The draft is over and we'll track signings as they come, but now it's time to see how those picks will impact the Cubs organization. What I see now is that the Cubs are still top heavy in position players with two players joining the big 3 as potential top 100 prospects. Pierce Johnson and Arodys Vizcaino (when healthy), also have top 100 ability, though Vizcaino has no chance of reaching that status this season. Another pitcher, 2013 draftee Rob Zastryzny is growing on us fast after hearing scouting information that was different (in a good way) from what we've read. The Cubs drafted a lot of interesting arms, so perhaps the list will even out by this time next year.
As a bonus to this list, our friend and co-writer Jordan Bernfield spoke with Jason McLeod and Baseball Prospectus' Jason "Professor" Parks, who is among the best in the business when it comes to evaluating prospects. Be sure to check out both podcasts by clicking on the provided links. We will also get Jordan's thoughts on Kris Bryant in an article tomorrow morning.
Here is my top 20...
1. Albert Almora, CF, (A): Like last year, you could make an argument for any of the top 4 to be #1 on this list. After much thought I went with Almora. Not because he's hitting .434 as of this writing, though that helps. Rather, I ranked him first because there is no other prospect on this list with his combination of tools, instincts, makeup, and advanced feel for the game. Everything about him spells MLB ballplayer. He's going to hit .300 and eventually draw walks and hit 15-20 HRs per year. Add that he plays a premium position at a Gold Glove level -- and that he's a 19 year old tearing up a league with many 21-22 year olds and I think he's the clear #1 right now.
2. Kris Bryant, 3B: Bryant gets the edge over Soler for now because of his ability to play 3B. I see them both as patient hitters with prodigious power, solid athleticism, and a plus arm. The fact that Bryant does it with more positional value is the edge for me, even though Soler has proven himself at a much higher level of competition. There's a hair's difference between the two and if you want to go Soler #2 (or even #1), you're not going to to get a huge argument from me. After spending some time in Arizona, Bryant will likely head to Kane County to start his pro career, though there is a chance he's advanced enough for Daytona.
3. Jorge Soler, RF (A+): It's nice to have to make these tough decisions at the top and there are many years when Soler would have been the easy #1. Soler, 21, is showing consistency with regard to most of his game this year. His strike zone discipline continues to improve as is his ability to make adjustments at the plate. He shows good tools in the outfield though his strong arm can be erratic The one thing we haven't seen is consistent HR power but that will come as he continues to learn the league and adjust to playing in the U.S. Soler profiles as a middle of the order power hitting RF.
4. Javier Baez, SS (A+): Baez is only 20 and still has the highest ceiling on this list but he has the furthest to go. For now his bat speed alone will carry him through the lower levels. He'll struggle at times with his approach but he crushes mistakes. There have been subtle signs that perhaps Baez is starting to tone things down. He is taking more pitches and working counts better, but still doesn't have the high walk totals to show for it, though there has been incremental progress each month. There is also the question of his ultimate position. He's had a number of errors at SS this year, most of them throwing, but the feeling is he can still stay there. His bat can potentially play anywhere.
5. Arismendy Alcantara, SS, (AA): Just 21, Alcantara has always been an exciting, athletic, quick twitch player but an improved approach has him blossoming into a potential offensive force -- and at an up-the-middle position. Alcantara has added plate discipline to his game, walking at a very good rate of 10.3%. He's also increased his power with career highs in slugging (.486), ISO (.197), HRs (9), and doubles (14). Alcantara is slender but he has quick, strong hands, generating gap power almost effortlessly while also posing an occasional HR threat. If that's not enough offense, he also runs well, which allows him to steal bases efficiently (15 SBs in 16 attempts) while also helping his range in the field. He has all the tools to stay at SS, but he has been erratic with his throws. He should make an excellent 2B if he has to move.
6. Pierce Johnson, RHP, (A): It's hard to say that one particular thing stands out about Johnson. He just does everything well. He throws a fastball which ranges anywhere from 91-96, a power curve, a cutter, and an improving change. He has average command and it may get a bit above that but I don't see him as a guy who is going to paint the corners anyway. Johnson is aggressive with his power repertoire and throws enough strikes to keep the walks down (2.64 per 9 IP) while still missing bats (10.09 Ks/9IP). Johnson should probably move up to Daytona (A+) mid-season. He's 22 and overmatching hitters in the Midwest League, which is one reason I didn't rate him one spot higher. He projects as a solid #3 starter.
7. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP (AAA): Vizcaino has been injured all year and may miss the season after having calcium deposits removed post Tommy John surgery. He's still just 22 and will be 23 all season if he has to go back to AAA in 2014, so it's not like he's getting to journeyman age. His 92-94 mph FB peaks at 97 and throws a sharp-breaking curve which he commands pretty well. He also shows an average change, so he has the repertoire to start, it's going to be about durability with him. If he can't start, he should be a very good back -end reliever, possibly a closer.
8. Jeimer Candelario, 3B, (A): The switch-hitting Candelario is just 19 and holding his own in the Midwest League, showing patience (11.7% walk rate) and doubles power (18 two-baggers). He has strong hands but there isn't a lot of loft in his swing and doesn't generate the kind of torque a player like Javier Baez does, so he's not going to be a huge HR guy, but he could hit 20 or so on strength alone. Candelario's offensive game will be about line drives, gap power, and the occasional long ball to go with walks, so he should hit for average and put up a good OBP. The other question is defense and while Candelario isn't very athletic, he can make all the plays at 3B. The Cubs believe Candelario can stick there long term. He probably won't be more than average, but it's about the bat with Candelario. He gets a slight positional boost and is one year younger than the next player on the list, but it was a tough call.
9. Dan Vogelbach, 1B, (A): A fan favorite for his competitiveness, outgoing personality, and big-time power potential, Vogelbach sometimes gets underrated as a hitter. He has a good idea of what he's doing up there, waiting for his pitch (10% walk rate) and sometimes going the opposite way, where he has shown improved power this year. Despite the 11 HRs, the power is a bit down this year overall as he adjusts to more advanced pitching. He's still just 20 and he's a big kid, so some have questions about his defense. In all honesty, we're not going to see the second coming of Mark Grace at 1B, but Vogelbach is there to hit. As long as he makes the plays he's supposed to make while mashing baseballs at the plate, then the Cubs will be happy.
10. Rob Zastryzny, LHP: Zastryzny was a bit of a surprise in the 2nd round but the Cubs saw some arm strength there that maybe was missed by some. He was hitting 95 by the end of the year and the Cubs believe he'll eventually sit 92-93. He also throws a change-up which has a chance to be a plus pitch and two breaking pitches (slider, curve). Zastryzny reminds some of Mark Buehrle in that he's an athletic lefty who works quickly, changes speeds, and commands his pitches well. I've also heard Tom Glavine comps for some of those very same reasons. Zastryzny has a chance to pitch with more velocity than either pitcher but to ask him to have Glavine-like command is a tall task for anyone.
11. Duane Underwood, RHP: Underwood has yet to pitch outside of the complex in Arizona so we're really going more on stuff than results right now. He's an athletic kid who is said to be coachable and it may be starting to show already as Underwood has reportedly hit 97 and has often hit the mid 90s. His breaking pitch still lacks consistency, as does his command but the 18 year old oozes upside. He's a potential front line guy if he develops. The ceiling is high but obviously the floor is still pretty low too.
12. Junior Lake, 3B-OF (AAA): Described as a "freak" by his Iowa manager Marty Peavy, Lake is all kinds of athletic with great size, speed, and strength. He also works hard. It seems there is a lot to work with here but some criticize Lake's approach at the plate and in the field. He's improved his walk rate (from 5% to 7.8% last season) but it's still inconsistent and he has been moved off of SS to 3B while seeing increased time in the OF. I think eventually he's an OF'er with the arm strength to play RF and the current speed to play CF. His bat may not profile anywhere but CF, so he may end up being a player who moves around a lot, ala former Cubs Jose Hernandez and Mark DeRosa. On offense, Lake gives you some power and speed and is an exciting player who can beat you in a number or ways, but struggles on defense and an inconsistent approach may relegate him to a supersub type role.
13. Matt Szczur, CF (AA): Another player with very good athleticism, Szczur has a solid approach at the plate (9.3% walk rate, .359 OBP). He knows his role, which is to get on base and wreak havoc with his good speed once he gets there. He has an unorthodox swing that doesn't lend itself to power (.393 slugging, .101 ISO) but he has some strength and there's a chance he can shoot some balls into the gaps. He has worked hard to improve certain elements of his game -- his defense, arm strength, and plate discipline and has put himself in position to challenge Brett Jackson and others for the CF job, though even if he wins it he could just be keeping it warm for Albert Almora. If he doesn't keep the CF job long term, he could also make a solid 4th OF'er.
14. Christian Villaneuva, 3B (AA): Villanueva got off to a bad start (.205 in April) and is still struggling to get out of that hole. Since that April he has hit .282/.358/.504 with 4 HRs and an 8.1% walk rate. While those are solid numbers, Villanueva is more known for his defense, where some scouts grade him a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He's the inverse of Candelario in that the hope is that Villanueva provides average offense with plus defense. Both players could see their path blocked by top draft pick Kris Bryant, though there is a chance Bryant moves to the OF. Villanueva is still just 21 and he's holding his own at AA, so time is on his side. Though I have him lower than Lake and Szczur, I'd rank him above each player if we're strictly talking future starters. Villanueva has the best shot of that trio.
15. Alberto Cabrera, RHP, AA: The re-transition to starting has had it's ups and downs but overall it's been a good one for Alberto Cabrera who has pitched better than his 4.08 ERA would indicate. Cabrera has a 3.60 FIP and a solid K rate of 8.66 per 9 IP. The control is average at best (3.57 walks/9 IP). Cabrera has a power arsenal, led by a heavy, low 90s fastball as a starter (mid 90s in relief), a hard slider, and an average change. He has 3rd starter's stuff though his command probably bumps him down to a #4 ceiling. If he doesn't succeed as a starter, returning to the bullpen (where his fastball plays up) is always an option.
16. Kyle Hendricks, RHP (AA): Hendricks isn't going to wow you with his stuff. He's about 87-91 mph with his fastball with an average breaking ball and a good change-up. He's about pitchability, command and changing speeds -- and nobody in the Cubs system does it better and with more consistency than Hendricks. I've been reluctant to rank him in the past simply because I had doubts whether his stuff would play at the upper levels. That he's succeeding in AA is very encouraging in that he's facing more talented, experienced hitters. But his margin for error will continue to shrink as he looks to take the final two steps, so his already good command will have to keep improving. The 23 year old former Ivy Leaguer is 6-2 with a 2.14 ERA (2.57 FIP) with 7.70 Ks vs. just 2.02 walks per 9 IP.
17. Gioskar Amaya, 2B (A): It's been an up and down season for Amaya, who hit .229/.247/.313 in April, then .283/.377/.434 in May -- and is now hitting .167 again in June. He has an .826 OPS at home and a .513 OPS on the road. He has played good defense all year and if he can be consistent on offense, he still has a chance to be a quality 2B. He can hit just about any fastball and has enough speed to be an asset on the bases. His approach is solid but he's wavered a bit with it early on this year. At his best, Amaya can be a guy who hits for average and supplements it with enough walks to put up a solid OBP, some gap power, and good defense at 2B.
18. Brett Jackson, OF (AAA): Jackson made some adjustments to his swing and he's had some fits and starts but overall it's been a struggle for him. He's cut down his K rate from 33% to 28% but it has cost him some power .155 ISO after .224 last season and he's only hit .236 so far. We haven't given up on him yet. He has shown some flashes of breaking through and then seems to revert back into a slump again. It's a big year for Jackson as he was the heir apparent to David DeJesus in CF when the year started but may have been passed up by 27 year old MLB veteran Ryan Sweeney with CF's Matt Szczur and Albert Almora in fast pursuit. Jackson needs a strong 2nd half to try and reclaim the CF of the future title. If he does not, he does enough things well (defense, power, speed, patience) to make a solid 4th OF'er.
19. Willson Contreras, C, (A): Contreras is a guy who caught my eye in instructional league with his athleticism, work ethic, and competitiveness. He's a tough kid who has already ruffled some feathers in the MWL with his hard-nosed style of play. But this isn't just about intangibles. Contreras hard work is starting to pay off. His athleticism is an asset behind the plate, though he is still learning the nuances of the position. On offense, he has improved his approach. His walk rate has gone from 4.1% to 7.75 and he does a good job of waiting for his pitch. That has also helped him improve his power significantly (ISO up to .175 from .084). He has strong wrists and a quick bat and should be able to handle just about any pitcher, but he lacks consistency. If Contreras continues to develop, he could provide the Cubs with average power on offense and a good arm with excellent mobility behind the plate.
20. Juan Carlos Paniagua, RHP: Paniagua has one of the best arms in the system, rivaling Underwood and Vizcaino, but like both of those pitchers, he hasn't pitched competitively this year. In Paniagua's case, it's because of an inability to secure a visa. When he does get to pitch, he can be a little like Vizcaino in that he doesn't have great size, but has a live arm with a fastball that explodes out of his hand and can sit mid 90s and touch 97. However, his breaking ball isn't as advanced and Paniagua is now 23 with just a couple innings in Boise to show since signing with the Cubs as their top international free agent pitcher. He does have the potential to be a starter with a plus FB, above average command, and average secondaries but it's looking more like his ultimate role is as a reliever, though it could be as a power arm at the back of the pen.
Others getting consideration (in no particular order)
- Marco Hernandez, SS
- Zach Rosscup LHP
- Carlos Penalver, SS
- Paul Blackburn, RHP
- Shawon Dunston CF
- Rock Shoulders, 1B
- Reggie Golden RF
- Rubi Silva OF
- Jae-Hoon Ha OF
- Logan Watkins, 2B
- Ronald Torreyes, 2B
- Dustin Geiger, 1B
- Daury Torrez, RHP
- Eric Jokisch, LHP
- Brooks Raley, LHP
- Chris Rusin, LHP
- Dillon Maples, RHP
- Tyler Skulina, RHP
- Trey Masek, RHP
- Scott Frazier, RHP
- Josh Vitters, 3B
Note: Lots of mentions on Josh Vitters originally being omitted from my list and I should say he did pop into my mind but didn't get serious consideration because of a very low floor. What I mean by that is that Vitters is a good hitter with low OBP skills and average power who plays a fringy 3B. That would be a second division starter at best (similar to Lake and Szczur) but a more likely ceiling is a guy on the short-side of platoon, since most of his damage at the plate comes vs. LHP. The biggest reasons I like guys like Lake and Szczur better, though, is the potential for better position value (both are potential CF'ers) and both have secondary skills -- i.e. speed, versatility, defense, plus either OBP skills (Szczur) or power (Lake) that are useful as reserves. If Vitters doesn't become a starter, which is likely at this point, he's basically a pinch hitter vs. LHP.
Let me also note that many not on the "others considered" list are still good ballplayers. I just never considered them for a top 20 list. That is not to say they don't have a chance of making the majors or making a larger list (say, top 30 or 40), only that they didn't have the kind of qualities that I look for in a top 20 guy. Off the top of my head Zach Cates, Ben Wells, Chadd Krist, Michael Heesch and many others are great examples of guys I think have a shot at being MLB players, but just didn't stand out enough (and/or are close enough to the majors) to warrant serious consideration for a shorter list.