From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, The Elite

Edwards,-C.J.

Top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards should start 2014 at Double-A Tennessee. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. We’ll post some of frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player profiles here on the blog in the coming weeks so you can keep track of all the names to know in the Cubs highly-ranked system.

When President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein introduced Jason McLeod as the Cubs’ VP of scouting and player development, Epstein referred to his new hire as a “secret weapon.” More than two years later, it’s easy to see why Epstein was so effusive in his praise.

Under McLeod’s watch, the scouting department hasn’t stopped working to revamp a system that’s jumped from the lower third of baseball to arguably one of the best in the game. Whether it’s through trades, international free agency or the draft, McLeod and his staff are grinding tirelessly to improve the Cubs farm system. This past season, he and former farm director Brandon Hyde oversaw one of the more fruitful years in recent memory in terms of player development, as prospects like Pierce Johnson, Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks all took big steps forward.

Hyde will switch roles in 2014 to become new manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, and Jaron Madison, formerly the director of amateur scouting, will take his place. Madison will oversee a minor league coaching staff that experienced minimal turnover after undergoing a major overhaul heading into the 2013 season. That continuity gives the Cubs confidence their recent player development success at the minor league level will continue, and there is certainly reason to believe the positive trend in scouting will carry into 2014 as well.

One of the most important steps in the process—and certainly one of the most exciting—could take place this season, as some of the team’s highly touted prospects may finally get a chance to shine at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs system has it all: elite-level talent, near-ready bats and arms, raw youth and some real pitching depth. It doesn’t have a consensus top-of-the-rotation arm, but due to some shrewd trades and bulk drafting, it’s stocked with pitchers to dream about over the next few seasons.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at many of the key names to know. Some could be arriving at Wrigley soon—others still may be years away—but the Cubs hope they will all earn their stripes at some point down the line.

The Elite
Not long ago, the top of the Cubs system consisted of players who were lucky to break into the top 50 of most national prospect rankings. Those days are gone. Entering last season, it was all about the big three—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. After last June’s draft, Kris Bryant entered the conversation. Then the Cubs traded Matt Garza for a little-known righty, formerly of the South Carolina bush leagues, named C.J. Edwards, who simply lit up the Florida State League and vaulted himself among the game’s top prospects.

Having elite talent, or impact talent, as the front office often calls it, is a difference maker. The Cubs have done well in stockpiling high-ceiling players over the past few seasons and, in doing so, have increased their chances of producing a top-tier major leaguer in the near future.

There have been rumblings that both Baez and Bryant could reach the big leagues in 2014. While they both certainly have immense talent, forecasting All-Star-caliber production from the get-go may be a bit optimistic. But great expectations come with the territory, given the system the Cubs have assembled. All five of these players are aware of the pressure that comes with strong performance, yet they’re prepared to try to live up to it. As Almora once said about hype, “Bring it on.”

ALBERT ALMORA
DOB: 4/16/1994
POSITION: CF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .329/.376/.466 (61 GAMES)

Watching Almora play, no one tool stands out as elite. However, it’s the complete package, including his tremendous makeup and infectious confidence, that really sets him apart.

“For a guy without an 80 tool (the top grade on the scouting scale), he’s a game changer,” McLeod said. “He won’t light up scouts with his power or speed, but he lights you up just by watching him play.”

Like Soler, Almora was felled by injuries in 2013. A wrist injury sidelined him early and a bone bruise in his groin ended his season prematurely in August. However, Almora returned to action in the Arizona Fall League, posting a very impressive .307/.342/.480 line and playing his usual stellar defense despite being the second-youngest player in the league.

JAVIER BAEZ
DOB: 12/1/1992
POSITION: SS
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: .282/.341/.578 (130 GAMES)

Baez’s game can be described in one word: aggressive. But his style of play is both helpful and detrimental. The Puerto Rico native believes he can hit any ball 500 feet and make every play on defense. This can result in wild swings at the plate and poor decisions in the field.

“I’ve never seen anything like him, to be honest,” McLeod said. “He’s a tough one to put into one box. On certain nights, he looks like the best player you’ve ever laid eyes on, and then you might walk in and he’s 0-for-4 with three punch-outs and looks awful doing it because the swing is so violent.”

But Baez passed what many feel is the toughest test for a developing player (outside of the big leagues, of course) by crushing Double-A pitching, hitting 20 of his 37 home runs in 54 games at that advanced level. He’ll always have high strikeout totals, even if he continues to improve, but a player who can hit the ball 430-plus feet to every part of the field is rare. As McLeod said, if he can take that final step and figure out when to be aggressive and when to tone it down at the plate or stick a ball in his pocket on defense, Baez can be as good as anybody.

KRIS BRYANT
DOB: 1/4/1992
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .336/.390/688 (36 GAMES)

The Cubs selected Bryant second overall in last June’s draft, and it didn’t take him long to make an impact. The slugging third baseman followed up a historic college season by hitting at every level, then going on to play in the AFL, where he was named league MVP.

Bryant may end up in right field when all is said and done, but when it comes to hitting, he is a true student of the game. The 22-year-old will likely rack up some strikeouts, but he has a chance to become a consistent star—someone who hits .240 with 25 home runs in a bad year and .280 with 40-plus bombs and an impressive on-base percentage at his peak. Bryant prides himself on his knowledge of the game and is always studying video, working to improve his swing and refining his defense at the hot corner.

With his combination of talent, work ethic and movie-star good looks, Bryant’s face could someday be plastered all over billboards from Wrigleyville to Rockford.

C.J. EDWARDS
DOB: 9/3/1991
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 116.1 IP, 1.86 ERA, 115 K, 41 BB (24 STARTS)

Edwards has all the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation arm—a downhill fastball with nasty cutting action, big curveball and solid change-up. The question with him is whether he has the durability to handle the load of 180-plus innings in the big leagues.

At 6-foot-2 and just over 160 pounds, the “String Bean Slinger” is lean and lanky—hardly the prototypical build of a workhorse ace. The focus this offseason has been his training program, as the Cubs are attempting to add some weight to his frame to prepare him for the rigors of a six-month season.

Edwards certainly has the necessary work ethic to get his body where it needs to be. Even if he can’t add much weight, he projects as an elite reliever who could help solidify the back end of the Cubs bullpen for years to come. Either way, Edwards will lead what looks to be a very impressive rotation in Tennessee next season.

JORGE SOLER
DOB: 2/25/1992
POSITION: RF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .281/.343/.467 (55 GAMES)

After a stress fracture in his left tibia ended Soler’s 2013 season early, he was left with a combined 89 professional games in the Cubs organization over two seasons. His limited playing time has evaluators wondering where his true talent level lies. Looking to shake off the rust, Soler played in the Arizona Fall League. At times, he looked uninterested, often failing to run out ground balls. But according to McLeod, Soler had been given specific instructions not to run too hard on easy outs to protect his recently injured foot.

The goal in the AFL was for the Cuban prospect to continue honing his swing mechanics (something the Cubs have been working on since he was signed), see some pitches and get some reps in the outfield.

The bottom line: Soler has immense power, a tremendous work ethic and all the tools needed to catapult himself back among the elite prospects. The hope is a healthy spring will allow him to start the year at Tennessee and finally put together that strong, full season the Cubs have been hoping for since he signed.

 

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