Next stop in our minor league preview is the Southern League and AA Tennessee. It's right about here where we start to separate the men from the boys. Many consider the jump from A to AA at least as the jump to the majors.
You'll see me quote more statistics from this point forward because it becomes a larger part of the equation when it comes to predicting MLB performance.
It gets a little tricky here because it depends on how many veterans the Cubs want to keep in AAA.
If you missed the earlier previews (Class A Peoria and advanced Class A Daytona), you can find them by clicking here.
Top prospect: Rafael Lopez (.269/.338/.403 at Daytona) is one of the Cubs many catchers who are converted infielders. Lopez has taken quickly to the position and his defense is already considered a plus. As a hitter, Lopez has a solid approach (11% walk rate between Peoria and Daytona) and makes solid contact though at 5'9", he lacks the size to hit for much power. He profiles more as a backup at the MLB level, but he's already 25 so he has to keep moving quickly.
Others to watch: Michael Brenly gets good reviews for his catch and throw skills as well as his knowledge of the game, which isn't surprising considering he's Bob's son. He's a big kid who will show some occasional power but finding consistency with the bat has been his biggest issue so far. Micah Gibbs is also a good defender but has had even bigger struggles at the plate recently. He'll turn 25 in July so he needs to get to AA at some point this season. Chadd Krist could find himself at AA with a strong first half, particularly if he keeps hitting.
Top prospect: Despite being one of the Cubs most productive minor league players, Justin Bour may once again start the season in AA. It's not anything Bour really did wrong, but the Cubs picked up some veterans in Brad Nelson and Bryan Bogusevic who can play 1B and present short term replacement options if Anthony Rizzo should miss any time. The Iowa Cubs also have Josh Vitters who will likely see some time at 1B as well as Steve Clevenger, whom the Cubs are trying to make more versatile. Moreover, there is nobody from Daytona who can step up and start in AA. It just may end up a numbers game for Bour. He does have a chance to reach AAA, of course, at some point this season. It's also still possible the Cubs may try to squeeze him in at Iowa from day one since he'll turn 25 in May.
Bour is a big first baseman at 6'4", 250 lbs but didn't show a great deal of power for someone that size (17 HRs, .455 slugging pct., .172 IS) but he's a good, productive hitter with a knack for situational hitting, which helped him tie Anthony Rizzo (between AAA and MLB) for an organizational high of 110 RBIs. Bour has soft hands but limited range on defense.
Others to watch: If Bour does get bumped to AAA than Greg Rohan is a possibility if he is still with the franchise as an organizational player. Much like Bour he's a good situational hitter who may not have enough power to be an ideal fit at a corner spot in the big leagues. He's an older player at 26 so historically his odds of making it are low, but he has hit at every level so far. If Bour gets moved up a some point then Jacob Rogers is also a candidate. Rogers was just drafted last year but is 23 and has an advanced approach at the plate.
Top Prospect: Ronald Torreyes has the opposite problem as Bour. Although he struggled in the first half and didn't dominate the Class A Florida State League (FSL) overall, the Cubs numbers below him may force a move up. Torreyes is just 20 years old, so the Cubs can certainly afford to let him spend another half year in the FSL, but they may not have that luxury with guys like Zeke DeVoss, Tim Saunders, and Stephen Bruno all ready for a promotion (and those guys have to move up to make room for Gioskar Amaya in Kane County).
Torreyes is an advanced hitter for his age. He did struggle to start the year but rebounded to hit .297/.361/.450 after the all-star break. He's listed at 5'9" though he is more likely somewhere between 5'5" and 5'7" -- but Torreyes shows some surprising pop, as his 2nd half slugging pct would attest. He squares up the ball frequently and has uncanny contact skills (6.1% strikeout rate) so he's a good bet to keep hitting for average as he moves up. He'll need to do that because none of his other tools are plus. He's average at best in terms of speed and range in the field, but he has great instincts so he plays them up well. His lack of size makes him an underdog but those instincts at the plate, on the bases, and in the field give him a solid chance to beat those odds.
Others to watch: Javier Baez looms in Daytona and could advance to AA by midseason. As he gets closer to the big leagues the Cubs will try him at other positions to prepare him for the majors, since Starlin Castro is entrenched at SS. Even if he doesn't play 2B yet, he could move someone like Arismendy Alcantara to that position by the second half. Elliot Soto will back up both 2B and SS. He's a smallish player with good defensive skills. He projects as a utility guy if he can hit enough to advance. Rubi Silva can play 2B as well but has played more OF of late.
Top Prospect: ChristianVillanueva was added to the 40 man roster this offseason and the injury to Ian Stewart has allowed him to get some playing time with the big league team this spring. He's been overmatched so far but has not let it affect him in the field, where he continues to play his trademark good defense. Some scouts have him as a 70 in the field which makes him a potential Gold Glove candidate and among the best defenders in the organization.
At the plate Villanueva shows a solid approach with good pitch recognition skills, though it only started to show in walks in the second half last year (10.5% walk rate after being traded to the Cubs). Hes not a physical player, standing 5'11 and 160 lbs according to his bio, but Villanueva looks like he's put on some weight since that measurement -- though it's difficult to say how much of that is muscle weight at this point. He has a chance to be an average hitter across the board, something in the .275, 12-15 HR range, but combined with and improved approach, great makeup and instincts, and his very good defense, it may be enough to make him a starter.
Others to watch: Javier Baez is a candidate to play here if he moves up but is more likely to play middle infield.
Top Prospect: Arismendy Alcantara may have to make the jump despite not playing a full season at either Class A Peoria or advanced Class A Daytona. Alcantara is a dynamic, fast-twitched athlete who makes hard contact despite his slight build (.302/.339/.447) and complements it with very good speed on the bases (24 steals in 28 attempts). Like many Cubs prospects, he has an aggressive approach at the plate (5.3% walk rate) but did improve over the course of his shortened season.
Defensively he sometimes rushes himself and gets sloppy with his footwork, causing him to make a lot of errors. He made 36 total, and despite a strong arm, most of those miscues came on throws.
Others to watch: Baez, of course. Eliot Soto will be the utility guy, as mentioned above.
Top prospect: Matt Szczur draws almost as much mixed opinion as Junior Lake. When the Cubs first signed him they billed him as a Jacoby Ellsbury type before Ellsbury started hitting for power. That would be great since the Cubs passed up on the original Ellsbury to draft Mark Pawelek. (Yes, I'm still not over that one.)
Those who like Szczur still think he can be that kind of player while his detractors point to his unorthodox swing and say he'll never hit enough to be a full-time starter, if he makes it at all. To Szczur's credit he has whittled down the original list of criticisms one by one -- improving his approach (12% walk rate), defense, his baserunning skills, and even his throwing arm since signing, so this is just one last hurdle to climb -- though it may be the biggest hurdle of all. On the plus side, he's a fantastic athlete and his improved baseball skills -- especially baserunning and the ability to play good CF defense, give him a good shot to make it as an extra outfielder even if he doesn't hit enough to be starter.
Though not as attention grabbing as Brett Jackson, Szczur has also re-tooled his swing a bit, but for different reasons. Szczur makes decent contact (15% strikeout rate) but lacks Jackson's explosiveness and extra base power. Szczur hit well in Daytona (.295/.394/.407) but has not reached that level in AA or the AZ Fall League and he has struggled this spring, so Szczur will return to Tennessee to start the season.
Other outfielders: Rubi Silva, 23, was the Cubs top position player prospect out of Cuba before Jorge Soler came aboard. Silva is a great athlete who can play all 3 OF positions and 2B. He's a good hitter but is undermined by a hacktastic approach (2 walks in 83 PAs at AA last season) that will get exploited at the MLB level. He was at .302/.322/.412 in Daytona. John Andreoli (.289/.402/.376) is an on-base machine with above average speed that he plays up with great instincts. He's a stocky 6'1", 215 lbs so he doesn't look like your typical 50 steal guy. Despite the large, sturdy frame, he didn't hit for a lot of power, but the Cubs think he has the ability to hit double digit HRs with good doubles power down the road. He's a good outfielder defensively in the corners but may be a little stretched in CF. Nelson Perez, 25, looks the part at 6'3" and about 200 lbs and showed some great improvement in his approach last season at Daytona (13.1% walk rate). He showed great improvement overall, hitting .278/.380/.494 with 11 HRs (.217 ISO), but struggled in his second attempt at AA (.205/.282/.402). Maybe the 3rd time will be a charm. Johermyn Chavez hasn't yet mastered AA so it's possible he'll return there this season. Jae-Hoon Ha may repeat AA if the Cubs keep a lot of veterans in AAA. We'll cover him in the Iowa preview because I expect that he'll at least play there at some point this season.