15 Cubs prospects to watch for in 2012

Cubs prospect Daniel Vogelbach and his Ruthian swing won the Power Showcase last year with a 508-foot blast. (powershowcase.com)

The Cubs farm system currently ranks near the bottom in terms of prospects who are ready to contribute to the major-league club. Aside from Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters, the upper levels don’t offer much hope. But the last two drafts are proving otherwise. These 15 players are on the verge of  making a name for themselves next season within the organization and with fans. Some are just starting their professional careers and other are making a jump in competition.

Matt Szczur — This kid is an unbelievable athlete. He could have played wide receiver in the NFL after amassing 5,234 all-purpose yards and 35 touchdowns at Villanova as a receiver/running back/kick return/quarterback. The 6’-1″, 195 lb outfielder was the Cubs fifth-round draft pick in 2010 and may be the fastest player in their organization. He hit .293 with 22 2B/3 3B/10 HR and 24 stolen bases over 109 games this season split between single-A Daytona and Peoria. He also only struck out 46 times, showing an advanced batting eye and approach at the plate. Was selected to play in this year’s Futures Game.

Javier Baez — The Cubs first-round draft pick (ninth overall) this season, Baez suddenly becomes one of the Cubs top hitting prospects. Regarded as having one of the best high school bats in the draft, he has extremely quick wrists with a ton of power to all fields. Played shortstop in high school but will most likely settle in at third. He has the size, arm and good enough footwork to hold down the hot spot. Not a base stealer but should be a third or fourth hitter in the lineup and hit for a high average with big-time home run potential.

Reggie Golden — Golden is all about potential. Still very raw in most aspects of the game, the 5’-10″, 200 lb 20-year-old was the Cubs second-round pick in last year’s draft. He is fast, has quick wrists and can hit the ball for miles. All he needs to do is harness his talent and refine his tools. Playing time should correct that. His short, quick swing and frame remind me of former Cub Glenallen Hill, and so does the power. Has 30/30 potential.

Robert Whitenack — No one is even sure yet how much, if any, Whitenack will pitch this upcoming season. He underwent Tommy John surgery, and the recovery time varies from person to person.  But the 6’-5″ right-hander was one of the most dominant pitchers for the Cubs this year. After just four starts at Daytona, where he went 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA, 0.52 WHIP and 25 strikeouts to just one walk over 23 innings, he got a promotion to double-A Tennessee. He finished the season 7-0 with a 1.93 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 47K/14BB over 60.2 innings before the surgery cut his season short. The 22-year-old, who was the Cubs eighth-round draft pick in 2009, has a mid-90s fastball and a plus-curveball. He could be a solid set up man out of the bullpen for the Cubs or a rotation guy if he develops a third pitch.

Aaron Kurcz — The Cubs 11th-round pick in last year’s draft, Kurcz could be the team’s closer down the road. Armed with a fastball that touches 96 mph and a plus-slurve (slider/curve), he struck out 91 batters over 82.1 innings this season at Daytona as a starter and reliever. Last season at short-season Boise, he had 46 strikeouts with only 11 walks over 26.1 innings. A teammate of Bryce Harper at Southern Nevada University, he had 10 saves and 52 strikeouts in 35 innings as the team’s closer.

Ben Wells — Wells flew under the radar for several reasons leading up to the 2010 draft. One was the fact that he played in Arkansas, not exactly a hotbed for baseball players. Another is the fact that he is a late bloomer, so to speak. Only 18, he grew four inches his senior year and tacked on about 10 mph on his fastball. The 6’-4″, 220 lb right-hander can now zip his fastball up to 93 mph to go along with a knee-buckling slider and developing hard splitter. Over 15 starts at short-season Boise this year, he had a 4.66 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 53K/19BB over 77.1 innings. With time and proper development, Wells has the potential to be a front-of-the-rotation starter.

Daniel Vogelbach — The Cubs second-round pick in this year’s draft, Vogelbach has the most power of anyone in the Cubs system. At 6’ and 250 lbs, the left-handed first baseman draws comparisons to Prince Fielder. Still needs to work on his footwork and defense but the bat is without question. Hit .457 with 19 HR and 54 RBI as a senior at Bishop Vero HS in Florida and won the famed Power Showcase by launching a 508-foot blast. Gave Cubs fans a taste of what’s to come by hitting .292 with 1 HR, 6 RBI and a .912 OPS in six games at the Arizona Rookie League.

Junior Lake — signed as a 17-year-old in 2007 out of the Dominican Republic, Lake is a superb athlete with a plus/plus arm. He hit .280 with 12 home runs and 36 stolen bases in 116 games this season for Daytona and Tennessee, showing his power and speed potential. He did, however, strike out 109 times to only 19 walks on the season, showing how much he needs to work on his plate discipline. At 6’-3″ and 215 lbs, he may not be a good fit for shortstop, his current position. His 74 errors over the last two seasons are another indicator he will have to make a move in the field. Still, he remains an intriguing prospect due to his abilities on the base paths and developing power at the plate.

Dillon Maples — Maples is going to make every other team in baseball regret passing on him — multiple times. The 6’-3″ right-hander with a power arm can dial it up in the mid-90s, and he also owns an outstanding curveball. Both pitches rate as plus and he projects to a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The Cubs pried him away from a football scholarship to North Carolina by offering him first-round money. He was ranked #46 on Baseball America’s prospect list heading into the draft but slipped due to his strong commitment. The 19-year-old will start his professional career next season, but expectations are high for him.

Shawon Dunston Jr. — Blistering speed and an all-out aggressiveness on both sides of the field are what makes Dunston an exciting prospect to watch. An 11th-round pick by the Cubs this year, he would have went higher if not for a commitment to baseball factory Vanderbilt. A left-handed contact hitter who sprays the ball to all fields, Dunston is a top-of-the-order hitter who should be a real threat on the base paths — he once scored from second base on a dropped third strike. His arm is lethal and center field looks to be his future position. He will be making his professional debut next season.

Garrett Schlecht — There was a reason why the Cubs made Schlecht the highest-paid ninth rounder in history. The 6’-3″ left-handed hitting outfielder could make the Cubs look like geniuses one day.  He showed his advanced approach at the plate by walking nine times in nine games at the Arizona Rookie League. Not going to steal many bases but should hit for a high average, a high on-base percentage and develop enough power to be a middle-of-the-lineup run producer for the Cubs down the line. Only 18, the Cubs can move him along slowly and allow him to refine his skills to be an everyday player at the next level.

Yao-Lin Wang — Signed as an 18-year-old in 2009 out of Taiwan, the 6’-0″, 185 lb RHP really turned heads this year at Boise. Over 14 starts, he had a 3.22 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 77K/20BB over 67 innings. He has a late-breaking fastball that can touch 94 mph, but his slider is just average and his changeup is still a work in progress. He is super aggressive on the mound, challenging hitters all over the strike zone, and with time and development could turn into a back-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs.

Zeke DeVoss — DeVoss was the Cubs third-round draft pick this year. The 5’-10″, 175 lb switch-hitter batted .340 with a .491 OBP and 32 stolen bases for Miami last season. He is a great defensive center fielder who can flat out fly, but he may end up making the move to second base, a position of need for the Cubs. The 20-year-old really impressed during his first taste of professional ball by hitting .309 with 16 stolen bases and 33 walks (.449 OBP) in 42 games at short-season Boise. Not going to hit home runs but a prototypical leadoff hitter down the road.

Hayden Simpson — The Cubs surprised many by taking Simpson with the 16th overall selection in last year’s draft. Baseball America had him as the 191st-ranked prospect, but the Cubs thought someone would take him before they selected again. He dominated at Division II Southern Arkansas University by going 13-1 with a 1.81 ERA and 131 strikeouts over 15 starts but looked lost during his first professional season. Over 25 starts this year, he went 1-10 with a 6.27 ERA, 1.77 WHIP and 57 K/38 BB over 79 innings split between Peoria and the Arizona Rookie League. With a fastball that can hit 97 mph, and a plus-slider and change, the talent is obviously there. With guys like Marlins’ minor league player of the year Christian Yelich and Giants’ minor league player of the year Gary Brown being selected after Simpson, all eyes will be on him this season to live up to the expectations the Cubs put on him by taking him so early.

Roderick ‘Rock’ Shoulders — The Cubs’ 25th-round selection in this year’s draft, Shoulders was offered third-round money to pry him away from his strong commitment to South Florida. At State College of Florida, a junior college, Rock hit .318 with 14 HR and 58 RBI last season. At 6’-3″ and 225 lbs, the lefty has a ton of power, but his lack of speed will most likely keep him at a corner infield position. With a sudden logjam of talent at first base, his strong arm may be better suited at third. Will be getting his first taste of professional ball this upcoming season.

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