(Photo by Roger C. Hoover)
MLB.com unveiled another 2015 Prospect Watch list, and another Cubs prospect is near the top. On Wednesday, they posted their top shortstop prospects, and placed Addison Russell third on the list. Here’s what they had to say about his talents:
Few shortstops can match Russell’s offensive upside. He posted .300/.379/.522 numbers over his first three pro seasons, reached Double-A at age 20 and won’t require much more time in the Minors. He has explosive bat speed, a mature approach and a knack for barreling the ball that should allow him to continue producing for power and average when he gets to Chicago.
Though Russell isn’t as spectacular on defense, there’s no reason he can’t stay at shortstop and he’s a better defender there than Starlin Castro or Javier Baez. Russell has solid arm strength that plays up because he has a quick release, though he tends to drop his arm slot at times. He’s an average runner who gets to plenty of grounders and has good hands.
Russell played in only five games before tearing his hamstring at the beginning of the 2014 season. By the time he was traded to the Cubs on July 4, the injury was a thing of the past. In 50 games at Double-A, he hit .294/.332/.536 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 12 homers. Many—including MLB.com—predict Russell could be knocking on Wrigley Field’s door during the 2015 season. He’ll likely start the year in Triple-A.
Keith Law ranked Addison Russell the No. 4 prospect in baseball. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
A day after ESPN Insider Keith Law named the Cubs the top farm system in baseball, the analyst handed the organization another compliment Thursday, naming four Cubs to his top 100 prospects., including two in the top five.
As has become the consensus for the last six months, Law anointed third baseman Kris Bryant his No. 1 prospect in the game. Joining him on the list were Addison Russell (No. 4), Jorge Soler (No. 14) and Kyle Schwarber (No. 90).
After hitting .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with a minors-best 43 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2014, Bryant received multiple minor league player of the year awards. Even though he was selected just 18 months ago as the second-overall pick of the 2013 draft, the slugger has quickly ascended the minor league ranks, and is primed to make his major league debut this year. Law ranked Bryant his No. 15 prospect prior to 2014. Here is what he thinks about the third baseman’s future:
Bryant’s swing is very balanced, with a wide setup and good use of his lower half to generate power. While there were concerns when he was an amateur that his bat speed might not catch up to major league velocity, he really has had no problem with better stuff in the pros, probably because his eye is so good and his swing is very short from load to contact. He’s a good enough athlete to be able to handle third base, although he’d probably be better defensively in right field with his plus arm and fewer quick-reaction plays to challenge him. Wherever he ends up, he has 30-homer, .400 OBP potential, and should challenge for MVP awards once he has a few years in the majors.
Though Russell’s name may be a little newer to Cubs fans, he has been hovering around the top ranks of prospect lists for a while now. Law ranked the muscular Russell No. 3 on this list last year when he was a member of the Athletics organization. A July trade brought the highly touted prospect into the Cubs system, and while a hamstring tear shortened his 2014, the shortstop still manged to hit .295 with a .350 on-base percentage and demonstrated a little more power to his game.
Russell is a true shortstop with one of the best pure hit tools in the minors, both of which are a function of his outstanding hands, which are strong enough to produce hard contact yet smooth enough that he makes difficult plays look easy at short, whether it’s a tough ground ball or a quick transfer on a 4-6-3 double-play turn. His swing did get a little longer in 2014, producing more power but also more ground ball contact, as he would get on top of balls he didn’t square up. Russell always will face questions about his position because he’s not a runner, but his footwork is more than adequate, and he has the hands and arm to be above-average there. Shortstops with the potential to hit .300-plus with double-digit homers are rare commodities — Troy Tulowitzki was the only major leaguer to do it in 2014 — which makes Russell’s skill set extremely valuable.
Cubs fans got a glimpse of Soler at the major league level in 2014, as the power-hitting outfielder spent 24 games on the big league stage. He demonstrated his exciting tools early on, slugging five home runs, driving in 20 and posting a .292/.330/.573 line. Many expect Soler to start the season as the Cubs’ Opening Day right fielder.
Soler has gotten much stronger since he first signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs in 2012, retaining much of his athleticism but losing some running speed as he bulked up. He always had enormous power thanks to very rapid hand acceleration and a beautiful, rotational swing with long extension through contact. He has a right fielder’s arm and the ability to be an average or better defender there, but for now his routes are a bit suspect and he’ll need more work out there to avoid being the new Domonic Brown. Soler wasn’t patient in the majors, but he had been so in the minors, and I expect that skill to return as he gains experience in the majors and stops trying to recreate what he did in those first five games. He projects as a 25-30 homer guy who hits .270-280 with a solid OBP and, we hope, average defense, which would make him maybe the Cubs’ third- or fourth-best hitter in their suddenly loaded lineup.
Though Law doesn’t see Schwarber as an everyday catcher, the Cubs appear a lot more confident, having worked with the 2014 first-round pick extensively behind the plate this offseason. Regardless, the big sell on the catcher/outfielder is his bat, which helped Schwarber power through Short-Season Boise and Single-A Kane County before finishing in High-A in 2014. He hit .344/.428/.634 with 18 homers and 18 doubles in his first professional year.
He has a chance to end up with a plus hit tool and plus power, showing much better plate discipline this summer than he did as an amateur, although his front side can get soft and he can be vulnerable to soft stuff away because his typical swing is so hard. If he hits .280 or so with a strong OBP and 25-30 homers, he’ll be a good everyday player even if he ends up as a bad left fielder, and the Cubs certainly believe he has a chance to exceed even those marks.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The 2015 Prospect Watch continued on MLB.com Tuesday with perhaps the least surprising unveiling of the week. Adding to his already-packed trophy case, Cubs farmhand Kris Bryant was named the top third baseman in the minors. The 23-year-old had a huge season in 2014 and is likely primed to make his major league debut in 2015. Here’s some of what MLB.com had to say:
[Bryant] won every Minor League player of the year award imaginable in 2014, when he led the Minors in home runs (43), extra-base hits (78), total bases (325), slugging (.661) and OPS (1.098) while reaching Triple-A in his first full pro season.
Bryant has everything needed to lead the Majors in homers at some point: size, strength, bat speed and loft in his swing, plus the willingness to work counts to find a pitch he can punish. He doesn’t sell out for power, instead letting it come naturally, and he can drive the ball out of the park to the opposite field as well as anyone. Though Bryant will pile up some strikeouts, he makes enough hard contact to hit for a solid average and draws enough walks to post a robust on-base percentage.
Chicago’s stockpile of young infielders eventually could push him to the outfield, where he played some in college at San Diego. Scouts love his makeup almost as much as his power and think he’ll be a star.
Though his ultimate defensive location is still in question, it’s the slugger’s bat that will undoubtedly get him to the majors. In 138 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa last year, he hit .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 34 doubles and showed some speed on the basepaths with 15 stolen bases.
Kris Bryant heads what Keith Law calls the best system in baseball. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
In July, ESPN prospect expert Keith Law raved about the Cubs’ system, naming it the best in the game at that point. He went so far as to say, “This has to be the most loaded the Cubs’ farm has been in at least 30 years.”
That feeling has continued to resonate with Law, who again named the Cubs’ farm system the best in baseball heading into the 2015 season.
1. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs’ draft strategy under the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime has been to grab a polished hitter in the first round and load up on arms later. That, along with the trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel that netted two more top hitting prospects, has produced a system that’s full of hitting prospects but still a bit light on the pitching side. The first wave of bats reached the majors in the middle of 2014, with more coming this year, but there won’t be enough at-bats for Javier Baez and Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo … and that’s not even everyone who might end up pushing for playing time. The Cubs are in prime position to flip a young hitter for a pitcher or even to swing a bigger deal, especially if they want to try to set themselves up to win the NL Central in 2016. There are young starting pitching prospects here to like, led by 20-year-old Duane Underwood, but they’re all a few years away.
Law ranked the Cubs the No. 4 system at this time in 2014, No. 5 in 2013, and No. 20 in 2012—mere months after Epstein and Hoyer took over.
Law will unveil his top 100 prospects on Thursday and list his top 10 prospects for each club on Friday.
(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
As MLB.com continues its positional top 10 prospect lists, the Cubs have another young player getting press. On Friday, the 2015 Prospect Watch unveiled its top minor league first basemen, with slugger Dan Vogelbach slotting in at No. 8. The big 2011 second-round pick has long been known as a deep-ball threat. Here’s some of what MLB.com had to say about Vogelbach:
Bryce Harper made a name for himself when he slammed a 502-foot home run at the 2009 Power Showcase, a high school homer run derby, and Vogelbach topped him the next year with a 508-foot blast. … Vogelbach is more than just a one-dimensional masher, however. He controls the strike zone, makes consistent contact and uses the entire field, so he should hit for a solid average while providing plus power. He has yet to fully tap into his pop, though he’s also still just 22.
There are two obstacles to him becoming a regular for the Cubs: All-Star Anthony Rizzo and persistent questions about whether Vogelbach has enough athleticism to be more than a DH.
Vogelbach spent the entire 2014 season at High-A Daytona with mixed results. He batted .268/.357/.429 (AVG/OBP/SLG) compiling a solid 66 walks and 28 doubles and driving in 76 runs. That said, he also only hit 16 home runs and his .787 OPS left something to be desired, especially given that power is by far his most prominent tool. Known as a slow starter, his production picked up as the season progressed. His 2015 could be an important year, especially if he gets an extended opportunity at Double-A Tennessee.
(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
Well, that didn’t take long. Just seven months after being selected with the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, catching prospect Kyle Schwarber’s name is already beginning to rise up prospect lists. MLB.com is currently going through their positional ranks, and they recently named the Cubs’ farmhand the No. 3 catching prospect in baseball. Here’s what MLB.com had to say about Indiana University product:
In his pro debut, Schwarber showed why many scouts considered him the best all-around college hitter in the 2014 Draft. He combines strength and bat speed from the left side of the plate and excels at recognizing pitches and working counts. He repeatedly makes hard contact and has the tools to become a .280 hitter with 30 homers and a high on-base percentage.If he can stay at catcher, Schwarber’s bat could make him a superstar. He moves well for his size and has some arm strength, but his throwing and receiving need a lot of work, and most scouts outside the organization don’t think he can make it as a backstop. If he has to move to left field, where he played some in Indiana and in his pro debut, he still should make an offensive impact.
Schwarber sped through the Cubs system, playing five games in Short-Season Boise before a promotion to Single-A Kane County. After a 23-game stint with the Cougars, the left-handed-hitting slugger finished the year in High-A Daytona. In 262 total at-bats, Schwarber hit .344/.428/.634 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 38 extra-base hits, including 18 homers.
“The season overall, it was great,” Schwarber told Vine Line at the 2015 Cubs Convention. “I learned a lot of things, I matured a little bit. I got through my mind that, you know, you are going to struggle at some points. It’s just how you get through that that really defines you as a player.”
After struggling for the first few weeks in High-A, Schwarber rebounded strong, recording hits in 23 of his last 27 games. He played a big role in the D-Cubs’ run to the Florida State League championship series and finished his FSL season with a .302/.393/.560 line.
“Overall, I took it as a good season, but it’s over now. It’s done. I can’t look on the past,” Schwarber said. “It’s time for the present now, and the future, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Games were scarce around the Caribbean Thursday, with many leagues taking the day off. However, there was a game in Venezuela featuring a pair of Cubs representatives. Here’s how they fared:
- 1B Willson Contreras had a two-hit game, finishing 2-for-5, as the Tigres de Aragua took down the Tiburones de La Guaira. He finished with two runs in the finale of the round robin portion of the postseason. Aragua finished 8-8 and will not advance to the finals.
- LHP Joseph Ortiz pitched a scoreless inning of relief for the Tiburones, earning his third hold of the playoffs. La Guaira finished the postseason 5-11.
Junior Lake recorded a home run for his Dominican squad in an otherwise quiet day for Cubs representatives around the Caribbean Wednesday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action:
- CF Junior Lake provided all the offense for the Estrellas de Oriente in their 5-1 loss to the Gigantes del Cibao. Lake hit his second home run of the postseason in the fifth inning, finishing 1-for-3 with a walk. His team reached base only two other times as the Estrellas now trail 3-2 in the best-of-nine championship series.
- SS Javier Baez went 0-for-5 with a walk, though his Cangrejeros de Santurce squad topped the Indios de Mayaguez to tie the best-of-nine championship series 1-1.
- 1B Willson Contreras couldn’t repeat his solid Tuesday, going 0-for-4 on Wednesday, but his Tigres de Aragua topped the Aguilas del Zulia. The Tigres have been mathematically eliminated from advancing to the championship round.
South Bend Cubs players will be able to relax here before and after games. (Photo courtesy of the South Bend Cubs)
At the conclusion of the minor league season, the dance begins. Player development contracts between major and minor league teams expire, often resulting in a frantic search for new partners.
This fall, the Cubs were the belle of the ball with three openings, all at the Single-A level. And it’s easy to see why, as the organization has one of the most widespread and devoted fan bases in all of sports.
“With the Cubs on WGN for all those years, every TV in America was able to pick up Cubs games,” said Director of Player Development Jaron Madison. “In almost every area of the country, you’ll find Cubs fans.”
The team chose two of its new affiliates for the usual reason: they offered better facilities. After striking a deal with the Short-Season Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs will now assign newly drafted players and young prospects to a state-of-the-art complex on the University of Oregon campus.
The Emeralds share PK Park with the school, which reinstated its baseball program in 2010. Set in the shadow of the Ducks’ football facility, Autzen Stadium, PK Park has all the latest training and clubhouse facilities big league organizations need.
“One area we don’t mess around with is player development,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “Our success will be impacted in large part by how we develop our young players and get them ready for the big league level.”
One of the tougher decisions the Cubs faced was moving the Low-A affiliate from Kane County, located just 40 miles down the road from Wrigley Field, to South Bend, Indiana. Madison said the organization was satisfied with the Kane County partnership and was ready to re-up, but South Bend impressed Cubs executives with a list of improvements, including upgrades to the turf, video room and clubhouse at Four Winds Field, and the construction of a new strength-and-conditioning facility. The team even rebranded itself, changing its name from the South Bend Silver Hawks to the Cubs.
“The owner there was committed to wowing the Cubs and really making us a part of their community,” Madison said. “They went all out with the presentation [and] with all the upgrades they were willing to make.”
As for the change to High-A Myrtle Beach, the organization wasn’t necessarily swayed by facilities. It was more about the weather. Cubs fans who have climbed atop the third-base bleachers at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida, know they can get a great view of the marina and downtown area. They also get a good look at advancing storm fronts blowing in.
In the last three seasons, the Daytona Cubs have suffered 33 rainouts, second most in the Florida State League to Lakeland’s 34.
“It puts a lot of strain on the players to have to play rescheduled games on their days off and back-to-back doubleheaders,” Madison said. “It’s no fault of anyone in Daytona. When Myrtle Beach became available, we knew we’d get more consistency with the weather and more getting our games in on time.”
The decision to move ended a fruitful 22-year relationship with Daytona that culminated in back-to-back years of record attendance at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. It was easily one of the longest affiliations in professional baseball.
But player development isn’t about looking back. It’s about the future, and Madison likes where his prospects will be headed for at least the next several years.
It was a quiet day Tuesday in the Caribbean, as only the Dominican League was in action. Both Frank Batista and Junior Lake had solid performances in their respective team’s victories. Here are some notes from yesterday’s games in the Dominican:
- RHP Frank Batista surrendered one run in 3.1 innings to pick up his first postseason victory in the Aguilas Cibaenas’ win over the Toros del Este. He struck out four as the Aguilas improved to 6-8 in the playoffs.
- CF Junior Lake finished with two hits, including a double, as the Estrellas de Oriente defeated the Gigantes del Cibao Tuesday. Lake went 2-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored as the second-place Estrellas picked up a game on the postseason-leading Gigantes in the Dominican playoffs.