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With the minor league season winding down, and the Cubs enjoying one of their worst seasons in history, why not give fans some glimmer of hope for the future. Here are my top-10 Cubs prospects based on talent and overall potential:
1. Javier Baez, 19 (age), SS, Class-A advanced Daytona
72 G, .297, 12 2B, 5 3B, 13 HR, 41 RBI, 22 SB, .349/.526/.876
Offensively, Baez has all the tools to be a stud number-three hitter in the lineup. While he still needs to refine his approach at the plate (12 BB/63 K), his power is already plus for his age; and despite not having great speed, he has shown the ability to be a threat on the base paths with his instincts. Defensively, scouts have been impressed with his play at shortstop. So much so, in fact, they say he should be able to maintain his position at the next level. Not good news for Starlin Castro.
Taken with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Arlington Country Day HS in Florida, Baez had one of the most ridiculous senior seasons I can recall for a prep player. He hit, and this is not a misprint, .771 (64-for-83) with 20 2B, 6 3B, 22 HR, 52 RBI, 28 SB and had a slash line of .835/1.952/2.787. He also drew 32 walks to just three strikeouts. After reading that, it’s clear why he was considered the best bat in the draft by many scouts. At extended spring training this year, he put on a clinic, hitting .330 with 6 2B, 3 3B, 8 HR and 28 RBI over 26 games with a .726 SLG and 1.076 OPS. He also stole 11 bases.
The Cubs shipped him straight to class-A Peoria, bypassing the Arizona League and short-season Boise. Over his 57 games with the Chiefs, he hit .333 with 10 2B, 5 3B, 12 HR, 33 RBI, stole 20 bases and had a .979 OPS. He has struggled over his first 15 games with Daytona, hitting just .151 (8-for-53) with one home run and eight RBI, however, he is one of the youngest players in the Florida State League. He is still a couple of years away from the major leagues, but his progression this year is a great sign for Cubs fans and the future of the team.
2. Albert Almora, 18, CF, short-season Boise
27 G, .342, 10 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 17 RBI, 5 SB, .352/.496/.848
Almora’s all-around play this season has scouts and fans drooling in anticipation of the type of player he is going to be. Aside from his success at the dish, he has had some spectacular plays in center field, including a game-ending double play in which he made an incredible over-the-shoulder catch, then gunned out a runner who thought there was no chance he was going to make the catch. Those kind of instincts and intangibles are what led Theo Epstein to select him with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft.
At Mater HS in Florida, Almora hit .603 (44-for-73) his senior season with 13 2B, 5 3B, 6 HR, 34 RBI and had a slash line of .667/1.164/1.831. He was 24-for-25 in stolen base attempts and only struck out three times. The 6’-2” right-hander has an advanced feel for every aspect of the game and is a clubhouse leader in the mold of Derek Jeter. He was a six-time member of Team USA, earning MVP honors at the Pan Am Championships in 2011 as Team USA won the gold. Over nine games, he went 16-for-38 (.421) with 5 2B, 11 RBI and stole nine bases as the team went 9-0, outscoring opponents 88-8.
He started this season with the AZL Cubs, and after hitting .347 with 13 RBI and five stolen bases over 18 games, got a promotion to short-season Boise. Over his nine games there, he is hitting .333 with 5 2B, 1 HR, 4 RBI and has struck out just three times over 42 plate appearances. Like Baez, Almora is still a couple of years away from the major leagues. With his talent, make-up and understanding of the game, he should rise through the system quickly. And once he gets to Wrigley, he will be a fan favorite from day one, as well as the face of the organization for years.
3. Jorge Soler, 20, RF, Class-A Peoria
25 G, .283, 5 2B, 0 3B, 4 HR, 21 RBI, 10 SB, .349/.455/.803
Many scouts believed Soler would have been a top-five pick in this year’s draft had he been eligible. After his first 25 games as a pro, it’s easy to see why. At 6’-3” and 205 pounds, the right-hander has tremendous power and the sound that resonates from his bat after contact makes you feel a little bad for the baseball he just destroyed. Signed out of Havana, Cuba, as a free agent in June, Epstein locked up the 20-year-old for nine years/$30MM, and this move may end up being the best one Theo ever makes with the team.
Soler began the year with the AZL Cubs where, in his second game as a pro, launched his first home run, a shot estimated at well over 400 feet to center field. Over his 14 games with the team, he hit .241 with 2 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI and was 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts. He has been even better since his promotion to Peoria, hitting .333 over 11 games with 3 2B, 2 HR, 11 RBI and a .908 OPS. He has drawn three walks to just four strikeouts over that span, showing an advanced approach at the plate.
Offensively, he has all the makings of a middle-of-the-order run producer with 30+ HR potential and the ability to hit for a high average due to his excellent bat speed and understanding of the strike zone. On defense, he is the prototypical right fielder with a strong, accurate arm to go along with good instincts in the field. With the way he is playing in his first season, and with the team having him locked up for quite some time, he could be a fast riser to the show.
4. Matthew Szczur, 23, CF, double-A Tennessee
104 G, .274, 25 2B, 8 3B, 4 HR, 40 RBI, 42 SB, .367/.407/.774
Szczur is an incredible athlete who was a two-sport star at Villanova, where he also excelled on the football field. He amassed 5,234 yards and 35 touchdowns as a wide receiver/running back/kick returner/quarterback and would have been drafted in the NFL had he chosen to go that route. On the baseball field, he hit .443 his senior season and had a career .392 average for the Wildcats. The Cubs selected him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft.
In 2010, his first season as a pro, he hit .347 over 25 games split between three leagues with 16 stolen bases and an .879 OPS. Last season, he hit .293 with 10 HR, 46 RBI and stole 24 bases over 109 games. He started this season at Daytona, and over 78 games, he impressed with his speed and advanced approach at the plate, hitting .295 with 38 stolen bases while drawing 47 walks to 50 strikeouts for a .394 OBP. Since his promotion to Tennessee, he has struggled a bit, hitting just .214 over 26 games with nine walks and 24 strikeouts. With just four home runs on the season, his power hasn’t developed the way many people thought it would. With Almora and Soler coming on fast right behind him, his future role with the team has some questions. If he can develop more power, mixed with his speed and ability to get on base, he could remain an everyday player.
5. Daniel Vogelbach, 19, 1B, short-season Boise
54 G, .326, 19 2B, 3 3B, 16 HR, 57 RBI, 1 SB, .410/.661/1.071
If you want to see some incredible feats of strength, head over to Boise and watch a Vogelbach at-bat. Hurry though, because he may not be there for long. His power is immense, yet done with seemingly zero effort. The 6’-1”, 240-pound left-hander has been obliterating baseballs since he first picked up a bat, but his power is only part of the reason the Cubs drafted him with the 68th overall selection in the 2011 draft out of Bishop Verot HS in Florida.
As a senior at Bishop Verot, he hit .467 with 19 home runs and 54 RBI over 34 games. He drew 27 walks to just eight strikeouts, showing an advanced understanding of the strike zone for such a young power hitter. He has quick wrists which leads to excellent bat speed, allowing him to catch up to, and drive, any pitch all over the field. Because of the bat speed, he can use his long swing to loft balls … far. In 2010, he won the Perfect Game Power Showcase by hitting a record 30 home runs, including a 508-foot bomb, another record.
He began this season in the AZL, where he made a mockery of opposing pitchers, hitting .324 with 12 2B, 2 3B, 7 HR, 31 RBI and a slash line of .392/.686/1.078 over 24 games. He drew 12 walks to 14 strikeouts, again showing off an impressive understanding of the strike zone. He then earned a promotion to Boise where he hasn’t skipped a beat. Over his 30 games, he is hitting .328 with 7 2B, 1 3B, 9 HR, 26 RBI and a slash line of .426/.638/1.064. He homered in five straight games from August 7-11, hitting seven in total with 14 RBI over that span.
Defensively, Vogelbach has quick feet, soft hands and very good instincts on the field for a player his size. He will, however, have to remain at first base. With his offensive potential being higher than Anthony Rizzo’s, the organization is going to have to make a tough decision in the near future. If Rizzo can make a transition to left field, Vogelbach can take over first base and be a fan favorite at Wrigley with his bat, character, as well as jersey sales. I mean, is there a better Chicago name than Vogelbach?
6. Jeimer Candelario, 18, 3B, short-season Boise
65 G, .272, 12 2B, 0 3B, 5 HR, 39 RBI, 2 SB, .336/.377/.713
It’s all about potential with Candelario. The 18-year-old has shown the ability to hit for power, as well as having a good approach at the plate. But he is still raw in many areas, including his defense where his .890 fielding percentage leaves a lot to be desired. Over 72 games in the Dominican Summer League last season, he hit .337 with 16 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 53 RBI and a slash line of .443/.478/.921. That included drawing 50 walks to just 42 strikeouts. The competition in the DSL, however, is nowhere near what it is in the States. His offensive potential is sky high as scouts believe the switch-hitter will hit for a lot of power as he matures, and his strike zone judgment should lead to a good average. His defensive position is a big question mark as he will most likely not stick at third base, and right now his arm isn’t good enough to hold down a corner outfield spot. There is a lot of development left for Candelario, but if all goes right, he could be a power hitting left-fielder for the Cubs in four or five years. Or he could be used as trade bait for future transactions.
7. Dillon Maples, 19, RHP, AZL Cubs
0-0, 4.82 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 11 K, 9 BB, 9.1 IP
After going 17-2 over his final two seasons at Pinecrest HS in North Carolina with a 0.77 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 245 K/50 BB over 121.1 innings, Maples was considered a borderline first-round pick in the 2011 draft. He held opponents to a .086 batting average over that span thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a hammer curve that sat in the low-80s. Both were plus pitches already. A strong commitment to play football at the University of North Carolina played a big reason in him slipping to the 14th round where the Cubs snagged him, paid him first-round money and slapped a Cubs jersey on him.
The 6’-2”, 200-pound right-hander made his pro debut this season with the AZL Cubs on July 29, tossing one inning, striking out one while walking two batters. Over two appearances between August 8-13, he threw five scoreless innings, striking out eight to one walk, showing off his fastball and sharp break on his curve. In his last outing on August 23, his control got the best of him as he allowed four walks over 1.2 innings. The talent to be a front-line starter is there for Maples. As long as he continues to work on his command, and improves his off-speed stuff, he could emerge as the best pitching prospect to come out of the organization since Mark Prior over a decade ago.
8. Gioskar Amaya, 19, 2B, short-season Boise
63 G, .307, 6 2B, 11 3B, 7 HR, 27 RBI, 12 SB, .390/.508/.898
Amaya opened eyes after hitting .377 with 36 RBI and 13 stolen bases over 52 games in the Arizona League last season. The 5’-11”, 180-pound right-hander doesn’t have a lot of power, although he has shown a good amount of it this season. He projects to more of a high average hitter as he has a good understanding of the strike zone and makes consistent contact. His speed will help him more on the field than on the base paths as he still has a ways to go in reading pitchers, but with more development, could turn into a 15-20 stolen base type player. Defensively, he has enough range and arm to stick at second base and could be an everyday player in the majors if he keeps progressing the way he has been.
9. Pierce Johnson, 21, RHP, short-season Boise
0-0, 4.00 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 11 K, 2 BB, 9 IP
When the Cubs lost Carlos Pena to free agency last year, they received the 43rd overall pick in the 2012 draft as compensation. They used that pick on one of the best college pitchers in the country this past season. If not for a mild forearm strain that caused him to miss a couple of starts, Johnson most likely would have been a first-round pick. Over 14 games, he posted a 2.53 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 119 K/28 BB over 99.2 innings. After the injury, he was nearly unhittable as he had a 1.36 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 34 K/5 BB over 33 innings, showing no ill effects.
He features a fastball that sits in the 92-94 mph range with good movement and can maintain velocity late in games. His out pitch is a hard curve that is plus at times. His change-up is still developing but looks to be a solid pitch at the next level. Johnson has great mound presence and attacks hitters while keeping the ball in the zone. He is not going to be an ace of a staff, but looks like a two or three starter with high strikeout totals and low walks. He also keeps the ball down in the zone, making him a ground-ball pitcher, something that is key to having success at Wrigley Field.
10. Paul Blackburn, 18, RHP, AZL Cubs
2-0, 2.55 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 12 K, 5 BB, 17.2 IP
Blackburn was listed number 50 among high school prospects by ESPN coming into the season. After going 10-3 with a 0.93 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 100 K/18 BB over 83 innings, his stock rose even higher. The 6’-2”, 180-pound right-hander is a lot like Johnson with his pitching repertoire. His fastball sits comfortably in the 91-93 mph range, and both his curveball and change-up are above average right now. The difference between the two is Blackburn still has a lot more room to grow and has more upside due to being almost three years younger than Johnson. He has great command now, and with his smooth delivery and ability to stay within the strike zone at such an early age, his command will only get better. Over his high school career, he went 24-8 with a 1.07 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 241 K/48 BB over 201.2 innings. This is an intelligent baseball player who could have three plus pitches in a couple of years and be a front-line starter for the Cubs, something they have been lacking in their organization for some time now.