Continuing on from Part I's honorable mentions, I present the first half of the top 20 prospects in the Cubs system. This list isn't quite as impressive as the top 10, naturally, but all of these guys have to chance to contribute in the major leagues one day.
If you're an ESPN Insider, you can read Keith Law's rankings of all the farm systems. ($) The Cubs rank fourth, behind Houston, Minnesota and Pittsburgh.
My Cubs prospects ranked 11 through 20 are as follows:
12. Paul Blackburn
13. Mike Olt
14. Alberto Cabrera
15. Kyle Hendricks
16. Matt Szczur
17. Corey Black
18. Dallas Beeler
19. Gioskar Amaya
20. Shawon Dunston
Continuing with my top 20 Cubs prospects, we're now into the guys that I've actually ranked. The players ranked 11 through 20 aren't nearly as impressive as the ones in the top ten. The Cubs system is reasonably deep, but a lot of these guys would have ranked in the top ten under Jim Hendry's management. (Of course, the system always had depth under Hendry. It just never had enough elite, high-upside guys.) Still, some of these guys were top ten players just a few years ago and most haven't dropped because of anything that they did, but rather because there are just better prospects in the system now.
Christian Villanueva is a guy who seems to be rather controversial in prospect circles. The big issue is whether he's going to make enough contact going forward. A lot of scouts don't like his swing and there's certainly a lot of swing and miss in his game. I do think it's telling that he didn't make Baseball America's top 20 prospects in the Southern League this past season, despite leading the league in extra base hits. But his power did take a step forward in 2013 and everyone likes his defense and his work ethic, so there is that. He lacks speed, but he does run the bases fairly intelligently and he's got the quick reflexes that that a third baseman needs. It will be interesting if all the junk ball nibblers in the Pacific Coast League are able to get him to chase bad balls this summer. (That is, if he's at Iowa. There is a lot of backlog at third base right now.) If he succeeds in the majors, it will be as a great glove third baseman who hits for a low average but has a decent amount of pop. He may struggle to keep his OBP over .300 in the majors, however.
Everyone raves about Villanueva's makeup, for what it's worth.
The most amazing thing about Paul Blackburn is his mound presence. For a 19-year-old to pitch like a six-year veteran is pretty impressive. Watching Blackburn pitch, you never feel like he's lost out there. He always has a plan and always knows what he wants to do. Certainly he's young and makes mistakes, but a lot fewer than most pitchers his age. I don't want my praising his mound presence to be interpreted as the prospect maven's way of saying "he has a nice personality." Blackburn has the stuff to be a major league starting pitcher. He can throw 92-94 mph and he's got a quality curveball and change when he can control them. That's really the only thing between Blackburn and being a No. 3 or No. 4 starting pitcher in the major leagues: control. He really struggled with control at times last season and when it abandoned him, he could get into trouble really quickly. I'm pretty optimistic about Blackburn overcoming those issues and he seems like a smart kid. He just needs to learn to repeat his delivery better and trust his stuff. He knows how to get batters out, he just needs to go out and do it.
Where to start on Mike Olt? I really don't know about him at all. Obviously 2013 was a terrible season for him. He had the eye issues that never seemed to clear up last season, but he says those are behind him now. But he's already 25 years old and has never played more than 111 games in a season. The power that everyone used to rave about mostly manifested itself playing for Frisco in the Texas League, which is an extreme home run park in a good league for home runs. Obviously the Rangers felt he was damaged goods if not a lost cause, as he went from untouchable in the Ryan Dempster deal in 2012 to being just one of four guys traded for Matt Garza and not even the best one. Yes, there was no place for Olt to play in Arlington, but if they really believed in him, they would have found a place for him.
I could have ranked him in the top ten. I could have left him off the list entirely based on last season. But I usually give top prospects one bad season before dropping them drastically, especially if there is an explanation for the problems. In this case, it was Olt's eyesight, which could be fine this season. My ranking of him here is a bit of a compromise.
Olt is supposed to be a pretty good defensive third baseman, although I saw very little evidence of that during his time in Iowa. Again though, the vision problems likely caused that. He'll likely never hit for a high average, but he draws enough walks that it just isn't likely to be a problem.
If Olt can actually see a baseball this summer and he gets back to his 2012 form, then he's likely going to be the Cubs' third baseman in 2014. He's certainly going to be given a chance to win the job in spring training. But you can't just write off 2013 as if it didn't happen. He's had injuries in the past before, although the broken collarbone that he suffered in a home plate collision in 2011 isn't indicative of being injury-prone. This ranking will likely end up looking too low or too high in a year. Olt is just such a wild card.
If it seems like Alberto Cabrera has been around forever, it's because he has. He's the only prospect on this list who signed before this blog was even founded, having signed out of the Dominican Republic back in 2005. He's been around that long because he really does have the stuff to be a major league pitcher, but the Cubs have been jerking him back and forth between the rotation and the pen for years now. I understand the Cubs desire to make a starting pitcher out of him. He's a big strong guy with three quality pitches. But he's just never really had the control necessary to be a starting pitcher. Even when he doesn't walk a lot of batters (which isn't often), he throws enough balls out of the strike zone that his pitch count rises rapidly and he's out of the game in the fourth or fifth inning.
As a reliever, Cabrera could jack his fastball up to 97 miles per hour and use his nasty slider as an out pitch. He could junk his change and then only have to worry about controlling two pitches. He'll likely never have enough control to be a closer, but he could be a great seventh- or eighth-inning guy. He's also 25 already. You've probably seen him in the majors each of the past two seasons, so I don't have to say too much more about him.
I know Kyle Hendricks has his fans around here and I consider myself one of them. But I just can't rank him any higher than this. Yes, he's a smart pitcher. Yes, he has great control. But his stuff is just so ordinary that his ceiling really is a number five starter. I know velocity isn't everything, but it's not just his fastball. He's got four pitches and none of them are really special. He knows how to use them and he's a smart guy (went to Dartmouth) but if he gets to the majors, he's going to run into a lot of smart hitters who aren't going to fall for his tricks like they did in the minors. If he can't outsmart the opposing hitter, where does that leave him? I'll tell you where that leaves him. It leaves him in the Pacific Coast League.
I know everyone says "Jamie Moyer," but do you know how many pitchers in the minors over the past 25 years have had Jamie Moyer's stuff? Thousands. How many of them turned into Jamie Moyer? One.
This doesn't mean things are hopeless for Hendricks. He knows his stuff and he knows what he can and can't do. That's something a lot of pitchers never manage to do. Dillon Gee is an example of a pitcher who has succeeded with a similar skill set to Hendricks. If Hendricks turned out to have Dillon Gee's career, then everyone would be pretty happy with that. The problem is that's what he'll be if everything goes right for him. Dillon Gee is his ceiling. If anything goes wrong, then he's back in Iowa.
Matt Szczur is the outfielder version of Kyle Hendricks. That's not quite fair as Szczur does have a couple of plus tools, primarily his speed. His defense in center field is probably above average as well. Szczur never developed the power that the Cubs hoped he would (and he never will), so he's never going to be a star in the majors. But if you focus on what he can do, rather than what he can't, there's a nice package there. Good defense, strong baserunning. He has a .353 career minor league OBP. He profiles as a fourth outfielder with a small chance of being something a little better than that. But he turns 25 in July and he's never played above Double-A and time is running out. He's never really dominated at any level of the minors. Szczur is likely to have a major league career, which is why he's on the list here, but it's not likely to excite anyone too much. He's a good guy to have around a clubhouse though, for what that's worth.
Corey Black is the guy the Cubs got for Alfonso Soriano last July. He's a short right-hander who throws hard. He was really good in Daytona last year after coming over from the Yankees. Of course, everyone in Daytona was really good in the second half of the season. He's probably destined for the bullpen because, well, he's a short-right hander who throws hard. But naturally he's going to get every chance to start and so far, he's been fine as a starter. He's got four pitches but other than his fastball, none of them are really average yet. I'm going to keep a close eye on him in Tennessee this season. If his other pitches come around, he could be a solid starting pitcher. Otherwise, he could end up as a very good middle reliever.
Dallas Beeler missed most of the season with a finger injury, but pitched well enough in the Arizona Fall League to earn himself a spot of the 40-man roster. He's a guy who keeps the ball down and doesn't walk people, which no doubt endeared him to the front office. Beeler has three pitches: down, lower and in the dirt. But seriously, he's got a normal starters repertoire and his ceiling is probably a No. 4 starter. But the Cubs have a bit of a dilemma with Beeler. He's on the 40-man roster now and he could probably help the major league team now as a reliever. But that might hinder his development as a starter. My guess is that the Cubs will let him start down in Iowa until injuries in the pen force him up to the majors. That will put off any final decision for a while.
Gioskar Amaya had a poor year in 2013. But really, he's still got the same skill set that he's always had. Good defense at second base. Good speed. He's not a great hitter, but he's good enough and he's got some extra base pop. But again, he struggled at Kane County last year. He's only 21, so if he has to repeat the level, it's not the worst thing in the world. I still believe, but my patience will grow short if he struggles in 2014.
Are you sure his name's not "Kenny Lofton Jr.?" Because he sure seems a lot more like Kenny Lofton than Shawon Dunston. Now I'm not hanging a Kenny Lofton comp on Dunston. For one, he's not nearly that good. But he's a center fielder who hits left-handed. He hits left-handed and drew more walks than he has strikeouts last season. Does that sound like Shawon Dunston to you? Of course not.
Getting back to Shawon Dunston Jr. and ignoring his legendary Cubs father for a minute, he's a raw, athletic player with very good speed and an excellent batting eye. I worry about what's going to happen when he moves up the ladder, however. It's easy to lay off of pitches in the Northwest League where 80% of the pitchers have no idea what the strike zone is, but as he moves up, pitchers are going to start challenging him and he won't be able to do nothing and take a walk. He'll have to work for it. Most of his hits are between the two gaps although he does beat out a lot of infield hits and bunts. He profiles as a classic leadoff hitter.
Defensively, I saw him make some bad reads. Sometimes his speed allows him to compensate for that, but he's not a natural out there. That doesn't worry me too much, that's why he was in the Northwest League, after all. But it is something he has to work on. His arm is above-average. He doesn't have his dad's arm, but then again, who does?