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.)
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.
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.