I'm going to do something a little different in my list of the Top 20 Cubs prospects. Instead of the standard format where I list the player's stats, birth date and vital statistics and then do a roundup of their skills and a projection, I'm just going to have a long conversation with you about the players involved. Every player's name is linked to their MiLB.com profile (if they have one) so you can get the basic facts there. But I feel that between my work and Tim's, most of you are pretty familiar with the basics on these guys. So I'm just going to list the players and then do my version of prospect-ranking free jazz.
As most of you know, I hate these rankings because it's not really important where these prospects rank in relationship to each other. What matters is what they can be expected to contribute on the major league level. On top of that, there usually isn't a great reason to rank one player No. 5 and another No. 6, or one at No. 12 and a similar player at No. 16 or to put one player at No. 20 and another on the "just missed getting a mention list."
However, they are popular and they are very good conversation starters. So that's what I want to do here. I want to start a conversation about the system.
I've been telling you for months now that the system is very good. It's amazing how much the new Theo Epstein administration has changed around the farm system in just two short years. Players that are on this honorable mention list would have been top 12 prospects in the system just two years ago. I know that everyone is impatient and I don't like the losing at the major league level any more than you do. But your patience will be rewarded. Look at what Tampa Bay did seven or eight years ago. After a decade of being the league's laughing stock, they finally turned their fortunes around by cashing in on all those low draft picks. The secret to the Cardinals' success isn't spending gobs of money, it's having a farm system that spits out two to five quality major league players each year.
The Cubs system lacks that guy that you look at and say "There's no doubt that he'll be an all-star" like you might with Byron Buxton or Dylan Bundy. Yes, the pitching prospects aren't quite as good as the hitters. But there are a lot of high-ceiling players and while they won't all be successful, the odds are very good that several of them will be.
Today I'm going to list ten "honorable mention" players who didn't make my Top 20 list. So although I don't rank them 21 to 30, you're really getting a Top 30 list rather than a Top 20 list. Tomorrow I'll give you players 11-20 and on Thursday I'll tackle the top ten. I'll give you a hint: Javier Baez is in the top ten.
Now, here are the ten players, in no particular order, who just missed making my top 20 prospects list.
Let's get the elephant out of the way right away. Why don't I have Jimenez and Torres ranked in the top 20? On talent alone, they certainly deserve to be there, and Jimenez probably deserves to be in the top ten. It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Caribbean talent pool these days, and the Cubs were wise to go after talented players with high upsides, no matter what the cost. But I'm just very uncomfortable ranking a pair of 17-year-old kids who have never played in a formal professional game before. I've never seen them play other than some workout videos on the internet. I could take a wild guess and rank Jimenez at ten and Torres at 15, but I think that would be a disservice to you, because it would just be wild speculation on my part and my repeating what other people have said about the players.
As far as Jimenez goes, the Cubs have a great athlete with size and very good speed. He said one of the reasons he wanted to play for the Cubs was that Sammy Sosa was his favorite player as a kid and he's certainly got a similar skill set to a young Sosa. (Let's just leave the old Sosa alone, shall we?)
Torres, a Venezuelan middle infielder, isn't as athletic, big or fast as Jimenez, but he's got enough in those categories than none of that will be a liability. Torres best ability is reportedly his swing, with a really great ability to put a bat on the ball and drive it to all fields. If we're going to dream on him, he could end up being a solid defensive second baseman who hits for a high average and chips in a few home runs and stolen bases from time to time. That sounds a bit like Howie Kendrick to me.
But in truth, we really don't know what direction the careers of Jimenez and Torres are going to take. Jimenez could bulk up, lose some speed and end up as a slugging left fielder. Torres could surprise us with his glove but might struggle with better pitching and end up as a good glove, no-hit shortstop. There's just too much projection in there for my comfort levels.
This isn't the case with the big Korean pitcher, Jen-Ho Tseng, who I didn't list. For one, Tseng is older, having already turned 19. Also, I've actually seen Tseng pitch in the World Baseball Classic. I like Tseng, but I didn't see the plus velocity in the WBC that I'd read about and his secondary stuff was just OK. Now this is a really small sample size in an odd competition, so I try not to read too much into it. I could have ranked him with an honorable mention as well, but I just liked ten other guys better. It's a nice problem to have. With all three of these guys, there will be plenty of time to rank them in the future.
Ivan Pineyro is the guy the Cubs received/stole from the Nationals this past summer for Scott Hairston. He was really good in ten starts in Daytona, including two in the playoffs. He's got the size and the stamina to stay as a starter, but right now he's mostly just a fastball pitcher. He's got the potential to turn his secondary stuff into at least average pitches, but you could say that about almost every pitcher in the minors. Double-A will be a test for him. If he succeeds, he'll be in the top 20 next year.
Kevin Encarnacion is a guy I asked a lot about when I was in Boise. I just missed him as he had been in Boise and then was promoted to Kane County, where he struggled a bit and then had trouble getting enough playing time, so they sent him back to Boise after I left. But he's a switch-hitting right fielder with a strong arm. He offers a really intriguing power/speed combination and in Boise, at least, he showed some patience and the ability to draw a walk. He hit right-handers a lot better than lefties last year, but it was a pretty small sample size on left-handers. The struggles in Kane County are a bit of a warning, so keep an eye on him this spring in Geneva. And if you go out to see him, please share your impressions.
Yasiel Balaguert is a guy I did get to see and liked what I saw. Or more accurately, I liked what I heard when the ball hit his bat. When Balaguert connected, the ball made a much louder, fuller "crack" than it did with most other hitters. When that happened, the ball would sing as it rode a rope into the gaps. He's a big guy with a stocky frame, so left field is probably the best we can hope for him. Even there might be a stretch. There were holes in his swing and he would chase bad pitches (although he did connect on those bad pitches sometimes) so he's a high-risk prospect. He struck out a lot in Boise. But he's got the potential to turn into a hitter with plus power, and those are always rare and valuable.
Dillon Maples is a guy who Cubs fans have been waiting to break out for a while, since the Cubs bought him out of going to North Carolina on a football/baseball scholarship in 2011 for $2.5 million. But the Cubs had to junk his delivery and rebuild it from the ground up, and that took a lot of time. He throws hard, mid-90s hard at times, and with good movement. His curve is also a plus pitch when he can command it. That's going to be Maples' issue throughout his career. If he can find some control, he'll be a major leaguer. In Kane County, his control was a mess; he struggled and had to be sent down to Boise. He found some control in the Northwest League, at least enough to be an effective pitcher. He'll be tested in the Midwest League again this year.
Rob Zastryzny doesn't throw real hard, but he doesn't have to. Zastryzny is all about changing speeds and he does that with his fastball and changeup very effectively. He's a sneaky left-hander, and those guys will always have jobs. He's got the size and arsenal to be a starter, but I think his particular brand of deception would play better out of the bullpen in the majors.
Neil Ramirez is the PTBNL that the Cubs got in the Matt Garza deal. That deal was held up because of concerns about Ramirez's medicals and yeah, that's why he's not in the top 20. Ramirez has battled a lot of shoulder issues throughout his career. He's got the stuff to be a mid-rotation starter, but like Arodys Vizcaino, he might not have the health and the stamina to stay there. As a late-inning closer, his velocity, already around 93-94 mph, would likely play up. Obviously it would be better if he stayed in the rotation and the Cubs are going to give him that chance, but he may end up in the pen. He only had one appearance for the Cubs last year, but it was a good one.
I really like Dustin Geiger. He can hit. He can hit for average, draw a walk and he's got some power. He's also got that "scrappy" tag even though he's over six feet tall. The problem is that even though he has a major league bat, he's really a right-handed first baseman and he doesn't have a right-handed first baseman bat. Not many people do have a right-handed first baseman bat. But he's good enough at third base that he can fill in there in a pinch, so he could find a major league role as a corner infield/bench bat. No one is going to outwork him. Those guys tend to succeed more often than they should. I wouldn't put a lot of money on Geiger succeeding, but I wouldn't put a lot of money against it either.
Logan Watkins is a guy you saw in Chicago the second half of last season or, thanks to Dale Sveum, didn't see the second half of last season. Watkins didn't have a great season last year, but Sveum's unwillingness to give Watkins a chance during what was a pretty lost season was a real head-scratcher. I wouldn't be surprised if it was on the list of reasons why he was fired. Watkins got called up August 4 and spent the final 51 games on the major league roster. Sveum gave him five starts. Really incredible.
Watkins's main value comes out of his versatility. In his minor league career, he's played every position but first base and catcher. He bats left-handed, he has good plate discipline and is fast. He's been compared to Darwin Barney before, although while his glove is good, it isn't quite that good, at least not yet. But unlike Barney, he offers a left-handed bat and draws some walks, so he has a little more upside. Watkins' future is as a utility player, although that's what they said about Barney too. (Of course, maybe Barney should be a utility player.)
Finally, I want to talk about two players who aren't on the list: Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. I know both of them still have defenders around here, but my feeling is that they've both had enough chances. Jackson is a great athlete and a hard-working kid whom you'd like to see succeed, but it just doesn't look like he's ever going to make enough contact to be a major league outfielder. The Cubs much-publicized remake of his swing just made things worse and he had the worst season of his career in 2013. Jackson can do everything on the baseball diamond except make contact with a pitch, and that's too bad. Pretty much any other deficiency you can hide somewhere, but there's just no running from that.
With Vitters, I know he had some decent numbers in an injury-shortened season last year, but that was a small sample size and he's gone on hot streaks before. But he's had a lot of chances as well and he's failed to capitalize on them. Plus, he's a left fielder now and that means the bar his bat has to cross is just that much higher. That also makes me wonder about how badly Vitters actually wants this. He's had six years of people telling him that he has to put in the work to be a third baseman at the major league level and he just didn't accomplish it. Maybe he really did work hard at it, but it sure didn't show. Yes, he's still pretty young and could turn it around, but he's had so many chances to turn it around already. I'm just not optimistic.
I'd love to be wrong on both of them.