Top 15 Prospects: Chicago Cubs

Chicago is a tough, tough system to rank. Outside of the Top 2 players I had about 20-25 guys that could easily have ranked in the remainder of the Top 15. The system is loaded with intriguing B- and C-level prospects that could either explode in 2012 or completely fall off the radar. Some of the guys that missed included Junior Lake, Ryan Flaherty, Aaron Kurcz, Shawon Dunston Jr., Zeke DeVoss, Marco Hernandez, and Dallas Beeler.

1. Javier Baez, SS
BORN: Dec. 1, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 1 season (Rookie)
ACQUIRED: 2011 1st round (9th overall), Florida HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

SCOUTING REPORT: There weren’t many people that thought Baez would fulfill his commitment to Jacksonville University and a ninth overall selection by the Cubs (along with a $2.6 million bonus) ensured that the dynamic infielder entered pro ball. Baez is a strong fielder with a powerful arm, although scouts are concerned that his range may diminish too much for him to stick at shortstop long term. At the plate, he has plus raw power thanks to his above-average bat speed.

YEAR IN REVIEW: The Puerto Rico native, who played high school ball in Florida, appeared in just five regular season games after signing. He held his own in brief cameos in both the Arizona rookie league and the more advanced Northwest League. Baez will turn 19 in December.

YEAR AHEAD: Because he already had a taste of the Northwest League, Baez will probably begin 2012 in low-A ball. There are whispers that Baez carries a bit of a poor attitude and is aloof so it will be interesting to see how he handles life in the low minors as a millionaire teenager.

CAREER OUTLOOK: If he keeps his head on straight, Baez has all the ingredients necessary to become a top flight MLB shortstop or third baseman (if he looses too much range). With some minor tweaks to his approach, he could very well develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter.

2. Brett Jackson, CF
BORN: Aug. 2, 1988
EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons (AA/AAA)
ACQUIRED: 2009 1st round (31st overall), U of California
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 1st

SCOUTING REPORT: Jackson is a gifted athlete who looks outstanding in the outfield and on the base paths. He played all three outfield positions in 2011 but center field is where he profiles best and he has the potential to develop into a Gold Glove fielder. He still has work to do on his base stealing skills but he’s an aggressive runner and is very good going first to third. At the plate Jackson still has improvements to make as he’s an inconsistent hitter, in part due to his mechanics. If he can make enough consistent, hard contact, Jackson could eventually produce some 20-20 seasons.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Jackson split the 2011 season between double-A and triple-A. He actually had a stronger showing at the senior level (.404 vs .372 wOBA) but he was aided by a .404 BABIP. Jackson probably won’t hit more than .250-.260 in the Majors if he continues to strike out like he did in 2011 (24.9% at AA, 29.8% at AAA). The left-handed hitter needs some work against southpaws (1 BB in 61 at-bats in AAA) but he’s not hopeless.

YEAR AHEAD: Jackson could very well begin the year back in triple-A but there is room for him in the Cubs’ starting outfield – and Marlon Byrd should never be considered a roadblock… for anyone. Jackson could also see time in right field. The Cubs’ off-season moves will play a big part in determining the prospect’s 2012 assignment.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Although he may not hit for average, Jackson has the potential to develop into an above-average regular thanks to his power, speed and defensive package. He showed patience and should get on base at a decent clip despite low batting averages.

3. Matt Szczur, OF
BORN: July 29, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons (A-/A+)
ACQUIRED: 2010 5th round, Villanova University
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

SCOUTING REPORT: There are a lot of varying opinions on Szczur. The outfielder is a good athlete but he’s a raw baseball player after focusing on football in college. His best tool right now is his plus speed and he has the potential to develop into an above-average hitter. His power has a chance to be a little above average. In the field, he uses his speed well but he’s still learning the finer points of playing center field.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Szczur, 22, got off to a strong start in low-A ball in 2011 and received a promotion to high-A ball, where he performed OK. He showed more pop in high-A (.150 vs .117 ISO) but his batting average dropped (.314 to .260), as did his walk rate (7.0 to 2.7 BB%).

YEAR AHEAD: The speedy outfielder will likely return to high-A ball to begin the 2012 season but he could very well receive a mid-season promotion to double-A if he continues to develop as hoped. He should be ready for the Majors some time in 2013.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Szczur is known for having a good work ethic so he has a solid chance at developing into at least an average regular. The big thing he needs to work on right now is his pitch recognition and selection.

4. Dillon Maples, RHP
BORN: May 9, 1992
ACQUIRED: 2011 14th round, North Carolina HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

SCOUTING REPORT: Questions surrounding Maples’ signability caused him to slide to the 14th round but he signed with the Cubs for $2.5 million and turned his back on his commitment to the University of North Carolina. The right-hander will focus solely on baseball for the first time after playing football in high school and he could really take off. His repertoire includes a 90-94 mph fastball, curveball and changeup.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Maples signed too late to play pro ball in 2011.

YEAR AHEAD: The teenager should open 2012 in extended spring training before heading off to a rookie level team in June. He has a lot of potential but Maples needs to work on both his command and his control. I’d like to see him alter his short-arm motion to take the stress off his body.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Maples has the potential to develop into a No. 2 or 3 pitcher but he’s likely going to be a long-term project. The organization does not have a lot of high ceiling starting pitcher depth so the Cubs minor league staff will be patient with him.

5. Trey McNutt, RHP
BORN: Aug. 2, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons (AA)
ACQUIRED: 2009 32nd round, Shelton State CC
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 2nd

SCOUTING REPORT: McNutt is an interesting player; he has a big-time fastball but his numbers were disappointing in 2011. The hurler has a 90-95 mph fastball and a good slurve but his changeup is well below average. He’s worked exclusively as a starter as a pro but his future is probably as a high-leverage reliever.

YEAR IN REVIEW: The right-hander posted a 4.55 ERA and allowed a lot of hits (11.37 H/9). His strikeout rate, usually around 8.50-10.50 K/9, dropped to a career low 6.16 K/9. On the plus side, he had some bad luck (.366 BABIP) and his FIP was a respectable 3.91. McNutt made up for lost time with some work in the Arizona Fall League but he posted a 5.00 ERA and struck out just eight in 18.0 innings.

YEAR AHEAD: Although he didn’t exactly solve double-A, McNutt should move up to triple-A in 2012. He’ll continue to work out of the starting rotation but could ease into the Majors as a reliever – similar to Andrew Cashner.

CAREER OUTLOOK: McNutt had some fluke injury issues in 2011 but he has a big, strong frame and health is not a major concern. He has No. 2 starter potential if he can round out his repertoire but the results just have not been there since he graduated from A-ball.

6. Dan Vogelbach, 1B
BORN: Dec. 17, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 1 season (Rookie)
ACQUIRED: 2011 2nd round, Florida HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

SCOUTING REPORT: Vogelbach turned down the University of Florida when the Cubs offered him $1.5 million as a second round draft pick. He has massive power and projects to develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter. Defensively, his size will likely keep him from being anything more than average.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Vogelbach played just six pro games after signing but he gave the club a taste of his power potential with an ISO rate of .250 (four of his seven hits went for extra bases). He played high school ball with Hudson Boyd, who was a high draft pick of the Twins.

YEAR AHEAD: Given his strong amateur record and impressive – but limited – debut, Vogelbach could receive an aggressive assignment to low-A ball for his first pro season. If the club decides to be a little more cautious, though, he could spend the first two months of the season in extended spring training.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Vogelbach has the potential to develop into a slugging first baseman with an average to below-average batting average. Already 6’0” 250 lbs, he’s going to have to watch his conditioning and could see his body age early.

7. Ben Wells, RHP
BORN: Sept. 10, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 1 season (Short-season)
ACQUIRED: 2010 7th round, Arkansas HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

SCOUTING REPORT: Wells has a big strong pitcher’s frame. He performed well in 2011 at short-season ball, posting a 3.51 FIP in 77.1 innings. He’s not a strikeout pitcher but he is an extreme ground-ball pitcher that puts a lot of balls in play and relies on the infield defense behind him. Wells has an 89-94 mph sinking fastball, slider, and has dabbled with both a splitter and a changeup.

YEAR IN REVIEW: The right-hander showed above-average control (2.21 BB/9) in 2011 but his strikeout rate was a little disappointing at just 6.17 K/9. He had a 63% ground-ball rate. Wells needs to improve against left-handed hitters after struggling against them in his debut.

YEAR AHEAD: Wells didn’t turn 19 until the end of the minor league season so he definitely has youth on his side. He’s already physically mature, though, at 6’3” 220 lbs. He should move up to low-A ball in 2012 and could move somewhat quickly for such a young player.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Wells doesn’t have a huge ceiling but he should eat up a lot of innings as a No. 3 or 4 starter. He’ll need to watch his conditioning.

8. Jae-Hoon Ha, OF
BORN: Oct. 29, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons (A+/AA)
ACQUIRED: 2009 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

SCOUTING REPORT: Drafted as a catcher, Ha has moved to the outfield after he struggled with his throwing. He doesn’t have the typically power that you look for in a corner outfielder but he has solid gap strength. Ha has consistently hit for average throughout his career and can play all three outfield positions but doesn’t have the range to play center field on an everyday basis. Ha has an above-average arm and profiles well defensively in right field.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Ha split 2011 between high-A and double-A – showing respectable numbers at both levels… but failing to dominate. The South Korea native has an over-aggressive approach at the plate leading to low walk rates (4.5 BB%) but makes a lot of contact and doesn’t strike out much (11.5 K%).

YEAR AHEAD: The outfielder will likely return to double-A in 2012. Ha’s .119 ISO rate at double-A shows that he needs to drive the ball more consistently if he’s going to play everyday. He has the potential to reach the Majors in 2012.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Ha just recently turned 21 so he still has youth on his side. I think he has a chance to be an average regular but he might have to settle for a fourth outfielder or platoon role.

9. Austin Kirk, LHP
BORN: May 22, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons (A-)
ACQUIRED: 2009 3rd round, Oklahoma HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

SCOUTING REPORT: The 21-year-old southpaw had a solid season in low-A ball in 2011 and is one of the more underrated prospects in the system. Kirk’s repertoire includes an 87-92 mph fastball, curveball, and changeup. He was selected in the third round of the 2009 draft out of the same Oklahoma high school that Orioles’ 2011 first rounder Dylan Bundy played for during his prep career.

YEAR IN REVIEW: After two years in extended spring training and short-season ball, Kirk advanced to low-A ball in 2011. Along with a career high in innings pitched, the lefty showed outstanding control with a walk rate of 2.26 BB/9. His command, though, is not as strong as his control and he works up on the zone too often, and that could get him into a lot of trouble in the upper levels of the minors.

YEAR AHEAD: It will be interesting to see how Kirk holds up in 2012. He’s not the tallest pitcher (6’1”) but he has some meat on him; he saw his innings total increase from 64.1 innings in 2010 to 151.0 in ’11, which is a big jump for a young pitcher. Kirk clearly tired in the second half of the season. He should spend much of 2012 in high-A ball.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Kirk has the makings of a No. 3 or 4 hurler depending on the development of his secondary pitches, as well as his fastball command. He needs to work down in the zone more. If he can do that, he has a good chance to succeed.

10. Dae-Eun Rhee, RHP
BORN: March 23, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons (A+)
ACQUIRED: 2008 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

SCOUTING REPORT: Rhee had his 2009 season wiped out by Tommy John surgery and, although he pitched 114.1 innings in ’10, he was not at full strength. His stuff bounced back close to pre-surgery levels; Rhee has an 88-93 mph fastball, curveball and changeup.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Pitching in high-A ball for the second straight season, the right-hander posted a 3.58 FIP in 127.2. He saw his strikeout rate spike over 2010, going from 5.51 to 8.25 K/9. Rhee actually pitched better in the second half of the season.

YEAR AHEAD: The South Korea native will move up to double-A in 2012 and will look for a third straight season with 100+ innings pitched. He needs to sharpen his command and work on his overall consistency on the mound.

CAREER OUTLOOK: Rhee has the makings of a No. 3 starter. Despite his injury history, he has a solid pitchers frame and has pitched 114+ innings in each of the past two years. He should be ready for the Majors sometime in 2013.

The Next Five

11. Chris Carpenter, RHP: A permanent move to the bullpen did not seem to agree with Carpenter in 2011. His completely fell apart as his command and control deserted him. One highlight to the year, though, was his MLB debut. While in The Show, he displayed a fastball that averaged out at 97 mph and a slider that sat at 89 mph. If he can find a way to control his stuff, he could dominate as a high-leverage reliever.

12. Josh Vitters, 3B: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Vitters continues to tease fans with glimpses of the skills that made him a first-round draft pick but his approach continues to drag him down. He has yet to understand the importance of looking (and waiting) for a specific pitch to hit; right now he swings at too many pitcher’s pitches.

13. Tony Zych, RHP: The right-handed reliever was nabbed in the fourth round of the 2011 draft and he already looks like a steal. Zych pitches in the low-to-high 90s with his fastball and has an inconsistent slider. Once he improves his breaking ball he could develop into a high-leverage reliever at the MLB level. He could reach the Majors by the end of 2013.

14. Welington Castillo, C: A good catcher is always in high demand. Castillo offers a solid all-around game both on defense and on offense. There is a good chance that he’s proven enough in the minors to earn the back-up job behind Geovany Soto in 2012 or he could be dealt to a club that views him as an everyday guy. He needs to tone his swing down a bit to truly realize his potential.

15. Rafael Dolis, RHP: Dolis has a big, strong frame and is yet another pitcher with high-leverage potential in the bullpen. His repertoire includes a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a breaking ball that looks like both a slider and a curveball depending on the day. Like Carpenter, Dolis needs to work on his control.

SLEEPER ALERT: Pin-Chieh Chen, CF: A 20-year-old outfielder from Taiwan, Chen has the potential to develop into a starting center-fielder or a fourth outfielder at the MLB level. Speed and defense are his two best skills. He’s a slap hitter who uses the entire field. He hit .300 and stole 20 bases in 26 tries during his stint in short-season ball in 2011.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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12 years ago

Marc – good list.
A name to keep in mind, he played on the dominican league for the Cubs: Jeimer Candelario. The numbers and the scouts all indicate he will be breaking out soon.