Hitting prospects abound; pitching lacking

Keith Law ranks Javier Baez, right, as the Cubs' top prospect with Jorge Soler, left, No. 3. Jennifer Hilderbrand/USA TODAY Sports

This week ESPN.com Insider Keith Law released his annual prospect rankings both in terms of players and organizations. Not surprisingly, Law confirmed what we already knew about the Chicago Cubs: They're top heavy when it comes to potential impact bats but still could be lacking in impact pitching.

Having said that, the Cubs have improved their prospect base on the mound over the last 12 months, though it's still unclear if anyone in the system could be a clear No. 1 pitcher in the major leagues. Between that improvement and the drafting of impact bats over the last few years, Law ranks the Cubs' farm system No. 4 in all of baseball.

"It's always nice to read good things about your system," Cubs scouting director Jason McLeod said via email. "One of our goals is to acquire as many young, talented players as we can, and we feel good about where we are right now, but we also know that there is always room for improvement."

Let's start with the good news. The Cubs have four of Law's top 30 prospects in baseball. All four are position players, led by 2011 top pick Javier Baez. He checks in at No. 7 overall. Law writes:

    Baez has the best bat speed of any hitter in the minors right now, and the ball explodes off his bat like he's splitting atoms with contact.

That analysis corresponds with many in the game who compare Baez's bat speed with former slugger Gary Sheffield, who had comparable minor league numbers at age 20 and never lost that bat speed as he came up to the majors. A little more plate discipline at Triple-A Iowa this season and Baez should be at Wrigley Field sometime this summer.

Third baseman Kris Bryant is Law's No. 2 Cubs prospect and 15th overall in baseball. He's had the least time as a professional under his belt, but his prodigious size and power make him a near sure thing for the middle of any lineup. Law writes:

    The kind of bat you stick in the cleanup spot so you can build your lineup around him.

Add to Bryant's resume his work ethic, intellect and a father who played professional baseball, and he has all the tools to move up quickly and be successful.

Like many observers, Law notes that Jorge Soler, his No. 26 overall prospect, had an incomplete 2013 season because of injury and suspension, but notes his body type and athleticism to go along with an above average understanding of the strike zone still make him a worthy prospect. Law writes:

    I see explosive offensive potential, with easy plus power and enough feel for the zone to be a middle-of-the-order bat.

Albert Almora, the Cubs' first-round pick in 2012, checks in as the No. 28 overall prospect in the big leagues. Scouts agree with Law's assessment: He could play outfield in the majors right now. Law writes:

    He gets some of the best reads off the bat I've ever seen from an outfield prospect, so although he's a below-average runner he still plays a plus center field.

But what about those pitchers?

Law ranks only C.J. Edwards (67) in his top 100 prospects and notes he's no sure thing as a top-of-the-rotation guy. Same goes with Pierce Johnson, who's ranked as the Cubs' seventh-best prospect in the system. And Edwards and Johnson could have size issues as they're slight of frame, listed at 155 and 170 pounds, respectively.

"Pitching is always an area of need for any organization," McLeod said. "I would say that we are still hopeful one of our guys makes that step forward in the coming year where they put themselves on the map as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter in the near future. However, we will continue our efforts in acquiring as much pitching as possible."

Law doesn't rank Cubs minor league pitcher of the year Kyle Hendricks in his top 10 in the organization despite a 13-4 season and 2.00 ERA in 2013. Law said via email he's probably no better than a fifth starter without a "high ceiling."

Hendricks might have been overlooked by Law, but McLeod says the Cubs have high hopes for him.

"Kyle doesn't get much love on the prospect lists because he doesn't have the mid-90’s fb or the devastating breaking stuff," McLeod said. "However, he has advanced feel to command the zone and can get outs with multiple options. He has the attention and respect from our staff, I can tell you that."

Second baseman Arismendy Alcantara (No. 71) rounds out the Cubs' six prospects in Law's top 100. With Alcantara and Baez starting the season at Triple-A Iowa at second base and shortstop, and mainstays Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro playing those positions for the Cubs, it could make for a logjam later in the summer.

Too many players for too few positions is a problem the Cubs would love to have, and Law's prospect rankings show it could be a reality sooner rather than later. But top pitching still remains a mystery as the Cubs try to turn themselves into a winner in the coming years.

After striking out on Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, continuing to be at a standstill in contract talks with Jeff Samardzija and having just one pitcher in Law's top 100 prospects in baseball, the Cubs might not have the answers they want for the most important part of the game.