Today I rank the top five prospects in the Cubs system. All five of them rank among the top 50 prospects in all of baseball and three of them rank in the top ten. It is safe to say that the Cubs have never had a collection of talent like this in the minor leagues since the draft began.
Yeah, he's skinny.
Last year, Edwards (AKA "The String Bean Slinger") missed a good chunk of the season with a shoulder issue. It's generally assumed that it wasn't that serious and the Cubs were just being super-cautious with their best arm. When he came back, Edwards was excellent, dominating the Southern League with a 2.30 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .174 batting average over six starts. The walks were up a bit, but that was likely just rust. Overall, Edwards has good control of three pitches. His fastball is "only" 91-93, but it has a lot of movement and is difficult to square up on. His curveball is his best pitch and it's what he reaches for when he needs a strikeout. He's got a pretty nice changeup as well, giving him a potential top-of-the-rotation arsenal of two plus pitches and a third average one.
And he's skinny. So what? There is a lot of talk that Edwards' future is in the bullpen because he wouldn't be able to hold up to the strain of being a starting pitcher over the course of a whole season. The Cubs will never know until they try. Maybe he's the type of starter who needs to have his innings limited and he can only go 120 to 140 innings year. If so, that's a lot more valuable than making a closer out of him. Besides, throwing every day might be tougher on his arm than going every fifth day. Edwards has the stuff to start. Let him start.
Just don't call anything "bush league" around Edwards. As he told a minor league manager in the Rangers system, he played in the bush leagues and there were some pretty good ballplayers there. He's living proof.
4. Kyle Schwarber. C/LF. 6'0", 235. DOB: 03/05/93. 1st round (2014). Indiana University.
I’m going to admit that I was skeptical when the Cubs drafted Schwarber last June. I’m still skeptical about some things about Schwarber (more on that later) but I am going to admit one thing: he’s a really special hitter. Better than I expected.
Schwarber blew through three levels last season (OK, Boise was mostly because Kane County was in their All-Star break at the time) and dominated each one. Between three levels, Schwarber hit .341 with a .427 OBP and 18 home runs in 71 games. John Manuel of Baseball America recently said that the last guy who had that kind of a debut out of college was Evan Longoria.
Schwarber can hit for average, hit for power and hit while rolling out of bed. He does not even strike out all that much, unlike some of the other power hitters the Cubs have.
Schwarber did not catch much last season, but the plan is for him to spend all year in the minors this season working on his catching skills. Schwarber wants to be a catcher and the Cubs think he has a good chance to stick there. They’re about the only people in the industry who think that. Pretty much everyone else thinks he’s going to have to move and probably to first base. That isn’t an option for the Cubs, of course, so they are hoping left field is a fallback position. But even there, his lack of speed is going to mean he’ll have below-average range out there.
I guess the issue is going to be "How much bad defense are you willing to live with to get that bat in the lineup?" Do you just stick him behind the plate, like Mike Piazza, and just accept the poor defense to get another slugger? Do you try to hide him in left field? He’d probably be an acceptable defensive first baseman, but again, that’s not an option for the Cubs. So do you try to trade him? You would probably never get enough value back to give up on that bat.
Schwarber could probably play in the majors right now if the Cubs could stick him at first. But the Cubs are committed to him being a catcher, and that might take two or three seasons. Even then, it might not work. Also, if the Cubs are contending in July and there’s a hole in the lineup, it’s going to be really difficult to not call up Schwarber and stick him in left.
Schwarber will likely start the season in Tennessee.
3. Jorge Soler. RF. 6'4", 215 lbs. DOB: 02/25/92. Int'l Free Agent (2012) Cuba.
I've said this before, what's really scary about Jorge Soler is that he could end up having a better career than either Kris Bryant or Addison Russell. His bat speed and power rival Javier Baez's, but he keeps his swing under better control and he doesn't strike out nearly as much. That should keep his batting average up. Like Baez and Bryant, he can drive any pitch he gets ahold of out of the park to any field. Soler is just a scary hitter at the plate. You all saw what he can do late last summer: I don't really need to remind you because those two home runs he hit against the Cardinals are seared in your brain. The Cardinals' brains too.
Soler's range in right field is just OK, but he makes up for that somewhat with a rocket arm.
If Soler could end up better than both Bryant and Russell, why is he ranked behind them? For one, he's had a lot hamstring issues and they could end up being chronic. The Cubs did work with him to develop a better stride when running to try to minimize injuries. I have no idea if that will help.
The other thing is that Soler is pretty much the only player in the top 10 about whom you can say there are makeup issues. I don't want to be too hard on a kid who is in a foreign country and trying to navigate strange customs and a foreign language. The Cubs insist he's a good kid, and I believe them. But he does take plays off from time to time and has been pulled from games in the minors for not hustling. And of course, there was that incident when he charged the opposing dugout with a bat in 2013. It's probably something he'll get under control, but it is a concern.
Barring injury, Soler should be the Cubs' starting right fielder on Opening Night.
The Fourth of July trade for Addison Russell couild go down in Cubs history one day. Billy Beane wanted another pitcher and the Athletics farm system simply didn't have anyone worth Jeff Samardzija other than Russell. The Cubs tried to make change by throwing in Jason Hammel, but that got balanced out by Billy McKinney. The A's overpaid because they had to if they were all in on 2014. The Cubs were the lucky beneficiary.
Russell just does everything well. He's not going to be the best glove, but he'll be good and he has the tools to stick at shortstop. He won't win any batting titles, but he should have batting averages in the .280-.290 range, plus a respectable number of walks. He won't hit 40 home runs, but he could hit 20 year in and year out. He's not a speedster, but he's fast enough and he stole 21 bases in 24 attempts in 2013. (Last year, both the Cubs and the A's curtailed his running after he missed two months with a hamstring injury. He should be fine in 2015.)
Russell isn't quite major-league ready like Bryant is. He still needs some time just developing better instincts defensively, such as being able react to the ball faster. He did miss a lot of time last year. He's likely to spend the first half of the season in Iowa, and that gives the Cubs some time to figure out what they're going to do with him and Starlin Castro. But with a talent like Russell, they're going to find a place to play him somewhere, even if Castro stays at short.
If there is any concern about Russell, it's the same as Bryant and Javier Baez: he does strike out a lot. Not at Baez levels, of course, but enough that it's something to keep an eye one.
1. Kris Bryant. 3B. 6'5", 215. DOB: 01/04/92. 1st round (2013)
What can you say about Kris Bryant? A terrific season made him the consensus minor league player of the year and the consensus top prospect in baseball. Pretty much everyone has penciled in his name for the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year. He's a patient hitter who looks for a pitch he can drive. With power to all fields, he can take pretty much any pitch deep. He does have some swing-and-miss in his game and because he goes deep into counts, he'll rack up a good number of strikeouts. That will keep his batting average down but it will also lead to walks and a higher OBP.
Can he play third base? I think he can, but I question whether that is the best use of his talents. He'll never be better than decent defensively at third base whereas he might make a pretty good corner outfielder. He's lean and athletic (unlike Troy Glaus, to whom he's often compared) so patrolling the outfield shouldn't be a problem. I have no doubt that when he gets the call to the majors in late April (and he will get the call then barring some sort of disaster in Iowa) he'll start his career at third base. I do question how long he'll stay there. Both Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols only spent one season at third before moving. I suspect that could be Bryant's fate as well.
What is there left to say? There are no guarantees, of course. But everyone praises his makeup so much that if he does fail, it's not going to be because of something he did or didn't do. He won't steal a ton of bases, but he's faster than he looks and a smart baserunner. Maybe he doesn't have the all-around game of someone like Mike Trout, but when the worst thing I can think to say about him is that he's not going to be as good as Trout, that's saying something. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. It should be a great career.
Bryant, Russell and Soler are three of the top 10 prospects in all of baseball. Go ahead and smile. Again, there are no guarantees, but the odds are at least two of them are going to turn into all-stars. Maybe all three will. The future has never been brighter at Wrigley Field.