Kyle Hendricks is a bright guy. The Dartmouth graduate with a degree in economics understands his route to the majors isn’t by trying to blow guys away, but rather with his accuracy and plus change-up. The 2013 Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year dominated opposing batters last year, finishing 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and just 34 walks in 166.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
It’s difficult to find minor-league pitchers with true command, a skill that comes with experience and polish, but Hendricks has it in spades. Hendricks displays exceptional command of his entire arsenal, particularly his fastball, which he moves around the zone with ease. His knack for hitting spots and even moving the ball outside of the strike zone at will has enabled him to become a more highly regarded prospect than his raw stuff would suggest, and it might be enough to carry him to the big leagues.
The site views Yankee Hiroki Kuroda the staple for current major league control while—unsurprisingly—former Cub and 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Greg Maddux is seen as the pitcher with the best command all time.
Kris Bryant is one of the big prospects currently at Cubs camp. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks checked out Cubs Park over the weekend, and he keyed in on some of the top prospects that made the organization his second best farm system in baseball. On Tuesday morning, the prospect guru delivered his Notes from the Field, and, to no one’s surprise, he came away impressed. In the article, he discussed the Cubs’ three most recent No. 1 draft choices in Javier Baez (2011), Albert Almora (2012) and Kris Bryant (2013).
The whole post is definitely worth a read, but here are some of the highlights of Parks’ evaluations:
Albert Almora -
The 19-year-old looked bigger and stronger than I recall, standing every bit of 6-foot-2—if not slightly taller—with a lean but not lanky physique. He showed quick hands at the plate, tapping into his pull-side power and launching several bombs into the grassy disappearance behind the left-field fence. He showed an explosive hip rotation that was impressive for its fluidity and speed and not its violence; that allowed him to throw the bat head out and really turn on the baseball without losing his balance, hitting with authority and making hard/loud contact. After his rips, he returned to his comfortable swagger, which is probably an acceptable mixture of extremely cocky and extremely confident, both of which are characteristics I expect to see in top talents.
Kris Bryant -
The raw power is easy to see and not news to anybody reading this. He uses his hands more than most bombers, but he also uses his lower half very well, and when he shifts his weight and fires his hips, he doesn’t open up too much and he can stay on the baseball. This puts him in a good position to track the ball from release and cover all quadrants of the zone with his swing. The bat speed is very good, and the leverage he creates with his long body doesn’t make the swing long to a fault.
Javier Baez -
Baez has the best bat speed I’ve seen since I started evaluating talent at the minor-league level, and it might be some of the best bat speed I’ve seen period. It’s violent—no doubt—and I’m not always sold that he can control the bat after he triggers. But when he unsheathes that weapon and it finds the ball, the cowhide screams in what I believe to both ecstasy and agony. … The violence in the swing and the confidence at the plate (almost sanguine at times) are both positive and negative qualities for Baez. You don’t want to change the hitter but you want him to refine a bit, and if he does, this is a superstar and a potential role 8 player at the major-league level. This is what elite looks like when it’s young. But learning to find his game and make adjustments will be vital if he is to come close to that lofty, spectacular ceiling. It’s anything but a sure thing, but of all the players in the minors—and this includes Buxton, Taveras, Bogaerts, et al.—Baez has a higher all-around ceiling.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Baseball Prospectus offered fans another installment of its Top Tools series, this time discussing outfield defense. Cubs prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler were both named in the honorable mention section for best outfield defense and best outfield arm, respectively.
Almora’s defensive instincts are a large reason the Cubs made him the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Here’s what BP had to say:
Though Almora has plus defensive projections, he rates a solid step behind the likes of [Rays outfielder Kevin] Kiermaier and [Boston's Jackie] Bradley, simply because his speed may prevent him from sustaining a plus profile in center field. A fringe-average runner, Almora has exceptional reads and routes that allow him to make plays in center, but there are lingering questions about whether he can maintain his current defensive ratings as he matures and settles into a big-league role.
Baseball Prospectus views the 19-year-old as the No. 25 prospect in baseball. Almora had a solid but injury-shortened 2013 season (.329 AVG, 17 doubles) with Single-A Kane County, playing in 61 games before groin issues ended his year in August. He committed just one error last year. He was also the second-youngest player at the Arizona Fall League, where hit .307/.342/.480 (AVG/OBP/SLG).
The publication sees Cardinals outfielder Peter Bourjos as the best defensive outfielder in today’s game, with Devon White setting the all time standard.
The best word to describe the Cuban expat Soler is “powerful.” The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder looks and plays big. Like Almora, his 2013 was cut short to injury, but his .281/.343/.467 line with eight homers and 35 RBI over 55 games at High-A Daytona was a good start, especially considering last year was his first full year in the states. The No. 45 prospect in baseball committed three errors while playing right field exclusively for the D-Cubs. Here’s BP’s take:
Cubs right field prospect Jorge Soler was also plagued by inconsistency on this throws in 2013, but his raw arm strength stands with that of every player on this list, and he has the potential to top the list in the future.
Bryce Harper is viewed as the top outfield arm today by Baseball Prospectus, while longtime Blue Jay and Yankee Jesse Barfield is thought to have the best arm all time.
When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took the Cubs’ reins in 2011, they talked about building the system the right way from the ground up and rejuvenating the franchise with young, cost-controlled talent. In the years since, the Cubs have gathered some of the best minor league players in the game, including top 10 prospects Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. ESPN prospect guru Keith Law had the Cubs ranked as the fourth-best farm system in baseball, and Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks put the club second behind only the Astros.
Vine Line sat down with some of the best young talent in baseball this week to talk about their experience in big league camp, goals for the upcoming season and creating momentum in the minor leagues.
We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park all week long, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.
Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:
Christian Villanueva is one of the best defensive infielders in the minors. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
Baseball stats website Baseball Prospectus continued its Top Tools series Tuesday and switched to the defensive end of the game, giving honorable mention to Cubs prospects Christian Villanueva and Javier Baez for best infield defense and best infield arm, respectively.
Many have speculated that the third baseman Villanueva would be ready for the major leagues already from a defensive perspective. Here’s what BP had to say:
Villanueva might not play the toughest defensive position on the infield, but that hasn’t stopped him from drawing ample praise from scouts. He has hands that can rival those of Francisco Lindor and he moves well for the position, making every play necessary at the hot corner.
Lindor, the Indians’ prized shortstop, was viewed as the best defensive infielder. In 124 games last season, Villanueva did commit 24 errors, but he has been viewed as a prospect with great hands and solid footwork.
Baseball Prospectus sees Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons as the ceiling for best defensive infielder in the game right now, with Cardinals legend and Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith as the best all time.
Everybody knows Baez for his bat, as his 37 homers last year made a lot of noise in the minor league circuit, but he also has a cannon for an arm. Coincidentally, it was his arm that got him in little trouble defensively. He committed 44 errors in 123 games at shortstop. But his ability to get the ball to first quickly is one of the reasons he hasn’t been moved off of the position yet.
Young shortstops Baez, [Carlos] Correa and [Dixon] Machado can rifle balls to first base from any spot on the dirt. All three players consistently earn plus-plus grades from scouts, and the occasional elite grade will pop onto the radar.
Orioles phenom Manny Machado set the standard for current players while former Cub Shawon Dunston set the all-time bar, according to Baseball Prospectus.
Kris Bryant is a big reason why the Cubs have one of the best farm systems in baseball. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs haven’t fared that well on the field at the major league level for a few seasons now, but they’ve still earned a well-deserved pat on the back for the transformation that’s taken place at the minor league stages. On Wednesday, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs the second best farm system in the game.
To put that into perspective, the list Baseball Prospectus unveiled during the 2011 Spring Training—the last before baseball president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer’s arrival—had them ranked No. 23.
In the 2014 list, the Cubs trail only the Twins for the best farm system. Here is what they had to say about the club:
2. Chicago Cubs
Farm System Ranking in 2013: 12
2014 Top Ten Prospects: Link
State of the System: Thanks to a strong draft, clever trades, an aggressive acquisition plan in the international market, and developmental progress from some of the big names in the system, the Cubs became one of the strongest systems in the game.
Top Prospect: Javier Baez (4)
Breakout Candidates for 2014: Jeimer Candelario and Paul Blackburn
Prospects on the BP 101: 7
Must-See Affiliate: Double-A Tennessee
Prospects to See There: Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, CJ Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Dan Vogelbach
Farm System Trajectory for 2015: Up. While its likely that several of the Cubs’ top prospects will get a taste of the majors in 2014, the majority of the talent will remain eligible for next season’s list, and if you add to the mix a high draft pick this June and an extreme amount of young depth ready to make their stateside debuts, the system could take over the coveted rank of number one in baseball.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Cubs prospect Jorge Soler turns 22 years old Tuesday. The La Habana, Cuba native signed a nine-year deal with the club in the summer of 2012 and has been viewed as one of baseball’s top prospects since his arrival. MLB.com recently named him the Cubs’ No. 3 prospect and No. 26 in baseball.
Injuries shortened what looked to be a promising 2013 campaign, where he hit .281/.343/.467 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with eight home runs, 13 doubles and 35 RBI in 55 High-A Daytona games. A member of the 40-man roster, Soler has been in Mesa with the major league side, though it’s likely he’ll start the 2014 season in Daytona or Double-A Tennessee.
The following is from the Inside Pitch section of March’s Vine Line.
From 1929-38, as the world suffered through the Great Depression, the Cubs ironically experienced their last sustained run of on-field prosperity. Over that 10-year stretch, they had the best record and most World Series appearances (four) of any NL team.
Since then, whether the organization has attempted a quick fix or a measured reconstruction, efforts to rekindle that flame have produced only flickers.
Two and a half years ago, Ricketts family ownership hired Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as general manager to end the organization’s 75-year drought of inconsistency. Now entering their third season, Epstein and Hoyer realize the progress they see internally isn’t always obvious to fans.
“We take grief from friends, family and critics,” Epstein said. “But we know what’s coming. We have to continue to build with our group, because it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get there.”
The Cubs’ aim all along has been to become baseball’s next model organization, and, unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix for that.
“We feel great about the people we have in place now,” Epstein said. “We’re talking about our scouting department, player development, professional scouts and major league staff. You’re constantly looking for new ways to improve. We look to do this by putting people in the right place, promoting the right guys and making sure everyone gets better at their job every year.”
Epstein’s goal is not to generate a single World Series title, but to create a consistent contender as he did in Boston. In his nine seasons there, the Red Sox made six postseason appearances and won both World Series in which they played. Moreover, almost half of Boston’s 2013 World Series championship roster was traceable to Epstein and his BoSox staff.
“We’re looking to be in position to win 90 games every year, which puts you in postseason [range],” Epstein said. “Winning 95 games gives you a chance to win your division. That’s our plan—not only to win a World Series, but to get into the postseason every year.
“Our group concentrates on a 10-year period, and we hope to be in contention at least eight out of 10 years, rather than going for one super team that might be fleeting—disappearing the next year and getting old the next.”
That’s why the Cubs have concentrated so heavily on amateur draft picks, international free agents and minor league prospects.
“We want to build a core that can be our nucleus for a long time,” Epstein said. “We’re not going to define our organization by scouting major league free agents. By the time they’re free agents, the good players are mostly 30 or older and huge investments. Our goal is to be an organization that doesn’t need to go into free agency that often because it has homegrown players.”
Since 2011, Jim Hendry’s final season as GM, the Cubs have enjoyed the bittersweet gift of drafting high after finishing low. But this process is already starting to bear fruit. Their last three No. 1 picks—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant—rank among baseball’s top 20 prospects, and the club has seven players in the top 100, according to MLBPipeline.com.
Despite falling short in a valiant winter effort to land Japanese pitching prize Masahiro Tanaka, Epstein’s energetic group remains undeterred.
“You first and foremost cannot put together a successful organization without drafting well,” Epstein said. “Most of our trades in this phase will be about acquiring prospects.”
Just as the little things that win games don’t always show up in the box score, small details that produce a winning organization seldom make hot-stove headlines.
“Our group looks to find something every day to make this organization healthier,” Epstein said. “Hiring a good scout or making the right choice on a 10th-round draft pick, adding a quality coach or player development person—all are good short-term goals to become a great system. Finding a better bunt play to run or picking up a guy on waivers is all part of what we do to put us in a position to have more homegrown talent coming through our system—and to provide preprime and prime-age players to our roster and core.”
Still, Epstein realizes fans judge the front office by what occurs on the field.
“You can’t put in all your systems the first year,” he said. “It takes time. The market is different in each major league city. That’s part of the adjustment tour people must make when coming here. Take player development. You start a development program, bring in people and create a manual. Still, it takes years for the plan to be completely institutionalized and ingrained.
“Our analytics department took us a while. We wanted to make sure we had the right people. … We now have a full-fledged department working to get an advantage on our competition, and that only this year has come into play. We’re just hitting our stride in prioritizing player development and scouting first. We were objectively behind in those areas.”
So how do you gauge progress?
“Two and a half years into this,” Epstein said, “we’re spending a lot less time in our meetings talking about the process we have to go through.”
—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
(Photo by Charles Sollars)
Baseball analytics website Baseball Prospectus continued its Top Tools series Thursday, naming Cubs prospect Albert Almora as an honorable mention for his makeup. The 19-year-old, who was the organization’s top pick in the 2012 draft, has always been seen as a player with a good baseball mind. On many occasions, the club’s front office has applauded Almora for his ability to get quick reads on fly balls and his vast understanding of the game. While in high school, he played on a record six national teams for USA Baseball.
Here’s what BP had to say about Almora:
Among the best prospects in the game, Almora, [Dylan] Bundy, and [Reese] McGuire offer makeup that is universally lauded by scouts, coaches, and teammates alike. Each player demonstrates the work ethic, confidence, leadership, and on-field demeanor that defines positive makeup in the scouting industry.
The site listed Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the current major league gold standard for makeup, while Jackie Robinson assumes the role as best all time.