As the year winds down and there's little to hope for at the MLB level (even the draft position is all but decided at #4), it's time to look back at the minor leagues. We're going to do the top 50 prospects but I'm not going to do them all at once. We'll start with the top 10, in part because it'll be the longest in terms of analysis and I felt counting down would be anti-climactic. We all have a pretty good idea who the top 8 prospects are -- at least in some order. It gets a little more difficult after that.
A brief explanation on criteria. It's always tough trying to balance between floor and ceiling. In this top 10 it's not as much of an issue as many of the players are a fair combination of both. It gets trickier as you go on. How do you rank Matt Szczur vs. Eloy Jimenez, for example? I tend to lean slightly toward ceiling but much consideration is given to floor as well.
Also considered in the rankings are (in no particular order): statistics, scouting reports, tools, approach, position value, mental makeup, and age relative to level played. Conversations I've had with scouts and Cubs staff also come into play in the final decisions, but in the end these are my personal rankings based on a combination of all the aforementioned factors. As far as statistics are concerned, I always put more weight on that as players move up the ladder. At the AA level and above, for example, statistics begin to stabilize and we can consider them as important as scouting. At the lower levels, however, a bigger emphasis is put on intangibles like tools, approach, and mental makeup. As I've mentioned in a few previous articles, I consider makeup important in the sense that I believe players who possess good makeup are more likely to make the most of their tools and turn them into usable baseball skills. The 10 players on this list all have great makeup as it's something the Cubs organization emphasizes in their evaluation.
Enough explanation. Here are your top 10 prospects to kick off the series:
While he may not yet be a finished product and his approach isn’t as good as it needs to be quite yet, it’s hard to deny the upside here. After a slow start in Daytona, things seemed to click for Baez. He caught fire in the pitcher-friendly FSL, earned a promotion to AA and then stepped it up even more. The first thing that stands out with Baez is his bat speed, which some call the best in the minors and perhaps among the best in all of baseball. The swing is violent yet Baez is able to maintain surprisingly good balance for the most part. He also improved his approach, showing the ability to go the other way, work counts, and even an increased willingness to take walks (a solid 8.1% rate in AA). Where Baez is underrated is his instincts for all facets of the game. He plays up average speed and quickness into above average base running and defense. He still needs to cut down on things like errors and strikeouts, but given his age, level, performance, and solid defense at a premium position, Baez gets the nod for the top spot.
Bryant had a disastrous first game as a professional, going 0-5 with 5 Ks, but we may have learned as much about him then as we would all season. Boise teammate Shawon Dunston, Jr. remarked at how Bryant acted like nothing happened, bounced back the next day and hasn’t looked back since. The makeup is off the charts while his main assets as a hitter are his power and his solid approach, though you wouldn’t know it by his 4% walk rate and 28% K rate In 62 PAs after a promotion to Daytona. Bryant is more athletic than you would think for a 6’5” kid. He runs the bases well, has a plus arm, and shows better range at 3B than you would think. That said, his skills may ultimately play best in a corner OF spot – but the bat will play anywhere. The Cubs will let that sort itself out in time and he’ll play 3B until either he shows he can’t or a long term solution at 3B beats him to Wrigley Field. Whoever that is will have to do it quickly because Bryant could be up by the end of next season.
I got to see Almora a lot this season before he got hurt and had he played a full season, I would have considered him for the top spot on the strength of his premium position and his high floor. Almora makes contact easily at the plate (11% K rate), showing excellent hand/eye coordination and a swing that stays in the zone a long time. He is the best pure hitter in the system, in my opinion, racking up multi-hit games with regularity. He has average size and the swing likely won’t generate a lot of power, but Almora makes such consistent hard contact that it’s reasonable to think that he’ll hit 15-20 HRs in time. As far as his approach, it’s better than the 6.3% walk rate would indicate. He doesn’t chase many bad pitches and I think he’ll draw more walks in time, but he’ll always be aggressive in the strike zone. As for his defense, Almora plays CF as if he has a built-in GPS system. He gets tremendous jumps/reads and takes efficient lines to the baseball. He covers a lot more ground than you would think with his average speed. Couple that with a strong, accurate arm and Almora has Gold Glove potential written all over him.
4. 4, Jorge Soler, RF, 21, Daytona (A+): He has become the forgotten prospect since suffering a stress fracture to his tibia at the all-star break. With Baez exploding and Bryant making an instant impact, it’s easy to forget that many consider Soler one of the top 30 prospects in all of baseball. Soler’s calling card is his power potential. He has a tremendous athletic build, explosive hands, and the best bat speed other than Baez. Right now the power is a bit raw and hasn’t shown up consistently, but considering how little baseball Soler has played in the last 2 years, that’s to be expected. What really gives you encouragement is how advanced his approach is despite the layoff. Soler walked in 9% of his PAs while striking out just 16% of the time. Soler has solid tools across the board with average to slightly above average speed, good range in the OF, and a rocket arm that will play in RF.
Like the top 4 spots, you could probably put 5-7 in any order and make a good argument for it. Edwards gets the nod because of his flat-out dominance this year, going 8-2 with a 1.86 ERA across both full season A ball levels. He struck out 12.91 batters per 9 IP (36.3% K rate) in Daytona after posting a 32.4% K rate with the Rangers. He has the potential for 3 plus pitches, including a fastball that touches 98 mph coming out of an effortless, athletic delivery. The pitch also has tremendous late movement. When he isn’t striking hitters out, he’s breaking bats and inducing weak contact overall – including just one HR allowed in his professional career. Edwards has answered many of the questions regarding his secondary pitches and now the only real question that remains is his stamina. He’s 6’2” but carries a small frame on which he carries just 155 pounds and tends to lose velocity as the game progresses. The Cubs will likely work on that stamina this offseason while he’s in the instructional league.
Alcantara popped onto the prospect scene last year when he was ranked as high as #10 by Baseball America. He was even better this year in his first full season. He’s a switch-hitter with a live body and quick twitch athleticism. That gives him quick hands and wrists and allows him to generate surprising pop despite his slight build. Alcantara hit a career high 15 HRs, which actually ranked 10th in the pitching rich Southern League. He added 36 doubles and 4 triples to that total, posting a solid .180 ISO. Where Alcantara also improved is in his plate discipline, walking 11% of the time and posting a .352 OBP. Alcantara posted a .710 OPS as a RH hitter as opposed to .837 from the left side, though that mark as a righty made a steady climb toward the end of the season. I don’t see anything terribly wrong with his RH swing or approach and I really think it’s just a matter of getting more reps from that side. On defense, Alcantara has infielder’s tools, which is to say quick feet, soft hands, good range, and a strong arm, but he struggled at SS rushing throws and was moved to 2B, where the game seemed to slow down for him a bit.
Johnson started the year in Kane County and improved after a couple of tough starts. He has a great, athletic pitcher’s build and while his stuff isn’t as electric as Edwards’, he has the ability at this point to take on a bigger load. Johnson works with a fastball that can range anywhere from 91-96 mph, a power curve, and a much improved change-up, allowing him to handle lefties well. If there is a negative with Johnson, it’s that he walked 3.88 batters per 9 IP after his promotion to Daytona, though he did go 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA at that level. But he does need to throw more strikes as he moves up. His stuff is good enough to miss bats, striking out 25% of batters at both levels this year (slightly over a K per inning). Johnson should start at AA and if he performs well, he’ll be knocking on the door to the majors by season end – and certainly by 2015. He projects as a #3 type starter at the MLB level.
It was a mixed bag for the big 1B. While some expected him to show prodigious power this year, we saw a different side to Vogelbach. He spent the year working on his approach, learning to take the ball the other way and shortening his swing with 2 strikes. It temporarily cost him some power (19 HRs, .165 ISO) but it’s an approach that will likely play better at the upper levels than his pull-happy tendencies of the prior season. Vogelbach is a very patient hitter, walking in 12.9% of his PAs while striking out just 15.7% of the time – an incredible ratio for a power hitter. Vogelbach should eventually hit 30+ HRs with well above average OBP skills. Defense is the biggest question but Vogelbach works hard and has made some improvement. With his bat, he only needs to make the routine plays to be a big asset. Nobody is asking him to be Mark Grace with the glove.
Olt is a hard player to rank. He’s been a top 50 prospect in all of baseball but some vision issues caused him to really struggle this year. The positive from that is that Olt was all but unobtainable last year and now the Cubs got him as part of a 4 player package that included #5 prospect Edwards for 2 months of Matt Garza. Nobody has any illusions that Olt is going to hit .300 but the hope is he can hit .260 with a healthy walk rate (13.1% at AAA), 25 HR power, and above average defense at the hot corner. Conquering contact issues can be a big IF as we’ve seen with Brett Jackson but we should take some solace that Olt’s issues were physical and not mechanical, so the hope is that with an offseason of rest and time to heal, Olt can come back and be the player he was in 2012. He’ll get a shot at the Cubs 3B job in the spring.
10 10. Paul Blackburn, RHP, 20, Boise (Short Season A): I’m a huge fan of Blackburn and my enthusiasm is shared by at least a couple members of the Cubs organization. Blackburn showed flashes of dominance this season. He came out firing this year at Boise, hitting as high as 95 mph before developing what the Cubs called a dead arm midway through Boise’s season. The good news is that he bounced back just as strong in the postseason. Blackburn supplements his good fastball (which is more often at 91-93 mph) with good curveball and a solid change, though he’s still trying to develop consistency with both. Blackburn is polished with a good feel for pitching at such a young age. He’s athletic and while he struggled at times with his control this past season, the Cubs seem to think he’ll develop above average command as he gains experience. Blackburn will likely start at Kane County but he’s the kind of guy that could move quickly once it clicks for him.
Filed under: Top Prospects Lists