Chicago Cubs

Original Published Date: Sept. 19, 2012

In Theo Epstein’s first year on the job, he inherited not only an old and weak major league franchise, but a minor league system with few impact prospects.  One such prospect was Javier Baez, a teenager with incredible bat speed a very bright future.  Epstein’s first two moves were to add Jorge Soler, a power hitting corner outfield from Cuba and the drafting of high-school center fielder, Albert Almora.  This gives the Cubs three elite prospects and more importantly, provides the Cubs faithful with much needed hope.

Unfortunately, after those three, it thins out quickly with outfielder Matt Szczur and third baseman Christian Villaneuva the only other notable top talents.  The biggest problem is the lack of pitching depth as once touted prospect, Trey McNutt and 2010 first round selection, Hayden Simpson have really struggled.  Clearly Epstein recognized the lack of pitching talent and proceeded to take seven straight pitchers after drafting Almora in 2012 with Missouri State’s Pierce Johnson, providing the highest upside.

1.  Javier Baez (SS)

2013 Age: 20 BP: Florida
Ht:6-1  Weight:205 Bats: Right Throws: Right ETA: 2015
2012 AA 293 50 16 46 20 .294 .342 76.5 4.8 .333

For many Cubs fans, the world started with the hiring of Theo Epstein.  Yes, there has been a long history of miscues, but one move that former General Manager Jim Hendry did right was the drafting and signing of Javier Baez in the very deep draft of 2011.

Drafted out of Arlington County Day High School in Jacksonville Florida with the ninth pick, the first thing you notice when Baez swings a bat is the Rickie Weekesque bat speed.  With great bat speed not only comes power potential but the ability to allow pitches to travel deep into the zone before pulling the trigger. This skill becomes the essence of a plus hit tool and why Cubs fan should get very excited about Baez.  In the pitcher friendly Midwest League, Baez showed off his plus hit tool by batting .294 with 16 home runs while slugging .525.  On the negative, Baez prefers to swing rather than work a count as his 14 walks in 293 at bats demonstrates.  Plus, he did struggle in a small sample size of 80 at bats in High-A at the end of 2012 season, batting .188 with four home runs.

At 6-1 and 205 lbs, the question of position has surfaced.  While Baez can definitely play shortstop now, he is still a teenager and many believe that he will outgrow the position and wind up at third.  However, that determination will not be made for quite some time.  So far, his size has not limited his speed as Baez swiped 20 bases while only being caught 3 times.  That said, he’s not a burner and as he matures, his speed will diminish.

Finally, any profile of Javier Baez must include a mention of his high energy and all-out style of play.  While this will endear him to fans, he will have growing pains as he moves through his baseball education.  For instance, in his second game as a professional, Baez swung in the ninth inning of a blow-out and the opposing manager took exception and Baez was subsequently benched for the following game.  This attitude should not be viewed as a negative but just something he will have to balance as he moves through the development process.

Fantasy Impact: I view Baez as an elite prospect, not quite at the same level of Manny Machada, but as one of the better fantasy potential shortstops in the minor leagues.

2.   Albert Almora (OF)

2013 Age: 19 BP: Florida
Ht:6-1  Weight: 170 Bats: Right Throws: Right ETA:2016
2012 SS 140 27 2 19 5 .321 .331 90.7 3.6 .344

From the very first mock drafts that were published in early 2012, the Cubs were on Albert Almora as their selection.  They were rumored to be so enamored with the 6-1 high school talent, that if they had the first pick in the draft, Almora would have been their pick.  So, why all the fuss…

Albert Almora has solid to plus skills across the board.  First, his glove and center field coverage is already major league ready and as with Javier Baez, Almora has plus bat speed that should generate above average power when he matures.  For now, his 170 lbs frame should generate hard contact that should yield a lot of doubles and his speed should turn some of those doubles into triples.

While Almora’s speed grades out as a 65, he has great instincts on the bases and therefore the speed should translate into 20+ stolen bases.

In his limited exposure to professional ball, Almora had a nice start.  In 140 at-bats, he had a terrific 90% contact rate, but as with Baez, he likes to swing the lumber and only walked two times.  That’s two times in a 140 at-bats.  I’m not yet worried as in the lowest levels of the minor league, making contact is more important and Almora is not having problems in that area.

Fantasy Impact: Almora has a chance to be an elite fantasy player as a prototypical leadoff batter, assuming he learns how to take a walk.  Initially, that should translate into runs, stolen bases and batting average upside.  However, as he matures, he should add power to the arsenal and possibly move to a number three hitter.

3.     Jorge Soler (OF)

2013 Age: 21 BP: Cuba
Ht:6-2  Weight:205 Bats: Right Throws: Right ETA:2016
2012 LowA 134 28 5 25 12 .299 .369 85.8 9.0 .315

The Cubs signed the Cuban defector, Jorge Soler on June 11, 2012 to a nine year $30 million contract as the first acquisition by the Theo Epstein regime.   While Soler has above average speed, a cannon for an arm, and the wheels to cover center field, the Cubs paid $30 million for the 70+ grade power.

As we’ve learned with the Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and even Yoenis Cespedes large signings, power has quickly become the scarce commodity in baseball and recognizing this, the Cubs made the plunge with Soler.   While a nine year investment is large, scouts believe in the power and because of his young age, also believe that with proper development, he has a very good chance to discover that power.

While his 2012 professional performance was not overwhelming, it did show the potential.  In 134 at-bats, Soler batted .299 with a .369 OBP and a .463 slugging, including 5 home runs.  His strikeout to walk ratio was impressive at 19K/12BB.

Fantasy Impact: Soler has a chance to be a main stay in the middle of the Cubs lineup for a very long-time.  He should hit for power with a .270+ batting average with good speed.  How much power?  If the power fully develops, he could hit for 30+ home runs annually.

4.    Matt Szczur (OF)

2013 Age: 23 BP: New Jersey
Ht:6-1  Weight: 195 Bats: Right Throws: Right ETA: 2015
2012 AA 438 92 4 40 42 .267 .344 82.0 11.6 .317

The Cubs top three prospects will likely be on my 2013 Top 100 list and all have chance to be in the upper half.  Unfortunately, there is a fairly large drop off after the top three.  Enter Matt Szczur…

Szczur (pronounced like Ceaser), is a toolsy two-sport athlete out of Villanova, who was better known for his football exploits than his baseball ability.  Szczur’s calling card is his speed, which is plus-plus with clock times down to first at less than 4.0 seconds.  He’s also demonstrated a nice glove in centerfield with an ability to cover a lot of ground, although his baseball instincts are not great as he does take some interesting paths to the ball.

Some scouts do see power developing, but in my scouting of Szczur, I see no leverage in his swing and instead, a player who is throwing his bat at the ball.  That said, I could see him having an above average hit tool that should translate into a .270 batting average as his speed should help provide a high BABIP.

Fantasy Impact: Szczur’s upside is a Ben Revere or Denard Span type of player, however, their hit tools were more developed at the same age as Szczur.  He’s a flyer in a Dynasty League, definitely a 150 prospect at this juncture of his development.

5.   Christian Villanueva (3B)

2013 Age: 21 BP:Mexico
Ht:5-11 Weight:160 Bats: Right Throws: Right ETA: 2015
2012 AA 459 59 14 68 14 .279 .349 76.7 7.4 .335

Christian Villanueva was the centerpiece of the Ryan Dempster trade to Texas and it was a fine haul for the Cubs.  While Villanueva does not have loud tools, his greatest strength is that he’s solid average across the board with his glove and arm enabling him to profile as a major league regular at third.

His approach at the plate is good, particularly his two strike approach as he shortens up his swing considerably.  While it’s not necessarily long early in the count, it can get loose.  He does have power and can steal double digit stolen bases.

There’s definitely a solid regular in Villanueva and while some believe that Vitters is the long-term answer at third, I believe Villanueva has a much better chance, assuming Baez does not move over.

Fantasy Impact: At this point, Villanueva is only rosterable in deeper dynasty leagues.  That said, there is definitely something there and fantasy owners need to be tracking his progress.

11 comments on “Chicago Cubs

  1. Soler did not play in AA

  2. Szczur has no business being up there, not even Top 10 anymore by most people.

    And where’s Vizcaino? Jackson? Vogelbach? All three higher than Szczur and Villanueva, and Vizcaino is easily a Top 100, and Jackson should still be in the conversation for that despite the down season.

    • I still have the bottom five. Vizcaino will be #6 and Vogelbach will be there as well. I’ve been very outspoken about Jackson and worry about his ability to make contact. I spoke about that at length on our most recent podcast. Szczur…you could be right but I like him more than most of the other Cubs prospects. More of an indictment of the depth of the org as opposed to my support of Szczur.

  3. I just assumed there were only 5 prospects in the Cubs system that were worth the time to review. (insert stupid smiley emoticon here)

    Love what you’re doing here Rich. Looking forward to 6–10.

  4. What happened to nos. 6-10?

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