Chicago Cubs Top Prospects Update – May 27, 2013

It’s back! The top prospects list returns with a look at how the Cubs’ top prospects have done in the first two months of the season. Things get interesting soon, as Rookie and Short Season ball begin in June. That’s when we’ll see guys like Duane Underwood and Paul Blackburn pitching, along with some other guys like Juan Carlos Paniagua (hopefully).

This season hasn’t been as kind to the Cubs’ farm system, but last year was  extraordinary. Guys were coming out of the system like crazy all over the lower minors and having great success. This year has been much more about players being forced to make adjustments. How are they doing in that regard? It’s hard to tell without reading any scouting info, but I’ll take a shot based on what I see on the stat line.

1. Javier Baez, SS
2. Albert Almora, CF
3. Jorge Soler, RF
4. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP
5. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
6. Josh Vitters, 3B/OF
7. Brett Jackson, CF
8. Arismendy Alcantara, SS/2B
9. Pierce Johnson, RHP
10. Christian Villanueva, 3B
11. Stephen Bruno, 2B
12. Daniel Vogelbach, 1B/DH
13. Duane Underwood, RHP
14. Paul Blackburn, RHP
15. Juan Carlos Paniagua, RHP
16. Jae-Hoon Ha, CF
17. Junior Lake, SS/3B
18. Yeiper Castillo, RHP
19. Matt Szczur, CF
20. Kyle Hendricks, RHP

Javier Baez1. Javier Baez    High A Daytona    SS
Baez is a tool shed, with a 7 arm and power to go along with a potential 7 bat on the 2-to-8 scouting scale at shortstop, making him a worthy top prospect in any system. Baez struggled to start the season, striking out 50 times in 196 plate appearences (25.5%) and drawing only 8 walks (4.1%), but we knew this was an issue. Baez came into the season needing to craft an approach and learn to lay off of bad pitches. He hasn’t needed to make an adjustment in this area before given his success in Low A and high school, so we don’t know that he can’t make the adjustment.

That’s what makes the last ten days so interesting. In 44 PAs, Baez has drawn 3 walks and only struck out 5 times while racking up 15 hits, for a triple slash line of .366/.422/.512, bringing his season totals to .266/.305/.473. Sometimes this stuff just clicks, and that could be exactly what we are seeing here. Or it could be a small sample that ends up being completely meaningless. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Albert Almora2. Albert Almora    Low A Kane County    CF
Almora doesn’t have much to look at after breaking his hamate bone during spring training. He is finally playing in games this season and has come out on fire, with 14 hits, including 5 doubles, in 28 PAs for a .538/.586/.731 line. Whether this is just a toolsy player on a hot streak or an advanced player showing the baseball world just how advanced he is is unclear, but it’s going to be fun to watch him.

Jorge Soler3. Jorge Soler    High A Daytona    RF
Soler is a little old for such a highly touted prospect for High A, but was sent there because he missed almost two years worth of pitching waiting to establish residence in Haiti before signing with the Cubs. There’s no problem with making sure, and now the Cubs can be sure. While he may need to check some boxes the Cubs have left, like fixing the hitch in his swing or working on his defense, the batting line looks good enough to move up at .298/.372/.523.

Arodys Vizcaino4. Arodys Vizcaino    Chicago Cubs DL    RHP
Vizcaino has yet to throw a pitch in an actual game this year, but Carrie Muskat mentioned that he’s about ready to get back into action. Vizcaino has electric stuff, but is shorter than you’d want a potential starter to be, which always brings up durability concerns such as the Tommy John surgery he had last season. If Vizcaino still has the stuff, there’s a chance he could still start, but a bullpen role might be his ultimate fate. There’s also a chance they try to build up his value and trade him in the offseason a la Andrew Cashner.
UPDATE: Vizcaino is done for the season after having surgery to remove a calcium buildup in his elbow after Tommy John surgery last season, according to Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. Yet another reminder that coming back from TJ surgery is no sure thing. This isn’t anywhere close to as bad as a second TJ surgery, but it’s concerning that he’s missing a second season.

Jeimer Candelario5. Jeimer Candelario    Low A Kane County    3B
Candelario ranks so highly on this list for three reasons: age, position, and approach. Candelario has been able to draw walks since day one in the Cubs’ system and projects to have power, although he’s never shown it in games. But Candelario has always been one of the youngest players on his teams, so a season where he all of the sudden hits 20 home runs wouldn’t be surprising. That is not this year though, as Candelario only has one home run, but he’s hitting and getting on base for a .254/.347/.364 line. You’ll be hearing about Candelario for awhile, as the 19-year-old will most likely be moved through the system slowly.

Josh Vitters6. Josh Vitters    Triple A Iowa    3B
Vitters isn’t seen as a prospect by most people for some reason, despite having one of the best swings in the majors and 15-20 home run power. Six years in the minors without truly excelling in the upper minors will do that. But Vitters appears to be making the adjustments needed to earn another promotion to the majors. He’s walking more than ever while hitting for power (caveat: the PCL is a notorious hitter’s league, although the Iowa Cubs’ division isn’t so bad) and has bumped his average up in the last week for a .270/.343/.444 line. His defensive home is still a question, as Vitters’ defense has always been sloppy. Personally, I think he’s the Cubs’ future left fielder, but without a long term answer at third, the Cubs may give Vitters a long leash when he gets called up.

Brett Jackson7. Brett Jackson    Triple A Iowa    CF
Jackson’s issues with strikeouts are well documented, and the Cubs have made an adjustment in his swing to try and correct this. Even so, Jackson has been striking out per usual. Keith Law analyzed the swing in Spring Training (Insider) and made it sound like there were a lot of kinks to get out of his swing. It’s a little early to just assume  Jackson’s stabilized his swing, so I’ll just say he’s still working on it until I read otherwise. For now, Jackson’s the same guy who needs to cut out strikeouts so the rest of his game can shine through.

Arismendy Alcantara8. Arismendy Alcantara    Double A Tennessee    SS/2B
Alcantara seems to have a slight case of Brett Jackson-itis, as he’s striking out too much for comfort (45 times in 204 PAs or 22%). It’s not a disastrous amount, but you’d like to see him cut down on them. Alcantara improved his approach and is walking more than he has in years while hitting for power and posting a fantasic stolen base percentage (14/15). Alcantara could be the long term answer at second, a fit at third, or be a nice piece of trade bait.

Pierce Johnson9. Pierce Johnson    Low A Kane County    RHP
Johnson fell in the draft due to a forearm injury, but has been fine for the Cubs so far, striking out 53 batters in 47.1 innings. Keep in mind, Johnson is a touch old for the level (he just turned 22) so his dominance isn’t that surprising. He’s only given up one home run and walked14 batters, but has been hittable, giving up 48 hits. Johnson could be more than just a mid-rotation starter, but has to prove it at more advanced levels before we get too excited.

Christian Villanueva10. Christian Villanueva    Double A Tennessee    3B
I like to compare Villanueva to Darwin Barney, because I think they have similar profiles compared to their positions. Both are talented defensive players who can provide average offense at their positions. Villanueva will never hit for much average or power, but will do enough to give him an every day job if he can, say it with me, cut out the strikeouts. Yes, Villanueva has struck out 41 times in his 184 PAs (22.3%) while posting a .247/.311/.392 line. You’d hope for a better average, so his stock has taken a tiny hit at Double A.

Stephen Bruno11. Stephen Bruno    High A Daytona    2B
And now two bonus prospects! Bruno didn’t appear on any prospect list I’ve seen, but his stat line is startling. Bruno, who is 22-years-old, has posted near-identical lines in his first two seasons in professional ball (although he’s only had 78 PAs this season). Bruno actually skipped Low A and went directly from Short Season ball to High A, and is pounding the ball with a .362/.436/.478 line (although, yes, strikeouts are a bit of an issue at 20.5%). The lack of power might send out some warning flags, but the Florida State League is the lowest run scoring environment in the minor leagues, so maybe some of his 8 doubles would have turned into home runs elsewhere. Regardless, the kid is proving that he can really hit. He’s one to keep an eye on if he gets promoted to Double A.

Dan Vogelbach12. Daniel Vogelbach    Low A Kane County    1B/DH
Vogelbach is having a season much like Candelario, hitting for average and getting on base while not hitting for much power with a .283/.351/.417 line. Vogelbach’s stock takes a much bigger hit since he’s a 1B/DH only and is a year older than Candelario. The power is still there, but it’s not showing up in games. To give a comparison, Vogelbach has 10 doubles and 5 home runs in 182 at bats this season. Vogelbach eclipsed those numbers last season in 115 Rookie Ball at bats and 168 Short Season at bats (more or less, he had 9 2B/10 HR). Everything else is there, but his weak defensive profile and position inflexibility means he has to rake to rank highly, and he’s just not doing that right now.

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