2011 Top 20 Chicago Cubs Prospects

11/04/2011

Heading into the 2011 season, the Cubs system did not have much offensive potential to speak of outside of Brett Jackson. As 2012 approaches, they finally have some quality, high-ceiling hitting prospects (mainly from a big 2011 Draft). On top of that, a number of the Cubs’ international signees have made big debuts (Marco Hernandez, Gioskar Amaya) while past ones continue to develop (Ha, Wang, Chen, Rosario). The system is still more deep than anything else, as its most potential-laden players (Baez, Szczur, Maples, Golden, Vogelback, etc.) have yet to really prove themselves as blue chip guys. Between the influx in talent and massive changes in the front office, this system will be more than just deep in the near future.

  1. Brett Jackson, CF (AA, AAA): While the center fielder may never be a superstar-level talent in the majors, he is capable of doing a lot of different things on the diamond to make himself significantly valuable long-term. Jackson’s defense should be above average with quality range and an accurate arm, while his offensive skill set revolves around a good amount of walks, above-average power (for a center fielder), and excellent base running. None of his tools really jump off the charts, but all together they create a good value as he can do so many things better than average.
  2. Matt Szczur, CF (Low A, High A): It’s pretty clear that the former Villanova QB is still a raw player, but you have to like the adjustments and improvements he was able to make in his first full pro season. Going forward it looks likely that Szczur will provide plenty of defensive value with plus range and arm strength in center, even if he is still learning routes a bit. Most of the improvement will need to come at the plate. He’s already shown good contact rates, walk totals, the ability to make consistent, hard contact, and a little pop. The contact and power numbers are what’s most encouraging for 2012. Nevertheless, he must show at least the same power (if not a little more) and contact rates going forward to be a useful offensive piece. Szczur’s ceiling is probably a .300 average/15 HR guy with decent walk totals, few strikeouts, and high stolen base totals. His speed is at least plus (most likely plus plus), but he has plenty of work to do in learning how to steal.
  3. Javier Baez, SS/3rd (Yet to Debut): In a system with few impact bats, Baez is a welcome addition. Offensively, he displayed some of the loudest tools in the 2011 Draft, with huge bat speed, power, and the ability to hit for good average. Even so, he is incredibly raw and will need plenty of development time, more so that some of the other high school bats drafted this year. Some believe he can stick at short, although I feel he’s destined for third. If Baez can play at least an average shortstop, his bat could make him an elite talent there. If he is pushed to third, the 18 year old still easily has the offensive profile for the position while his hands, range, and big arm strength should all fair well there.
  4. Trey McNutt, RHP (AA): It was pretty much just a lost year for the guy considered to be the best arm in the system heading into 2011. With most of the other big arms at the lower levels, he’s still deserving of being called the Cubs’ best pitching prospect, but competition is coming quick. McNutt saw his strikeouts fall, his walks rise, his hits allow bump up (with a big BABIP), while his ground ball rate stayed the same. Mainly fly ball/strikeout type pitcher, fans will want to see his mechanical issues fixed next year, along with improved command and more consistency on his once plus plus curve. So far in Arizona Fall League play, the righty has yet to show much improvement. Let’s hope time off this offseason does him good as he irons out the mechanical kinks in his delivery.
  5. Josh Vitters, 3rd (AA): Draw some walks. And lay off borderline pitches, please. Many think that the 22 year old will never fully realize his potential as a first-rounder, but I still reserve judgement for another year (which I said to myself last year- familiar theme with this team, no?). Vitters cut down on his strikeouts by 7%, his .ISO remained more-or-less the same (up to .165), and his walks saw around a 1% dip in his first full year of AA action. There’s still plenty of potential here, but you do have to start wondering when the power is going to show up. It’s beginning to appear more and more that his aggressiveness/ability to make insane contact is directly killing his ability to hit for power. I have yet to hear anyone say that his pretty right-handed swing or power potential have really degraded since being drafted.
  6. Ben Wells, RHP (Short Season A): One of the better selections out of the 2010 Draft, this Arkansas HS righty had a great pro debut in the Northwest League. With fantastic ground ball rates and good control, Wells has the stuff and durability to make a push up to High A in 2012. He’s got the velocity and movement on his two-seamer to be a quality mid-rotation starter at least, but his secondary stuff has to take steps forward next year. The righty has shown a slurvy breaking ball and a change-up which will have to improve for him to keep hitters honest. I’d like to see him make the change more of a weapon to work off of his low 90′s fastball, although some improved form of his curve/slider would be just as welcome.
  7. Dillon Maples, RHP (Yet to Debut): The 19 year old was considered quite a tough sign heading into draft day this past June. Nevertheless, the Cubs were able to lock up the righty at the deadline, signing him away from North Carolina baseball. He was inconsistent in the spring leading up to the draft, but when he was on scouts saw mid 90′s fastballs and a hard breaking ball. Maples’ mechanics are far from perfect, so one would imagine he’s far from a lock to produce. On the positive side, his frame already looks ready for pro baseball, so he could be promoted aggressively if coaches think his mechanics are developed enough. Either way, his stuff can be top-of-the-rotation quality, and that is not something that is easy to come by.
  8. Dae-Eun Rhee, RHP (High A): Once highly touted as a Korean high school signee with a solid four pitch mix, Rhee’s career had a bit of a hiccup when Tommy John surgery became necessary in 2008. It appears as if he’s fully recovered, and now has his feel for pitching back after have two consecutive years of injury-free baseball with a 3.58 FIP in 127.2 High A innings this year. Rhee isn’t inducing grounders as much as he used to (although still an above average rate), but it is a welcome sight to see his strikeout rate bump up to 8.25 K/9. Ideally his secondary stuff continues to evolve so he can maintain his strong K rate against tougher AA hitting.
  9. Junior Lake, SS/3rd (High A, AA): Coming into the Cubs’ organization at the same time as Starlin Castro, both Castro and Lake looked to be blessed with big tools. Unfortunately for Lake, he never quite evolved beyond those early free-swinging days. Still big on strikeouts and low on walks, the 21 year old can be an asset on defense (huge arm strength) and on the bases (38 SB against 6 caught) in the future, if only he can hit enough to be a major league regular. The power potential is there for him to be at least average up the middle, although a shift to third seems very possible. More than anything, better contact and a much more patient approach will be key as Lake faces AA pitching full-time.
  10. Reggie Golden, RF (Short Season A): After Baez, there are only a handful of hitters in the Cubs’ system that have as much offensive upside as Golden. That being said, he has plenty of work to do to actually realize any of that potential. He’s rather athletic and could play center if you made him, but his route running in the outfield is better suited for right. Offensively there is a ton of power potential with the 20 year old, something he showed in spurts during Northwest League play this year. Golden cannot allow his K rate to jump up any higher than his recent 25%, and ideally brings that down significantly as he matures. A 10% walk rate this year is a good sign that some modicum of patience exists in his approach. I don’t know if he’ll ever steal all that many bases, but his value on the bases should be an asset in the future.
  11. Jae-Hoon Ha, CF (High A, AA): The South Korean outfielder and former catcher may end up being one of the better products of the Cubs’ Asia/Pacific Area scouting. With the range and arm to play an above-average center field and the speed/power tools to be above-average offensively, he’s taken a big step forward this year. Ha’s plate discipline still leaves something to be desired, but he knows how to make consistent, hard contact. On top of that, he still needs a lot of work on his base stealing technique, as 17 caught against 13 steals is just ugly. There is still projection left with the 21 year old, so I do believe he can hit for league average power in center at the very least, most likely more in time.
  12. Austin Kirk, LHP (High A): The left-hander falls into the “safe” category of pitchers in the Cubs system, as he can throw strikes and should have a fairly high floor going forward. At the moment, it doesn’t appear that his ceiling is as high as others though. With a fastball that sits in the upper 80s, regularly hitting the low 90s, his main weapon is a strong curve that has had its inconsistent moments over the years. Nevertheless, he possesses a good feel for pitching and can miss bats if he needs to. Kirk’s first half (2.39 ERA, 63 k/15 bb) contrasted sharply with his second (6.19, 59 k/23 bb) mainly because he surrendered 13 HRs in the latter portion. He’ll need to revert back to his ’09/’10 ground ball rates to avoid home run issues in the future. I’m very curious to see how his repertoire fares against AA hitting.
  13. Jeimer Candelario, 3rd (Rookie League, Dominican): Not necessarily the flashiest or toolsiest of all Cubs farmhands in Rookie League action this year (think Hernandez/Amaya), Candelario did show a fine mix of power and patience in Dominican Summer League action. I don’t know if he’ll get the standard promotion to Arizona League Ball, or if he might get an aggressive push up to the Midwest League mid season. The soon-to-be 18 year old was one of the best hitters in Dominican ball, while also being one of the youngest. I’d imagine the Cubs will take their time and play him in AZL play for the entirety of ’12.
  14. Dan Vogelbach, 1st (Yet to Debut): This 2011 Draftee may quickly show himself to be one of the bigger impact bats in the Cubs’ system next year. His power, bat speed, and approach are all more than ready for professional baseball, with the first ranking among the best in a stacked 2011 draft class. Some do question his defense as his frame is obviously a bit big at 6’0″, 240 lbs, but next year should provide a proper view on what we can expect of him. As long as he can avoid a Mo Vaughn-like weight increase, I would think he can be more than capable at first.
  15. Chris Carpenter, RHP (AA, AAA, Majors): At this point, they know what they’re getting with Carpenter. He can push his fastball up to triple digits, and his breaking ball can certainly be a weapon. Unfortunately it’s looking all but definite that he will be in the bullpen going forward as he did not earn one start in the minors in ’11, even though he posted a 3.45 FIP in 23 Double-A starts in 2010. I’d still love to see him start if the chance came up. As long as his command stays intact, he could easily still be a big value out of the bullpen. It remains to be seen if he can show quality command for long stretches out of the ‘pen though. That seems to be the make or break for me on whether he can be effective.
  16. Wellington Castillo, C (AAA): Originally coming up through the minors as an excellent-but-raw defensive catcher with offensive potential, he is now a slightly underdeveloped defensive catcher that has some offensive weapons. Always possessing great arm strength, it was thought that he would learn the finer points of catching and become a more refined product of the system. This never quite happened. His percentage of runners thrown out has decreased since 2009, and he still struggles with some of the finer points of catching. Offensively, he’s shown consistently good power (in the offense-friendly PCL) and probably enough walks to at least be a backup catcher or a second division starter.
  17. Jay Jackson, RHP (AAA): Between Jackson’ struggles at AA, some disciplinary issues, and inconsistent stuff in 2010, the right-hander found himself falling in the organizational depth chart, so to speak. Even though he reached AAA at 22, the now 24 year old has not managed to touch the majors, regardless of an actually solid 2011 campaign. In 146.2 Triple-A innings (26 starts), Jackson struck out 97 against 46 walks en route to a 3.79 FIP. He used to regularly show low to mid 90s fastballs and strong sliders with regularity. These days it sounds like those pitches may not always be as sharp, but I would love to see how he handles innings in a major league rotation or bullpen.
  18. Robert Whitenack, RHP (High A, AA): Before Tommy John surgery, Whitenack was getting plenty of attention after he dominated High A (1.29 FIP, 23 IP) and held his own at AA (3.49 FIP) at age 22. With high ground-ball rates, a quality high 80s fastball, and a plus knuckle curve, the right-hander was throwing better than most of the other Cubs farmhands. At 6’5″, 185 lbs. he still has plenty of projection left as long as his TJ surgery rehab goes as regular as it should. Whitenack gets by more on pitchability than some of the other more recognizable names, but you can’t argue with the results he started to get this year.
  19. Logan Watkins, 2nd/SS (High A): Between Watkins offensive profile and his different position in the minors, it’s looking more and more like the Cubs are readying him for a utility role. At this point that probably makes the most sense as the middle infielder will draw a few walks, hit for a decent average, and steal a few bases, but not do a whole lot more with the bat. Watkins future value lies in his ability to play multiple positions well. He has plenty of speed and can run the bases well (12 triples this year), although he doesn’t steal a ton.
  20. Pin-Chieh Chen, CF (Short Season A): Just as the Cubs heavily scouted South Korea for talent, they also focused their efforts on finding the best players in Taiwan. Not everyone is sold on Chen’s power, but he certainly held his own through 60 Northwest league games, and could very well settle in to having average power in center. That would be a success for the 170 lbs. outfielder as he has impressive speed and base-running skills, along with an advanced approach at the plate. The 20 year old has already proven that he can draw a walk, make consistent hard contact, all while keeping his strikeouts in check. One could easily say he’s the Cubs best find out of Taiwan, with Yao-Lin Wang being next on the list.
Just Missed:
  • Nicholas Struck, RHP
  • Marco Hernandez, SS
  • Gioskar Amaya, SS
  • Zeke DeVoss, 2nd
  • Jose Rosario, RHP
  • Eric Jokish, LHP
  • Aaron Kurcz, RHP
  • Neftali Rosario, C
  • D.J. Lemahieu, 2nd/3rd
  • Yao-Lin Wang, RHP
  • Trey Martin, OF