This is the first in a series of position-by-position analysis on the Cubs best prospects. I'll rank the top 5 at each position and provide varying degrees of scouting info and statistical analysis. As you know, my preference at the lower levels is to rely more on scouting, then gradually integrate more statistical analysis as players move up the organizational ladder. Each name in the top 5 is linked to his stat page on Fangraphs for those interested in a more detailed statistical look.
Each part of the series will include full analysis of the top 5 prospects and I'll mention a few who didn't make the cut. We'll start with a player and his bio (age, height, weight, and bats/throws L or R) I'll include the ETA and the level they're most likely to play at next year. And then finally, with positions never really set in stone, especially at the minor league level, I'll include a position change candidate.
For the first part in the series, I'll use the term "best prospects" loosely, as I'll start with an area in which the Cubs are not likely to have anyone crack my top 25, which will come at the end of the series. Making it even more difficult, the Cubs decided early on that 17 year old Venezuelan bonus baby Marck Malave was not a catcher, playing him exclusively at 3B in the DSL. Malave had a tough year as one of the youngest players in the league, but he would have easily made this list had he been able to stick at catcher.
An interesting wildcard in all of this is Stephen Bruno, who has been getting some work at catcher in instructs and apparently it's been something the Cubs and Bruno had already agreed to try when they drafted him.
While there are a couple of interesting guys, there isn't a lot of depth here. The Cubs best catching prospects entering last season, Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, are now major leaguers and only Castillo looks like he can be a starter. After that it gets really thin and because none of the prospects are at the upper levels, we're going to have to do a lot more projecting than stat-crunching.
Here are the Cubs top catching prospects...
1. Wilson Contreras, 20, 6'1, 175 lbs, R/R
- Likely 2013 club: Kane County (A)
- ETA: 2016
This guy has really grown on me. He's athletic for the position and of all the catchers I saw in the instructional league, he was the quickest out of the chute. He also displayed a strong throwing arm. Like the Cubs most recent top catching prospects: Clevenger, Castillo and Geovany Soto, he's a converted infiielder (3B) so he's going to have to learn the nuances of the position. The physical tools are all there. Thankfully for Contreras, he had the perfect manager in Mark Johnson, a former big league catcher, to help him with things such as managing a game and handling pitchers.
As for his bat, Contreras batted .276/.316/.357 and is an aggressive hitter who started to show some gap power late in the season. He hit near the middle of the lineup most of the time on what was a dynamic offensive team, so that should tell you the Cubs have some faith in his bat. At 20 years old and standing 6'1, 175 lbs, he has time and room to fill out a bit and gain strength, perhaps leading to a bit more power down the line. Aside from refining his receiving skills, Contreras also appeared to be working on this approach at the plate. He drew 5 walks in his 22 PAs this fall at instructs. Small sample but it did appear he was making a concerted effort to be more selective.
He's raw and may not be as likely to make the majors as the next two guys on this list, but he has the highest ceiling in this group.
2. Chadd Krist, 22, 5'11", 190 lbs. R/R
- Likely 2013 club: Daytona (advanced A)
- ETA: 2015
Krist was drafted in the 9th round as a senior out Cal-Berkely, so you know he's got the intelligence for the position. A polished catch and throw guy with a questionable bat, Krist surprised everyone by hitting .328/.365/.397 at Boise and then getting off to a hot start in Peoria before settling in at .253/.324/.447. Krist's ceiling is as a backup catcher who, despite his good offensive start, will contribute more with his receiving skills than his bat. He has an average arm behind the plate but makes up for it with a quick release time. He's already close to maximizing his ability and his future will depend on whether he can continue to hit at the upper levels.
3. Rafael Lopez, 25, 5'9", 190 lbs., L/R
- Likely 2013 club: Tennessee (AA)
- ETA: 2014
Lopez is the most advanced catcher in this group, having played at Daytona where he hit .269/.338/.403. But as you can probably surmise from his age and build, he's maxed out physically. He is what he is going to be, which is a backup catcher with a good catch and throw skills, a good approach, and a decent bat. Drafted last season in the 16th round as a senior out of Florida State, Lopez was already an older prospect and injuries have slowed him down since, so time is not on his side. There's not a lot of upside here, but he's polished. If he shows he can hit AA pitching, he'll be close to being MLB ready.
4. Justin Marra, 19, 5'10", 190, L/R
- Likely 2013 club: Boise (short season A)
- ETA: 2016
Marra isn't as advanced defensively as any of the catchers on this list, but he may have the most polished bat. He has excellent plate discipline (18% walk rate) while also making consistent contact. He showed some doubles power in Rookie Level Arizona but he doesn't have the build to be a home run hitter. I think that he's a little limited physically, so much of his value and hopes will ride on his bat and ability to get on base. If he can become an average catcher defensively, he could make it as an offensive-oriented backup.
5. Carlos Escobar, 21, 6'3", 200 lbs., R/R
- Likely 2013 club: Boise (short season A)/Kane County (A)
- ETA: 2016
The second of the new front office's draft selections at catcher (15th round), Escobar is another solid defender with a decent arm and a quick release. Offensively, he has solid approach at the plate. He has the best size in this group and he did show some extra base power in a very limited sample size at Rookie Level Arizona. He has the potential for a bit more down the road but his swing can get long, and if he doesn't shorten it up, it's hard to envision him hitting for average. Escobar may have to maintain high walk rates (16.7% this year) as he faces more advanced pitchers to be offensively viable. Like Krist and Lopez, he has some of the kind of intangibles and overall approach you like in your catcher, but none of that matters if he can't hit at the upper levels, so Escobar will have to prove he can hit as he progresses through the system.
Position Change Candidate: Stephen Bruno, 21, 5'9", 165 lbs., R/R
The next infielder who may convert to catcher is Stephen Bruno. If he is able to make that transition smoothly, he could vault to the top of the list. He didn't catch in any games in instructs, just bullpen and side sessions. In an article by Carrie Muskat of Cubs.com, Bruno seems to be taking the challenge with a good attitude,
"It's going pretty well," Bruno said. "I've been improving a lot. I've been doing it [for a couple of weeks] here and there, learning the basics. I'm moving well behind the plate, though I don't know where to set up yet. I feel pretty athletic back there.
"So far, so good. I'm enjoying it and it's a great opportunity for me to expand my horizons. I like learning. It makes me more valuable to an organization."
It's that type of mental makeup that gives Bruno a chance to stick there and with the Cubs being relatively deep at Bruno's other positions (OF, 2B, 3B), this will give him his best shot at becoming a starter down the road. There's not much question about his bat. Bruno has a knack for squaring up the baseball and makes consistent, solid contact. He should hit for average, though he's aggressive up there and doesn't walk much. He's an athletic player, more so than Clevenger was when he made the switch, and should be an above average runner for a catcher.
This is not a deep position for the Cubs so the depth chart consists of many organizational types such as Michael Brenly, Juan Apodaca, Taylor Davis, Sergio Burruel, Lance Rymel and Micah Gibbs. One guy who didn't make this list who has the potential to be more than that is Neftali Rosario, but injuries and some regression this past season very much put his long term value in doubt. When he was drafted in the 6th round in 2011, the Cubs felt he had potential both at the plate and behind it. It could be a make or break season for him in 2013.
Filed under: prospects