With four players arguably among the top 30 prospects in all of baseball, the future looks bright for the Chicago Cubs.
Of course, it was just a decade ago that names like Mark Prior, Angel Guzman and Juan Cruz littered top-100 lists. But as the saying goes, there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, so it's likely a good thing the current Cubs system is heavy in high-ceiling offensive talent. They don't possess an elite, Archie Bradley-like arm, but through bulk-drafting and some shrewd trades, the Cubs have put together a solid group of pitchers, many of whom project as solid mid-rotation candidates or slightly better.
The fact is, if the topic of the Cubs system is brought up in front of opposing talent evaluators, one will quite often find oneself in a long conversation. Long gone are the days of people wondering who, beyond one or two players, has any real future impact in the Cubs system. In fact, Brett Jackson, who not so long ago sat atop the Cubs' prospect rankings, would find himself among the back half of a Cubs top 10, even if he were still at his peak prospect value.
A few things to remember here: This is not a top-10 list or even a ranking of any sort. It's just a quick glimpse at some players who range from superstar potential to role player. Trying to judge a minor league player on his statistics is a highly imperfect way of analyzing prospects. Minor league stats never tell the whole story. That's why, as always, much of the information provided here is gathered from discussions with scouts and front office members from around the league.
Position: SS Age: 20 Highest level in 2013: Double-A Tennessee
It's not often that broaching the topic of what a prospect could do at the major league level if everything goes right leads scouts to giggle with excitement, but that's what Baez's bat does to people. After struggling early at High-A Daytona, Baez quickly turned things around and forced a promotion by posting an .873 OPS with 17 home runs in 76 games in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (FSL), then went on to terrorize opposing team's pitchers at Tennessee.
Baez has easy 70 power (on the 20-80 scouting scale) and those who are bullish on him can squint and see a future 70 hit tool (though a 55-60 rating seems to be the industry consensus). Throw in his knack for coming up big late in close games and it's easy to see why the list is short of minor leaguers who have a higher ceiling with the bat.
In 54 games at Double-A, Baez's elite bat speed continued to wow scouts, while delivering numbers to do the same. With a .294/.346/.638 line and 20 home runs and 15 doubles, it's clear why many believe Baez will be ready to send fastballs over the ivy at Wrigley Field at some point in 2014.
That's not to say that Baez is without his warts. Baez struck out 147 times with only 40 walks and committed 44 errors at two levels this season. Baez is an aggressive player who believes he can hit any pitch when he's at the plate and make any play while on defense. The defensive issues have nothing to do with fundamentals, but reining in his at times out-of-control play would do a lot in helping him reduce the errors.
As far as his aggressiveness at the plate, Baez has definitely taken some strides in 2013. The slider breaking low and away from him was quite often a bugaboo, but he's learning to stay away from the offering, forcing pitchers to come back over the plate and often making them pay for that decision. Baez also had numerous games in August in which he'd see 25 or more pitches in only four or five at-bats. Not only does seeing so many pitches wear down the opposition with a rising pitch count, but it increases the likelihood that Baez will see a pitch more to his liking. When that happens, good things usually follow.
Early in his career, there were questions about Baez's makeup, but those have quickly faded away and proven to be a non-issue. When watching Baez play, effort is never a question. In fact it's his intensity that sometimes gets the best of him.
What we saw from Baez this season was a big step forward. He still has work to do before the questions subside, but Baez has passed the biggest test a player will face at the minor league level by having a monster season at Double-A. Now it's just a matter of time before he has the opportunity to show what he can do at the big-league level.
Position: 3B Age: 21 Highest level in 2013: High-A Daytona
Physically, Bryant is an imposing figure, measuring every bit of 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, and, as one American League scouting director put it, "is an Adonis." Byrant doesn't have a lot of wasted effort in his swing. It's very quiet and quick, leading to very real and very ridiculous power. The plate approach is advanced for his age and even in college, when pitchers weren't offering him much toward the end of a historic 31 home run season with the University of San Diego, Bryant never pressed or got frustrated. He just took what pitchers gave him and continued to produce.
While many in the industry believe Bryant won't stick at third base, the Cubs firmly believe he has what it takes to play there and eventually be an average defender at the position. His impressive flexibility in his torso and back area are important for a player of his height to be able to get down quickly on ground balls and would go a long way if he were to play third base in the big leagues. However, if he does move out of necessity (the Cubs have numerous players in the system who project on the left side of the infield), he has the arm and athleticism to play a strong right field.
Bryant has drawn comparisons to former Angels third baseman Troy Glaus, but a more apt physical comp may be Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth. Bryant isn't as thick in his upper legs and hips, is lighter on his feet and runs better than Glaus ever did.
Bryant has proved early in his career to be a plus-plus make-up guy, displaying a true passion for the game and strong work ethic on and off the field. Posting a 1.078 OPS with nine home runs in 36 games at three levels this season doesn't hurt either. With his advanced skill level, Bryant is undoubtedly a candidate to move through the system quickly and find himself in the big leagues in the latter half of the 2014 season.
Position: CF Age: 19 Highest level in 2013: Low-A Kane County
Almora's season started late while he recovered from a broken hamate bone and ended early due to a painful bone bruise in his groin area. But when he was on the field, Almora displayed all the tools that made the Cubs select him with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Almora likely will never bring much to the table in the home run department, but it won't matter because he will hit at a high level (he posted a .329/.376/.466 line in 61 games with the Cougars) and his value really ticks up with his ability to play plus-defense in center field. Almora relies on strong instincts, rather than speed, while roaming the outfield. His defense is so strong that if he were currently on the Cubs roster, he'd be a candidate for the team's best defensive outfielder.
Hardly a burner, Almora isn't much of a threat to steal a base, but he has shown flashes of strong baserunning skills and has the ability to go first to third on a single.
But with the pair of injuries mentioned above, as well as a hamstring issue that popped up while running the bases on a cold, wet Kane County evening, there are those in the industry who worry about Almora's durability. The issue was exacerbated when Almora tried to play through the bone bruise in July and many opposing talent evaluators witnessed trainers frequently making in-game trips to Almora.
However, Almora has never displayed an issue with injuries in his past and the hope on the Cubs side of things is that they will be proven to be of no concern after a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League this October.
Position: OF Age: 21 Highest level in 2013: High-A Daytona
Soler had an eye-opening spring that vaulted him into the consciousness of the national media, and immediately the hype took off. Soler appeared to be justifying the hype early on, posting a .281/.343/.467 line in 55 games at Daytona, but a stress fracture in his left tibia ended his season prematurely.
While healthy, Soler drew positive reviews for his day-to-day approach and the progress he was making at his age in the FSL. Ideally, the powerfully-built Cuban would have taken the same path as Baez and ended his season in Double-A. Prior to his injury, that appeared to be the case, as there were whispers that he was close to garnering a promotion.
Now the hope is that Soler recovers fully from the stress fracture, often a very painful and aggravating injury, and makes up for some of his lost developmental time by playing well in the Arizona Fall League. If Soler passes that test and remains healthy, it's expected that he'll open 2014 in Tennessee, and many believe he has all the tools to quickly vault himself back among the elite prospects in baseball.
Position: 2B Age: 21 Highest level in 2013: Double-A Tennessee
With Soler injured and Baez losing a fan vote to Astros top prospect Carlos Correa, Alcantara was the Cubs' lone representative at the Futures Game in July. Alcantara took full advantage of the opportunity and immediately announced his presence to a national audience by sending a booming home run to deep right field at Citi Field.
Alcantara broke out in 2012, but since his season was cut short due to an injury, not many outside of the Cubs organization realized just how talented he truly was until this year. Alcantara followed his strong, but truncated, 2012 by displaying some surprising power that scouts believe is very legit and here to stay. Standing at just 5-foot-10, Alcantara's unexpected pop helped him post an .804 OPS with 15 home runs and 36 doubles on the season.
With 31 steals in 37 attempts in 2013 and an impressive career success rate of 80 percent, Alcantara provides the Cubs with the rare power/speed combination at a middle infield position. Though he manned shortstop for the first part of the year, Alcantara shifted to second when Baez arrived at Tennessee. While possessing a strong and accurate enough arm to play on the left side of the infield, Alcantara projects to stick at second -- where he'll likely be no more than an average defender -- as he proceeds to Triple-A in 2014 and into the bigs.
Alcantara is a switch hitter who is stronger from the left side but made big strides from the right in 2013. He's known to be a diligent worker and it's that ethic that's helped push him from the periphery of Cubs prospects to a level just below the elite four of Baez, Bryant, Almora and Soler.
Position: 1B Age: 20 Highest level in 2013: High-A Daytona
Vogelbach is known for his power, but it's his plus hit tool and ability to drive the ball to all fields that makes him a strong offensive talent. By the looks of him, one would assume that Vogelbach would be a pull-happy, strikeout prone lefty, but that's hardly the case with the burly, Florida native. To go along with his plus raw power, Vogelbach has strong contact ability and is more of a pure hitter than most would imagine.
Vogelbach started the season off slowly at Kane County, as his in-game power wasn't evident early on. This was likely due to the fact that as a 20-year-old kid who grew up playing baseball in Ft. Myers, experiencing extended periods of cold weather for the first time can be a shock to the senses. Of course, it's an atmosphere that Vogelbach will have to adjust to if he hopes to have success during April at Wrigley Field. While the home run numbers weren't where some had hoped early, he did drive the ball well and in a year a two, a few more of those balls will find their way over the fence. And to his credit, he did get hot as the weather turned, ending his time in low-A with 17 home runs.
There are those who aren't nearly as high on Vogelbach's bat. And if a scout isn't high on his bat, there isn't much else to like. Scouts who have seen Vogelbach say he has questionable hands in the field, doesn't position himself well defensively and has little to no range. To continue to progress into the big leagues, Vogelbach is going to have to hit at an above-average level on a consistent basis. Right now, it appears Vogelbach is a DH stuck in a National League system. One scout who wasn't particularly fond of the bat felt that Vogelbach was heading toward being a "4A" player, "a guy who mashes in Triple-A, but ends up going to Japan."
Obviously there are many who feel differently, including plenty in the Cubs organization. It's their hope that Vogelbach takes advantage of the nice weather early on in Daytona and hits his way to Tennessee before the end of the 2014 season.
Position: SP Age: 22 Highest level in 2013: High-A Daytona
Johnson answered just about every question facing a pitcher in his first full professional year. Coming into the season, Johnson was pretty advanced as a pitcher who already displayed above-average velocity on his fastball and a well above-average breaking ball. Johnson lived up to the expectations by carving up opponents in the Midwest League, striking out 74 and walking just 22 in 69 2/3 innings, earning a promotion to Daytona.
Johnson continued to impress in the FSL, showing the consistent ability to miss bats, throw strikes and limit damage and home runs. As a thinner guy (at 6-3, Johnson weight hovers around 180), there could have been questions about his durability, but he held up well throughout the year and the stuff never deteriorated in August.
Johnson has a strong chance to get to the majors and reach his ceiling as a solid middle-of-the-rotation option.
Position: SP Age: 22 Highest level in 2013: High-A Daytona
When acquired from the Rangers in the Matt Garza deal, Edwards was immediately moved up from Low-A to High-A and promptly continued to put up eye-popping numbers. Between two levels this season, Edwards posted a 1.86 ERA with 155 strikeouts and 41 walks in 116 1/3 innings pitched.
To go along with the impressive statistics, Edwards also has plus stuff. A fastball that ranges anywhere from 90-96 mph with life, a devastating curveball (that one talent evaluator characterized as a "separator") and a developing change-up that projects as average to plus, has made Edwards a nightmare for opponents.
The big question on Edwards is his size (6-foot-2 and 160 pounds), with one rival front office executive describing him as "frail" and saying, "he's not designed to be big." The size concerns lead many to project Edwards as a reliever (though a very good one) because of fears that he'd be unable to handle the high inning totals expected of a major league starter.
However, the Cubs are betting on Edwards being the exception to the rule. He answered the first round of questions about his durability and how his stuff would hold up throughout the year, but he still has a way to go before the doubters are silenced. There are pitchers of Edwards' stature who have defied the odds and like those who have succeeded before him, Edwards possesses the strong athleticism needed to overcome his small frame.
While the Cubs would be thrilled if he turned out to be an elite late-inning reliever, they're clearly going to bet on his savvy feel for pitching and three plus-pitches and hope he develops into a front-of-the-rotation starter.
Position: SP Age: 19 Highest level in 2013: Short Season-A Boise
At 19, Blackburn is still developing physically, and although he gained about 15 pounds prior to the season, he still has another 15-20 to put on before he's at the weight he'd ideally pitch at in the big leagues. Blackburn has a really advanced feel for pitching and is a strong athlete on the mound.
Blackburn had an up and down season in 2013, and after battling through what one front office executive described as a bit of a "dead arm" period, he finished the year strong.
Blackburn's final start was possibly his most impressive, striking out nine and walking just one while allowing one run on three hits in five innings. Not only were the results impressive, but his curveball was consistently hitting 80 mph toward the end of the season, a great sign because it signifies top-notch arm speed.
Blackburn pitches off his fastball, which usually sits around 92 mph and moves it around, often to his own detriment. He'll nibble on the corners, and while his command is very good, this tactic often leads to hitter's counts and walks. Scouts believe he needs to stop trying to make the perfect pitch and just trust his stuff and continue to make quality pitches.
But Blackburn's tendencies are nothing uncommon for pitchers of his age. If he continues to progress, he has the ceiling to be in the similar vein of an Alex Cobb, nothing overwhelming in the repertoire, but three solid pitches and a strong feel for pitching.
Position: SP Age: 23 Highest level in 2013: Triple-A Iowa
Hendricks was dominant in 21 starts at Tennessee, using pinpoint control to post a 1.85 ERA, while walking only 26 batters in 126 1/3 innings. He was nearly as strong at Iowa, using his expertise in pitching to the scouting report and locating all his pitches to wrap up a very impressive season.
Hendricks sits at 88-91 mph with his fastball, has a developing slider and a plus changeup. Hendricks won't blow a hitter away with his stuff, so his ability to execute his pitches and being able to exploit a hitter's weaknesses are the reasons he has been able to consistently deliver strong performances. Hendricks' tendency to pitch to the corners, keep the ball down and rarely miss over the plate -- he allowed only five home runs on the year -- has led to his extreme success at the minor league level.
The key to Hendricks' future success will be the continued development of his slider. If he can command it to the point where he keeps major league hitters off balance and away from sitting on his fastball, he's got a chance to have a long career as a back-of-the-rotation starter. However, if he can't get any consistency on the breaking ball, he'll likely be no more than a pitcher who yo-yos between Triple-A and the majors, making spots starts here and there.
With the lack of walks issued, Hendricks gives his team a little leeway if he's getting hit, but ultimately he's going to have to get righties out on a consistent basis, making the slider crucial to his future. The next step in his career, retiring major league hitters on a consistent basis, will be his biggest challenge.