Chicago Cubs Top 20 Prospects for 2015
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 2015 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. In theory, they have a good chance of becoming stars or superstars. Theoretically, most Grade A prospects develop into stars or at least major league regulars, if injuries or other 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. Many end up as role players or bench guys. Some don’t make it at all.
Finally, keep in mind that all grades are shorthand. You have to read the full comment in the book for the full analysis 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) Kris Bryant, 3B, Grade A: Age 22, monstrous season in Double-A/Triple-A, .325/.438/.661 with 43 homers, 86 walks, 162 strikeouts in 492 at-bats. Bat could be something like Jeff Bagwell and he’s not a bad third baseman either. I think he’s the best prospect in baseball.
2) Addison Russell, SS, Grade A: Age 20, thunder in the bat (.295/.350/.508 with 13 homers in 68 games) and he can play shortstop, at least in the short and medium runs. Main concern is staying healthy.
3) Jorge Soler, OF, Grade A: Age 22, hit .340/.432/.700 in 62 minor league games and .292/.330/.573 in 24 major league games. That’s not a fluke, the bat is legitimately that good. Like Russell, the main concern is propensity to injury. You can make a case to rank Soler ahead of Russell since he’s more proven at higher levels, but Russell’s youth and positional premium move him slightly ahead for me.
With Bryant, Russell, and Soler the Cubs have three of the Top Ten prospects in baseball.
4) Kyle Schwarber, C-OF, Grade A-: Borderline A. Age 21, hit .344/.428/.634 in his first 72 professional games. This is a Grade A bat, only question here is defense. I think he has the tools to be an okay defender, though there is some risk that catching focus could hamper hitting development.
5) C.J. Edwards, RHP, Grade B+: Age 23, posted 2.44 ERA with 46/21 K/BB in 48 innings in Double-A when not struggling with shoulder injury. Healthy at the end of the year, upside of a number two or strong number three starter if the durability is there.
6) Albert Almora, OF, Grade B+: Borderline B. Age 20, developed into an excellent defensive outfielder but bat appears stagnant, hit .283/.306/.406 in High-A but just .234/.250/.355 in Double-A. Still very young, draws praise for instincts, lots of time for the hitting to come around.
7) Pierce Johnson, RHP, Grade B: Age 23, 2.55 ERA with 91/54 K/BB in 92 innings in Double-A, just 60 hits. Command goes wobbly at times but looks like a classic number three starter when everything is on. If the walks come down, should get a trial in 2015.
8) Billy McKinney, OF, Grade B: Borderline B-: Age 20, hit .241/.330/.400 in the California League before trade with Oakland, then .301/.390/.432 in more difficult Florida State League after the trade. Doesn’t have the tools of the guys ahead of him but instincts draw consistent praise and he has a long track record of impressing scouts and coaches with his approach.
9) Duane Underwood, RHP, Grade B-: Age 20, posted 2.50 ERA with 84/36 K/BB in 101 innings in Low-A, 85 hits. Can get into mid-90s, making progress with curveball and change-up, another guy who can be a number three starter with good health and typical development.
10) Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP, Grade B-: Age 20, 2.40 ERA with 85/15 K/BB in 105 innings in Low-A, 76 hits. Very successful teammate of Underwood and more polished, though stuff doesn’t project as well at higher levels and his body is mature. He still looks to me like a prospect that any team would love to have.
11) Gleyber Torres, SS, Grade B-: Age 17, big-budget signee out of Venezuela in 2013, hit .279/.372/.377 at age 17 in rookie ball then tore up short-season Boise for a week (.393/.469/.786). Tiny sample of seven games at Boise, but still. . .he was just 17 and was facing college players. Solid tools that play way above average due to instincts and work ethic. You can make a case as high as nine and he can be in Top Three a year from now.
12) Carson Sands, LHP, Grade B-: Age 19, fourth-round pick but a second-round talent who fell a little due to signability concerns, looked good in rookie ball (1.89 ERA, 20/7 K/BB in 19 innings) and has number three starter upside with potential for three big league pitches.
13) Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Grade B-: Age 21, hit .268/.357/.429 with 16 homers, 66 walks in 482 at-bats in High-A, very impressive production for power-difficult Florida State League. I’m quite confident in his bat but he’s a born DH who has to work hard to stay lower than 260 pounds. Not sure how he fits in Chicago other than trade bait.
14) Eloy Jimenez, OF, Grade C+: HIGH CEILING ALERT: Just turned 18 but played season at 17, hit .227/.268/.367 in rookie ball which was considered very disappointing. However, scouting reports on his tools remain enthusiastic and the Cubs will be very patient given the $2,800,000 they invested in him last year.
I am confident in the ranking of slots 1 through 14. From 15 on, these players are interchangeable Grade C+ types who could be ranked in about a hundred different ways. I have highlighted the ones I find most interesting for various reasons.
15) Victor Caratini, C, Grade C+: Age 21, stolen from the Braves in summer trade, shows excellent strike zone judgment and is a solid defender. Lack of home run power keeps him from higher ranking but he’s very interesting.
16) Corey Black, RHP, Grade C+: Age 23, posted 3.47 ERA with 119/71 K/BB in 124 innings in Double-A. Acquired from Yankees in 2013 for Alfonso Soriano. Stuff can be explosive, but command still work-in-progress. Very athletic.
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17) Armando Rivero, RHP, Grade C+: Age 26, Cuban defector, thrived in high minors (1.56 ERA, 54/16 K/BB in 35 innings in Double-A, 2.97 ERA with 46/12 K/BB in 30 innings in Triple-A) and ready for big league trial. Another hard thrower with some command wobbles but considerable bullpen upside.
18) Jake Stinnett, RHP, Grade C+: Age 22, second round pick from University of Maryland is just getting started, college senior but didn’t pitch full time until 2013 so his arm is fresh in mileage terms. Change-up needs work but fastball/slider combination are impressive, fanned 132 in 118 college innings with just 85 hits, 30 walks, 2.67 ERA.
19) Mark Zagunis, C-OF, Grade C+: Age 21, third round pick from Virginia Tech, hit .288/.420/.420 with 16 steals in first 57 pro games with 42 walks, 42 strikeouts. Exceptional strike zone judgment and on-base abilities with lots of speed, some gap power, defensive versatility.
20) Jeferson Mejia, RHP, Grade C+: Age 20, 2.47 ERA with 45/17 K/BB in 40 innings in rookie ball, 30 hits, good reviews for mid-90s heat, promising breaking ball, projectable 6-7, 195 pound body. I think he is a terrific breakthrough candidate.
OTHER GRADE C+: Most of these guys could slot in the 15-20 range. Gioskar Amaya, 2B-C; Jeffrey Baez, OF; Dallas Beeler, RHP; Paul Blackburn, RHP; Jeimer Candelario, 3B; Dylan Cease, RHP; Jonathan Martinez, RHP; Justin Steele, LHP, Rob Zastrynzny, LHP.
OTHERS: Charcer Burks, OF; Trevor Clifton, RHP; Rashad Crawford, OF; Shawon Dunston Jr, OF; Jake Hannemann, OF; Marco Hernandez, SS; Eric Jokisch, LHP; Rafael Lopez, C; Kevonte Mitchell, OF; James Norwood, RHP; Juan Carlos Paniagua, RHP; Starling Peralta, RHP; Bijan Rademacher, OF; Donn Roach, RHP; Matt Szczur, OF; Daury Torres, RHP; Christian Villanueva, 3B
The Cubs probably have the best farm system in baseball. I’m only saying "probably" because I haven’t studied every organization in detail yet, but if they aren’t number one they’d be number two.
It all starts on the hitting side: Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler are a special trio and Kyle Schwarber isn’t far behind them. This menacing quartet illustrates in microcosm how the Cubs have built their depth so quickly: with a combination of astute use of early draft picks (Bryant, Schwarber), trades (Russell), and aggressive mining of the international market (Soler).
Almora and McKinney provide additional depth for the outfield. If Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez develop properly, both could leap to the top of the list and replace Bryant and Soler, who will graduate to the majors in 2015 (barring disaster). The thing is, even if there IS a disaster of some kind, there is a large group of potential role players backing up the star talents. The Cubs have shown the ability to snare both college bats with sabermetric chops and more traditional toolsy types.
The pitching isn’t as impressive as the hitting but it isn’t bad and is getting better. C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson could see the majors this year as rotation options. Corey Black could also get a trial if his command is up to it. Armando Rivero has a top bullpen arm. Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch don’t excite scouts with their stuff but both are proven Triple-A command artists could provide some surprisingly effective innings while the livelier arms develop at lower levels.
Bottom line: the Cubs have a stellar offensive group at the top and lots of depth behind them. The pitching situation is improving steadily, and the front office has shown the ability to find talent in the draft, the trade market, and the international scene. They don’t just dump money on problems: they allocate well too.