Four Cubs in ESPN’s top 100 prospects list

BAEZ-J-2012

ESPN Insider Keith Law named Javier Baez his No. 31 prospect in baseball.
(Photo by Rodger Wood)

It’s easy to dismiss an individual’s prospect rankings. After all, it’s just one person’s opinion, which can easily be perceived as someone arbitrarily putting numbers next to a name.

But ESPN Insider Keith Law has a pretty good track record dating back to 2008, when he started compiling this list for ESPN. After all, his top five preseason prospects in 2012 were Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Matt Moore, Manny Machado and Shelby Miller. Trout and Harper won Rookie of the Year awards in their respective divisions, Moore started 31 games for a 90-win team, and Machado and Miller were both call-ups that helped their teams reach the playoffs.

So whether you’re a fan of prospect rankings in general or not, it has to be reassuring for any Cubs supporter to see four members of the organization on Law’s Top 100 prospects of 2013. On the list are the usual Cubs suspects, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Arodys Vizcaino. In addition to those four, infielder Jeimer Candelario also received consideration in the 10 prospects who just missed category.

Below is Law’s analysis on each of the Cubs prospects:

Javier Baez
Prospect Rank: 31
2012 Ranking: 95
Position: SS
Age: 20

Baez might have the best bat speed in the minors, and he certainly has the angriest swing, often reminiscent of John Belushi’s samurai character from “Saturday Night Live.” (Of course, when Baez was born, Belushi had been dead for a decade, so perhaps I need a more contemporary reference.)

His hands are explosive, and the bat speed is so good that he’s already got plus-plus raw power and can drive the ball out to the opposite field like he’s tying his shoes. He’s also one of the least patient hitters in the minors, approaching each pitch in fourth gear, swinging and missing because he doesn’t shorten up or otherwise adjust his swing to the situation. In the field, he’s quieted doubts about his ability to stay at shortstop; he has the agility and instincts for it, as well as a plus arm, so the only major issue is whether he eventually outgrows the position.

He’s one of the highest-beta prospects on this list — he could be a 30-homer shortstop, or he could stall out in Double-A because pitchers exploit him and he can’t adjust. I’m willing, for now, to bet on the former.

Albert Almora
Prospect Rank: 33
2012 Ranking: NA
Position: OF
Age: 18

The joke in scouting circles last spring was that Cubs President Theo Epstein didn’t just want to draft Almora, he wanted to adopt him. Almora is a natural center fielder who has outstanding instincts, especially when reading the ball off the bat, so even though he’s an average runner he plays with plus range and has an above-average arm.

Almora starts his swing with a high leg kick but gets his foot down in time, with a very steady, controlled swing that has plenty of hip rotation for power without sacrificing his ability to square up the ball for solid contact. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and doesn’t swing and miss much, even with the wood bat. His lack of patience in his pro debut (two walks in 145 plate appearances) was something of a surprise, although he might have just wanted to fit in with all of the Cubs’ other hitting prospects.

His ceiling is as a high-average hitter with plus defense in center and 20 home runs, although he’s going to have to show he can take a pitch now and then to get there.

Jorge Soler
Prospect Rank: 42
2012 Ranking: NA
Position: OF
Age: 20

Soler signed before the new CBA rules on enriching owners at the expense of impoverished Latin American kids went into effect, signing with the Cubs for a $6 million bonus and $24 million in salary over nine years, although he can opt out of the deal if he becomes eligible for salary arbitration.

He’s a wiry, athletic outfielder with explosive hands at the plate, starting them high and deep but getting them moving so quickly that he has no trouble catching up to good velocity. He doesn’t look like a typical power hitter, but he’s got the quick-twitch muscles to be able to rotate the bat through the zone and drive the ball out to left-center like an older or more physical player would. On defense, he might be playable in center for now but the Cubs have him in right, which would be his long-term position regardless.

Soler only played 34 games last summer after signing, but it’s a point in his favor that he struck out just 19 times even though he hadn’t faced live pitching on a regular basis in nearly two years. At just 21 this year, he should be able to get to Double-A with the upside of an above-average regular in right who should peak in the 25-30 home run range.

Arodys Vizcaino
Prospect Rank: 64
2012 Ranking: 14
Position: RHP
Age: 22

Vizcaino entered 2012 with a partial ligament tear in his right elbow, and in March he underwent surgery to repair it, ending his season before it began, although he did find himself part of a midyear trade from the Braves to the Cubs in exchange for Paul Maholm.

When healthy, Vizcaino has electric stuff, a top-of-the-rotation arsenal with a lightning-quick arm, needing work on command and refinement on his changeup a little further to reach that potential — and, of course, to stay healthy.

Before the surgery, Vizcaino would work at 92-96 as a starter and hit 98 when he worked in relief for Atlanta late in 2011. The pitch doesn’t sink but does have late life up in the zone. He has a hard curveball that works at near-slider velocity with hard two-plane break and good depth. The changeup has good arm speed, and improving it is a question of feel, something he’ll get with reps. His arm works well aside from a lack of extension out front, and he gets on top of the ball enough to get that depth on the breaking ball.

The Cubs will likely bring him back slowly this year, so if he appears in the majors at all in 2013, I’d speculate that it would be in relief, with a rotation spot by mid-2014 a more realistic goal.

Jeimer Candelario
Prospect Rank: Just Missed
2012 Ranking: NA
Position: 3B
Age: 19

He’s an offensive third baseman with great rhythm at the plate and a smooth swing, showing just enough to make you think he can stay at third base. I’d just like to see the offensive skill set translate into a little more performance before buying in all the way, because the defense will never be a plus. If you squint, you might see a Pablo Sandoval future here.

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