Kane County Preview, Part 2: OF may include top prospects Almora and Soler

Kane County Preview, Part 2:  OF may include top prospects Almora and Soler
Albert Almora and Jorge Soler

Because the first Kane County preview piece included an introduction to the minor league preview series as a whole, it ran a little long and I decided to do the outfielders separately.  Because there are potentially two top 50 MLB prospects in this OF, I'll expand the content a bit. For future previews there will be two separate pieces: position players and pitchers.

(Note: Linked players were covered in a previous article. Click on name for complete analysis.)

CF

Top Prospect: Albert Almora is the best prospect with the best chance of playing in Kane County.  He's pretty much a lock to open the season at Kane, though he's by no means a lock to end it there.  He's a polished player, especially for a high school product.  He's a good athlete with off the charts instincts and mental makeup. It's a combination that helped make him the only prospect that was the universal choice in the Cubs draft war room.  Some have said the Cubs would have picked Almora #1 if they'd had that pick.  I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do believe he was at least in their top 3.

In the field, Almora is a smooth CF who makes up for less than top of the scale speed with outstanding instincts, consistently getting great jumps and taking good routes.  He has a plus throwing arm, both in terms of strength and accuracy.

At the plate, Almora has has a smooth, fluid, efficient swing despite a high leg kick.  He has tremendous hand-eye coordination and it helps him make consistent, hard contact.  Almora has good pitch recognition skills, so that should eventually translate into an ability to grind out ABs and take walks.  That is not the case right now.  Almora is aggressive at the plate, partly because making hard contact came easy to him last season.  He doesn't have a large frame and other than adding 15 or so pounds of muscle over time, I don't see him getting a whole lot bigger than he is now (6'1", 170 lbs).  Still, he squares up the baseball often enough that with added strength he could hit .300 with around 20 HRs a year.

Others to watch: Just last season I was calling Trey Martin a "sleeper" but he has opened some eyes since then and I don't think it's accurate to still use that label.  He is another in a line of good Cubs CF prospects.  Martin is still a work in progress and not as polished as Almora, but he's an exciting player in his own right.  He is a loose, long limbed athlete who eats up ground in CF with big strides.  He also throws well.  Despite not being a finished product -- even on defense,  scouts have said Martin could play CF in the majors right now.  At the plate he shows some extra base pop and could eventually hit for some power, but he's still a bit raw.  His swing can get a little long and he sometimes has trouble catching up to hard stuff inside.  He'll need to make some adjustments and should improve as he gains experience, but he's not the pure hitter that Almora is.   However, his long frame is more projectable. He could still fill out and gain more strength, so he may someday match, or even surpass, Almora when it comes to power.  Like many Cub prospects, he's a little too aggressive at the plate.

Sleeper(s): Taiwan Easterling is yet another good athlete who can go get it in CF and fire it back in with a strong arm.  When it comes to his hitting ability, if you were to show up to watch batting practice and then leave, you would think Easterling was among the team's best hitters.  He consistently squares it up and makes strong contact.  Despite that, Easterling hit just .243/.31/.366 last season, largely because of his inability to hit anything that bends. He doesn't have a lot of baseball experience and it looked to me that he sometimes had trouble recognizing breaking pitches.  It'll only get tougher in Daytona so he may get another shot at the MWL after missing the second half of the season with an injury.  What Easterling really needs is a healthy year and a full season's worth of experience.

LF-RF

As usual, I decided to combine these two because teams typically don't have top LF prospects this deep in the system.  It's a spot where a prospect with a big bat tends to end up when he is unable to master another position.

Top Prospect: It's not yet decided where Jorge Soler is going to start.  The Cubs would like him to begin at a higher level, probably Daytona. However, he has to show he's able to handle more advanced pitching.  Judging by the buzz he generated today as he took batting practice, he may be ready to jump past Kane County this season.  Of course, it's his performance this spring versus live pitching that will make the difference. Manager Dale Sveum talked about Soler at length earlier today,

"He has the hand strength, which none of us can teach," Sveum said. "It's nice to watch that kind of [batting practice], but until things happen in a game is when you see why things are breaking down or why you need to make this adjustment. Does he have plate coverage? Is his bat staying in the strike zone long enough to handle a cutter on the outside part of the plate? You can go on and on. That's why I'm really looking forward to games. Mechanically, his lower half, I really like. He's a guy who holds onto the bat with both hands, which I like, and right now, in [batting practice] it looks like it should play. It's a pretty nice approach."

We knew about the nice approach and the hand strength (and hand speed), so I'm especially happy to hear that he's using his lower half well, particularly since we watched him working on that specifically in instructs.  It tells me he's able to quickly make adjustments.

Soler has a chance to have 30 HR power and hit for a solid average.  He makes pretty good contact for a power hitter and shows good pitch recognition skills.  He's athletic but he's not the most graceful runner as he's still a bit gangly and growing into his body.  Soler has above average speed but that may change as he continues to fill out -- he may end up being an average runner.

In the field he shows good range and a good arm, though he didn't always get good jumps and his throws weren't as accurate as often as you'd like.  It's hard to say how much of it had to do with shaking off some rust, but it was apparent that the tools were there and its a matter of him using them more consistently.  Judging by how quickly he has made adjustments at the plate, my thought is that he just needs reps and to mature physically, which is pretty scary when you consider he already stands out for his size and athletic build.  One scout said Soler is "a potential monster."

Others to watch: If Trey Martin joins Kane County from day one, he will almost certainly move to LF to accommodate Almora -- and then will immediately move back to CF when and if Almora is promoted. Rock Shoulders is a first baseman by trade but should see some time in LF as the team tries to find ways to get his power bat in the lineup along with Vogelbach.  Taiwan Easterling may have the misfortune of playing on the same team with the two best defensive CF'ers in the organization. If so, he will move to a corner.  Most teams scouted Bijan Rademacher as a pitcher last year but the Cubs tried him in the OF.  He showed solid athleticism and, unsurprisingly, a good arm.  He got off to a strong start and showed good doubles power, but tailed off toward the end of the year.  Both Stephen Bruno and Tim Saunders are athletic enough to play the OF if needed.

Sleeper: If Soler indeed goes to Daytona, then Reggie Golden may end up replacing him in RF.  Golden was rising up the prospect charts prior to 2012 but a season ending injury after 7 games has put his future in doubt.  It's bad enough when any player loses a year's worth of development, but when it's a raw, toolsy player the missed time becomes even more magnified.  When healthy, Golden shows a surprisingy patient approach for such an inexperienced player, but what you really notice is his ability to crush the baseball as hard as any Cubs prospect -- when he makes contact, that is.

"The ball comes off of his bat as hard as I've seen,"  one NL scout told BA in 2011. "He's got a long ways to go because he will swing and miss a lot, but he hit one and I don't know if they ever found it."

Power is his ticket.  We're probably not looking at a .300 hitter here but he may be able to put up a good OBP if he continues his progress with plate discipline.  In the field, Golden was a good athlete before the injury who showed legit RF skills, including a strong arm.

This is a big year for Golden.  He needs to stay healthy and quickly make up for lost time to put himself back in the conversation of top Cubs OF prospects.

If he can pick up where he left off, you may want to come to the park and watch early just to see some combination of Dan Vogelbach, Rock Shoulders, Jorge Soler, and/or Reggie Golden take batting practice.

Comments

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  • Live in Geneva, looking forward to some games John! You have to mix up the cuisine with a roasted sweet corn & BBQ pork chop sandwich!

  • In reply to Munce:

    Haha! That does sound really good.

    On the the other hand, something about being in a ballpark makes me crave encased meats and beer.

  • Lots of exciting prospects for you Chicago area fans to see. I'm near the TN Smokies, so am really looking forward to seeing the AA roster. John, will you be doing this sort of analysis for the Smokies?

  • In reply to cubs1969:

    I will. I'm hoping to get out to TN sometime this summer. Have friends that live out by Knoxville.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Perhaps we can go to a game together. We live about an hour from Knoxville. I've seen the stadium (very nice), but didn't get a chance to go last year.

  • John, given his trajectory thus far, do you anticipate Soler ending the season in Florida if he starts there? The selfish part of me wants him to start at Kane county so I can see some at-bats on MiLB TV when the team plays up in Wisconsin.

  • In reply to Eldrad:

    I think it's wide open for Soler. If he starts in Daytona and hits I think they'll move him to AA as early as the all-star break. If he shows he's still not quite ready, he'll open in Kane but I can't see him lasting there long. My gut feeling is more Daytona with a shot to move to AA.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I have to believe Soler starts at Daytona. Reasons:

    1. At 21, he'll be a tad old for single-A
    2. He hit .338 in 88 PAs last year at Peoria; while that's a small sample size, the fact that he only struck out 6 times tells me he's already a match for single-A pitching
    3. Soler has good international experience, which is a level higher than single-A

    He's ready IMO

  • In reply to Eldrad:

    The Cubs have several competing goals this year (and I suppose every year). I think that they really want the Kane County team to be a great one this year, especially at the beginning of the season. It is always good to make a strong first impression.

    On the other hand, they will not want to do anything that tends to retard the progress of any top prospect. So Soler will be an interesting test case. I suspect that they would really like to start the season with Almora, Vogelbach and Soler at Kane County, at least for the first several weeks. I believe that the only way that doesn't happen is if Soler just makes it impossible (as Baez probably already has).

    But a line up of

    LF Martin
    CF Almlora
    RF Soler
    3B Candelario
    SS Bruno/Saunders
    2B Amaya
    1B Vogelbach
    C Contraras

    would be as good a Cubs MLB lineup as I have seen since the Pittsfield of 20 years ago or so.

  • How fast do you see Almora rising through the system? Seems to me a guy with his contact skills and makeup will make jumps through the minors quickly, even as a player just out of high school. Do you think the Cubs will be inclined to keep pushing him up the ladder?

  • In reply to Milbzane:

    Yes, I do think they'll keep pushing him if he has success at a particular level. It wouldn't surprise me if we were talking about Almora starting next season in AA. It's exactly for the reasons you state -- the polished skills, the mental makeup. He has great baseball instincts. He doesn't need as much time to adapt as most prospects.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    John, I know this might not be the most realistic thing but is it possible Baez, Almora and Soler are all starting next season in Tennessee?

  • In reply to Demarrer:

    I think it's certainly possible. In order of likelihood, I'll go Baez, Soler (especially if he starts in Daytona), and then Almora.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I love the enthusiasm on all of the prospects and I hope
    Almora is a starting CF for 10+ yrs

    the High school high picks scare me
    Im sure if we looked at the press releases like this one :

    http://chicago.cubs.mlb.com/news/press_releases/press_release.jsp?ymd=20070607&content_id=2011722&vkey=pr_chc&fext=.jsp&c_id=chc

    they were touting Vitters at 3rd overall - same with Corey Patterson
    who was also 3rd overall - lets hope this pic turns out different - but hitting .400 in high school obviously means nothing. The odds of him making it are stacked against him (statistically) as was posted in that piece last week.

    I hope he roams CF for 10 years - probably 10% chance that happens right?

  • In reply to deport soriano com:

    I guess what I'm trying to do is highlight their strengths as ballplayers and what you should expect to see at each particular level and what their ceiling might be if they make it all the way Not making assurances that these guys will actually get there.

    But Almora is a very different player from Patterson or Pie, so we can't judge him by their past success or failure. Like Patterson, though, I think he has a pretty good shot of making the big leagues and sticking their for a while. As to what level a ballplayer Almora will be, we'll just have to wait and see. Hopefully he'll be a better, more consistent player than Patterson was.

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    Its exciting to see so much potential moving up through the orginization finally. Where as two years ago, the front office was pinning its hopes on fringe guys to have a breakout and become a solid prospect, now we actually have solid prospects moving up through the ranks at almost every position, except perhaps catcher, and this makes it more interesting to watch a guy like Golden. We no longer have to pray that he somehow puts it all together, but instead now it is a bonus if he does. Honestly this year I will be most focused on the new pitching depth they added through the draft and see how that develops, because I think that is the true key to the state of the rebuild.

  • In reply to Richard Madsen:

    Good point. Its much more interesting to have Golden in the sleeper category than a guy you're counting on. I like how you put it -- it'll be a bonus. Nothing against Golden but he has a ways to go and he's been injury prone. It'll be nice to see how he develops if he plays with all these top prospects. Always helps to be surrounded with talent.

  • John, have you ever ran comps to present/past MLB players with these guys? For example, with Soler, Ive heard the obvious Sammy Sosa comps, Ive heard Reggie Golden often comped with Ron Gant, or Baez with Gary Sheffield. Ive really heard none on Almora. Anyone current/past big leaguer Almora has been compared to?

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    I understand why people like to use comps because it gives them a point of reference. I don't often use them, however, because each player is different -- it can set unrealistic expectations or throw off perception.

    But I will say this... I'd be very happy with Almora if he puts up seasons much like the one Austin Jackson did last year for the Tigers. They're also similar in that they play great CF defense due more to great instinct rather than top end speed.

  • BTW John, you mentioned Shoulders, Golden, Soler and Vogelboom taking BP together? That would be a show in itself, maybe some tailgating is in order for BP when Kane plays at home. Not to mention what watching these guys take BP would do to opposing pitchers.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    It'd almost be worth the price of admission! I've never seen anyone tailgate there but it'd definitely be worth coming early to see.

  • Off topic, but you got me thinking about it with Rock Shoulders getting some playing time in left - is there a reason they play the worst outfielder in left instead of right? Seems like with the majority of batters being right handed, you'd want your worst outfielder in right. I was thinking about the throw to third, but then you look at guys like Soriano who play left because of their defense, but have a strong enough arm for right.

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    It's basically because of the long throw to 3B in RF, as Dave said. That being said, there is a school of thought that agrees with you that you should put the better guy in LF because he'll get more chances and that the throw from RF to 3B isn't common enough to offset that.

  • Usually, they put the guy with the weakest arm in left, since the throw from right field to third base is so long. Other than arm, I haven't heard any big defensive difference between left and right field. I know that Shoulders was a part time catcher, so he might have the arm to play right.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    I was looking at the positional adjustments for WAR and right and left field are the same, which is what got me thinking about it. Haven't looked it up, but you'd think left would have more chances with the majority of batters being right handed. Plus a guy like Soriano with a good arm, not sure why he's not playing right rather than left. Just spitballing, but maybe it has to do with more runners going first to third, taking advantage of the long throw and a known defensive liability in right.

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