every level, he has legit 60 power and he’ll be in AA next year, so he’s close to providing big league value, but he’s very limited defensively with DH his best long-term fit.
12. Eloy Jimenez, RF Video: Jimenez was the consensus top prospect in the 2013 July 2nd class and got the biggest bonus ($2.8 million) as the classic power-hitting Dominican right fielder. The 6’4/205 Jimenez has a more contact-oriented, line drive swing that he’s still learning to tap into while his big frame is still adding strength; the power projection is a 65 and he has some feel to hit, some sense of the zone, an ability to go the other way and good makeup. He just graduated from high school in the Dominican (rare for top prospects) and was bothered a bit this year by a shoulder injury, with some suggesting he could take off next year, with Soler-type upside but plenty of work to do.
13. Victor Caratini, C Video: Caratini was picked up in a trade with the Braves at this year’s trade deadline during a year when the converted catch made a lot of progress defensively. He played mostly third base in his draft year for a Miami-Dade JC club with tons of catching options, but the Braves were convinced from their looks that he could stick behind the plate, with scouts now agreeing. The frame is a little mature, his arm in only average and there won’t even be average power, but there’s feel to receive, a quick release and very smooth stroke from both sides.
14. Jake Stinnett, RHP Video: Stinnett pitched for the first time mid-way through his junior year at Maryland and was good enough to get drafted, but took off in his senior year, flashing three above average pitches and hitting 96 mph from an athletic delivery, which prompted the Cubs to take him near the top of the 2nd round. The stuff varied in the spring as Stinnett’s arm wasn’t used to the workload, but he was at his best in instructs, has mid-rotation upside and a very fresh arm for a 22-year-old. After signing and before being sent to an affiliate, Stinnett had a freak accident in Arizona on a funky hop from a fungo during PFP (pitcher fielding practice) hit him in the nuts; he needed surgery and nearly lost his testicle but I’m told he has a good sense of humor about the episode.
15. Armando Rivero, RHP Video: The 26-year-old Cuban defector signed for $3.1 million and was solid in 2013, sitting 91-94 with a slider that was a 55 at times, but the lanky 6’4 righty was still growing into his frame. This year, the stuff ticked up; he was 92-95 in some outings and 94-97 mph in others with a 55 or 60 slider, a usable 50 changeup and more consistent command. The effort in the delivery makes him relief-only and he should get a nice big league opportunity in 2015.
16. Jeimer Candelario, 3B Video: Candelario didn’t meet expectation this year and was forced to go back to Low-A after he flunked a High-A audition at age 20. He’ll be age appropriate in another try there in 2015 and appears to have grown a bit from the humbling experience. Candelario is solid at third with a plus arm, average or better raw power, a good sense of the zone and a solid stroke from both sides but got in trouble when he was too passive, which he addressed in his return engagement at Low-A last year.
17. Carson Sands, LHP Video: The 6’3/195 lefty was the Cubs 2014 4th round picks and signed for an over-slot $1.1 million. Sands was a well-known prospect that was old for his 2014 prep class, but his stuff ticked up in the spring, flashing three above average pitches and at least average command, projecting as a 3/4 starter.
40 FV Prospects
18. Jefferson Mejia, RHP Video: The surprisingly-coordinated 6’7/195 righty signed for $850,000 last July 2nd, has lots of downhill plane and huge stuff that should keep getting better: he’s up to 97 mph, flashing an above average hook and there’s still a chance he could end up as a starter. How the frame develops will dictate how this goes, but there’s tons of upside.
19. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP Video: The Taiwanese righty signed for $1.625 million in the 2013 July 2nd spending spree; the 6’1/210 righty is developed physically and has advanced feel to pitch. Tseng sits 89-91 and hits 93 mph with a curveball and changeup that are both 50’s and command that average to above; he just turned 20 but he’s pretty maxed-out and this looks like a high probability back-end starter.
20. Dylan Cease, RHP Video: The 6’0/180 Cease sat 93-96 and hit 98 mph with a 55 curveball and usable changeup on the high school showcase circuit, then hit 100 mph on some guns early in the spring, but was shut down soon after with an elbow injury. That injury ended up needing Tommy John surgery after the Cubs paid him $1.5 million as a 6th round pick in June. Cease has some start traits but his size and inconsistency of his off-speed stuff led many to project him as a reliever; expectation are he’ll be back late in 2015 or for instructs.
21. Paul Blackburn, RHP Video: Blackburn has solid stuff, mostly average across the board with a fastball that touches 94 mph, and some projection, but also some command issues. Scouts project him for either a back-end starter or 7th/8th inning reliever, but there’s still a good bit of development needed before there will be any kind of consensus.
22. Corey Black, RHP Video: Black was picked up in the Alfonso Soriano trade last year and the 5’11/175 righty should give some big league value in late 2015 or 2016. He sits 92-96 mph in the early innings as a starter with four pitches, led by a solid-average slider and fringy to average changeup, but he’ll lose a couple ticks later in games and there’s some effort and command issues to go with the size concerns. Black will continue to start in AAA next year but it seems unlikely he’ll be a long-term starter, fitting more as a 7th inning guy that can spot start and go multiple innings.
23. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP Video: Vizcaino was acquired from the Braves in 2012 in the Paul Maholm deal and looked like a potential mid-rotation starter with big stuff that likely ended up as a closer. Vizcaino missed the 2012 and 2013 seasons with elbow injuries and had expectations to rush to the big leagues this year when he came off the DL, but had problems repeating his delivery and keeping his pitches down in the minors. He still has the same 94-97 mph fastball that touches 98, curve that flashes plus and usable changeup, but the command caused the stuff to play down and, despite starter stuff, no one thinks that’s a real option. Expectations are lower now, as some red flags get set off by a guy with a long injury history that’s not repeating his delivery.
24. Christian Villanueva, 3B Video: Villanueva put on some weight this year, but is still pretty light on his feet and could still be an above average defender at third base. There’s now above average raw power but the bat speed was down this year with a bigger swing and the same plate discipline problems from before, with one scout suggesting that being a teammate with Javier Baez was contributing to the longer swing. There’s a chance Villanueva could end up as an everyday guy, but it’s looking more like a corner utility guy now.
25. Jeffrey Baez, LF Video: Baez was described physically by a Cubs source as a “fire hydrant” but that’s okay as the 6’0/205 right hitter has easy plus raw power that’s already showing up in games and surprising speed for his size. It’s a higher maintenance body and there’s some questions about his contact ability at higher levels, but there’ a lot to work with here.
26. Justin Steele, LHP Video: Steele is a loose 6’1/180 lefty that sat around 90, hitting 93 mph with a solid average changeup on the showcase circuit, but no semblance of a curveball. It came out later he was throwing with a badly injured wrist and the pitch flashed plus potential late in the season and after the Cubs took him in the 5th round, paying him $1 million.
27. Jonathan Martinez, RHP Video: Acquired from the Dodgers this year for Darwin Barney, Martinez was a nice find for the Cubs as the righty showed starter traits in his full-season debut. Martinez sits 90-92 with a solid average slider and a changeup that flashes plus with a clean arm. He’s a good athlete, but still needs to clean up his delivery and command some to continue in the rotation.
28. Jacob Hannemann, CF Video: Hannemann signed for $1 million in the 3rd round in 2013 out of BYU and is younger in baseball terms than his advanced age at 23 due to a two-year Mormon mission. He’s still pretty crude and you’re betting on the athleticism, but he’s a plus runner that can play center field and profiles now as a good 4th outfielder, but there’s a chance for more upside with reps; the Cubs think he’s a poor man’s Jacoby Ellsbury if it all clicks.
29. Daury Torrez, RHP: Torrez is yet another power arm for the Cubs, but it’s still to early to know if he’ll be able to stick in the rotation. He sits 92-94 with a slider that’s solid average at times and a fringy changeup and command that likely will lead to a role in the bullpen, but he’ll continue for now as a starter.
30. Erick Leal, RHP, Video: The 19-year-old was acquired from Arizona this year for Tony Campana, Leal was another nice find in a low profile deal for the Cubs. He sits 90-93 with an average changeup and solid average curveball. The 6’3/190 Venezuelan is more of a pitch-to-contact type that is more control over command now and needs to learn how to use his stuff to put hitters away to reach his back-end rotation upside.
31. Rob Zastryzny, LHP Video: I saw the lefty this year with fringy to average stuff around 87-90 mph, but I was told my multiple scouts that the 2013 2nd rounder was 90-92 and hit 95 mph at times in other outings. His curveball and changeup both flash solid average and he’s a good makeup guy that competes; some see a back-end starter and others think his stuff could play up in short stints out of the bullpen.
Rafael Lopez, C
A 16th-round selection by the Cubs in 2011 out of Florida State, Lopez has decidedly not rocketed upwards through the system, making his first appearance in Triple-A just this past season as a 26-year-old. In part, that’s maybe a function of him missing time to injury in 2012. In probably more part, though, it’s a function of having been a 16th-round pick. Nevertheless, as a professional, Lopez has produced encouraging plate-discipline figures, recording walk and strikeout rates of 12.2% and 15.6%, respectively, over the course of his minor-league career while also exhibiting enough power on contact to demand some respect from opposing pitchers. According to McDaniel, his defense is regarded as somewhere in the range of passable to average. In sum, Lopez offers enough to warrant consideration for a back-up role this season.
Here’s slow-motion footage from September of Lopez recording his first major-league hit off Clayton Kershaw:
Others Of Note
I was surprised when RHP James Norwood (Video) was available in the 7th round this June for a $175,000 bonus and so were the Cubs. The 6’2/205 righty had a velo spike this year, sitting 92-95 and hitting 97 mph as a starter a solid average slider the best secondary offering in a four pitch mix. He’s more of a thrower than pitcher, so it’s likely a relief fit, but there’s a lot to like. RHP Dillon Maples got $2.5 million out of high school in 2011 and is still flashing that plus fastball-curveball combination, but the command and consistency have been big problems and the delivery is getting retooled in instructs. RHP Juan Paniagua (Video) has become my new favorite hard-throwing Latin reliever with a funny direct translation of his name (John Bread & Water), unseating Joe Table. Paniagua sits 92-94 and hits 97 mph as a starter with a slider and change that flash solid average, but his lack of feel probably leads the 24-year-old to the bullpen.
Among the other arms to watch in the system, RHP Tony Zych sits 95-97 and hit 100 mph this year but is up in the zone with limited command that undermines his above average curveball. Zych also has a last name that begs for this intro music, just like D’Backs reliever Matt Stites. Lefties Jordan Minch and Gerardo Concepcion (Video) both flash above average stuff and likely fit in the pen, with Minch’s stuff a little crisper and with a better chance to start. Colombian Erling Moreno was another signee from the 2013 July 2nd class and the 6’3/190 righty has an average three pitch mix with some projection.
There’s five more power righties worth mentioning in the system briefly: Starling Peralta (Video doesn’t really know what he’s doing but works 93-97 mph with a slider and change that flash above average), Trevor Clifton (6’4/180 righty will go to Low-A rotation next year with cleaned up delivery, but fastball and curveball both flash 60 and it’s likely a bullpen fit), Steve Perakslis (sits 90-94 and hit 97 mph late in the season with a changeup and slider both average to slightly above), Zack Cates (up to 97 mph with an average or better changeup) and Daniel Lewis (served in the military and hadn’t pitched since high school when he popped up on the Cape and sat 92-97 mph with a power slider).
2014 3rd rounder out of Virginia Tech, C/LF Mark Zagunis (Video) is one of many interesting catcher to keep tabs on in the system; he can really hit. is growing into some power and is a solid average runner but has a lot of work to do defensively and likely ends up in the outfield. C Willson Contreras made progress this year with consistency and flashes solid average raw power and plenty of tools to stick behind the plate. Former second basemen Gioskar Amaya, and Danny Lockhart (son of former Brave Keith Lockhart, a current Cubs scout) were both converting to catcher in instructs after some concerns that they could stick long-term at the keystone; both could profile as solid backups with line drive bats and have bought into the change.
Venezuelan Carlos Penalver and Korean Ho-Young Son are both glove-first shortstops that need to add some bulk to grow into potential utility guys, but both are showing signs. SS Marco Hernandez (Video) is a level or two higher than those guys and fits the same bill with a bat interesting enough to have some trade value. CF Matt Szczur has a lot of speed and some pop, but his swing holds back his offensive potential; he got a cup of coffee in 2014 and projects as a reserve.
Four athletic outfielders in the low minors caught the attention of scouts this year and are all guys to keep an eye on in 2015: RF Kevonte Mitchell (6’4/185 loose athlete performed well as a basketball player still learning baseball, controls the zone well and looks physically like Matt Kemp but is still raw), LF Shawon Dunston (son of a well-known big leaguer has matured and profiles as a 4th outfielder along the lines of McKinney), CF Trey Martin (6’4/185 athlete may be best defender in the org behind Almora, show tools, instincts and makeup but has been held back by injuries, made lots of adjustments late in the season leading some in the org to say he’s best bet to breakout in 2015) and CF Rashad Crawford (yet another tall athlete is 6’3, came on late in the season showing the ability to stick in center and tapping into some of his power in games).
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.