For the next four days, I'm going to be updating my list of the top 20 prospects in the Cubs system. I'll list five each day, and the format should be obvious. My rankings are based on potential and the likelihood of reaching that potential. The list is completely my own, based on my own idiosyncrasies.
To be eligible to be on this list, you have to have had fewer than 130 plate appearances or have thrown fewer than 50 innings in the majors. There are a few exceptions. I'm not listing Kyuji Fujikawa just because he's not really a "prospect" and he's out for the season anyway. I don't think he would have made the list anyway, but I didn't consider him. The other players I'm not listing are Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres or Jen-Ho Tseng. Because honestly, I have no way of evaluating a 16-year-old kid who's never played professionally or outside the Dominican Republic. If you want to consider Jimenez the No. 5 prospect, that's fine. I just want to know how you came to that conclusion other than his signing bonus. From what little I know, Jimenez would be top 10, Torres top 20 and Tseng top 30. But those would just be wild guesses, and I'd prefer not to go there just yet. There will be plenty of time to rank those guys in the future.
The good news is that the Cubs system is massively better than it was even last year and definitely from when Theo Epstein took over the team. The Cubs farm system is bursting with good prospects. I've seen at least one person, Jason Parks from Baseball Prospectus, say that it's the #2 system in all of baseball right now. It's biggest downside is a lack of top-flight pitching prospects or guys who can play in the majors right now.
I wrote all these profiles up on Saturday, and all the stats should be correct through Saturday's game. It's too much work for me to go back and adjust every one of them for four different days and besides, nothing any prospect does in one to three games is going to change his status. If something major happens to a player between now and when this gets posted (like an injury or promotion), I'll update. Otherwise, just click on their names for the current stats.
1. Javier Baez. SS Tennessee Smokies. Bats: R, Throws: R. 20 years old.
The Good: I don't think I need to tell you about the elite bat speed that leads to some ridiculous power, but I will anyways. He's got 28 home runs in only 101 games between Daytona and Tennessee, which is good enough for third in all the minor leagues and only one behind the leaders. His walk rate has gone up a little lately as well.
Additionally, his defensive skills are turning out to be better than advertised. While he still makes a lot of mistakes, he's shown surprising range and decent enough hands to stick at shortstop. If he doesn't, he has the arm to become a superior defensive third baseman.
The Bad: Baez has yet to learn that 360 foot home runs count just as much as 450 foot ones, and he's developing a bad habit of just letting it rip any time he gets into a hitter's count. He gets impatient, especially with men on base, and will chase bad balls. Unfortunately, sometimes he connects with those bad balls, further encouraging poor pitch selection. He's striking out in 25% of his at-bats and 33% of his at-bats in Double-A. This is giving him a poor batting and on-base average.
The Future: No player in the Cubs system has as much upside as Baez. A good defensive shortstop who can hit 35-40 home runs a year with a solid on-base percentage is his upside, and that translates into multiple All-Star game appearances. But there are enough warning signs there that it's not impossible to see some potential bust chances. If he doesn't learn to control the strike zone, his career could be a lot more like Wily Mo Pena's than Gary Sheffield's.
Baez will finish out the season in Tennessee. Even if he doesn't start next season in Iowa, he should be there at some point in 2014. An appearance in the majors before his 22nd birthday in 2014 is not hard to imagine.
2. Albert Almora. OF. Kane County Cougars. R:R. 19 years old.
The Good: It's hard not to have a little bit of a crush on Almora. Hard-working, humble, handsome, generous, smart: all of these adjectives have been used to describe Almora. The son of Cuban immigrants, he's the classic All-American boy.
But beyond having plus-plus makeup, Almora's also a pretty darn good ballplayer. After missing the first six weeks of the season after hand surgery, Almora hit the ground running in Kane County. He's hit at least .300 in every month of the season.
Defensively, he combines solid skills with off-the-charts baseball intelligence to be a superior glove in center field. I'm not exaggerating when I say he's already the best defensive center fielder in the Cubs organization, and that includes the major leagues.
The Bad: Almora really hasn't shown much power this season and he may never. He makes solid contact and he has put three balls over the wall, but that's not what you'd like to see out of a star outfield prospect. He has hit a lot of doubles and has a .470 SLG, so it's possible that some of those doubles turn into home runs as he gets older and stronger. But he'll never have the power of someone like Baez.
The lack of walks is troubling, but he's not a free swinger up there and as of right now, I consider that to be a fluke. He did walk a solid 12 times in July, so maybe that issue is working itself out. I doubt he'll ever put up huge walk totals, but he should draw enough to give him a solid OBP in the majors.
The Future: No one in the Cubs organization has a higher floor than Almora. It's hard to imagine that he's not going to be an everyday player in the major leagues. But it's possible that that is all he turns out to be. If he doesn't add some power and keep his OBP up, his defense will keep him in the lineup but he'll hit seventh or eighth.
Almora will likely start next season in Daytona, giving the Florida native a chance to play before his friends and family. How long he stays there will depend on how well he does. He probably has no chance of seeing Wrigley before 2015.
3. Kris Bryant. 3B. Boise Hawks. R-R. 21 years old.
The Good: Bryant was the Cubs first-round pick (and second in the draft) back in June, as you no doubt know. He led the NCAA in home runs and won the Golden Spikes Award as the top collegiate baseball player for 2013. He's a third baseman with a good arm and tremendous power. He's shown good plate discipline in college, walking more times than he struck out in his final season at San Diego. Defensively, there have been some questions about his ability to stick at third base, but so far in Boise he's shown good hands and a strong arm. Even if he's forced to move to a corner outfield position, his bat will play there.
The Bad: Nothing much, really, as Bryant signed late and really hasn't played enough to adjust our opinions of him from college. He's gotten off to a slow start in Boise and has certainly shown some rust from the long layoff from the end of the college season and his start in Boise. If he shows no improvement before the end of the season, then we'll be a tiny bit worried. But in truth, we won't get a good handle on Bryant until next season.
The Future: Bryant has gotten a few Troy Glaus comps, and up until Glaus developed back problems at age 26, he was looking like an elite ballplayer. As an accomplished college player, Bryant should be expected to move quickly through the system. If he doesn't see Kane County this season, he might skip it and go straight to Daytona. If everything is going well, he should make Tennessee by sometime next season and the majors in 2015 is not unlikely. That's if everything goes well, of course. Let's not worry about the other path until later.
4. Jorge Soler. OF Daytona Cubs. R:R. 21 years old.
The Good: In Soler's first full season in the Cubs system, he's demonstrated all the tools necessary to be an above-average right fielder in the major leagues. He has good power and has demonstrated a good command of the strike zone. He hits to all fields. He's shown a strong arm in right field and he's a surprisingly good baserunner, with solid speed and good instincts.
The Bad: Soler injured his shin in mid-June and hasn't played since. The injury isn't expected to have any lasting effects, but it is costing him a half a season of development that he needs. He also had that suspension for wielding a bat in an on-field fight, but everyone says that was completely out of character for the normally mild-mannered Cuban. Still, it bears watching.
The Future: The most important thing for Soler is to just get back on the field. If he doesn't play again this season, he should play in the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost time. He should start out next season at Tennessee and I'm looking forward to him getting out of the lousy hitting environment of the Florida State League and into Smokies Park.
Soler may not have the elite power and massive upside of Baez and Bryant, but he's not far behind and may be a safer bet to reach his potential. It would not surprise me to see him as the opening day right fielder in 2015, if not before.
5. Arismendy Alcantara. 2B Tennessee Smokies. B-R. 21 years old
The Good: Alcantara has a thrilling combination of power and speed that has drawn comparisons to Jimmy Rollins. In Tennessee this season, he's hitting .270 with 13 home runs and 25 steals. Alcantara also can draw a walk as his OBP is .345 on the season, mostly batting out of the #2 spot. As a baserunner, he shows great instincts. Since the beginning of the 2012 season, Alcantara has stolen 50 bases and been caught only 6 times. The Cubs moved him to second base recently and it looks like he can be at least average there and maybe a little more.
The Bad: The Cubs had to move him off shortstop, in part, because he was making a ton of errors. He does have mental lapses in the field and he sometimes makes bad choices defensively. He's been better since moving to second base, although problems still come up. But at least it does look like he can stick at second.
Although he's a switch-hitter, he's much better hitting left-handed than right-handed. If he doesn't improve, he'll have to sit against lefties. He does strike out more than you'd like, which will keep his batting average down.
Alcantara has been healthy this year, but earlier in his career he's spent a lot of time fighting injuries. He's never played over 100 games in a season before this year and it's starting to show as he's been slowing down and slumping over the past several weeks.
The Future: Alcantara is the second baseman of the future for the Cubs, and how quickly he gets there is going to depend on how quickly he can cut down on his errors and hit left-handed pitching. That could come as soon as next year. He should start next season in Iowa and how long he stays there is going to depend on how well he plays.
Tomorrow: Prospects 6-10.