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Chicago Cubs Top 20 2014 PRE-SEASON Prospects in Review

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Javier Baez
Javier Baez
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our end-of-season reviews of the 2014 Top 20 Prospect Lists this morning with the Chicago Cubs. Remember, this is the PRE-SEASON LIST. It is not a new list. These are the pre-season grades and rankings and is intended for review purposes.

This list was originally published January 8, 2014.

1) Javier Baez, SS, Grade A: Hit .260/.323/.510 with 23 homers for Triple-A Iowa Cubs, wRC+108. Promoted to the majors, hitting .179/.217/.390, wRC+64, with seven homers. His performance is no surprise with both strengths (enormous power) and weaknesses (enormous strike zone). I think he will figure it out eventually but expect a bumpy ride for a while in the OBP and batting average departments.

2) Kris Bryant, 3B, Grade A: Hit .355/.458/.702, wRC+220 (read that again) in 297 PA in Double-A, then .295/.418/.619 (wRC+164) in Triple-A, with 43 homers. Better feel for the strike zone than Baez and I expect he will be a devastating power hitter.

3) Albert Almora, OF, Grade A-: Hit .283/.306/.406, wRC+100 in 385 PA in High-A, then .232/.248/.352, wRC+63 in 145 PA in Double-A. Stock down, is not showing much power development and on-base skills are very disappointing. He’s had some injury issues and is still young, but has been passed by Soler.

4) Jorge Soler, OF, Grade B+: Fights the injury bug but excellent when healthy, hitting .415/.494/.862 in 79 PA in Double-A then .282/.378/.618 in 127 PA in Triple-A. Looks great so far in the majors. Stock up into the A-range for certain.

Jorge Soler--photo by Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images

5) C.J. Edwards, RHP, Grade B+: Missed most of the season with injury troubles but finished strong in Double-A, 2.44 ERA with 46/21 K/BB in 48 innings, 30 hits. Little question about his ability, but needs to prove durability after shoulder issues.

6) Arismendy Alcantara, INF, Grade B: Earned his way to majors with .307/.353/.537, wRC+126, 21 steals in 366 PA in Triple-A. Hitting .216/.274/.382 in 224 PA in majors. Tools obvious, needs to adjust offensively but I think he can and will.

7) Pierce Johnson, RHP, Grade B: Very solid in Double-A, 2.55 ERA with 91/54 K/BB in 92 innings, 60 hits. Would like to see a lower walk rate but he’s steady in the strong B/B+ territory.

8) Jeimer Candelario, 3B, Grade B: Here’s one who was actually very disappointing: .193/.275/.326 in 244 PA in High-A, which got him demoted down to Low-A. Still just 20 but he stagnated this year.

9) Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Grade B: Solid year in High-A, .268/.357/.429 with 16 homers, wRC+126, very good numbers for the Florida State League. He can hit although I still don’t know how he fits in the lineup here.

10) Christian Villanueva, 3B, Grade B-: Weak season split between Double-A (.248/.310/.385 in 259 PA) and Triple-A (.211/.283/.372 in 248 PA). I still think he has potential but he’s getting buried in this organization.

11) Arodys Vizcaino, RHP, Grade C+: Working his way back from missing two seasons to Tommy John. 2.63 ERA in 14 innings in Double-A, 16/3 K/BB, then 5.40 ERA with 16/11 K/BB in 18 innings in Triple-A. On the major league roster. Has the stuff to be a fine reliever if control and health hold up.

12) Mike Olt, 3B, Grade C+: 12 homers in the majors but a .139/.222/.353 line with 84 strikeouts in 212 PA. Horrendous contract problems. I continue to believe that his skills were ruined by the concussion he suffered. He always had some contact problems but they got much worse after his eyes went wonky, and his defense is not the same, either. I’m a writer, not a doctor, but when a guy sees deterioration in both offense and defense right after a concussion I have to think that’s at least a contributing cause.

13) Neil Ramirez, RHP, Grade C+: 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. He reached that upside and then some, 0.96 ERA in 37 big league innings, 48/13 K/BB. Should take a larger role going forward.

Neil Ramirez----photo by Mitchell Leff, Getty Images

14) Matt Szczur, OF, Grade C+: Hit .261/.315/.312 in 457 PA in Triple-A, hit .200 in 26 big league PA. Another old-guard prospect getting shoved aside by guys with better bats.

15) Josh Vitters, OF, Grade C+: Terrible season in Triple-A (.213/.268/.339 in 404 PA), had injuries. Keep in mind that he hit well with the same team and level in 2012 and 2013. This fits my theory that when a player performs well in Triple-A but doesn’t get a job that his performance often declines as he gets discouraged and presses. Needs a change of scenery, now 25, may well end up stuck in Triple-A forever even if he hits. Maybe he could be a star in Japan?

16) Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Grade C+: Terrific season, 3.59 ERA with 97/23 K/BB in 103 innings in Triple-A, kept it going in the majors with 2.02 ERA in 62 innings, 34/12 K/BB. Low strikeout rate is caution flag but spectacular command has made up for it so far.

Kyle Hendricks---photo by Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images

17) Corey Black, RHP, Grade C+:
3.47 ERA in 124 innings in Double-A, 119/71 K/BB, 100 hits. Good reports on his stuff, needs to get the walks down. May wind up in relief eventually.

18) Rob Zastryzny, LHP, Grade C+: Non-terrific year in High-A, 4.66 ERA with 110/33 K/BB in 110 innigs, 121 hits. Fine K/BB ratio but hittable, could still be a back-end starter or relief option.

19) Ivan Pineyro, RHP, Grade C+: 5.55 ERA in 49 innings in Double-A, 41/23 K/BB, missed much of season with undisclosed injury. Was back on the mound in August but didn’t pitch well.

20) Paul Blackburn, RHP, Grade C+: Pretty ERA in Low-A, 3.23 ERA with 75/31 K/BB in 117 innings for Kane County with good velocity reports and sinker action. Strikeout rate lower than ideal but still young at 20 and promising.

21) Kevin Encarnacion, OF, Grade C+
: Missed season after suffering serious injuries in auto accident.

This is one hell of a farm system.

Some prospects have fallen by the wayside, but others have picked up the slack. The Cubs continue to draft with an eye towards everyday talent, with Kyle Schwarber certainly earning a spot in the Top 10 here for 2015 and likely top 5. Trades brought in Addison Russell, one of the top shortstop prospects in the game, Billy McKinney, another potential regular outfielder, and sleeper catcher/third base prospect Victor Caratini. Investments in international players like right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng, shortstop Gleyber Torres, right-hander Jeferson Mejia, and outfielder Eloy Jimenez add to the lower levels and provide the next wave behind the top group.

The Cubs have impact talent at the top, but they have depth too, particularly among position players. And that’s good, because even a system filled with talent can stumble. Position players aren’t immune to serious injuries, as the Twins discovered this year with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton.

Having an outstanding farm system in baseball doesn’t guarantee immediate success, as the Kansas City Royals learned a few years ago. But it sure helps, and the Cubs current group is among the best in recent history.