Now it's time to finish our discussion of the top twenty (or thirty) Cubs prospects. As I've said before, you're likely all familiar with the ten names on this list. So I'm going to give you my list and link all the names to their MiLB.com profiles if you want to get their stats and other information. Then I'm just going to write whatever I feel like writing about these guys. I encourage you to do the same.
If you're an ESPN Insider, you can read Keith Law's Top 100 prospects list here. Six Cubs made the list, although they aren't the top six names on my list. (Pierce Johnson didn't make his list. Fair enough.)
So the top ten Cubs prospects are as follows.
- Javier Baez
- Kris Bryant
- Albert Almora
- C.J. Edwards
- Jorge Soler
- Pierce Johnson
- Arismendy Alcantara
- Jeimer Candelario
- Dan Vogelbach
- Arodys Vizcaino
The sad thing is, as good as that list is, it's more likely than not that at least half of those guys will fail to have an impact major league career. That's the glass-half-empty way of looking at the list. If you're an optimist, the odds are really good that at least one of these players will turn into an All-Star and at least three or four more will turn in to solid, everyday players who will be under team control until 2021.
I want you to all take a moment to dream about Javier Baez. Go on, I'll still be here. Think of what he could be. He could hit .290 or even .300 with a OBP around .360. He could hit 35 or even 40 home runs each year for a decade. He could steal 20 bases a season. All the while, he could be a league-average or slightly better defensive shortstop. There hasn't been a position player in the Cubs system with a ceiling that high in a long time. Who was the last one we could dream on like this? Rafael Palmeiro? Joe Carter? Maybe even Billy Williams.
OK, wake up now. It's true that the sky is the limit for Baez. There is not much he couldn't be. But the reality of the situation is that players rarely reach their ceilings and Baez is a bit more risky than other players with his talent. For one, he loves to swing from the heels. Sometimes he tries to hit every ball into the next county. He can get fooled badly with quality off-speed stuff out of the zone. He's cocky and just a little arrogant. I've heard positive and negative things about his makeup, but what really worries me is what happens when the game gets hard for him. That's never happened for him yet, and he really hasn't had to face any adversity.
Baez showed improved plate discipline last season, but he's still more likely to grip and rip rather than wait for his pitch and take a walk if it never comes. On defense, he has the tools to be a net positive at shortstop and he's got a 70 arm. But he still makes a lot of mistakes in the field and he doesn't know his own limitations. Sometimes he'll grab a roller and even though he doesn't have a play, he'll wind up and throw the ball into the left field stands. He'll often follow up a spectacular play by booting a routine grounder.
You can make a strong argument that there isn't a player in the minors today with the kind of offensive potential that Baez has. The bat speed that everyone raves about is worthy of the comparisons to Gary Sheffield. In his now-famous four home run game in Daytona last July, he hit the first home run to right field, the second to dead center, the third to left field and the fourth one he hooked around the left field foul pole. Yes, he has power to all fields.
It's completely fair to get excited about Javier Baez. He's as exciting a talent that has ever come through the Cubs system. He's the type of talent you could build a World Series champion around. But he's no sure thing. He certainly could burn out in a couple of bad seasons if he crumbles the first time he faces adversity. It's fine to get excited, but keep your eyes open.
Going back to last year's draft, I was rather vocal that the Cubs should take Jonathan Gray over Kris Bryant. I don't take any of that back because unless he gets injured or Coors Field eats him alive, Gray is going to be a stud. Having said that, I'm really happy that Kris Bryant is a Cub. Power is a rare commodity in the game today, and between Baez and Bryant, the Cubs have two players whom you could hang an "80" power on, depending on how tough a grader you are. He's hit nine home runs in only 36 games as a professional.
Bryant doesn't have the violent swing that Baez has. Instead, he's got a long, fluid and easy swing that almost looks effortless, but the ball goes just as far. He does have some swing and miss in his game and he'll likely never hit .300 in the majors. While he doesn't have Baez's bat speed, he's got much better plate discipline. He knows how to look for his pitch and draw a walk if it doesn't come.
Bryant is a solid athlete, but his size might mean he's not long for third base. Ultimately, I think he'll be a right fielder, and that's OK with me. He should easily hit enough to be an asset in right. He reminds me of a bigger, stronger (but right-handed) version of the Reds' Jay Bruce.
Getting back to the draft last season, if given a chance to do it all over, I think I'd take Bryant now. I still love Gray, but when you consider the risk attached to every pitcher, Bryant was probably the right call. Congratulations Kris. You won me over.
Albert Almora is destined to be underrated one day. That's because he doesn't have any amazing tool, he's just an all-around solid player. He likely will never hit .300, but he could hit .280 with a lot of walks. He'll probably never hit 30 home runs, but he could chip in 20 every season, year in and year out. He doesn't have gold glove tools in center field, but his instincts are incredible for someone that young, and he makes more plays than he should. He's not fast, but he's smart enough to pick his spots and steal 10-15 bases a season. I love those types of guys more than I should.
You can't talk about Almora without talking about what a good kid he is. No one ever has ever said a bad word about his character, and between that and his movie-star good looks, he's going to be a fan favorite at Wrigley as long as he plays well enough to be a regular. The grandson of Cuban immigrants, he took it upon himself to befriend Jorge Soler during the Arizona Fall League and to help him navigate life in America. He hasn't turned 20 yet, and people already look to him as a leader.
The one black mark on Almora, other than none of his tools rating as more than above-average, is that he missed a lot of time last year with injuries. It's too early to put the "injury-prone" tag on him, but he's only one or two more injuries away from earning that dubious honor.
I'm still not convinced on C.J. Edwards. Oh, I'm sold on the arm. It's electric. He can hit 97 miles per hour, but he mostly sits around 93-94. But that's not even his best pitch. He's got a hammer curveball that serves as his out-pitch. But his size, listed at 6'2", 155 lbs., still scares me. He calls himself the "String-Bean Slinger." It's possible to succeed as a starting pitcher with that skinny frame, but his health and stamina are always going to be a question. But even if he can't stay as a starter, he's likely to be a very good closer. In any case, he's an absolute steal for two months of Matt Garza.
Jorge Soler missed a lot of time last season with a suspension and a stress fracture, and that's hurt his standing a bit. Before he went down, he looked pretty good. Some scouts have given him an "80" power grade too, potentially giving the Cubs three prospects with that rare and valuable skill. Soler showed a good approach at the plate and he profiles as a prototypical right fielder. He could hit .280 with a .340 OBP and 35 dingers a season.
Soler is ranked as low as he is because there are just more red flags about him than there are about the four guys ahead of him. For one, there's his maturity and the bat-wielding incident that led to the suspension. When he showed up for the Arizona Fall League after missing half the season, he was heavier and rusty. Second, it's legitimate to ask if he's injury-prone. Third, he does have some holes in his swing, although that's not too concerning for someone in the Florida State League. That's why he was there.
But Soler has a really great, patient approach at the plate. He has powerful wrists and very good bat speed. Not Baez bat-speed, but very good bat speed. He's got a very good arm in right field and he's not afraid to use it.
If you asked me which of these players was the most likely to bust, I'd probably have to say Soler, although you could make an argument that the answer is Baez. But his potential is enough that he's fully justified being in the top five Cubs prospects.
It's a big question about whether Edwards or Pierce Johnson is the best pitching prospect in the system. A lot of scouts seem to prefer the steadier, safer prospect in Johnson over the flashier Edwards. I have to admit that I've vacillated between the two of them. For me, I finally came down with Edwards because if he doesn't read his potential, he's still likely a closer. For Johnson, while he's more likely to reach his potential of a No. 3 starter, his fallback position is a No. 5 starter or even a middle reliever.
But I don't think we're going to have to worry about that, barring an injury. Johnson wasn't challenged much in Kane County or Daytona last season, dominating both leagues. His control isn't quite where you'd like it to be for an elite prospect, but it's good enough and he struck out more than a batter an inning in 2013.
The big knock on Johnson has always been his health, and it was the reason that he dropped to the Cubs with the Cubs supplemental first round, 43rd overall pick in the 2012 draft. He had a lot of forearm issues in college, but he avoided surgery and has been injury-free with the Cubs. I think he'll beat Edwards to the majors, although neither is likely to make it this season because of arbitration-clock concerns. It's too bad, because either one or both might be ready by September. But if he continues on the path he's on, he should be in the Cubs rotation in 2015.
In a lot of systems, Arismendy Alcantara would be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 and be getting a lot more publicity. A switch-hitting middle infielder who has the potential to be a 20/20 hitter with solid defense? That's a nice package. I've seen Alcantara compared to Jose Reyes, and that's a pretty big compliment. (Of course, Reyes had already been in the majors for a year by the time he was Alcantara's age, so maybe Reyes-ish is a better description than Reyes himself.) He was picked as the Cubs representative at the Futures Game last season and hit a home run off of Red Sox prospect Anthony Ranaudo.
As a switch-hitter, he's better from the left side, which is the side you want to be better from.
There were two warning signs on Alcantara last season. One is that he kind of wore down as the season went on. That's not too worrying. After all, it was the first time in his career that he's played over 100 games in a season. But he has been injury-prone in the past, although he did stay healthy in 2013. The other is that he just strikes out a lot. In 133 games last season, he struck out 125 times. That's not terrible, but it certainly isn't good, either. Some of those strikeouts are because he worked the count a lot and he did draw 62 walks.
I'd be surprised if Alcantara wasn't the Cubs starting second baseman in 2015. I do believe in him. I probably should have ranked him higher, but I really like the guys above him too.
By the way, in his rankings of the Top 100 prospects in baseball, Keith Law said that Alcantara bears a striking resemblance to LA Clippers guard Chris Paul. I never noticed it before (I'm not a big NBA fan), but he's right.
I know that ranking Jeimer Candelario at number eight will be controversial, although not because of anything that Candy did last season. His batting average at Kane County last season (.256) might not impress anyone, but there are a lot of positive numbers when you delve into his stats. For one, he was only 19 years old. Two, he walked 68 times and struck out 88, a very respectable ratio. Third, he had 35 doubles. Four, eight of his eleven home runs came after July 1, indicating to me that he was getting stronger and learning to drive the ball better as the season went on.
Candelario is a switch-hitting third baseman with a beautiful line-drive stroke. Last season, at least, he hit for a higher average versus lefties but had ten of his eleven home runs off of right-handed pitchers. He kept his head above water in the tough-for-hitters Midwest League at only 19 years old. As a third baseman, he's not great, but he's got a chance to stick there. Of course, if he can't stick there, he probably doesn't have the range to play the outfield and his bat just isn't as special as a first baseman. So there is some downside there. But when I look at the growth that Candelario showed over the season and his ability to switch-hit, I just saw more upside there than on the guy at number nine.
Dan Vogelbach can hit. I don't deny that. He's got a great approach at the plate and he's nearly walked as many times as he's struck out as a professional. When he connects, he can hit the ball a long way. He's mostly a left-handed pull hitter, but he did work on going the other way last year with some success. He can line a rope into the gaps for a (maybe) double or he can get some lift on the ball and drive it a long, long way.
But I've just got a lot of nagging doubts. For someone so young to have an old-player's body worries me. No, he hasn't been injured yet, but carrying all that weight is going to be an issue. I know everyone says "Prince Fielder," but Fielder was a far better athlete than Vogelbach is at the same age. Fielder wasn't fast, but he was nimble. Vogelbach is lead-footed. He's just not likely to be able to play first base on a regular basis, and that limits his utility to the Cubs. It makes him trade bait, and everyone knows it.
I get where all the Vogelbach love comes from. For one, he's apparently an incredibly nice guy. Two, players who look like they should be drinking beer in the stands rather than playing on the field are always popular with the guys drinking beer in the stands. Three, "chicks dig the long ball." I get it. Ranking him this low in a system this good is not an insult. The bat has the potential to be special. But he's got the same chances of failure as most prospects in A ball have. If he can't hit a ton, where does that leave him? He has zero defensive value.
Arodys Vizcaino hasn't pitched in two years. That he's still in the top ten is a testament to how good his stuff was before he got hurt. He had a fastball that could hit 97 mph out of the bullpen, and it wasn't even his best pitch. His hammer curve was his out pitch. He also had decent changeup, and with three pitches, both the Braves and the Cubs were hoping that he could be a starter.
Maybe he will be a starter one day, but that doesn't look very promising right now. After missing two seasons, expecting Vizcaino to withstand the pounding his arm would take throwing 100 pitches every fifth day is foolish. The word out of instructionals last fall was that he looked good. He's going to go into spring training trying to win a spot in the major league bullpen, and I think he'll get it. The issue is whether he'll stay healthy long enough to keep it.
If I were the Cubs, I'd put him on the Samardzija plan. Let him relieve for two or three seasons and then see if you think he can make the transition to the rotation. He's still only 23, so there is no need to rush him. The Cubs certainly haven't been.