Mid-Season Cubs top prospects: Position Players

Mid-Season Cubs top prospects: Position Players
Once Rizzo is promoted, Javier Baez may be the top prospect on the Cubs

I have my list of top 40 Cubs prospects already, but it's a working list.  It's difficult to say where to place certain drafted players as well as where to put injury situations (i.e. Robert Whitenack's recovery and Ben Wells recent season ending TJ surgery).  Wells has the kind of peripherals that tend to forecast some success as he climbs up the ladder, so that injury is a crushing one to the Cubs, who desperately need impact pitching.

All that being said, it makes it a bit easier to start with the hitters.  The top guy on this list won't be there much longer, however.  The top 5 are pretty obvious, though the order can be debated.  A good case can be made for any of the first 4 guys on this list as the Cubs top prospect.  Here goes...

1. Anthony Rizzo: AAA, 1B, 22

Over 159 games, Rizzo is hitting .339 with 49 HRs and a 1.084 OPS.  He has also hit lefties extremely well and has improved his range.  He has made 9 errors, however, a high total for a first baseman.  Rizzo is adept at scooping balls out of the dirt, so he'll probably save Castro a few errors over the course of a season.  His upside may not be as high as the next 3 but he's by far the most likely to reach it right now.

2. Javier Baez: Low A, 3B, 19

Baez may have a higher ceiling than Rizzo, but as a guy in low A ball, he's a bigger risk to reach his potential.  Baez crushes balls with the best bat speed in the Cubs organization and should be able to hit for average as well.  Baez is a decent SS with the penchant for making great plays, but he could be a gold glove type fielder at 3B. He's learning to play under more control, so he needs time.

3. Jorge Soler: Has not played, RF, 20

The more I hear and read about Soler, the more I think the Cubs have a potential monster on their hands.  Jim Callis believes the Cubs would have taken him ahead of Albert Almora had he been in the draft and Keith Law called him a top 5 pick, so he gets the edge over the unsigned Almora for now.  Soler is an all-around player with 2 outstanding tools:  power and throwing arm, but he also runs, defends, and should hit for average.  He has shown flashes of a patient approach at the plate.

4. Albert Almora: unsigned, CF, 18

Almora's tools are a tick below the two players ahead of him on this list but he is much more likely to reach them because of his strong mental makeup and advanced approach to the game.   His instincts and strong arm allow him to play an excellent defensive CF despite slightly above average speed.  At the plate he should hit for average, and though he's just 18, it would surprise me if he didn't wind up being a strong OBP guy with a good plate approach.  He could develop 20 HR power, but even if he doesn't, he has all-star potential in CF.

5. Brett Jackson, AAA, CF, 23

Jackson has many of the same kinds of tools and a similar strong mental makeup/work ethic as Almora.  The biggest difference is that Jackson has more raw power and runs better, but his contact issues could prevent him from being a star.  Still, he has all the other skills and traits you want from a solid to good everyday regular.  Almora will likely move Jackson to a corner once he makes it, which would diminish Jackson's value a bit.

6. Welington Castillo, AAA, C, 25

The oldest prospect on this list, Castillo won't be a prospect much longer.  He's high on this list because he is a starting caliber catcher who can control a running game, hit for some power, and has improved from being a free swinger to a hitter with a  good approach at the plate (3.78 PPA and 15% walk rate across 3 levels).  Catchers who can do those things have tremendous value in this league.   Not to put unrealistic expectations on him, but from a strictly physical standpoint, he can be a poor man's Yadier Molina, with the key difference being that he is nowhere near Molina's ability to handle pitchers right now.

7. Jeimer Candelario, Short-Season A, 3B, 18

Candelario may be the best pure hitter in the Cubs system and it's a toss-up as to who will have the better bat between he and Baez.  Candelario is a switch-hitter who can hit well from both sides of the plate, having already HR'd as a lefty and a righty early in the season.  Candelario has mostly been a line drive/gap hitter, but he has 20+ HR power potential and has shown it early on in the season.  He's also a patient hitter with an advanced approach for his age.  Candelario is young but he has a chance to be a special hitter.

8. Junior Lake, AA, SS, 22

Lake is about as toolsy as they come.  He's a strapping 6'2", 215 lbs. player with strength and speed -- and the Cubs best infield throwing arm since Shawon Dunston. He's had an uneven minor league career because of a poor approach.  Gradually, however, he has changed that, shortening his swing, using all fields better, and this year there's an uptick in his pitch selection, which has allowed him to flourish early on against AA pitching.  So far he's hit .318/.370/.480 early on.  His 8% walk rate is a surprise and if he can maintain it, we could finally see Lake make use of those tremendous tools.  Interesting stat: Only 11.7% of his strikeouts have come swinging, suggesting he isn't chasing many bad balls with 2 strikes.  As a reference point, that is about the same % as Bryan LaHair.

9. Matt Szczur, High A, CF, 22

Szczur has worked hard to improve his baserunning, defense, and plate approach this season and it has paid off this year with a .359 OBP and 19 SBs and 43 runs scored in 48 games.  His defense is vastly improved as well.  What Szczur lacks right now is the ability to hit for power, which could limit him to 4th OF'er, but his OBP skills and speed make him a viable starter in CF even if he doesn't hit for a ton of power.  From an athleticism and mental makeup perspective, Szczur is top of the charts, but his baseball instincts are still a notch below the top 5 players on this list.  Not surprising for a guy who once looked headed for an NFL career as a WR, but Szczur has made a lot of progress since being drafted

10. Josh Vitters, AAA, 3B, 22

Vitters is a polarizing prospect among Cubs fans.  Some seem to love him.  Some are extremely skeptical.  Not many question that he's a natural hitter with great hand-eye coordination and about the most picturesque RH swing you'll ever see. He has shown some signs of progress, slugging .476 with 11 HRs in the first half and improving his walk rate to around 6%, which is still below average.  His pitches per plate appearance is just 3.12, among the lowest in the entire organization for those in AA and above (only Nate Samson is lower among non-pitchers).  Vitters is hitting now, but MLB pitchers will exploite that aggressiveness, so Vitters may need a lot more time in AAA than appears from just looking at his .280, 11 HR, 37 RBI line in the first half.

A chance to move up:

Zeke DeVoss: low A, 2B, 22:  He has done everything but hit.  He gets on base, has become a good defender at 2B, and runs well.  His BABIP is .318 which is low for a player with his kind of speed.  If DeVoss can hit around .270 with a little gap power, he could be serious asset at the top of a lineup.

Marco Hernandez: short season A, SS, 19: The one true SS in the Cubs organization.  Hernandez hit well in Peoria after struggling in April, but has since been demoted to Boise to make room for Javier Baez.  Hernandez BABIP is ridiculously low at .261, so I'm expecting better things offensively in the 2nd half.

Gioskar Amaya: short season A, 2B, 19: Amaya is one of the top pure hitters in the Cubs organization with a solid glove, speed, and the potential for gap power.  As far as intangibles, he great instincts and good mental makeup.  He could challenge Zeke DeVoss as the Cubs best 2B prospect before the year is over.

Sleepers:

Kelvin Encarnacion: DSL, CF, 20: Encarnacion is an intriguing combo of power, speed, and OBP skills but I'd like to see him do it outside the DSL before I get too excited.

Taiwan Easterling: low A, OF, 23: Ball jumps off his bat better than anyone on that team except for Baez.  A former WR at FSU, he's a very good all-around athlete, including a surprisingly good, accurate arm.  I like his swing better than Szczur, though Szczur shows a better knack for putting the bat on the ball.

Arismendy Alcantara, high A, SS, 20: The wiry thin Alcantara has a lot of rough edges (4% walk rate, 25 errors), but he can hit (.295 with a .415 slugging pct.), run (21 SBs), and has legit SS range.   Problem is with his footwork, causing him to make sloppy throws.  But hey, he's 20 and he can work on that, and if not, he becomes another 2B candidate.  He's had no trouble hitting in the FSL, a notorious pitcher's league.

Tool Box Summary:  (Focus is on players in my top 40 list)

Best Hitter: Javier Baez, with Jeimer Candelario close behind.

Best Power: Anthony Rizzo has the most consistent power, but Javier Baez can launch them too.  Jorge Soler also looms.

Fastest runner: Matt Szczur is utilizing his raw speed better. DeVoss isn't far behind.

Best defensive infielder: Marco Hernandez.  Baez could be a plus defender at 3B

Best defensive catcher: Cubs have plenty, but Welington Castillo's arm is a difference maker.

Best defensive outfielder: Jae Hoon-Ha.  Albert Almora could challenge him once he signs.

Best infield arm: Junior Lake.  That is all.  To mention a runner up would imply that someone is actually close.

Best outfield arm: Jorge Soler.  Almora will have a plus arm from CF.  Ha may have the best among those actually playing.

Filed under: prospects

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  • Great list, can't wait to see the list at the end of the season.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Thanks E.

  • John
    Can I ask how to pronounce "Jeimer"? Ive been pronouncing it: High-MEER. Is that correct?

  • In reply to Cub Fan Dan:

    Pronunciation among dialects can differ but I would pronounce it "Hey-mer",in other words, rhyming with" Hey There", You'll also want to roll the r a bit in the end to make it as authentic as possible. I don't roll my Rs as well as I used to :(

    The "hi" sound comes when you put the a in front of the i (i.e. "Jaime")

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Baseball writer extraordinaire, longuisyics instructor, anything you don't do John? Maybe we can send you to Europe to solve that whole imploding economy thing? :)

  • In reply to JasonB:

    Linguistics*

  • With all those 2b prospects (and SS prospects that could convert to 2b), I wonder if that makes it more likely the Cubs will package Barney.

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    It's a good question, although closest to being ready besides guys like Valbuena and Cardenas, who are already up, is Logan Watkins. Great athlete, good approach, but doesn't have Barney's instincts (not a whole lot of players do).

    All could be stopgaps until someone like DeVoss, Amaya, or Torreyes step up.

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    This was a great read John, I personally enjoy your detailed analysis on this Cubs organization from top to bottom. You certainly put your work in and it is greatly appreciated. I agree with your list 100%. The age range of these players make you assume they wont all be up at the same time which means every couple years of so we will consistently have potential impact guys knocking on the door which is something cubs fans aren't used to.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Thanks Marcel, the ideal is that a couple of guys trickle into the lineup at a time. There's more balance in the system already and it will get better.

  • Great list, thanks for taking the time

    Really excited at how much better this list looks than even last october, adding rizzo,soler,almora(most likely) in addition to the current performance of baez,lake,vitters and candelario makes me start to feel prettty good about the potential future offense, better times are coming...

    I really love candelario by the way and feel he could start shooting up rankings real quick this year.

    Real intetested to see your list of pitchers too.

  • In reply to Andrew13:

    Thanks Andrew! I'm considering doing the pitching prospects at some point next week, though ideally, I'd like to see some of them pitch (and sign) first. Injuries muddle the picture too.

  • Good stuff, gets me excited!

    I was looking for a video clip showing off Lake's arm,but couldn't find one. Know of any?

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    If I find one, I'll post it. Saw him playing 3rd once and he fielded one deep in the infield and by the foul line and threw an effortless laser to first on a fly. The arm strength is unreal. As far as arms go, only Dunston compares.

    Baez has a good arm as well, but I can't rate it on the same level as Lake's.

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    John, and Tom too, there is a reason why this is the first site I go to whenever I get online. Great Job!

    John, assuming Baez gets moved to third base and Rizzo becomes everything he can be, Candelario inevitably gets pushed, most likely, to left field. Assuming an eventual outfield of Candelario in left, Almora in center and Soler in right, does that make Jackson and Szczur the fourth and fifth outfielders or trade bait. Given Jackson's contact issues, I could envision a time when Candelario's bat will outweigh Jackson's glove.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Candelario will be pretty slow by the time he makes the majors. His bat will have to carry him, though he has a decent arm.

    I'm not going to rule out Jackson or Szczur being better long term starters, however. It's nice to have the numbers because we know there will be attrition.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Could he end up being a being a Keith Moreland type who plays all over the field, namely the corners, to keep his bat in the lineup, while hiding his deficiencies in the field?

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Interesting comparison. Has a similar build to Zonk, may have similar power, but better patience and bat.

  • Hey John, love the list. With Lake, it seems pretty much everyone agrees he won't stick at shortstop because of his size. Why are the cubs keeping him there? I know you should keep them at short for as long as possible but we all know hell never play well enough there, why not get him started at the hot corner so he can get used to it there? Is it to preserve possible trade value so that other teams think hes a shortstop? To me you keep him on the infield for as long as possible but it seems pointless to leave him in a position he definitely wont play in the majors.

  • In reply to Andrew:

    Thanks! It's always much easier to move to 3B from SS. You can do it in an offseason or during spring training. You keep him at SS because it does add to his value. The more experience he gains there, the more options you have. Example, if Lake doesn't make it as a starter, it'd be valuable for him to have that kind of experience at SS if he were to become a utility man.

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    Non-thread related: John, any thoughts on the undrafted free agent signings. LHP Kyle Shepard actually sounds like he might have some upside, given he was prevented from pitching due to injury.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    He's an extreme longshot but as an undrafted guy, can't hurt. Realistically, at his age and his lack of experience, he'll probably be a bullpen guy, even early on in the minors. Long, long way from prospect status. He's as close to pure projection as you can get.

    I'm more interested in most or their drafted guys like Amlung, Hamman, Dorris, and Drossner (if he signs). They're longshots with some raw talent with upside too, but they are more complete pitchers right now.

  • John:
    Who is this Anthony Rizzo guy? Think he's flying under the radar for most Cubs fans, don't you? :)

    Love the list, that is a neat data point about Junior Lake's % of strikeouts swinging being nearly identical to LaHair's. If Lake can add the mental piece to those tools he could really be something else.

  • In reply to Ryno2Grace:

    And as far as physical tools go, Lake is a beast. Only Soler and Baez can match him as far as Cubs prospects. Those tools are gradually turning into usable baseball skills and if that continues...watch out.

  • In reply to Ryno2Grace:

    Haha! Slightly under the radar :)

  • Found videos of Candelario's 2 home runs:
    #1
    http://www.milb.com/multimedia/vpp.jsp?sid=t480 (This one doesn't have sound for some reason)
    #2
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQlX92VI8mk&feature=youtu.be
    I really hope the Hawks fixed their MiLB.tv problems. The Hawks have such a fun team, and I would really like to watch!

  • In reply to cubsfan4life:

    Thanks a lot!

  • In reply to cubsfan4life:

    Thanks!

  • theres a report on bleacherreport that there might be a huge trade with the orioles the include garza and dempster and the cubs possibly getting machado, schoop, britton, matsuz thought i just share this speculation im guessing at this point

  • In reply to dakota cubs fan:

    If the Cubs get Machado, I'm buying you all a beer. Catch is you have to come to Oak Park to get it.

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    In reply to dakota cubs fan:

    http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2012/06/20/bruce-levine-of-espn-chicago-joins-the-show/

  • John - It’s a fact that the Cubs now like to have a player play about an entire season at a level with a chance to improve and dominate before he gets promoted. How does that philosophy fly with respect to pitchers? How long does a pitcher have to play at a level before they have a chance to go to the next level? With most of our impact arms in the low minors, that will mean a few years before we’ll see any of those guys with the big club.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    I like the idea of letting a player dominate a level -- and also struggle, as Rizzo did for a short HR "slump" and as Jackson is doing now.

    I also think approach is part of the equation. The only guys being promoted so far (to the majors or up the levels), have been guys with good plate approaches. If a guy is advanced enough, i.e Candelario, they'll skip an entire level or more.

    For pitchers, it's going to be about throwing strikes, as we've seen with Francescon, Jokisch, Raley, and most recently, Kyler Burke. Burke hasn't even had a full season as a starter, so his promotion was about his approach, throwing strikes, and a teeny bit about his age and his impending minor league free agency.j

  • I looked up the monster trade in Bleacher report. I don't see
    it happening for all 3 Cub players. If the O's really want to go
    for it ,I'm sure Theo is willing to help any way he can (As long
    as it also greatly helps the Cubs)

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Those guys are just having fun with some speculation. I think the Orioles are a poor match for the Cubs, but they do seem like they really want to make a run, so who knows?

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I saw that and no way the Cubs even approach that kind of deal without aquiring both Bundy and Machado..the O's aren't deep enough to be able to keep Bundy off limits if htey want both..I agree it's wishful thinking

  • Matt Szczur back in the lineup today.

  • Where does Dan Vogelbach figure? he was drafted second last year and reports said he was an extremely hard worker.

  • In reply to pricewriter:

    Raw power I'd put him right in that category with Rizzo, Baez, and Soler. So far, though,he hasn't been able to transfer it to game situations.

    I want to see how he does in short-season leagues. Of course, I gave Soler the benefit of the doubt, but he's at least shown power in Cuba, which is approximately the high A ball level in the US.

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    John, it's pretty obvious from all the reports that Rizzo has made the necessary adjustments, namely shortening his swing. Why has Jackson not done so?

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    I think Jackson has the work ethic and mental makeup to make adjustments, but some things are just natural...on of them is hitting a baseball. Castro can do it, Candelario can do it, Vitters can do it...but Jackson doesn't have that kind of contact ability.

    It's almost like speed, if you don't have it, not so easy to improve on it. He's trying, but it may not be in him to ever make consistent contact. But when he does make contact, he usually hits it with some authority.

  • I'll echo the sentiments that someone made earlier but this is starting to look like a very impressive list compared to just last fall when Jackson was almost the undisputed top hitting prospect. Good to see development from Lake and Vitters and good to see that Baez and Candelerio appear to be making positive early impressions.

  • In reply to JasonB:

    We're a far cry from BJax at #1...and that's no knock on BJax. Even if he had a great year, he could well wind up 5th on this list.

    I think position prospect wise, this is as good a system as there is out there.

  • Great, great report John.

    I was about to ask how this compares across the league, but you've just answered that. Incredible and exciting progress. We'll get to pitching in a week or two, but I suspect it's middle of the pack at best right now (soon to improve with trades...)

  • In reply to TokyoCraig:

    Overall, middle of the pack because of the pitching deficit. I have no doubt the Cubs will try and address that soon, however.

  • As usual John, excellent job !! The Cubs prospects are getting more and more impressive. It might take a little bit , but by 2014 at the latest the Cubs will have one the best farm systems.

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    Thanks Steve. I agree about the 2014 timetable. There will be some graduates by then: Rizzo, Jackson, Lake, Vitters...but I think they'll replace them with better prospects.

  • Just saw on rumor central that Hanley Ramirez may be on the block! Maybe we trade Garza and Lake to the Marlins for him, move him back to short and move Starlin to 2nd! As unrealistic as that is, it would be awesome to see happen! Theo and Jed have to have some sort of history with him sense he was a sox prospect correct?

  • In reply to Kyle R:

    Let me make this simple for you: No. It's a horrible idea to trade for H. Ramirez. He can't play SS anymore so he isn't moving the younger Castro off SS to 2B. He is somewhat of a diva and I've read stories about his makeup or lack thereof. I've also heard he is a bad teammate. I wouldn't trade Garza or Lake or any top prospect for H. Ramirez at this point in his career...

  • In reply to Kyle R:

    If the Cubs were to get Ramirez, I think it's more likely he stays at 3rd. That said, I don't think that's what they're looking for at this time. That's the kind of player they might pursue when they're closer to winning.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    If only we could have his talents and replace his personality with someone like Chipper Jones. Fun to dream right?

  • Great job, John. Where do you see guys like Alberto Cabrera and Kevin Rhoderick landing in terms of prospect value?

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