Archive for the ‘ Minor Leagues ’ Category

Cubs prospect Baez tops projected ZiPS ranking

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Prospect rankings generally spark great debate and are subjected to a significant level of scrutiny.

Last week, ESPN insider Keith Law unveiled his top 100 prospects in the game, which included six Cubs. Fellow insider Dan Szymborski decided to put Law’s rankings to the test, utilizing Szymborski’s projection system, known as ZiPS.

As described on fangraphs.com, ZiPS attempts to project a player’s numbers using weighted averages from four years of data and adjusting for aging by looking at similar players and their aging trends. Szymborski ran his system for all the players on Law’s list, and found that Cubs top prospect Javier Baez is projected to have the highest career Wins Above Replacement total.

As its top pick, ZiPS selects Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs. Part of the projections calculated by ZiPS involves translating minor league statistics and comparing those to previous players’ numbers. ZiPS translates Baez’s 2013 performance in the minors at .248/.293/.472, and while that OBP is slightly on the low side, that’s a phenomenal offensive season for a 20-year-old shortstop. ZiPS compares Baez to names such as Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Tony Batista, and Danny Tartabull.

Cubs prospect Kris Bryant also cracks the top 10 in ZiPS projections, coming in at No. 9, six spots higher than where Law ranked him.

One of the biggest discrepancies between Law’s list and Szymborski’s related to five-tool Cubs infielder Arismendy Alcantara. While Law ranked him at 72, ZiPS projections moved him all the way up to 13.

Going down the ZiPS rankings, you see the first large disagreement in ranking in the form of another Cubs infield prospect, Arismendy Alcantara. A 21-year-old shortstop/second baseman putting up an OPS north of .800 in Double-A would have gotten a lot more attention if he was not in the same organization as Baez and a boatload of other prospects. ZiPS sees Alcantara regularly hitting in the .260s with 15-20 home runs a year, but with hitters like Michael Young, Barry Larkin, and Robin Yount high up in his offensive comp list, there’s the possibility that he’s even better.

There’s also a section discussing first base prospect Dan Vogelbach, whose player comparison is John Kruk, who had a similar build.

Vogelbach doesn’t have the body of someone seen as a prospect, looking more like Bartolo Colon, but he also more than held his own in a full-season league just two years out of high school. Vogelbach’s top ZiPS comp? John Kruk.

Below are the Cubs prospects in the top 100 ZiPS projections, with Law’s ranking in parenthesis:

1. Javier Baez, SS (7)
9. Kris Bryant, 3B (15)
13. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B (71)
24. Albert Almora, CF (28)
40. Jorge Soler, RF (26)
53. C.J. Edwards, RHP (67)
97. Dan Vogelbach, 1B (NA)

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jaron Madison on the value of statistics

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following can be found in the Farm Report section of February’s issue of Vine Line.

Every major league team has a department dedicated to analyzing statistics that are designed to help big league managers and players gain an edge over the competition. For player development personnel, however, the potential of statistics isn’t yet clear.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Cubs farm director Jaron Madison ignores the reports he gets from the number crunchers.

“If you don’t pay attention to and use information available to you, you’re doing yourself and your club a disservice,” he said. “But you have to recognize it’s just one tool to help our players get to Wrigley Field.”

Just how valuable are stats? It depends on where a player is in the system. Numbers are less valuable to Madison and the Cubs front office when they pertain to players in the organization’s lower levels.

“Those players are still growing into themselves and making corrections,” he said. “There are still quite a few things they have to learn and work on.”

With a Single-A player, Madison said he looks for more general information, such as how that player compares with his peers. As a prospect moves up the ladder and becomes more of a finished product, statistical analysis can help determine how he can best help the Cubs at the big league level or what tweaks he must make to get there.

“By the time they reach [Triple-A] Iowa, players have already had four or five years to work on specific tools and develop into who they are,” he said.

One thing Madison doesn’t do with numbers is use them to set benchmarks. Leadoff hitters, for instance, aren’t required to walk a certain number of times, and pitchers aren’t told they’ll be promoted only if their ERAs stay under a specific number.

“Our evaluations are more comprehensive, paying attention to how guys control the zone on both sides of the ball,” Madison said. “We look at the things they can control.”

Plus, there is definitely such a thing as too much information, especially for players. Young hitters, Madison said, can put too much stock in their home run totals and batting averages, often to the detriment of their overall development.

“It’s more important for our hitters to work on the process and focus on having good at-bats,” he said. “You can square it up and hit the ball hard seven out of 10 times but hit it right at someone. Or you can go up there and get on base on six balls that don’t leave the infield.”

That means Cubs minor league coaches must convince prospects to forget about their numbers, which isn’t an easy task in such a results-oriented business. Hitters often take a while to realize that striking out but seeing 15 pitches can actually be a good thing in the long run.

The bottom line is the Cubs don’t want prospects thinking too much when they’re on the field, and statistics can definitely lead to overthinking.

“The message we send our players is to have a plan and work that plan,” Madison said. “Yes, we will tell them they need to control the zone better to get a good pitch to hit. But when they get that pitch, it’s OK to let it rip.”

Statistical analysis is yet another tool to help Madison and his staff move prospects forward in the system, but every team has access to similar information. It’s how the Cubs use all this new data—and keep players focused on their development plan—that will determine how useful the numbers really are.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, International Impact

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Shortstop Gleyber Torres was one of baseball’s top international prospects in 2013. (Image by Bill Mitchell)

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 frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s 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 the 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.

Also from the series:

2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus- The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus- Close to the Big Leagues

INTERNATIONAL IMPACT

Over the past 15 years, the Cubs have done well on the international free agent market, especially in Latin America. From Carlos Zambrano to Starlin Castro to, most recently, Junior Lake, the organization continually produces international players who impact the major league roster.

However, while teams like the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees were competing for big-money players, the Cubs were content to sign low-cost free agents and hope their bulk purchases would eventually pay off. But with the signing of Soler in 2012, the new Cubs regime announced to the baseball world they were becoming serious players in the international community. Even with spending restrictions in place, the trend continued in 2013, as the Cubs blew past their allotted cap, signing numerous highly regarded prospects. Due to their free-spending ways, they will have even harsher limits on their spending next summer, but clearly Epstein and company believed the talent level available this year made it worth the risk.

Along with the many players inked during the international signing period in July, the Cubs also have some intriguing names who are young and still growing into their bodies. These raw athletes likely won’t make an impact at Wrigley anytime soon, but they help create the depth necessary to ensure the Cubs system can consistently funnel talent to the big league roster.

ELOY JIMENEZ
DOB: 11/27/1996
POSITION: RF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

At just 17 years of age, Jimenez is already a physical specimen. He was the consensus top player in last summer’s international free agent class, and the Cubs paid him accordingly, giving him a $2.8 million bonus, the highest handed out in 2013.

The Dominican native already has great strength, and scouts expect him to display his tremendous raw power in game action as he continues to grow. Jimenez also has the strong arm and athleticism necessary to play a solid right field.

GLEYBER TORRES
DOB: 12/13/1996
POSITION: SS
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

Many considered Torres the second-best prospect in the 2013 class, just behind Jimenez, but that’s where the similarities end. Torres doesn’t project to have much power—he might touch double-digit home runs at his peak—but he already has an advanced hitting ability and approach for his age.

If his development goes as expected, the Venezuelan could hit for a high average, knocking doubles into the gaps while playing plus defense at shortstop.

JEN-HO TSENG
DOB: 10/3/1994
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: N/A
2013 STATS: N/A

Of the big names the Cubs signed this July, the 19-year-old Tseng could be the most developed. He throws a lot of strikes with three strong pitches—a split-finger fastball, curve and slider—and his fastball can touch 95. With an advanced feel for pitching, it wouldn’t shock anyone if Tseng started the year in Kane County.

The Taiwanese pitcher has already performed on a bigger stage than most international free agents, pitching for his home country in both the World Baseball Classic and the 18U World Championship Games. Though the overall quality of his stuff was down in his most recent outings, some believe it was due to heavy usage. Some time off should help as he gets acclimated to a less intense workload stateside.

JEIMER CANDELARIO
DOB: 11/24/1993
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .256/.346/.396 (130 GAMES)

Candelario first caught scouts’ eyes in 2011, when he posted a .443 on-base percentage at the age of 17 in the Dominican Summer League. While those statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, he also performed well the following year in Boise, earning time at full-season Kane County in 2013.

While the numbers at Kane County don’t jump off the page, his performance was still impressive considering his age and the league in which he was playing.

A switch-hitter with a feel for the zone, Candelario, who was born in New York but grew up in the Dominican, is still growing into what McLeod referred to as his “man strength,” which should help increase his power numbers in the future.

YASIEL BALAGUERT
DOB: 1/2/1993
POSITION: OF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: .261/.334/.439 (67 GAMES)

In 2012, Balaguert was sent to Peoria (the Cubs’ low-A affiliate at the time) and performed poorly, hitting only .208 in 149 at-bats. But he rebounded for a solid season after spending most of 2013 at Boise. He is still trying to figure out who he is as a hitter, but he’s strong, has a lot of power and is learning to control the strike zone better.

Balaguert is the type of athlete with a wide variance of possible end points. In 2014, he could explode into a top prospect or struggle mightily and get lost among the numerous other talented players in the Cubs system. If things do click for the young Cuban, it’ll be a credit to his tremendous work ethic as well as the Cubs’ scouting and player development team for identifying and molding a truly raw kid into a valuable piece of the puzzle.

ERICK LEAL (RHP) – This 18-year old, acquired for Tony Campana, is tall and lanky with average velocity and good feel for a change-up. He’s a strike thrower with minimal walks and a good understanding of pitching. The Cubs hope his velocity will tick up as he gains strength.

CARLOS PENALVER (SS) – The best defensive shortstop in the system, Penalver has smooth hands, easy transfer and plenty of arm strength. He also shows the ingredients of someone who can handle the bat, including a good idea of the zone and strong swing path. He needs to gain weight and strength to put his offensive skill set to use at the major league level.

JEFFERSON MEJIA (RHP) – Mejia has a big frame and projects to have three plus offerings if he fills out and adds velocity to his current 87-90 mph fastball. He works down in the zone and keeps bats off his fastball with an advanced change-up and a quality breaking ball.

ERLING MORENO (RHP) – This 6-foot-7 Colombian throws in the low-90s with a change-up that can miss bats and an average curveball. His athleticism allows him to repeat his delivery with consistency, something that can often be an issue with taller pitchers.

—Sahadev Sharma

Hot Off the Presses: The 2014 Minor League Prospectus

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We always have mixed feelings about the February issue. The annual minor league prospectus probably takes more work, and more combined man-hours, than any other issue. To compile our comprehensive breakdown of the Cubs farm system, we pore through each of the organization’s minor league affiliates, from Iowa to Kane County to the Caribbean.

That’s a lot of players in a lot of different locations. To get our information, we read prospect reports, watch fall and winter league games, and talk to people in the know. By the time this issue goes to the printer, the whole Vine Line staff needs a nap.

But it’s also one of the most rewarding magazines we publish, because it gives us a clearer picture of what to expect in the Cubs’ future. And since President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, General Manager Jed Hoyer and Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod took over more than two years ago, the Cubs have been all about what’s on the horizon.

The team has enjoyed top 10 picks in each of the last three drafts, has been among the most aggressive in baseball on the international free agent market, and has made shrewd trades to add young, high-ceiling talent. The process may be taking more time than many fans and even upper management hoped it would, but the efforts are paying off—and the evidence could soon become evident at Wrigley Field.

Baseball America’s 2013 organizational rankings, released shortly after the season ended, had the Cubs system tied for fifth-best in baseball. And prospect experts such as MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo and Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks rave about Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Jorge Soler and others.

This month, frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma sat down with McLeod to review the organization’s top players and talk about the system as a whole. Though it’s the big names that rightfully grab the headlines, the Cubs farm now has enviable depth, especially in position players. A few years ago, for example, the team struggled to find a serviceable third baseman. In addition to Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy, they now have Kris Bryant, Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva, Arismendy Alcantara, Josh Vitters, Jeimer Candelario and others who could all effectively man the position.

We break down the Cubs talent into five categories: The Elite, Close to the Big Leagues, International Impact, Pitching Depth and Ready to Break Out. This is your primer on everyone, from seasoned talent that could make the jump to the major leagues this year to 17-year-old international prospects whose professional careers are just getting started.

For those who can’t wait to see the organization’s top young players, this may be the perfect year to head out to Mesa, Ariz., for Spring Training, because the team is opening Cubs Park, a state-of-the-art training facility that rivals the best in the game. In this issue, we take a look at the new facility and what it means for the organization’s player development team.

Spring Training will also offer fans their first opportunity to hear the team’s new radio voice, analyst Ron Coomer, a former Cubs infielder who has spent the last nine years broadcasting for the Twins. The 47-year-old Chicago native grew up rooting for the North Siders, so he understands the team’s unique history and what it means to be a part of its rich broadcasting tradition.

“Probably the only place I would go to leave Minnesota would be the Chicago Cubs,” Coomer said. “My situation with family and everything [in Minnesota] is phenomenal. But it’s the Cubs job. It’s been a dream of mine since before I knew I could hit a baseball.”

Finally, in our monthly Wrigley 100 feature, we chronicle the ballpark’s beginnings. This dates back to when the stadium seated only 14,000 people in a single deck; back to when it was called Weeghman Park; back to when it was known as the home of the Federal League’s Chi-Feds, not the Cubs. It’s an interesting tale not many people know, and it set the foundation for the last century of events at the Friendly Confines.

Cubs past, present and future. That’s our mission, and we cover all the bases this month. Subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, Close to the Big Leagues

Alcantara

Infielder Arismendy Alcantara could see time at Wrigley Field this year.

(Photo by Rodger Wood)

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 frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s 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 the 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.

Also From the Series
2014 Minor League Prospectus- The Elite

Close to the Big Leagues
“The most important currency in the game right now, from a baseball standpoint, is either massive amounts of payroll flexibility or a real surplus of above-average young players who are major league ready or already making an impact in the big leagues,” said baseball president Theo Epstein at last December’s Winter Meetings.

Epstein admitted the Cubs aren’t where they want to be in either area, but said when it comes to the latter, they’ve taken the appropriate steps to get there soon. The front office has drafted well and made smart trades. As these prospects continue to develop and get closer to the majors, Epstein said, “They’re infinitely more valuable, to us and potentially in a trade, than they are while they’re working away in the farm system.”

Though none of the organization’s upper-tier players will be ready to start next season in the majors, there are several others who could make an appearance at Wrigley Field at some point in 2014. The Cubs may not compete for a division title this summer, but some prized young talent will likely provide a glimpse of just how good this team could be in the near future.

ARISMENDY ALCANTARA
DOB: 10/21/1991
POSITION: 2B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: .271/.352/.451 (133 GAMES)

After spending much of his career at shortstop, Alcantara shifted to second base when Baez was moved up to Tennessee. He is solid with the glove, but his real value comes on offense. The switch-hitting leadoff man is one of the more dynamic players in the organization, with a rare speed-and-power combination to go along with on-base skills and the ability to play in the middle of the field.

A hot start to the season earned him a spot in the Futures Game, but the Dominican tapered off a bit in the second half. With a tremendous amount of ability and strong makeup, Alcantara has what it takes to excel in the majors, but the Cubs brass want to be sure he can perform consistently throughout the season before he gets the call to Wrigley.

DALLAS BEELER
DOB: 6/12/1989
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: 54.2 IP, 3.13 ERA, 35 K, 17 BB (9 STARTS)

A finger injury cut short Beeler’s 2013 season, but he looked good when he was on the mound and built on that success in the AFL. With his velocity ticking up to 94 mph and a newly developed cutter—which helped him fend off lefties, previously his bugaboo—Beeler looked like a new man. He doesn’t miss a lot of bats, but rather relies on his defense, inducing ground balls by staying low in the zone with impressive sinking action on his pitches.

Beeler was added to the 40-man roster to keep from losing him in the Rule 5 draft, something that was a legitimate concern after his impressive AFL performance. As a big, physical strike thrower who knows how to pitch, he fits the bill for what the Cubs are looking for in an arm.

BRETT JACKSON
DOB: 8/2/1988
POSITION: CF
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: IOWA
2013 STATS: .210/.296/.330 (95 GAMES)

It was just a few years ago that Jackson was supposed to join Starlin Castro on the big league roster and light up the North Side with his immense talents. The Cal-Berkeley product didn’t get his chance until the summer of 2012 and struggled mightily with his strikeout rate. After the season, Jackson worked hard on his swing in an effort to reduce the whiffs, but early on, nothing changed.

“He came into Spring Training, and I think when the results weren’t there right away, he probably started pressing a little bit,” McLeod said. “When he went to Iowa, he got off to a slow start. The strikeouts started piling up again, and then unfortunately he got nicked up and missed quite a bit of time before he came back.”

When he returned to action, the Cubs sent him to Double-A, where his struggles continued. But the organization hasn’t given up on Jackson, who, from a physical standpoint, can do a lot of things not many others can do on a baseball field. Given a fresh start, the team hopes he can put a horrendous 2013 season behind him and somehow reduce his swing-and-miss tendencies. His combination of power, speed and defense could definitely come in handy for a major league club searching for high-end talent in the outfield.

MIKE OLT
DOB: 8/27/1988
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: IOWA
2013 STATS: .201/.303/.381 (107 GAMES)

Olt is another third baseman who may end up at Triple-A. Once deemed untouchable in the Texas organization, he found himself battling eye issues last season as his prospect status tumbled. He was ultimately swapped with other players for Matt Garza. The two keys for Olt will be putting his poor season in the rearview mirror and finding whatever it is he needs to take care of his vision problems.

Like Vitters, Olt will be moved around the field to increase his value, playing his normal third base, along with some first base and corner outfield. He strikes out a lot, but when he’s right, the whiffs are mitigated by his plus power and ability to take a walk. He is also an excellent defender at third. The Cubs would love nothing more than for Olt to come into camp healthy and hitting, and stake a claim to the big league third-base job early on.

JOSH VITTERS
DOB: 8/27/1989
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: IOWA
2013 STATS: .267/.368/.465 (33 GAMES)

When Vitters plays, he usually hits. Unfortunately, he was waylaid by injuries for much of 2013. Add in the Cubs’ newfound system depth at the hot corner, and suddenly Vitters is a player without a position. Though he’s been in the organization for seven years and already has had a taste of major league action, Vitters is still only 24.

Now that Triple-A first baseman Justin Bour was selected in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, Vitters will get some time at first base as well as in the outfield at Iowa to increase his versatility and value going forward.

The California native doesn’t take many walks and only flashes average power, but if he can find a spot defensively, he has a chance to be a solid contributor. His ability to hit could help him become a serviceable asset in the majors. Because his hand-eye coordination is good enough that he makes contact with almost everything, pitch selection will be key.

Others to Watch
ALBERTO CABRERA (RHP)
– After being used as a starter in 2013, Cabrera will likely contend for a bullpen spot next spring. He has a big fastball and a wipeout slider, which could make him a very valuable weapon in a late-inning role.

ERIC JOKISCH (LHP) – The Northwestern alum doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he is a big, durable, left-handed starter. Though Jokisch eats a lot of innings and throws strikes with an 87-90 mph fastball and a strong change-up, he needs to tighten up his breaking ball. He doesn’t have plus stuff to wow scouts, but he could be a more physical version of Chris Rusin.

ARMANDO RIVERO (RHP) – A hard thrower from Cuba, Rivero hits the mid-90s and has a diagonal-slanting slider. He looked strong in the minors and though the results weren’t great in the AFL, the experience gave him much-needed innings against a higher level of competition. He could be a factor in the bullpen in the near future.

MATT SZCZUR (OF) – Szczur, a steady performer throughout his minor league career, improved in numerous offensive categories in 2013 and took a step forward defensively. The hard-nosed, athletic outfielder will likely start the season in Triple-A and has a chance to contribute at the big league level as a fourth outfielder in the Reed Johnson mold.

TONY ZYCH (RHP) – Zych has top-notch velocity in the 95-98 mph range, but he sometimes struggles to miss bats. He throws a lot of strikes, but the quality can waver night to night due to an inconsistent delivery that requires some effort and energy. When it’s working, the velocity is elite, and he has a hard, sweeping slider that could be effective in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen.

—Sahadev Sharma

ESPN’s Keith Law unveils top farm systems, prospects

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(Photo by David Durochik)

Tuesday afternoon began a baseball prospect frenzy at ESPN. Insider Keith Law started it off by unveiling his organizational rankings. Like most other prospect outlets, Law spoke highly of the Cubs, ranking their farm system fourth-best in baseball, trailing only Houston, Minnesota and Pittsburgh.

4. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are absolutely loaded with bats, but they could use a few arms; either arm, not terribly picky, must throw at least 92 mph.

Their top four prospects are all impact position players, three because of how they’ll hit, one (Albert Almora) because of his defense/offense combination. With those prospects joining what they already have in the majors, they could have one of the NL’s best offenses by 2016.

On Wednesday, Law continued by naming his top 100 prospects, which included six Cubs farmhands. Be sure to click the link to check out the complete list, but below is some of what he had to say about the Cubs prospects.

7. Javier Baez, SS

Baez has the best bat speed of any hitter in the minors right now, and the ball explodes off his bat like he’s splitting atoms with contact. … He’s got 30-plus home run power, and showed at least some signs in the second half of 2012 that he could improve his plate discipline, working the count a little more effectively in some of his plate appearances. … Baez is agile enough to handle shortstop, and could even be average or a tick better there, but his arm will play anywhere on the diamond and he’s quick enough to handle second if the Cubs move him there. Wherever he plays, he’ll probably start his career as a low-walk guy, maybe a .270/.310/.450 type of hitter right out of the chute, but the progress he showed in 2013 may give us hope he can improve that OBP in time and become an MVP candidate.

2013 Rank: 31

15. Kris Bryant, 3B

Bryant has big-time power, especially to his pull side, with huge hip rotation after starting with a very wide base. He has no stride and a tendency to slightly overrotate; combined with just average bat speed, it creates some risk that his contact rates will drop as he faces better velocity in Double-A or higher. He’s a good athlete for his size and has a chance to remain at third base; if he has to move to the outfield, he’ll be above average to plus in right, with plenty of arm for any position on the field. At worst, he’ll be an impact power bat with good defense in right and adequate OBPs; his ceiling is a 30- to 35-homer bat with .350-plus OBPs and solid-average defense at third, the kind of bat you stick in the cleanup spot so you can build your lineup around him.2013 Rank: N/A

26. Jorge Soler, OF

Soler has outstanding hand speed and acceleration at the plate, with big-time power when he concentrates on staying back and letting his hips work to add leverage to his swing; he does have a tendency to cut across the ball rather than finishing toward the middle of the field, which reduces his power. His plan at the plate has been better than anticipated, and he’s going to be above-average to plus in right field. … I see explosive offensive potential, with easy plus power and enough feel for the zone to be a middle-of-the-order bat.2013 Rank: 42

28. Albert Almora, OF

Almora lacks the huge upside of the three Cubs position player prospects ahead of him on this list because his tools aren’t as explosive, but he makes up for that with incredible instincts and game awareness that make him a very high-probability prospect who looks like a lock to spend a decade in the big leagues in center field. He gets some of the best reads off the bat I’ve ever seen from an outfield prospect, so although he’s a below-average runner he still plays a plus center field. At the plate, Almora has a clean, controlled swing that produces a lot of hard contact, with hip rotation for future average to above-average power. He has great hand-eye coordination that allows him to square up a lot of pitches, but has to learn to rein himself in and wait for a pitch he can drive to make full use of his hit and power tools — and if that means taking a few more walks, well, both he and the Cubs could use that right about now.

2013 Rank: 33

67. C.J. Edwards, RHP

Edwards will sit 91-96 mph with little effort, getting natural cutting action on the pitch as well as some downhill plane, and he has a big, old-school curveball that’s a 55 or 60 on the 20-80 scale, and both pitches have missed bats in the minors. His changeup has made progress and was solid-average by year-end, giving him a three-pitch mix along with average control, similar in total package to Chris Archer at a similar stage of development. … He’s still on the skinny side for a potential 200-inning starter. He’s been healthy so far, and he has No. 2 starter upside if he can handle the workload associated with making 33 starts a year in the majors, a tremendous get for the Cubs for two months of Matt Garza’s time.

2013 Rank: Unranked

71. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B

Alcantara was a bit of a surprise pick for the 2013 Futures Game, given how many higher-profile prospects the Cubs have, but homered from the left side and impressed scouts with his range of tools. … He can run and is a legitimate switch-hitter with sneaky power thanks to very strong wrists. He’s a versatile athlete who could back up shortstop but probably shouldn’t play it every day; he could also likely handle center or third base if needed, and might be a candidate for a Tony Phillips-type super-utility role.

2013 Rank: Sleeper

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.

 

Cubs all over Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 prospect list

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Baseball Prospectus ranked Javier Baez the fourth-best prospect in the game. (Photo by Stephen Green)

Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks stoked Cubs fans’ excitement by unveiling his top 10 Cubs prospects on Thursday. On Monday, the website unveiled its top 101 prospects in the game, and the North Siders were well represented.

The team landed three prospects in the top 25 and seven total on the list. Four players, including 2013 first-round pick Kris Bryant, were newcomers from 2013′s edition. Below are the prospects and where they sit on the top 101.

4. Javier Baez, SS
2013 Ranking: 26
Highest Level: Double-A Tennessee

17. Kris Bryant, 3B
2013 Ranking: N/A
Highest Level: High-A Daytona

25. Albert Almora, CF
2013 Ranking: 18
Highest Level: Single-A Kane County

45. Jorge Soler, RF
2013 Ranking: 36
Highest Level: High-A Daytona

81. C.J. Edwards, RHP
2013 Ranking: N/A
Highest Level: High-A Daytona

83. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B
2013 Ranking: N/A
Highest Level: Double-A Tennessee

91. Pierce Johnson, RHP
2013 Ranking: N/A
Highest Level: Single-A Kane County

MLB.com’s top 100 prospects includes seven Cubs

Baez,-Javy

Cubs prospect Javier Baez ranked No. 7 on MLB.com’s top 100 prospect list. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Smokies)

The 2014 baseball season hasn’t yet started, but prospect season is in full swing. Just one day after Baseball Prospectus released its top 10 Cubs prospects, MLB.com has unveiled its top 100 prospects in the game. And the North Siders landed seven on the list, including five in the top 50.

The Cubs seven top 100 prospects tied them for second most with the Astros. Only the Red Sox system boasted more with nine.

The Cubs were the only team with three players in the top 20: No. 7 Javier Baez, No. 9 Kris Bryant and No. 18 Albert Almora. No. 42 C.J. Edwards, acquired last season from the Rangers, and No. 49 Jorge Soler rounded out the Cubs representatives in the top 50. The team also landed No. 89 Arismendy Alcantara and No. 100 Pierce Johnson on the list.

This is an important benchmark for the Cubs system because it provides a sense of how the team stacks up against the best in the game. Every team has a top 10 prospects, but that doesn’t mean any of those 10 rank highly compared to the game’s elite.

Of course, the big question on most Cubs fans’ minds is when these prospects will arrive in the big leagues?

“Ultimately, it comes down to them,” said Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod at last week’s Rookie Development Program. “They’re going to let us know when they’re ready. They have to go out and perform. … We’re not going to rush them up just to pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Hey look, we drafted the right guy,’ or, ‘We traded for the right guy. We’re in this for the right reasons and for the long haul.”

In Vine Line‘s upcoming February issue, we’ll unveil our annual minor league prospectus, which breaks down the names to know in the Cubs farm system. Next week, we’ll release some of those breakdowns here on the blog.

Baseball Prospectus names Cubs top 10 prospects

Bryant,-Kris

(Photo courtesy of Daytona Cubs)

Inside baseball website Baseball Prospectus has spent the offseason cataloging each organization’s top 10 prospects. This morning, they finally released the Cubs cream of the crop. And if you needed another reason to trust in what the team is doing, this breakdown might just be it.

Prospect guru Jason Parks raved about the impact talent in the system, starting with the organization’s “Core Four” of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

Through the amateur draft, trades, and the international market, the Cubs have built one of the strongest systems in baseball, with high-impact talent that everybody knows and better depth than people might realize. The farm will rank no. 2 in the minors, just behind the Twins and just ahead of the Pirates,” said Parks in his parting thoughts.

The content is for subscribers only (and if you love baseball, it’s well worth the cost of a subscription). Here’s a brief summary of how Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs talent. We list each player’s strengths, but there’s much more good stuff in the article. They also list an estimated time of arrival in the big leagues, and nine of the 10 Cubs prospects are expected to arrive in 2014 or 2015.

1. SS Javier Baez
Strengths: Elite bat speed; elite hands; plus hand-eye coordination; can make hard contact to all fields; natural ability to barrel the ball; raw power is elite; game power could play to elite; arm is plus-plus; actions are easy plus in the field; baseball instincts; superstar profile.

2. 3B Kris Bryant
Strengths: Excellent size and present strength; good athlete; elite raw power; game power could play plus-plus or better; highly leveraged swing built for over-the-fence production; some bat-to-ball ability and hit tool utility; plus arm; glove should play to average; fringe run but good athlete and coordinated for size.

3. CF Albert Almora
Strengths: High level baseball skills and instincts; natural bat-to-ball ability; can make hard contact to all fields; hit tool projects to be plus (or better) tracks well and shows advanced approach; has above-average raw power; swing more gap-to-gap at present but over-the-fence power could show up as he matures; glove in center is easy plus; quick reactions and proper reads help range; arm is solid-average to plus; cocky/confident player.

4. RF Jorge Soler
Strengths: Elite raw power; extreme strength and leverage in swing; game power could play to plus-plus; shows some hit tool quality; could play above average; arm is well above average; glove plays; runs well; looks the part.

5. RHP C.J. Edwards
Strengths: Loose, easy delivery; near elite release; ball just explodes out of his hand; fastball very comfortable in the 92-95 range; can work higher; very good angle and arm-side life; easy release helps secondary arsenal play up; changeup projects as plus offering; very good deception and fade; curveball is bat-missing weapon at present; above-average shape and depth; pitchability; good makeup.

6. SS Arismendy Alcantara
Strengths: Plus athlete with good present strength; excellent hands; creates plus bat speed and above-average power; short, clean path to the ball; makes hard contact; easy plus run; multi-dimensional offensive threat; plus arm; above-average glove at second; five-tool talent.

7. RHP Pierce Johnson
Strengths: Prototypical starter’s body; long, lean, and athletic; very good arm strength; fastball is plus; low-90s velocity that routinely pops the mid-90s on the gun; breaking is easy plus and could end up even better if the command improves; low-80s hammer curve with serious snap; some feel for an average changeup that has some projection.

8. 1B Dan Vegelbach
Strengths: Big boy strength; big boy raw power; doesn’t sell out swing for game power; generates impressive bat speed with quick, strong stroke that is short to the ball/long through it; projects to hit for both average and power; makes pitchers work and doesn’t give away outs.

9. 3B Christian Villanueva
Strengths: Broad-shouldered with good present strength; hands are exceptional in the field; fluid actions; excellent backhand pickup; easy plus arm; can make every play in, side, or back; fast hands at the plate; shows bat speed and some power potential; very heady player with plus makeup.

10. 3B Jeimer Candelario
Strengths: Good present strength; fluid swing from both sides of the plate; shows excellent bat speed and quick path to the ball; very mature approach; tracks the ball well; has a plan at the plate; power could play above average; arm is strong; work ethic to refine with the glove.

BP also lists three prospects that are on the rise in the Cubs system (pitchers RHP Paul Blackburn and LHP Rob Zastryzny and catcher C Mark Malave) and three prospects that could potentially contribute to the Cubs this year (3B Mike Olt, RHP Arodys Vizcaino and RHP Neil Ramirez).

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