Chicago Cubs Top 20 Prospects for 2014
The list and grades are a blending of present performance and long-term potential. Comments are welcome, but in the end all analysis and responsibility is mine. Full reports on all of players can be found in the 2014 Baseball Prospect Book. We are now taking pre-orders for the book, so order early and order often!
All of these grades are preliminary and subject to change.
QUICK PRIMER ON GRADE MEANINGS:
Grade A prospects are the elite. They have a reasonable chance of becoming stars or superstars. In theory, most Grade A prospects develop into major league regulars, if injuries or unanticipated problems don't intervene. Note that is a major "if" in some cases.
Grade B prospects have a good chance to enjoy successful careers. Some will develop into stars, some will not. Most end up spending several years in the majors, at the very least in a marginal role.
Grade C prospects are the most common type. These are guys who have something positive going for them, but who may have a question mark or three, or who are just too far away from the majors to get an accurate feel for. A few Grade C guys, especially at the lower levels, do develop into stars. Some end up as role players or bench guys. Many don't make it at all.
Also note that there is diversity within each category. I'm a tough grader; Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.
Finally, keep in mind that all grades are shorthand. You have to read the full comment in the book for my full opinion about a player, the letter grade only tells you so much. A Grade C prospect in rookie ball could end up being very impressive, while a Grade C prospect in Triple-A is likely just a future role player.
1) Javier Baez, SS, Grade A: Otherworldy bat speed and an aggressive approach plus the tools to (maybe) stay at shortstop if he can get the errors down. If not, he’d slot great at third base. There’s some risk here due to contact but I think he can be a Giancarlo Stanton-type hitter. The commonly-used Gary Sheffield comp works in terms of bat speed, but Sheffield had a much more refined approach and I don’t think Baez will hit for a Sheffield-like average. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a star.
2) Kris Bryant, 3B, Grade A: Should be a devastating power hitter, perhaps something like Ryan Braun crossed with Troy Glaus. Personally I think his glove at third base is pretty good, but he may end up in the outfield anyway due to roster factors. I have Baez ahead due to the difference in age and speed but they aren’t far apart, and Bryant has a higher floor.
3) Alberto Almora, OF, Grade A-: Looks like he's going to do what he was supposed to do: hit for average with moderate power and play great defense. Instincts help solid tools play up.
4) Jorge Soler, OF, Grade B+: Injury and questions about makeup hampered his stock somewhat in '13, but he crushed High-A pitching when healthy. If the intangibles don't get in the way he should be another potent bat.
5) C.J. Edwards, RHP, Grade B+: Matt Garza Trade acquisition from the Texas Rangers became Chicago's best pitching prospect. Slight build at 6-2, 155, but very athletic, quick arm, rapid development of secondary stuff to go with 93-95 MPH fastball made him dominant in A-ball.
6) Arismendy Alcantara, INF, Grade B: Took large step forward in Double-A, showing power, speed, improved on-base skills, and tools to excel defensively at second base.
7) Pierce Johnson, RHP, Grade B: 2012 supplemental first round pick from Missouri State lived up to expectations with solid A-ball campaign, using low-90s fastball, solid curve and changeup. Projects as a mid-rotation starter, assuming durability (which has been questioned in the past) holds up.
8) Jeimer Candelario, 3B, Grade B: Solid in Low-A at age 19, hit .256/.346/.396 for Kane County although scouting reports were more enthusiastic than the pure numbers. Stands out for youth, switch-hitting power potential, a good measure of strike zone judgment, and a good arm.
9) Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Grade B: Yes, everyone knows he's 6-0, 260, and he'll always have to work hard to keep the weight from getting out of control. His bat is excellent though: not just a power hitter, he has pure hitting skills with a great batting eye and better knack for contact than most young sluggers.
10) Christian Villanueva, 3B, Grade B-: Some are disappointed in him, but his 2013 Double-A season was actually very similar to his '12 High-A season; his wRC+ actually improved from 121 to 126 as he's hitting for more power now, and he still has a good glove. Skills look like they are holding steady to me; the problem is that he's being pushed by guys like Baez and Bryant who have higher upsides. But on his own terms Villanueva is still an interesting prospect.
11) Arodys Vizcaino, RHP, Grade C+: Hard to know what to make of him since he hasn't pitched in two years after difficult Tommy John recovery, although he reportedly had his stuff back in instructional league. 95 MPH fastball and big curve could make him a bullpen force if he can stay healthy.
12) Mike Olt, 3B, Grade C+: Another injury guy; blurred vision resulting from a concussion ruined both his hitting and his defense. If his eyes and brain are OK, he can still be a low-batting-average, high-power slugger with a very valuable glove. Track health reports closely this spring.
13) Neil Ramirez, RHP, Grade C+: Yet another guy acquired from the Rangers, Ramirez has a quality fastball/changeup/breaking ball combination and posts strong strikeout rates, but can be erratic. Durability concerns may move him to the bullpen but he's got upside.
14) Matt Szczur, OF, Grade C+: Good athlete, good defense, should hit for a decent average, but not a power hitter and needs to use his speed better on the bases. Looks like a solid fourth outfielder to me.
15) Josh Vitters, OF, Grade C+: Although injured most of the year with hamstring troubles, Vitters hit very very well at Iowa when healthy (wRC+136). He has nothing left to prove in Triple-A but the bad taste of his horrible 2012 major league trial lingers. Moving to the outfield for 2014, he still has a brief window of opportunity before getting swamped by Baez, Bryan, Almora, and Soler, but Vitters needs to get hot and stay hot now.
16) Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Grade C+: Outstanding performance record: 2.00 ERA, 13-4, 128/34 K/BB in 166 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Scouts have doubts since he doesn't throw hard and relies on deception, but continued pitching of this quality will force a trial soon and he could be a useful inning-eater.
17) Corey Black, RHP, Grade C+: Acquired from Yankees in Alfonso Soriano deal, Black has better velocity than Hendricks and a higher physical ceiling but is a year behind on the development track. Should open 2014 in Double-A, some see a potentially decent mid-rotation starter, others a more dominant bullpen force.
18) Rob Zastryzny, LHP, Grade C+: Second round pick from the University of Missouri in 2013, performed well in 24 pro innings. Fastball varies between 87 and 95 MPH, secondary pitches have promise.
19) Ivan Pineyro, RHP, Grade C+: Another 2013 trade acquisition, from the Nationals for Scott Hairston, posted 3.29 ERA with 111/31 K/BB in 126 innings in A-ball. Good fastball/changeup combination, still working on breaking pitches, like Black he could wind up in the bullpen down the line.
20) Paul Blackburn, RHP, Grade C+: Supplemental first round pick from California high school in 2012, held his own in Northwest League with a good sinker, secondary pitches need work but he's got development potential worth tracking.
21) Kevin Encarnacion, OF, Grade C+: Took him three years to get out of the Dominican Summer League but made up for lost time with a .355/.431/.566 line for Boise. At age 21 he was the equivalent of a college junior however, so I'd like to see more at higher levels especially since he struggled in 16 games in Low-A. He's got tools and could wind up being very good, but I want more data before buying in completely.
OTHERS: Gioskar Amaya, 2B; Yasiel Balaguert, OF; Dallas Beeler, RHP; Shawon Dunston Jr, OF; Jacob Hannemann, OF; Brett Jackson, OF; Eloy Jimenez, OF; Eric Jokisch, LHP; Dillon Maples, RHP; Brett Marshall, RHP; Jefferson Mejia, RHP; Armando Rivero, RHP; Gleyber Torres, SS; Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP; Logan Watkins, INF; Ben Wells, RHP.
There are about 15 other guys you could mention, and several of the "other" category players like Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres have very high ceilings but just haven't played enough yet to get a valid feeling for. I particularly like Jefferson Mejia on the pitching side; he could be very good.
The Cubs system has improved quickly in a short period of time, at least on the hitting side. Baez, Bryant, Almora, and Soler give them four potential All-Stars. That is going to be one scary lineup three years from now. And that doesn't even account for guys like Candelario, Alcantara, and Vogelbach, who are also potential regulars, and several others who should be useful role players. If Mike Olt can fully recover from his concussion, he can also be a regular.
The pitching is obviously much thinner, but is improving, thanks in large part to trade acquisitions. Edwards is very intriguing and has the best overall package despite his size, but he's not the only one: Ramirez, Black, and Pineyro also added some valuable depth. Along with Zastryzny, the 2013 draft added some additional promising arms like Tyler Skulina, Scott Frazier, Trey Mazek, David Garner, and Zack Godley. I also like lefty Sam Wilson as a sleeper prospect. Adding more arms to the system was the obvious strategy in the middle rounds.
Overall, while the system needs additional pitching, the Cubs under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have made it very clear that they'll invest heavy funds in farm development, targeting a mixture of high-ceiling and high-floor talent in the draft while sparing no expense on the international front. They need more time, but it will work.
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