Jorge Soler is one of the Cubs top prospects by any measure. (Photo by Stephen Green)
When it comes to prospect rankings, there are several offensive weapons in the Cubs system that find themselves atop almost every list. Baseball America unveiled its 2015 Cubs Top 10 Prospects Monday, and sure enough, the familiar bats make up the top half.
Here are Baseball America‘s best Cubs prospects and some of the more interesting comments:
1. Kris Bryant, 3B
The Cubs have a surplus of athletic infielders who can hit, and it’s conceivable either big league shortstops Baez and Starlin Castro or Double-A shortstop Addison Russell could wind up at third base, with Bryant shifting to the outfield. Bryant also could stay at third, where Luis Valbuena is keeping the hot corner warm in Chicago. Barring a poor start back Triple-A Iowa, Bryant should arrive on the North Side as soon as the Cubs deem it financially feasible. Bryant has the talent, confidence and makeup to be one of the game’s biggest stars. All he’s waiting for is the playing time.
2. Addison Russell, SS
Russell combines above-average athleticism with extremely quick hands and impressive strength to produce both plus hitting ability and power. He’s nearly impossible to beat with a fastball when he’s looking for it and stays back on offspeed stuff, trusting his fast hands and making plenty of high-impact contact. Defensively, Russell has the range and improved footwork to stay at shortstop.
3. Jorge Soler, OF
Kris Bryant hits more homers, but Soler’s create more buzz. His vicious bat speed, top-of-the-scale raw power and impressive feel for hitting make him a terror to pitchers. When locked in, he generates scorching line drives to all fields; some just don’t stop going until they’re over the fence. He’s coachable, takes quality at-bats and isn’t fazed by hitting with two strikes.
4. Kyle Schwarber, C/OF
Schwarber has thick, strong legs and swings from the ground up, incorporating his powerful lower half to deliver plus power with a short, furious stroke. He keeps his hands back and has the strength to hit the ball out to any part of the park. He has a .300-hitting, 30-homer ceiling. A college catcher, Schwarber has leadership skills and solid-average arm strength, but his receiving was rudimentary as an amateur, frequently dropping to one knee to handle breaking balls. He has the tools to be a capable left fielder, having shown instincts for the position.
5. C.J. Edwards, RHP
At his best, Edwards delivers three above-average to plus pitches, with excellent body control leading to an easy, rhythmic delivery and strike-throwing ability. He’s very tough for hitters to square up due to late cutting action on his fastball, which generally sat 90-93 mph in August and in his Arizona Fall League stint. The late life on the pitch has allowed him to allow just two home runs in 237 career pro innings.
6. Billy McKinney, OF
The Cubs were stunned they were able to pry both Addison Russell and McKinney, the Athletics’ top two prospects, away in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade. Signed in 2013 for $1.8 million, McKinney jumped to high Class A for his first full season and hit better in the high Class A Florida State League after the trade than in the offense-first California League.
7. Albert Almora, OF
Almora has first-round tools, starting with a line-drive bat with present strength, fine hand-eye coordination, bat speed to catch up to good fastballs and average raw power. He was pitched backwards much of the season and struggled to adjust. He still employs a big leg kick and can get streaky, as evidenced by a .377/.395/.649 finishing kick with high Class A Daytona before his promotion. A bit more patience would go a long way to making him a big league regular considering Almora’s defense, which remains advanced.
8. Gleyber Torres, SS
A $1.7 million signee, Torres finished his U.S. pro debut by earning a promotion to short-season Boise before his 18th birthday. His maturity showed as he maintained his focus despite turmoil in his native Venezuela that prompted his family to come to the U.S.
9. Pierce Johnson, RHP
If Johnson puts it all together, he profiles as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter with two plus pitches and potentially above-average control. Chicago’s 2014 ace, Jake Arrieta, had a similar (albeit more durable) career path, and Johnson’s stuff is worth the wait. He could pitch his way to Triple-A Iowa with a strong, healthy spring training.
10. Duane Underwood, RHP
No one took as big of a step forward for the organization in 2014 as Underwood, who has the system’s most electric stuff. If he combines better control with more consistent displays of the best of his repertoire, he could move quickly. He’ll start 2015 with Chicago’s new high Class A Myrtle Beach affiliate.
Christian Villanueva blasted a big postseason home run, and Frank Batista pitched well in relief Sunday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:
- RHP Frank Batista pitched two scoreless innings of relief in the Aguilas Cibaenas’ loss to the Gigantes del Cibao. Batista did not allow an opponent to reach base and struck out three.
- RHP Starling Peralta struggled in relief, giving up two earned runs over 1.1 innings as the Estrellas de Oriente fell to the Toros del Este. He gave up one hit and one walk in the effort.
- LF Junior Lake went 0-for-3 with a walk for the Estrellas.
- 3B Christian Villanueva hit the eventual game-winning home run for the Yaquis de Obregon in their win over Aguilas de Mexicali. Trailing by a run with two on in the eighth inning, Villanueva launched his first homer of the postseason. He was 1-for-4 on the day.
- 2B Javier Baez went 1-for-4 with a run-scoring single in the Cangrejeros de Santurce’s win over Criollos de Caguas.
- 3B Jonathan Herrera went 1-for-3 with a double as the Navegantes del Magallanes edged out the Caribes de Anzoategui 1-0.
Junior Lake had a two-hit game, and Joseph Ortiz pitched well in relief Tuesday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action around the Caribbean:
- LF Junior Lake recorded a double and two walks as the Estrellas de Oriente picked up a 4-1 playoff victory over the Aguilas Cibaenas. He also scored a run in the win. Postseason play resumes Friday, Jan. 2.
- LHP Joseph Ortiz pitched a scoreless ninth inning, earning his first save of the winter in a Tiburones de La Guaira victory over the Aguilas del Zulia. He surrendered one hit but struck out two to end the game.
- 2B Jonathan Herrera went 0-for-4 in the Navegantes del Magallanes’ loss to the Caribes de Anzoategui.
It was a relatively quiet day for Cubs players in the Caribbean, but Junior Lake and Christian Villanueva stayed hot Monday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s winter league action:
- RHP Frank Batista pitched 2.0 innings in the Aguilas Cibaenas 5-1 loss to the Estrellas de Oriente. He gave up two hits and one unearned run, walked one and struck out one.
- LF Junior Lake went 2-for-4 with two singles and two strikeouts for the Estrellas de Oriente, raising his winter average to .455.
- 3B Christian Villanueva went 3-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored in the Yaquis de Obregon’s 7-3 win over the Naranjeros de Hermosillo.
- LHP Joseph Ortiz picked up his ninth hold of the winter campaign, pitching 0.1 scoreless innings in the Tiburones de La Guaira’s 6-2 loss to the Aguilas del Zulia. He is 3-0 in the Venezuelan League with a 2.89 ERA in 18.2 innings.
- 2B Luis Valbuena went 1-for-4 with a run scored and a strikeout in the Cardenales de Lara’s 7-3 win over the Caribes de Anzoategui.
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Now things are starting to get fun. Last month when I sat down to write this letter, I was reflecting on the improvements of the past year and the splash the Cubs made by signing free-agent manager Joe Maddon to a five-year contract. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein had recently spoken about how the organization was turning a corner and how he expected the Cubs to contend for the NL Central crown in 2015.
“We’re going to be very involved [in the free-agent market],” Epstein said. “It’s starting to be the right time to add impact talent.”
I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t exaggerating. Christmas came early for Cubs fans when the team landed coveted left-hander Jon Lester, righty Jason Hammel, All-Star catcher Miguel Montero and backup catcher David Ross around December’s Winter Meetings.
Lester, whom the Cubs signed to a six-year deal with an option for a seventh, was the jewel of the offseason pitching market, and several top teams—including the Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers—waged a fierce battle over him. Though those teams have been postseason fixtures in recent years, Lester ultimately chose to come to Chicago and reunite with Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, the executives who drafted him back in 2002 with Boston.
For years, people have questioned the front office’s plan for the organization, and many wondered aloud if and when they could get a major free agent to buy into their vision. But the Cubs’ plan all along has been to rebuild the minor league system as quickly as possible and add impact players from outside the organization when the time was right.
These recent moves weren’t a deviation. They were a confirmation.
The Cubs’ pitch to Lester, who turns 31 years old on Jan. 7, centered around the lure of bringing a World Series title to the North Side, the unrivaled young talent filling the system and the restoration of Wrigley Field, which will soon provide players with some of the best facilities in the game.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think [the Cubs] were going to win in 2015,” Lester said. “So that’s how I think. I’m never going to say, ‘Well, we’ll be all right this year, and we’ll get ‘em next year.’ I’m going in with the intention of winning in 2015. And that means the division, that means the World Series, that means everything. Like I said, I don’t like to lose. You can call it arrogant, you can call it cocky, whatever you want. But I like to win, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
The baseball world has long been drooling over the Cubs’ preponderance of young bats, from Javier Baez to Kris Bryant to Addison Russell to Jorge Soler. Add that to an already solid bullpen and proven major league players like Jake Arrieta, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Hammel, Lester and Montero, and you’ve really got something.
This month, we only touch on the recent signings, which hit the Chicago area like a tsunami moments before we went to press. Next month, we’ll take a deep dive into all the moves (along with providing our annual minor league prospectus).
It’s funny how fast things change. Last I checked, the Cubs were at 12-1 odds to win the World Series at online sports book Bovada. Like I said, things are starting to get fun.
Speaking of fun, in this month’s issue, we get the backstory on three decades of the Cubs Convention, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary from Jan. 16-18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. We also shed some light on the charitable work the team performed in the last year as part of its 100 Gifts of Service, the club’s most ambitious philanthropic initiative ever. Finally, we get our first chance to talk to new hitting coach John Mallee about his philosophy and what he hopes to achieve on the North Side. With a talented crop of young players now under his tutelage, it’s safe to say the Chicago native is eager to get started.
Here’s the good news: We’re just one month away from pitchers (Lester, Hammel) and catchers (Montero, Ross) reporting to Spring Training. As always, look for us at the convention, where we’ll be renewing subscriptions, meeting fans, and possibly hosting a player or two. See you there.
Both Junior Lake and Christian Villanueva continued their strong winter league play Sunday. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action in the Caribbean:
- LHP Jeffry Antigua pitched 0.2 scoreless, hitless innings of relief for the Toros del Este in an 8-2 loss to the Aguilas Cibaenas.
- LF Junior Lake continued his hot stretch for the Estrellas de Oriente, going 2-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base in a 4-1 loss to the Gigantes del Cibao. Lake’s winter average now stands at .429.
- RHP Starling Peralta closed out the Estrellas losing effort with one scoreless, one-hit inning of relief.
- Christian Villanueva had another big game in the Yaquis de Obregon’s 11-inning, 7-6 win over the Naranjeros de Hermosillo. The third baseman went 2-for-4 with three RBI. He hit a two-run single with one out in the ninth inning to tie the game, and then delivered a sac fly in the 11th to give his team the victory.
- 2B Javier Baez had another rough day at the plate, going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in the Cangrejeros de Santurce’s 4-2 win over the Gigantes de Carolina. In 11 games, Baez is hitting .233/.306/.442 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with three doubles, two home runs and seven RBI. He has also struck out 21 times in 43 at-bats.
- c-1B Willson Contreras went 1-for-4 with a double and two runs scored, bringing his winter average to .273 for the Tigres de Aragua, who cruised to a 13-1 victory over the Navegantes del Magallanes.
- In the Navegantes losing effort, 3B Jonathan Herrera went 3-for-4 with three singles.
Christian Villanueva continued his power surge with another home run Tuesday. Here are a few notes from yesterday’s Cubs action around the Caribbean:
- LF Christian Villanueva launched his 10th homer of the year in the first inning, scoring the Yaquis de Obregon’s only run in a 7-1 loss to the Charros de Jalisco. He finished the day 2-for-4, and his 10 home runs are tied for fourth in the league.
- 2B Javier Baez went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts and a walk as the Cangrejeros de Santurce dropped the first game of a doubleheader against the Senadores de San Juan. In the second game, he finished 1-for-7 with an RBI double in a losing effort. The marathon affair lasted 14 innings.
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
The Cubs claimed left-handed pitcher Mike Kickham off waivers from San Francisco on Tuesday. Additionally, catcher Ryan Lavarnway was claimed off waivers by Baltimore, and first baseman Shane Peterson was claimed by Milwaukee.
Kickham, 26, is 31-35 with a 3.97 ERA (231 ER/523.2 IP) in 99 career minor league games (95 starts) since he was selected by the Giants in the sixth round of the 2010 Draft out of Missouri State University. He has struck out 464 batters, an average of 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings, while allowing 227 walks.
Kickham spent the majority of 2014 with Triple-A Fresno, going 8-8 with a 4.43 ERA in 27 starts, including a 12-start stretch in which he went 6-0 with a 2.74 ERA from May 25-July 24. His 131 strikeouts ranked fourth in the Pacific Coast League, and he went 95.0 consecutive innings from May 20-August 21 without allowing home run.
The 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound Kickham was 7-7 with a 4.31 ERA in 20 starts for Fresno in 2013, a season after setting career-best totals in wins (11) and ERA (3.05) while being named to the Eastern League postseason All-Star team with Double-A Richmond in 2012.
Kickham made his major league debut with the Giants in 2013 and has pitched in 14 games (three starts) in parts of the last two seasons for San Francisco, going 0-3 with a 10.98 ERA.
Lavarnway, 27, was originally claimed off waivers from Boston on Dec. 19. Peterson, 26, was claimed off waivers from Oakland the same day.
Addison Russell is considered one of the best prospects in the game. (Photo by Rodger Wood)
Even with marquee players like Javier Baez and Jorge Soler graduating to the majors last season, the Cubs are still the organization to beat when it comes to high-end prospects. According to MLB.com’s Bernie Pleskoff, the North Siders have two of the top 10 prospects in baseball in Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. Bryant, who came in as Pleskoff’s top farmhand, has already received a plethora of awards. Here’s what Pleskoff had to say about the infielders:
1. Kris Bryant (Cubs) 6-foot-5, 215 pounds — Third Baseman — R
Highlight reel power. Coming off 2014 season of .325/43/110 (AVG/HR/RBI) at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. High strikeout totals. Uses entire field. Almost ready.
The 2014 USA Today Minor League Player of the Year, Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year and recipient of MLB.com’s MiLBY award for the best player in the minors last season, Bryant had a year for the ages. Along with the above numbers, the Cubs’ 2014 Minor League Player of the Year reached base at a .438 clip and slugged .661 with 34 doubles, all while stealing 15 bases. Though it remains to be seen where he’ll play regularly at the next level, he continued to improve his defense at the hot corner. Cubs fans will likely see Bryant in the majors within the first few months of the season. His effort is especially impressive given that 2014 was his first full season of professional baseball after being picked second overall in the 2013 draft.
4. Addison Russell (Cubs) 6-0, 195 pounds — Shortstop — R
Very talented player highlighted by solid hit tool. Makes solid, consistent contact and has developing power. Uses entire field. Steady defense and useable speed.
In a lengthy list of talented Cubs middle infielders, Russell is the one many believe to be the best defender of the bunch. In 62 games last season, the 20-year-old committed just four errors. But the Athletics’ 2012 first-round pick also has the ability to hit, finishing .295/.350/.508 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 homers after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring problem. Russell was the key return in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel deal to Oakland in early July and will likely spend the majority of 2014 at Triple-A Iowa.
With the Dominican League wrapping up its regular season over the weekend, there are fewer games being played around the Caribbean. None of the Cubs in action put up noteworthy stats on Monday, but a few made contributions to their respective clubs. Here are some notes from yesterday’s action in the Caribbean:
- 3B Christian Villanueva scored a run and finished 0-for-2 with a pair of walks as the Yaquis de Obregon fell to the Charros de Jalisco.
- 2B Javier Baez drove in a run but went 0-for-4 at the plate with two strikeouts. His Cangrejeros de Santurce squad topped the Gigantes de Carolina.
- RHP Lioger Padron struggled in 0.2 innings, giving up a hit and allowing an earned run in the Leones del Caracas’ win over the Tiburones de La Guiara. He did strike out two batters.