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November 7, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Chicago Cubs Top 10 Prospects

by Jason Parks

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State of the Farm:
Please don't be long. Please don't you be very long. Please don't be long.”

Prospect rankings primer

The Top Ten
1.     OF Albert Almora
2.     SS Javier Baez
3.     OF Jorge Soler
4.     RHP Arodys Vizcaino
5.     1B Dan Vogelbach
6.     OF Brett Jackson
7.     RHP Pierce Johnson
8.     RHP Duane Underwood
9.     3B Christian Villanueva
10.   RHP Dillon Maples

1. Albert Almora

Position: OF
DOB: 04/16/1994
Height/Weight: 6’1’’ 170 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2012 draft, Mater Academy Charter School (Hialeah, FL)
2012 Stats: .347/.363/.480 at rookie level AZL (18 games); .292/.292/.446 at short-season Boise (15 games)
The Tools: Shows all five; plus projections on hit/power 

What Happened in 2012: After getting drafted sixth overall, the five-tool teenager showed mature baseball skills and polish beyond his years in his brief professional debut.

Strengths: Well-rounded tool collection; feel for the game is outstanding and allows tools to play above grade; 5 arm; 5 run; 6 glove; future hit could be easy 6; excellent bat speed; gets into zone quickly and efficiently; power has above-average potential; shows advanced game skills; lauded for work ethic/makeup; now talent that could move fast.

Weaknesses: Range in CF is tied to read/react skills and instincts, not plus raw speed; lacks high-end physicality; lacks elite tools; upside isn’t as sexy as teammate Javier Baez; aggressive approach has yet to be tested; small professional sample

Overall Future Potential: 6; first-division starter

Explanation of Risk: Moderate risk; more polished than the average teenager; shows advanced feel and instincts for the game; high floor; respectable ceiling; most likely falls short of star status.

Fantasy Future: .290/.350/.450 from premium defensive position, with 10-15 home run pop, plenty of doubles, and a chance to steal 15-20 bases at a high success rate.

The Year Ahead: Almora will most likely jump to full-season ball, where he will play the majority of the year as a 19-year-old. The highly praised hit tool will be tested by more advanced pitching, and the aggressive approach will need to refine to avoid exploitation. With now skills and advanced feel, Almora should continue to progress up the prospect ranks, and has a chance to emerge as a top tier player in the minors if the solid-average skill-set plays up beyond its projection. 

Major league ETA: 2016

2. Javier Baez
Position: SS
DOB: 12/01/1992
Height/Weight: 6’1’’ 205 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2011 draft, Arlington Country Day School (Jacksonville, FL)
2012 Stats: .333/.383/.596 at Low-A Peoria (57 games); .188/.244/.400 at High-A Daytona (23 games)
The Tools: Hit tool could be elite; easy plus-plus raw power; 7 arm

What Happened in 2012: Baez made his full-season debut and absolutely raked in the often-chilly, pitcher-friendly environment of the Midwest League, showing the ability to hit for both average and power.

Strengths: Bat speed is off-the-charts; hands are incredible on both sides of the ball; electricity in the bat; very loud contact ability; hit tool could develop into monster status; raw power is at least a 7 and could end up playing that high at full maturity; arm is a 7; actions at shortstop are fluid and easy.

Weaknesses: Wild approach at the plate; swings with violent intensity; taking hacks is putting it mildly; will expand his zone and chase; pitch-recognition skills have been called into question; needs to slow the game down; overplays; range at shortstop only catalyst in down-the-line position change; fringe 5 runner at present who could end up a 4 at physical maturity

Overall Future Potential: 7; all-star level player

Explanation of Risk: Extreme risk; plays the game with reckless approach; needs to mature to reach potential; could be very special or very frustrating.

Fantasy Future: If everything clicks, Baez could hit for both a high average and high power (30-plus HR) from a position on the left side of the infield. He could be a monster.

The Year Ahead: Baez will most likely return to the Florida State League, where his aggressive approach led to weak contact and missed bats in his limited run in 2012. Pitchers at that level are equipped to expand the zone and sequence their arsenal, and Baez is a very see-ball, hit-ball type of hitter, so he will need to gain maturity with his approach to hitting; develop a plan at the plate.  The raw talent could make him one of the best prospects in the minors, as he has the type of loud tools that impact games. But his overall approach is loose and hyperactive, and will need to find a balance between intensity and field intelligence to move forward.

Major league ETA: 2015

3. Jorge Soler
Position: OF
DOB: 02/25/1992
Height/Weight: 6’3’’ 205 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: International free agent, 2012, Cuba
2012 Stats: .241/.328/.389 at rookie level AZL (14 games); .338/.398/.513 at Low-A Peoria (20 games)
The Tools: Big raw power; plus arm

What Happened in 2012: Signed as an open-market free agent to a nine-year deal worth a reported $30 million, Soler had only a limited run in stateside baseball, but looked the part of a high-ceiling talent by flashing plus-plus raw power from a corner profile.

Strengths: 7 raw power; easy bat speed; loud contact off the barrel to all fields; plays with strength and athleticism; solid approach at the plate; recognizes early; will work counts; plus arm; good carry; runs very well for a right fielder; shows some overall feel for the game; assimilation has been smooth (so far).

Weaknesses: Questions about the future utility of the hit tool based on a few mechanical hitches that could limit his ability to stay inside of quality stuff; defensive profile puts pressure on bat to achieve first-division value; unknown hurdles associated with assimilation process; small professional sample.

Overall Future Potential: 6; first-division player

Explanation of Risk: High risk; shows some now skills and a mature approach, but the bat hasn’t been tested enough; still early in assimilation process.

Fantasy Future: Could develop into a prototypical first-division right fielder; the hit tool might only play at average, but secondary skills should allow for some on-base ability and game power (25-20 HR). Shows good speed for his size and good game awareness, so he could also swipe 10-15 bases a season.

The Year Ahead: Soler was said to be ready for full-season ball out of the chute, and those reports proved to be accurate. The soon-to-be 21-year-old Cuban has plenty of bat speed and power characteristics in the swing (loft, back spin, etc.), but the present utility of the hit tool will be tested against better pitching, and the correctable hitches in the swing mechanics will need to be ironed out; Soler would often struggle to keep his hands inside and his early extension would leave him open to quality stuff on the inner half. If the hit tool is stronger than we are giving it credit for, the offensive upside will be very impressive, as Soler will profile as a middle-of-the-order force at the major-league level.

Major league ETA: 2015

4. Arodys Vizcaino
Position: RHP
DOB: 11/13/1990
Height/Weight: 6’0’’ 190 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: International free agent, 2007 (Yankees), Dominican Republic
2012 Stats: *Did not pitch in 2012; Tommy John surgery
The Tools: Plus-plus fastball; plus curve

What Happened in 2012: After a whirlwind 2011 season that saw the Dominican arm start in High-A and end up pitching in a major-league bullpen, injury put Vizcaino on the shelf for the entire 2012 campaign, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in the spring.

Strengths: Easy cheese from an explosive arm, working comfortably in the 92-95 range as a starter and touching the high-90s in bursts; very lively offering with good, late action; hard curve is another money pitch, with a tight rotation and two-plane movement; good control.

Weaknesses: Lacks size; when he slips under the ball, the lack of plane hurts him; more control than command; lives loose in the zone; changeup has more flash than fire; profiles as low-5 offering at best; injury history; delivery features some effort.

Overall Future Potential: 7; late-inning reliever (frontline setup).

Explanation of Risk: Extreme risk; injury history; likely to end up in bullpen.

Fantasy Future: Could be frontline setup arm in bullpen; closer for some teams; will miss bats in any role.

The Year Ahead: The return from Tommy John can be slow, and the command/control components are usually the last to arrive. If the raw stuff remains post-surgery, the Cubs can be patient with the fireballer until the control returns, leaving Vizcaino in Triple-A until he is ready to take the next step at the major-league level. While his role in 2013 will most likely be in a rotation, Vizcaino’s long-term role will most likely come in high-leverage situations out of the ‘pen, where his plus-plus heat and power curve have a chance to make him one of the better setup men in the game.

Major league ETA: 2011

5. Dan Vogelbach
Position: 1B
DOB: 12/17/1992
Height/Weight: 6’0’’ 250 lbs. (listed; generous)
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted/Acquired: 2nd round, 2011 draft, Bishop Verot High School (Fort Myers, FL)
2012 Stats: .324/.391/.686 at rookie level AZL (24 games); .322/.423/.608 at short-season Boise (37 games)
The Tools: Enormous raw power; plus potential hit tool; big makeup

What Happened in 2012: After starting back at the complex league, Vogelbach continued to show that the thump in his bat is legit, knocking 41 extra-base hits in only 61 games across two levels.

Strengths: Light-tower power; 80 raw; generates tremendous bat speed with fast hands and fluid hip explosion; stroke is shorter than most power hitters; quick and easy to the ball; doesn’t have to sell out for power stroke; ball naturally explodes off the bat; loud contact to all fields; makeup is championed by every source contacted for the report; big personality.

Weaknesses: Bad body; lacks defensive value; profiles as bat-only first baseman or designated hitter; limited range; poor speed; below-average defender at first; can be beat with pitchability, particularly spotted balls off-middle or quality velo under the hands; immense pressure on the bat for success; will have to prove it at every level.

Overall Future Potential: 6; first-division player

Explanation of Risk: High risk because of bat-only profile; plus makeup and natural hitting ability give him a chance.

Fantasy Future: Power could play above 6; .280-plus batting average is possible; won’t steal bases and won’t provide defensive value of any kind.

The Year Ahead: Because he is built like an offensive lineman, Vogelbach will need to mash at every level to win over the scouts that are skeptical of his body and his overall profile. Full-season will be a test, but Vogelbach’s simple swing allows for contact and now power, and that should continue at the next level. Yes; he will have to prove his legitimacy at every stop on the way to the majors. But the bat is very real, and if you can look beyond the profile and focus on his offensive potential, its easy to see why the Cubs gave the kid with Prince Fielder’s body $1.6 million out of high school.

Major league ETA: 2016

6. Brett Jackson
Position: OF
DOB: 08/02/1988
Height/Weight: 6’2’’ 210 lbs.
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2009 draft, University of California (Berkeley)
2012 Stats: .256/.338/.479 at Triple-A Iowa (106 games); .175/.303/.342 at major league level (44 games).
The Tools: Can show all five tools; four tools grade at avg-to-plus

What Happened in 2012: After a solid, but not spectacular Triple-A campaign, Jackson received a call to the majors, where a two-month look exposed the flaws in his offensive approach and weakened his ultimate projection.

Strengths: Average defender in center field; can play all three outfield spots; run is plus; raw power is above-average; has on-base skills and will make a pitcher dig into the arsenal; shows a feel for the game; big work ethic. 

Weaknesses: Lacks a loud tool; hit tool is fringe-average at best; plays lower; arm is only average; defensive profile in center is only average; game features too much swing-and-miss; overmatched by quality stuff; hasn’t progressed much since college; profile closer to fourth outfielder than role 5 projection.

Overall Future Potential: 5; major-league regular

Explanation of Risk: Moderate risk; already achieved major-league level; works hard; competes; good chance to carve out major-league career.

Fantasy Future: If Jackson achieves his ceiling, he could start up the middle, with a low batting average (.~250) and lots of strikeouts, but enough secondary skills to have value (on-base, 15-20 HR, 15-20 steals).

The Year Ahead: Jackson’s disappointing major-league debut left many moving off the projection that he could be a solid-average regular at that level. While his defense in center can play, his hit tool is a major concern; he simply doesn’t make enough quality contact for the secondary offensive skills to keep his bat in the lineup. A step forward with the hit tool utility and Jackson could find himself penciled into a major-league lineup for the foreseeable future. But if the same the level of swing-and-miss exists in 2013 as he did in his debut, Jackson will either find himself back in the minors or settling into his role as a fourth outfielder.

Major league ETA:

7. Pierce Johnson
Position: RHP
DOB: 05/10/1991
Height/Weight: 6’3’’ 170 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2012 draft, Missouri State University (Springfield, MO)
2012 Stats: 0.00 era (3 IP, 4H, 2 K, 0 BB) at rookie level AZL; 4.50 era (8 IP, 10 H, 12 K, 3 BB) at short-season Boise.
The Tools: Plus fastball; plus potential curveball

What Happened in 2012: Injury concerns pushed Johnson into the supplemental first-round, and a limited professional viewing still leaves more questions than answers about his true potential.

Strengths: Good size and wiry strength; fastball works in the 90-93 range, but he can get more when he needs it; good angle to pitch; good sinking action; can get ahead with the pitch; curveball is hard breaker; 81-84 mph, with late break, good shape, and depth; deep arsenal; will also show a cut fastball and a changeup; knows how to miss bats.

Weaknesses: Hasn’t been able to stay healthy; delivery has some effort; deliberate with secondary arsenal; changeup is inconsistent; doesn’t play as average offering yet.

Overall Future Potential: High 5/Low 6; no. 3 starter at the major-league level

Explanation of Risk: High risk; injury history with the arm; behind the developmental curve.

Fantasy Future: Has bat-missing ability and a deep arsenal; has mid-rotation ceiling; body needs to prove it can hold innings, but should be able to produce good counting stats like wins/strikeouts if healthy and in a rotation.

The Year Ahead: Johnson just needs to log innings and work to refine his arsenal through repetition and consistency. Because of mature pitch mix and control ability, should be able to make the jump to High-A, where his punchy low-90s heater and hard curve should continue to miss bats. He has a chance to be a good rotation horse. He just needs to stay healthy.

Major league ETA: 2015

8. Duane Underwood
Position: RHP
DOB: 07/20/1994
Height/Weight: 6’2’’ 205 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 2nd round, 2012, Pope High School (Marietta, GA)
2012 Stats: 5.19 era (8.2 IP, 7 H, 7K, 6 BB) at rookie level AZL
The Tools: Easy plus velocity in fastball; plus potential curveball

What Happened in 2012: Selected in the 2nd round and given over a million dollars to sign, Underwood remains a projectable mystery, logging only 8 2/3 innings in his rookie season.

Strengths: Huge arm strength; electric fastball that has the potential to be special; will work in the plus velocity range with some sink; has touched higher; arm is very fast; ball explodes from the release; it's easy velocity now and projects to work even higher; changeup shows some maturity for his age; plays well off fastball, with fastball arm speed and slot consistency; good action to the arm-side; plus athlete; curveball has plus potential

Weaknesses: Limited professional sample; arm works well, but low pickup and drag force it to go a long way; secondary arsenal is immature; delivery is athletic, but inconsistent, and control is below-average at present.

Overall Future Potential: High-6/low-7; no. 2 starter at the major-league level.

Explanation of Risk: Extreme; only 18-years-old; wide gap between present and future; ~10 professional innings under his belt.

Fantasy Future: Electric arsenal could produce high strikeouts totals; has the potential to be a 15-plus game winner (based on ultimate upside).

The Year Ahead: I highly doubt Underwood stats above the complex league level, especially given the limited body of work and arsenal inconsistencies. He’s super young and super talented, so going slow and low makes sense; you want to slowly build the monster, not rush the pieces together for the sake of promotion and exposure. This prospect could take time, and perhaps this ranking is premature. But the ceiling is enormous, and the scouts who have seen Underwood flash the high-ceiling stuff don’t save the superlatives when asked about his profile. He could be special.

Major league ETA: 2017

9. Christian Villanueva
Position: 3B
DOB: 06/19/1991
Height/Weight: 5’11’’ 160 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: International free agent, 2008, Mexico (Guadalajara, MX)
2012 Stats: .285/.356/.421 at High-A Myrtle Beach (100 games); .250/.337/.452 at High-A Daytona (25 games)
The Tools: 7 glove; 6 arm; 5 power potential; big makeup

What Happened in 2012: After a solid offensive performance in the hitter-unfriendly environments of the Carolina League, Villanueva was traded from Texas to the Cubs (along with Kyle Hendricks), in exchange for Ryan Dempster.

Strengths: Plus (to plus-plus) defensive profile, with an ultra-slick glove, strong arm, and solid range; excellent feel for the position; soft hands in the field; quick reactions; good instincts for the ball; fast hands at the plate; can square velocity and stay inside pitches; shows the ability to hit for some power; works the gaps; mature approach; isn’t fast, but runs the bases well and plays with intelligence; hard worker.

Weaknesses: Lacks typical offensive profile for third base; shows impressive bat speed, but overall hit tool utility is average at best; struggles against quality breaking stuff; power most likely limited to 10-15 home runs; body is physically mature and could lose a full speed grade if he adds bad weight.

Overall Future Potential: 5; solid-average regular at major-league level

Explanation of Risk: Moderate risk; mature player with mature skill-set; doesn’t need big grade jumps to compete.

Fantasy Future: Not an ideal offensive third baseman, but could hit .260-plus, with good secondary skills (on-base/power); can surprise people and swipe a few bases; plays defense at a very high level.

The Year Ahead: Villanueva should be moving up to Double-A, which is often the biggest test for young hitters. With a good plan at the plate, he won’t be overwhelmed by the talent, but the utility of the hit tool will be tested. If he can make contact and keep the secondary skills a part of his game, he should remain a top 10 prospect in the system going forward. The ceiling isn’t crazy, but the glove is legit, the makeup is legit, and the bat isn’t completely empty despite not being a plus weapon.

Major league ETA: 2014

10. Dillon Maples
Position: RHP
DOB: 05/09/1992
Height/Weight: 6’2’’ 195 lbs.
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 14th round, 2011 draft, Pinecrest High School (Southern Pines, NC)
2012 Stats: 4.35 (10.1 IP, 6 H, 12 K, 10 BB) at rookie level AZL
The Tools: Big arm strength; plus fastball/curveball potential.

What Happened in 2012: After signing for $2.5M in 2011, Maples has only managed to log 10 1/3 professional innings thanks to injury.

Strengths: Plus-plus fastball potential; can work the pitch in the 92-96 range, and has touched higher; has good plane; pitches taller than 6’2’’; natural weight makes the ball difficult to lift; curveball is power breaker, thrown as hard as 82-84 mph, with 12/6 movement; projects as plus pitch; good overall athlete.

Weaknesses: Delivery isn’t fluid or repeatable; doesn’t finish; doesn’t make it look easy; command is well below-average; fastball velocity is inconsistent; changeup is still underdeveloped; limited on-the-field experience at the professional level

Overall Future Potential: High 6; no. 2/3 starter at the major-league level.

Explanation of Risk: Extreme risk; injury history; mechanical red flags; needs big grade jumps.

Fantasy Future: Has the potential to pitch in the middle of a major-league rotation, and maybe more if he reaches his ceiling. He will have the stuff to miss bats, and could emerge as a rotation horse if he can stay healthy and find arsenal maturity. High ceiling, but extremely high risk.

The Year Ahead: Maples needs to stay healthy and pitch. He is slowly falling behind the developmental curve, but it won’t matter if the light turns on and the arm stays in good shape. The delivery needs work, and arm strength could use a heavy dose of four-seamer repetition, but 2013 could be a big year for Maples if he can just log innings and get back into the flow of consistent pitching. The Cubs spent $2.5 million on Maples for a good reason, and any step forward in 2013 is a step in the right direction.

Major league ETA: 2017

Prospects on the Rise

1. RHP Juan Carlos Paniagua: Could easily be in the top 10 based on arm strength alone; numerous identity-related complications in his past; signed as a free agent over the summer for $1.5 million; has potential for plus-plus fastball/plus slider combo; limited size, experience, and age (23 for 2013) might push his electric arm into the ‘pen. Big potential.

2. SS/2B Marco Hernandez: With solid defensive tools on the left-side of the infield, an aggressive contact approach at the plate, and plus speed, Hernandez looks like a promising utility option in the making. If he continues to improve at the plate--showing real sting in the bat and the ability to use the gaps—he has the potential for an even higher ceiling and a jump up the prospect rankings.

3. 3B Jeimer Candelario: The 18-year-old kid can really stick it, showing excellent bat speed and a mature approach for his age/level. His defensive profile isn’t as promising as the bat, so he will need to shine at the plate to jump up the rankings during the season. Good player to keep an eye on in full-season ball.

Factors on the Farm (Prospects likely to contribute at the ML level in 2013)

1.RHP Tony Zych: Live-armed reliever with a plus-plus fastball and the ability to throw strikes. He lacks a closer’s ceiling because his complementary arsenal lacks a nasty pitch, but he should still find himself pitching in a late-inning capacity at some point in 2013. 

2.RHP Trey McNutt: Former rotation prospect turned reliever has a chance to shine in short bursts, working with a 92-97 mph fastball and hard curve. The command needs work, but if he can continue to show sharp stuff, he can thrive in the bullpen with other average command. 

3.IF Junior Lake: A polarizing prospect, Lake’s tools scream of major-league impact, but his execution still leaves a lot to be desired. Assuming his tool utility takes a step forward, both at the plate and in the field, Lake will be in a good position to taste the major leagues.

Top 10 Talents 25 And Under (born 4/1/87 or later)

1.     Starlin Castro
2.     Anthony Rizzo
3.     Albert Almora
4.     Javier Baez
5.     Jorge Soler
6.     Arodys Vizcaino
7.     Dan Vogelbach
8.     Brett Jackson
9.     Pierce Johnson
10.   Duane Underwood

The Cubs just aren’t very good right now. Coming off a 61-101 season, the team lacks high upside talent at or near the major-league level. Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Brett Jackson are the only players on this list who appeared in big-league games in 2012. Castro and Rizzo are monsters, and Jackson could still become a solid contributor down the road. 2013 will be a great season for fans of the Daytona Cubs and Kane County Cougars, with multiple toolsy, high-upside bonus babies coming to town. The biggest thing for the Cubs next year will be the development of their lower-level talents. The big-league team will continue to suffer, but the Cubs have a valuable asset in the trade market with Matt Garza, who will be a free agent after the season. The high-upside talent at the bottom of the system should be supplemented with a nice package of prospects if and when Theo Epstein and company decide to pull the trigger on a Garza deal. Hudson Belinsky

A Parting Thought:….With a casual glance, the Cubs system might appear to be top heavy, with a partisan lean towards high-ceiling bats. But the deeper you dig, the more raw talent you discover on the mound, and even though it’s immature and a sizeable journey away from legitimacy, the talent is there to develop high-ceiling arms to match the high-ceiling bats.

Link to last year's Cubs rankings

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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