Let's face it. No matter how popular they are, prospect rankings are ultimately meaningless. They reflect an approximate value a player has in their organization at that current moment in time, but once the players make the major leagues, they will be judged by what goes on in the field, not by what is written in the pages of Baseball America. Darwin Barney was never ranked about the #12 prospect in the Cubs system coming up and while he may be no one's idea of a superstar, he's certainly turned out to be a better ballplayer than several players ranked ahead of him.
But there is no denying these things are popular. People like lists. They like to argue about who should be number one. This season, the big debate in the Cubs system is whether Javier Baez or Albert Almora should be ranked as the number one prospect in the system. That is, except by those people who think the correct answer is Jorge Soler.
The case for Javier Baez is simple. He's got monster potential at the plate. The comparisons to Gary Sheffield may be getting old, but certainly Baez has the same kind of quick wrists and speed through the hitting zone that Sheffield had. His hitting tools rank as a 70 hitting and for now, at least, a 70 on hitting for power. That kind of player, if he can translate those skills to the major leagues, translates to a .300 hitter who hits 35 bombs a year. In other words, Ryan Braun who can play shortstop.
Like Sheffield, Baez is coming up through the system as a shortstop who is expected to have to move off the position eventually. But last season in the minors, he impressed scouts with his glove. His defensive instincts are good and he's faster and quicker than he looks. His arm is strong enough to play anywhere. However, he's expected to fill out and get heavier as he gets older, which would likely dictate a move to third base. But he's got the potential to be a Gold Glove winner at third.
In the Midwest League last season, Baez quickly wowed fans with home runs that still haven't landed. OK, that's not true, but he did hit balls over Midwest League stadium batter's eyes that hadn't been cleared by anyone in over a decade. He also showed great speed and instinct on the basepaths that allowed him to steal 24 bases in 29 attempts last year. Baseball America's survey of scouts and managers ranked Baez as the number one prospect in the Midwest League in 2012, and there were some pretty impressive talents in that league like Minnesota's Miguel Sano, Cleveland's Francisco Lindor and Arizona's Archie Bradley.
So what's not to like? Other than the projection of a move to third base, the biggest issue with Baez is his approach at the plate. Right now, he is just going up to the plate and swinging at everything and while he was in the Midwest League, at least, he was hitting it. But better pitchers are going to exploit that, and he did struggle in the Florida State League.
Baez only walked fourteen times in 321 plate appearances last season. Only one of those was intentional, but a lot were of the "intentional unintentional" variety. His OBP wasn't bad at .346 because he got hit by a lot of pitches (more on that later), but so far he hasn't shown much selectivity at the plate.
Baez has a hitch in his swing that so far he's gotten away with because his wrists are so quick and he can catch up to fastballs in the lower minors. But the Cubs sent him to the Arizona Fall League to show him what better pitchers would do to that hitch and he struggled. In his defense, he seems to have gotten the message.
The other thing that everyone mentions about Baez is his attitude. All those hit by pitches are not opposing pitchers throwing at him, he crowds the plate and Midwest League pitchers are not known for their control. But a few of them were because he's rubbed other teams the wrong way. He's confident bordering on cocky and aggressive bordering on arrogant. This would be a real problem if it meant he was reluctant to take instruction. So far, that hasn't been a problem but it's something to watch going forward. The Cubs will have to see how he addresses that small hitch in his swing, which will go a long way towards demonstrating his maturity.
So far, his teammates seem to love him and fans who have met him in Peoria have reported that he's been very nice and accommodating as far as autographs and pictures go. So maybe he's just a guy like A.J. Pierzynski whom you hate on the other team but love when he's on your team.* If that's all it is, then we've got no worries. But you do have to wonder how he's going to react on the big stage.
No one seems to have any such problems with Albert Almora. He's the All-American boy and as an aside, I think it's a sign of the positive changes in America that the grandson of Cuban exiles could be the All-American boy. Hard-working, confident but humble, polite and dedicated to his family and country. He's played for the US National Team more than anyone but A.J. Hinch and was the MVP of the 2011 Pan-American Championship. You'd want your daughter to marry him, except that he's so good-looking that I'm sure some of you would want to keep him for yourselves.
Beyond that, Almora has an excellent line-drive stroke that should get him lots and lots of base hits and doubles into the gaps. He can elevate from time to time and has the potential to be a perennial 20-25 home run hitter. His speed is good, not great, but his instincts in the field are so good that he could end up as an excellent defensive center fielder. His arm strength for the outfield is above-average, but his accuracy with those throws is excellent.
Often when you say a prospect is "polished," that's like saying a blind date has a great personality. Sure, you want a good personality, but you wonder why no one is mentioning what they look like. With prospects, "polished" is often a back-handed compliment that means that the player doesn't have a lot of tools or upside. That's just not true with Almora. All of his tools rank as above-average and there is certainly room for him to get some lift on those line drives and hit more home runs, although he's never going to hit the bombs that Baez hits. With Almora, the term "polished" means he could move through the system quickly. Defensively, he might be major-league ready already. Just for the record, Baseball America's survey of the Arizona League ranked him as the #2 prospect in that league. He didn't play enough in the Northwest League to qualify.
He's also seventeen months younger than Baez, so he's got that going for him as well. As an aside, the Cubs lost to the Braves 4-1 on the day Almora was born. Willie Banks lost to Kent Mercker. Deion Sanders and Dan Plesac played for the Braves whereas Willie Wilson batted lead-off for the Cubs and Shawon Dunston the Elder played shortstop.
There's not a lot of downside on Almora, except in his brief season this year he walked even less than Baez. In 145 plate appearances, he only had two walks. Now he also only struck out 13 times, which just goes to show how good his hitting tool could be. All of this could just be a small sample size and the quality of pitching in short-season ball. But it is something to keep an eye on as he goes forward.
The argument against Almora is that he just doesn't have Baez's upside. Earlier I wrote that Baez could be Ryan Braun playing shortstop and while that is extremely unlikely, a Gary Sheffield (man, we just keep coming back to him) like career is not out of the question. There's just no way Almora is going to hit 500 home runs, even if it's not likely Baez sill hit that many either, it's not impossible to envision in Baez's case. Baez could stick at shortstop, even if he's likely to have to move to third. That's more valuable than Almora's good defense in center field. Almora will steal bases, but so far it looks like Baez is faster and will steal more. If Baez could be Sheffield, then Almora could be Carlos Beltran, with the usual caveats that both outcomes are highly unlikely. We're dreaming here, although we're not fantasizing. (That's the difference between saying "One day I might be a millionaire" and "One day I might be a hobbit.")
Then there are those who love Jorge Soler. While Soler did very well in 20 games in Peoria this past season, most of the argument for Soler is based on projection. He just hasn't played that much, even in Cuba where he was deemed a flight risk at an early age and kept off of most national junior teams as well as the Cuban national league. We just haven't seen him play much--34 games last season and maybe a dozen or so out of Cuba. He's a sleek 6'3" right now with a big frame that could add even more muscle.
While small sample size caveats apply, Soler did very well in 20 games in the Midwest League last year, hitting .338/.398/.513 in 88 plate appearances. While his home runs don't travel as far as Baez's did, he did launch a few deep home runs that showed off his power potential. As you can tell from the on-base percentage, Soler has so far shown the ability to draw a walk.
Other than the fact that we're pretty much just projecting Soler based on a small sample size and an impressive physique, the other downside of Soler is that he's just really raw. He's got the tools to be an above average right fielder, but right now his instincts just aren't very good. His speed is just slightly above-average, although he was successful 12 times in 13 attempts last year.
Soler is the oldest of the three prospects, although he's hardly old as he turns 21 in February.
So who's your pick? Is your choice Baez or Almora? Or are you going to vote third-party and go with Soler?
*Giants fans dispute that Pierzynski is likable even on your own team.