From the Pages of Vine Line: Minor League Prospectus, Part 1 – The Elite

Almora_ST

Albert Almora is one of the Cubs’ brightest future stars. (Photo by Stephen Green)

As evidenced by the additions of players like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero, the Cubs front office is transitioning from a period in which it focused primarily on bringing in assets to help improve the future of the franchise to an extended period in which they expect to compete every year at the big league level. However, if you were to suggest to baseball president Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer that this transition means they are now less inclined to build through their farm system, they would be quick to correct you.

Just because Cubs fans may finally start seeing wins accumulate at Wrigley Field doesn’t mean the minor league pipeline is suddenly going to go overlooked. In fact, for the second year in a row, the North Siders will have arguably the best system in all of baseball. Boasting the top prospect in the game, an overabundance of high-profile shortstops and a suddenly large group of interesting arms at the lower levels, the Cubs have built the scouting and player development monster they promised to deliver more than three years ago.

In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. As the month progresses, we’ll unveil player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 1 of the Cubs minor league prospectus:

The Elite
The truly elite portion of the Cubs system took a hit last year—the good kind—when Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler graduated to the big league club. However, the front office, always with an eye toward long-term success, added two huge names to the fold in Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, both of whom are generating tremendous buzz. The Cubs will enter this season with arguably the best system in baseball, and while there is plenty of depth, it’s these top-tier names who really make this an impressive bunch.

Albert Almora – CF
While some are down on Almora after a largely disappointing season at the plate, don’t forget he’s still considered an elite-level defender in center field, which brings tremendous value, and that he’s always been very young for his level. This past season was the first time he has ever struggled at any aspect of the game, professional or otherwise, in his life.

The 20-year-old has such tremendous hand-eye coordination that he can put pretty much any pitch into play. When he initially struggled at High-A, the Cubs challenged him to be more selective at the plate and to put more emphasis on driving the ball rather than just making contact. He quickly adjusted, and the Cubs rewarded him with a promotion to Tennessee, where he ended the season with a subpar .605 OPS in 36 games.

But that shouldn’t slow the confident Almora, who competed in a Double-A league with players nearly a half-decade older than him on average. Selected with the sixth-overall pick in the 2012 draft, the outfielder is also known for his strong mental makeup, so few people doubt he’ll be able to overcome his challenges in 2014.

Once again, he’ll need to learn what it means to really control the strike zone and get pitches he can do damage with. But if Almora can make that final leap and become the hitter many believe he has the potential to be, the complete package could be quite special.

Kris Bryant – 3B
From a purely statistical standpoint, Bryant’s 2014 season was one of the most impressive minor league performances in recent memory. And it wasn’t solely numbers driven. Scouts loved what they saw from him with the bat, and it’s understandable why many believe the power-hitting righty is the best prospect in the game. Bryant’s power stroke was on full display last summer, when he delivered 43 home runs and 34 doubles across two minor league levels on his way to winning nearly every minor league award he was eligible for.

There are two key questions about Bryant’s game: strikeouts and defense. While swing and miss will likely always be a part of his game—as it is for most home run hitters—insiders don’t believe he has the kind of serious contact issues that could derail him on his journey to stardom. As Bryant continues to develop and learn about himself as a hitter, it’s easy to see him fixing the minor holes he has at the plate because of his extreme work ethic and his ability to self-scout and analyze game video.

The 23-year-old is a cerebral player who is constantly working to improve, which is why the Cubs believe he can at least begin his major league career at third base. He’s worked hard to avoid a move to the outfield, and he made major strides with the glove last summer. He certainly has the arm to stick at third—or play in right if an outfield move eventually becomes necessary. At 6-foot-5, Bryant is tall and rangy, making it difficult at times for him to get small and stay in front of the ball. Though his actions are longer than those of a more compact player, he has diligently worked with his minor league instructors to stay mobile and agile at the hot corner.

Addison Russell – SS
Russell joined the Cubs organization on July 4 in a huge trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and the recently returned Jason Hammel to Oakland. The highly regarded shortstop got off to a slow start in 2014 due to a hamstring issue, but after joining the Cubs, he immediately displayed why he’s widely considered one of the 10 best prospects in baseball.

Russell definitely understands his game. At times, he can get a little too rotational at the plate, but when he stays through the ball, he can drive it to both gaps, and he backspins it as well as anyone. Thanks to his strong hands, everything really jumps off his bat, and many project he’ll display quite a bit more power as he continues to learn pitch selection and figures out which balls he can leverage. But expect more line drives from Russell, not the kind of towering shots we’ll see from Bryant.

Some wonder if it’s in the cards for the 21-year-old to stick at shortstop long term, but he is a tremendous athlete. He’s explosive and possesses impressive quick-twitch, first-step movements. When he gets to a ball, he makes the play, but he doesn’t have the ideal body. It’s more of a football look—boxier and stronger than the traditional shortstop, who’s normally graceful and a little more fluid. Still, when you watch him over time, he does everything the smoother-looking shortstops can do (and often more), due to his body control and arm strength.

Kyle Schwarber – C/OF
Many felt the Cubs were reaching when they selected Schwarber with the fourth-overall pick in last summer’s amateur draft, but the team was adamant he was second on their board—behind first-overall pick Brady Aiken—and that they were getting a special talent. Schwarber did nothing to dispel the Cubs’ belief in him, tearing through three levels thanks to his impressive bat. The linebacker-like lefty really understands what he’s doing at the plate. He has the ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field and can send a double to the left-center gap as easily as he can pull a long, towering home run. The Indiana University product possesses a special combination of bat speed, plate discipline and pitch recognition, and displays a short, compact stroke with leverage.

The Cubs took Schwarber under the assumption he’d end up in left field, but the improvements he made defensively in such a short timespan were impressive enough for the organization to shift philosophies in his development plan. They’re now allowing him to give catching a real try. Most college players prefer to shift out of catching so they can get on the fast track to the big leagues. Schwarber realizes that being behind the plate will slow his timetable, but it’s what he wants to do. That desire is what many believe is a separator for him.

Schwarber has worked hard with catching instructor Tim Cossins to improve his transfer and set-up, and the results have been eye-opening. College pitching coaches generally call every aspect of the game, so while Schwarber possesses all the smarts and intangibles organizations love behind the plate, he has a ways to go before becoming the de facto field general at the major league level.

—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus

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