First off, I would like to thank everyone that helped contribute to this list. I consulted opinions from the industry and from other prospect writers, though in the end, the rankings are my own personal opinions. A very special thanks to Tim Sheridan of Boys of Spring, who contributed the video and Brian Bedo of MiCubs, who produced the podcast linked at the end of this article. They will be contributing thoughout the series.
I'm a big fan of the minor league game. I watch a ton of baseball and with it, a lot of minor league prospects. But I'm always a little ambivalent about ranking those prospects in any kind of strict order. There will be many places where an argument can be made that one prospect belongs higher than the other. I will also leave off a lot of players and pitchers that I really like and think have a shot at the big league and we'll talk about them here. Then there are the talented young arms to keep an eye on.. You could easily make an argument that those guys all belong in a list this large. But that's kind of what this is all about, right? They make for fun discussion and friendly debate, but evaluating prospects are part science and part art. So with that in mind, here's how I rank my prospects:
- I lean more toward impact potential or upside. This is one reason you won't see a lot of relievers or role players on the list. I prefer players who have the potential to start. For example, I'd rather take the chance of leaving off a good utility player than a potential starting SS or 2B -- even if those chances of making it out of the big leagues are smaller than the lower ceiling prospect. That is not a set rule. As players get closer and seem like a clear candidate to be an MLB player, even in a limited role, then I may include them on the list.
- I use both statistics and scouting, but you'll find I lean more on statistics as the player rises through the system. Once they get to AA, we start to see some more stabilization. We tend to see more physically mature players and more data means a better feel for statistical trends, so I will tend to weigh the two disciplines more or less equally. The further I go down the ladder, the more emphasis I will put on scouting.
- The scouting info is a blend of my conversations with scouts and talent evaluators, published material, and my own personal evaluations. I ask a lot of questions of a lot of different people, so I'm always looking to increase my knowledge in that area. You never stop learning and that's what makes baseball such a great game.
- I did something slightly different and did not include any prospect who has already had time with the Cubs, so that means you will not read about Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson, Logan Watkins, Alberto Cabrera, or Zach Rosscup. That is not to say they can't be MLB'ers. They've already made it to the highest level so they may have a better chance than many players on this list. We will cover them later when I do my annual rookies list.
I once asked a veteran scout if he thought a certain fringe prospect had a chance. He looked at me and said, "They all have a chance..." So with that in mind, here are quite a few players I like that did not make the list, so feel free to ask. The format is going to be a little different this year. We are going to do a top 35 and we'll count down 5 at a time. Along with the usual write-ups, we will have video and pictures of all prospects. I'll also do a podcast with MiCubs writer Brian Bedo for each segment and we will also do a bonus segment with prospects who did not make the list. If there is any prospect you want us to talk about, you can email me and I'll forward it to Brian for the podcast. Enough prologue, let's start the list...
31. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP
- Age: 19
- 6'1", 195 lbs.
- Expected Level: Boise (short season ball)
- Key stats: Has yet to play
Tseng is a sleeper in the Cubs huge IFA haul from last season and some scouts I talked to might think I have him a little low here. Several teams quietly pursued Tseng but the Cubs put in the biggest bid at $1.625M. Unlike many 19 year olds, Tseng is already physically mature. That is a double-edged sword because it limits his projection, but Tseng can already reach 95 mph, so that abates much of the concern. He is also considered to be mentally mature, showing impressive poise for his age and there is some polish to his game already. Along with the good fastball, Tseng also throws a good curve and an average slider. One scout who has seen him often likes his change-up and thinks it's a potential plus pitch for him. The command is still developing but it shows promise and it will be the key to his progress in 2014. Like many pitchers from the Pacific Rim, his delivery has a slight hesitation that can disrupt a hitters timing, especially so since Tseng has the live arm to make it work, exploding on the hitter from that hesitation with quick arm action. Despite the unorthodox delivery, Tseng maintains good balance, keeps his head still, and maintains a good line toward home plate. Tseng profiles as a mid-rotation starter though at least one scout I spoke to thinks he can be more than that. While we keep an eye on some of the big name prospects and IFA signings, Tseng is a prospect to watch this season. He could be the steal of the 2013 IFA signing period.
- Age 22
- 6'7", 215 lbs.
- Expected Level of Play: Kane County
- Key Stats: 8.27 Ks/9IP, 2.61 ERA/.310 FIP, .255 BABIP, 4.35 BB/9IP
I asked a few scouts a while back to give me some sleeper/surprise candidates and one scout mentioned Scott Frazier. Some thought the tall, hard-throwing RHP was a potential 1st rounder entering the 2013 college baseball season, but he struggled some with mechanics and repeating his delivery. That in turn led to command issues and an off-year. Frazier wound up slipping all the way to the 6th round. The Cubs snatched him up and could end up with a steal here. Frazier intimidates with size and velocity but that big frame also makes it difficult to get all those parts moving together in sync. If the Cubs can smooth that out, then they'll have another big arm to add to their growing list of good power pitching prospects. Whereas there are questions about his delivery and mechanics, few doubt his raw stuff. Frazier throws a 4-seam fastball that can reach 96 mph and a low 90s 2-seam fastball. As you can imagine, he gets some good downward plane. The potential for a hard, heavy 2-seamer is there if he develops as hoped. His secondary pitch is a hard breaking ball, which is labeled as a slider but it also has the good downward movement of a power curve. What you have here is the potential for a big, hard-throwing pitcher who pounds the lower part of the zone. The BABIP is low but it's not hard to envision a pitcher like Frazier inducing weak contact and keeping that BABIP lower than league average. He also has the stuff to miss bats, but it's his command that will determine his future. My gut says power reliever but the Cubs have no reason not to give him a shot at starting for as long as possible.
- Age 22
- 6'0", 175 lbs.
- Expected 2014 level: Kane County
- Key Stats: .355/.432/.566, 11.4% walk rate, .466 wOBA
Visa issues have held Encarnacion back and he finally made his stateside debut last season and put up eye-popping numbers. The temptation is to rank him much higher based on those statistics but we have to keep in mind that he put those up at the short-season level as a 21 year old and got a nice bump from an unsustainable .408 BABIP. Encarnacion, however, can hit. He has a knack for putting the fat part of the bat on the ball. He also has the patient approach and plate discipline to generate good walk rates and high OBPs. Encarnacion plays the game with a fiery intensity and he'll have to be mindful to keep that reined in. Physically I have some questions as to whether he can maintain his speed and whether he can develop power. He has a thicker lower half and I'm not crazy about the hip rotation he gets on his swing. I also wonder if he can play CF as he continues to fill out. If he does not, then he may not have the power to play the corners -- that would put a great burden on him to sustain those high average and BABIP numbers to be able to carry the position offensively. He's probably more of a 4th OF'er type but he is an interesting talent worth watching.
- Age 23
- 6'1", 175 lbs.
- Expected level of play: Kane County or Daytona
- Key Stats: 11.57 Ks/9IP; 7.71 BB/9IP; .558 BABIP
It was a lost season for Paniagua as visa issues held him back and slowed his much needed development. He's going to be 24 in April and has only 7.2 erratic innings of full-season ball. But the Cubs don't have a whole lot of arms like this in their system so I'm not ready to give up on him yet. Paniagua has been clocked as high as 98 mph and some unconfirmed reports have him hitting triple digits. He does all of this with an easy motion in which the ball just seems to explode out of his hand. He also shows the potential for a good slider and change-up. The athleticism and easy delivery make him a solid bet to develop command, though he did not show that at all last season. At this point, time is running out so Paniagua needs to get innings in and he needs to break out or risk falling off the prospect radar. The best hope is that he clicks as a reliever and moves quickly through the system in much the same way that Armando Rivero did last season. The two prospects will be interesting to watch -- Rivero is closer to the bigs while Paniagua has the higher ceiling, so I went with Paniagua for this list, but I can see the argument for Rivero here.
- Age: 21
- 6'0, 170 lbs.
- Expected 2014 level: Daytona (high A)
- Key stats: .254/.287/.336, 3.6 BB rate; 16% K rate
We have to look past those dreadful numbers to understand why someone like Hernandez would make this list. I was sitting next to a non-Cubs scout at a game last summer and I asked him who he liked on the Kane County team. The second player he mentioned was Marco Hernandez. There's a sense that the ability is there and you have to factor in that true shortstops like Hernandez are rare. But Hernandez has to show something soon and while you don't like to hang "make or break" labels on 21 year olds, you want to see progress this season. I'm looking forward to seeing how he responds to working with the tremendous coaching staff at Daytona.
Hernandez filled out a bit physically and showed a bit of power last year by hitting 4 HRs in a tough HR league while maintaining above average speed and good range at short. He has surprisingly strong wrists for his size and is capable of making solid contact with the potential for average power. But it isn't Hernandez's average to above average tools across the board that has some quietly concerned. It's more about maturing from a mental standpoint and understanding that he has to come in prepared and put in the effort on every play and AB. Having attended Kane County games all season last year, I saw some very encouraging progress in that aspect by the end of the season, though it didn't really show up on the stat sheet. I think if Hernandez comes in with the same attitude and puts in the work with the Mariano Duncan and the rest of that Daytona staff, we could finally see what Hernandez is capable of on the field.
PODCAST LINK: Cubs Top 35 prospects #31-#35 with apologies to Brian for originally mixing up #32 and #33, though it appears he has corrected that.
Filed under: 2014 Top Cubs Prospects