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November 14, 2014

2015 Prospects

Chicago Cubs Top 10 Prospects

by Nick J. Faleris and BP Prospect Staff

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Last year’s Cubs list

The Top Ten

  1. SS Addison Russell
  2. 3B Kris Bryant
  3. OF Jorge Soler
  4. OF Albert Almora
  5. C Kyle Schwarber
  6. OF Billy McKinney
  7. RHP Pierce Johnson
  8. SS Gleyber Torres
  9. 1B Dan Vogelbach
  10. LHP Carson Sands

1. Addison Russell
Position: SS
DOB: 01/23/1994
Height/Weight: 6’0” 195 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2011 draft, Pace HS (Pace, FL)
Previous Ranking: #1 (Org - OAK), #7 (Top 101)
2014 Stats: .295/.350/.520 at Double-A Midland/Tennessee (68 games)
The Tools: 6 potential hit; 6 potential power; 5+ glove; 6 arm; 5 run

What Happened in 2014: After losing April and May to a torn hamstring, Russell spent the bulk of his age-20 season at Double-A between Midland and Tennessee where he continued to shine on both sides of the ball, surrounded by players several years his senior.

Strengths: Impact potential with the stick; strong hands and barrel control; good bat speed; improved approach; should grow into high-contact MLB bat that will hit for average and power; solid actions at short; good hands with left-side arm; solid run paired with baserunning acumen; clocks plus times out of the box and should settle in as average run at maturity.

Weaknesses: Still working to slow down game in the field; set-up and footwork can get loose, particularly at the margins, leading to drift in throws; can slip into overly aggressive approach at plate.

Overall Future Potential: 7; all-star player

Realistic Role: 6; first-division player

Risk Factor/Injury History: Low; advanced skill set and feel; success as a 20-year-old in Double-A; missed two months early in 2014 season due to hamstring tear, but no long-term concerns.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Despite topping this list, Russell isn’t number one fantasy-wise in this system, but he’s still a slam-dunk top-10 fantasy prospect; and moving from Oakland to Chicago only helps his future value. Russell could be a .280-plus hitting shortstop with 20-25 homers and double-digit steals in his prime—which could make him a top-three option at the position—but the presence of Starlin Castro will slow his arrival. For now.

The Year Ahead: Russell is close to major-league ready and possesses the skill set, makeup, and natural ability to make an immediate impact as soon as he is called upon. The profile is an elite blend of offensive upside, defensive stability at a high-worth position, athleticism, and strength; the aggregate of which could produce a perennial all-star capable of impacting the game in all facets. Not only might this be the best collection of tools, upside, and probability from a talented crop of minor-league shortstops, but there's a case for top prospect in the game. He should debut in Chicago in 2015 and it won’t be long before Russell surpasses the ‘L’ stop as the best known Addison in Wrigleyville.

Major league ETA: 2015

2. Kris Bryant
Position: 3B
DOB: 01/04/1992
Height/Weight: 6’5” 215 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2013 draft, University of San Diego (San Diego, CA)
Previous Ranking: #2 (Org), #17 (Top 101)
2014 Stats: .295/.418/.619 at Triple-A Iowa (70 games), .355/.458/.702 at Double-A Tennessee (68 games)
The Tools: 5+ potential hit; 7 power; 6+ arm; 5 glove

What Happened in 2014: A Shermanesque march through the Southern League and equally impactful stint with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs left Bryant knocking on the door at Wrigley as the 2014 season drew to a close.

Strengths: Elite raw power; big leverage and big-boy present strength; ability to produce regular hard contact; good plate coverage allowing for wide kill zone on mistake pitches; borderline double-plus arm; solid athleticism and coordination for a big man; strong grades for makeup.

Weaknesses: Long levers produce holes in swing that could be attacked by major-league arms; limited swing plane/pitch plane overlap narrows contact margin; some issues with velocity on inner half; capable at third base but may lack lower-half agility to excel; run could settle a tick below average at maturity.

Overall Future Potential: 7; all-star player

Realistic Role: 6; first-division player

Risk Factor/Injury History: Low risk; success at all minor-league levels.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The argument is there to make Bryant the top fantasy prospect in all of baseball—as only Byron Buxton has much of a case to challenge him. Whether he ends up at third base or outfield shouldn’t matter to fantasy owners if he comes anywhere close to his offensive potential, which is someone who can hit 35-plus bombs a year and drive in 100-plus runs, while still helping your batting average (slightly).

The Year Ahead: Through his minor-league career, which totals just a shade over a full major-league season’s worth of plate appearances, Bryant has posted pornographic numbers at the plate, including a slash line of .327/.428/.666 while averaging nearly a home run every three games. He’s ready to bring his act to The Show, where he should eventually settle in as a fixture in the middle of the Cubs lineup. This season could be choppy at times due to the potential for major-league arms to exploit shortcomings in a swing. But the approach, work ethic, and IQ should aid Bryant in making his adjustments, and the raw power will be a legit threat from day one. Depending on the organization’s needs, Bryant could remain at third or transition out to right field where his arm and athleticism could make him a solid defender. Either way, he will join Russell as the foundation of a talented, young Cubs lineup for years to come, with 2015 likely to serve as the coming out party.

Major league ETA: 2015

3. Jorge Soler
Position: RF
DOB: 02/25/1992
Height/Weight: 6’4” 215 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: International Free Agent, 2012, Cuba
Previous Ranking: #4 (Org), #45 (Top 101)
2014 Stats: .292/.330/.573 at major-league level (24 games), .282/.378/.618 at Triple-A Iowa (32 games), .415/.494/.862 at Double-A Tennessee (22 games)
The Tools: 5 potential hit; 7 power; 6+ arm; 5 glove

What Happened in 2014: Injuries continued to plague Soler through the first half of the season, but once healthy the Cuban slugger torched Double-A and Triple-A arms over 54 games before finishing 2014 with a solid 24-game stint with the Cubs.

Strengths: Impact power potential; leveraged swing; punishes middle-in; good bat speed and foundation for solid hit; right-field profile with easy-plus arm and adequate feel/reads; natural strength and physicality.

Weaknesses: Hit tool could limit playable power; in limited exposure has struggled to adjust to spin, particularly away; lacks significant pro reps, experience; failed to adjust to major-league arms as holes in approach were exploited; tight musculature with questions about durability; effort concerns have lessened but linger.

Overall Future Potential: High 6; first-division player/all-star

Realistic Role: High 5; above-average player

Risk Factor/Injury History: Moderate; lacks significant pro reps, experience; injury issues over past two seasons; long-term durability questions.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The time continues to be at hand for Soler, who is likely to patrol right field for the Cubs on Opening Day. Fantasy owners saw both the good and the bad in his brief 2014 debut, but in the long term it’s a strong rotisserie profile as even his RBI totals should be helped by his aggressiveness. In fact, the overall production could look like fellow Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes.

The Year Ahead: After a solid but checkered September showing, Soler should be ready to step in full time for the Cubbies on Opening Day. The upside is a true middle-of-the-order masher, but in order to reach those heights Soler will need to prove capable of adjusting to major-league arms with a book and a game plan. Even if the hit tool never fully materializes, Soler could prove a dangerous five- or six-hole bat capable of punishing mistakes. The Cubs will continue to work with him on varying his workout regimen to help increase flexibility and hopefully avoid the strains and muscle tears that have limited his availability over the past two summers. With limited value in the field and on the bases, much will be riding on the progress Soler makes in 2015 tightening his game at the plate.

Major league ETA: Achieved major leagues in 2014

4. Albert Almora
Position: CF
DOB: 04/16/1994
Height/Weight: 6’2” 180 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2012 draft, Mater Academy Charter School (Hialeah, FL)
Previous Ranking: #3 (Org), #25 (Top 101)
2014 Stats: .234/.250/.355 at Double-A Tennessee (36 games), .283/.306/.406 at High-A Daytona (89 games)
The Tools: 6 potential hit; 5+ potential power; 5 run; 6+ glove; 5+ arm

What Happened in 2014: Almora continued to bemuse and befuddle evaluators, working hot and cold at the plate with High-A Daytona before catching fire in July and ultimately finishing the year at Double-A Tennessee.

Strengths: Near-elite bat-to-ball ability; added strength with plus raw power showing in BP; preternatural reads off the bat; efficient routes; solid arm and IQ should produce holds and kills at highest level; savvy reads and selective aggressiveness on the bases; high grades for makeup; swagger.

Weaknesses: Rudimentary approach at present; overly aggressive at the plate, too often leading to soft contact and limiting utility of pitch identification and strike-zone awareness; without refinement in approach could struggle to fully realize hit-tool potential; inconsistent day-to-day play; added strength could negatively impact speed and limit ultimate range at maturity.

Overall Future Potential: High 6; first-division player/all-star

Realistic Role: High 5; above-average player

Risk Factor/Injury History: Moderate; young for level but has been slow to adjust at each level; yet to show success at Double-A; some nagging injuries over past two summers including hamstring and hamate.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: While the potential high-end defense in center field will likely inflate his value, in a fantasy context, Almora still has the upside at the plate to reach OF3 status. A much more valuable proposition in AVG leagues than OBP formats, Almora could be a .290 hitter with 15-20 homers and a small, but not insignificant contribution in steals.

The Year Ahead: Almora is a complicated assortment of high-level baseball skills, natural ability, and unrefined approach. The strengths of his game—outfield play and bat-to-ball ability—are already ingrained in the profile, while the target areas of improvement—approach at the plate and ability to manifest in-game power—have shown development at a slower pace than one might have expected at acquisition. All that said, this is a 20-year-old with a month of Double-A ball under his belt and solid foundational value built into his profile as a plus defender up the middle who will serve as an asset on the bases. The materials are here for a true two-hole hitter with elite contact rates, plus-to-better hit, and average-to-better pop to emerge, and a more nuanced game plan could unlock that potential in short order. Almora should begin 2015 back in Double-A, with a chance to surprise and reach Wrigley by the end of the summer if everything comes together.

Major league ETA: 2016

5. Kyle Schwarber
Position: C/OF
DOB: 03/05/1993
Height/Weight: 6’0” 235 lbs
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2014 draft, Indiana University (Bloomington, IN)
Previous Ranking: NA
2014 Stats: .302/393/.560 at High-A Daytona (44 games), .361/.448/.602 at Low-A Kane County (23 games)
The Tools: 5+ potential hit; 6 power

What Happened in 2014: Schwarber was selected fourth overall in the 2014 first-year player draft, then raked his way through the low minors slashing .341/.427/.636 over 71 games against overmatched arms.

Strengths: Advanced bat; plus-to-better raw power that plays in game thanks to plate coverage and strike-zone awareness; solid bat speed and good bat-to-ball skills should help hit tool play average or better; strong leader and big makeup; lauded for work ethic; positive reviews from instructs on progress behind the plate.

Weaknesses: Below-average run and throw; long transfer and release hinders ability to control running game; unrefined receiver has struggled with advanced stuff in the past; limited defensive profile; below-average outfield breaks reduce range in left; failure of bat to play to potential could significantly eat into overall value.

Overall Future Potential: 6; first-division player

Realistic Role: 5; major-league regular

Risk Factor/Injury History: Moderate; yet to reach Double-A; uncertainty surrounding defensive profile.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The best case scenario for Schwarber’s fantasy value is that he plays enough catcher to qualify in fantasy leagues, but isn’t the everyday guy—allowing him to rack up at-bats that other fantasy catchers can’t. But even without catcher eligibility, a .275 hitter with 25 homers is pretty valuable anywhere. He’s an easy top-five pick in dynasty drafts this off-season—even with Rusney Castillo and Yasmani Tomas included.

The Year Ahead: Schwarber was eased into pro ball after a long collegiate season and the bat proved far too advanced for the likes of Single-A ball. The true test for the former Hoosier should come in 2015 on both sides of the ball, as he gets his first taste of advanced pro arms while simultaneously working to grow his game behind the dish. It’s unlikely Schwarber ever develops into a true everyday catcher, capable of notching 100-plus games behind the plate. However, if he proves able to handle even a 60-game workload while providing passable defense in left field the remaining two-thirds of the time, it will be a boon to the overall value of the profile. Even skeptics of Schwarber’s ability to catch long term rave about his on-field presence and ability to lead. He should be a favorite among teammates and fans alike, regardless of whether he settles as an impact talent or simply a solid everyday major leaguer.

Major league ETA: 2016

6. Billy McKinney
Position: LF
DOB: 08/23/1994
Height/Weight: 6’1” 195 lbs
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2013 draft, Plano West Senior HS (Plano, TX)
Previous Ranking: #5 (Org – OAK)
2014 Stats: .264/.354/.412 at High-A Stockton/Daytona (126 games)
The Tools: 6+ potential hit; 5 potential power

What Happened in 2014: McKinney sputtered some in the hitter-friendly Cal League before being traded to the Cubs in early July and finishing the 2014 campaign with a strong offensive showing with High-A Daytona.

Strengths: Natural feel for contact; good bat speed; oppo capable; will flash some natural lift to pull; puts together mature at-bats; adequate glove and foot speed should play in left field.

Weaknesses: Evaluators divided on overall power potential; offensive profile could ultimately prove light for outfield corner; fringy arm with some length; has added size, reducing run and solidifying future left field-only profile; bat path can create some coverage holes on inner half.

Overall Future Potential: 6; first-division player

Realistic Role: 5; major-league regular

Risk Factor/Injury History: Moderate; yet to achieve Double-A; limited defensive profile.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The fantasy profile is strong in this one, as McKinney doesn’t offer the defensive prowess to skyrocket up national lists. A potential .300 hitter in his prime, McKinney won’t hit for a ton of power or add much speed, but will do enough of each to make fantasy owners happy.

The Year Ahead: McKinney drew mixed reviews from scouts throughout the summer and during instructs. Supporters believe the hit tool and on-base skillset will carry the profile, while less enthusiastic appraisals depict a power-shy corner bat that will see the hit tool play down as more advanced sequencing and consistent execution expose some coverage blips on the inner half. McKinney should join Almora and Schwarber in Double-A next April, with evaluators inside and outside the organization looking for developments on the power front. He’ll play the bulk of his 2015 season as a 20-year-old, placing little urgency on the developmental horizon and affording McKinney some time to marinate before he’s asked to produce at the major-league level. He tops out as a top-of-the-order stick thanks to his on-base abilities, and at minimum should hit enough to provide value as a fourth outfielder with some pinch-hit utility.

Major league ETA: 2017

7. Pierce Johnson
Position: RHP
DOB: 05/10/1991
Height/Weight: 6’3” 170 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2012 draft, Missouri State University (Springfield, MO)
Previous Ranking: #7 (Org), #91 (Top 101)
2014 Stats: 2.55 ERA (91.2 IP, 60 H, 91 K, 54 BB) at Double-A Tennessee, 2.45 ERA (11 IP, 4 H, 8 K, 3 BB) at Low-A Kane County
The Tools: 6 FB; 6+ potential CB; 5+ potential CH; 5+ potential CT

What Happened in 2014: The Missouri State product racked up both strikeouts and walks while limiting hard contact through 17 Southern League starts. Johnson finished the year in dominant fashion, allowing just 13 earned runs over his final 65 innings while cutting his walk rate and increasing his strikeout rate over that same period.

Strengths: Loud stuff led by lively, low-90s fastball and sharp, low-80s hammer; can dial up to mid-90s with regularity; capable
of cutting fastball for different look, counterbalance to two-seamer; some deception; traditional starter’s build; good present strength; will flash above-average change piece with fade mirroring fastball action; showed improvement in consistency of pitch execution and command over final two months.

Weaknesses: Still working to find consistency in release, with arm path complicating efforts; missed release can cause secondaries to spin and hang; cutter is potential weapon but can ride swing-plane to contact when not properly finished; below-average command at present; loose control in zone could negate effectiveness of stuff against major-league bats; stuff can drop a half to full grade deeper in game.

Overall Future Potential: 6; no. 3 starter

Realistic Role: 5; no. 4 starter

Risk Factor/Injury History: Moderate; yet to surpass 120 innings in a season; hamstring/calf injuries in 2014; forearm strains in amateur file.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Wait, the Cubs have arms too? That just seems unfair. Johnson has the stuff to miss bats at the major-league level—especially on the strength of his curve—and even though he may give back some of that value in WHIP, he could one day find his way as a SP3 in mixed leagues.

The Year Ahead: Johnson struggled mightily with his mechanics in April and May but found his stride after returning from his second DL stint, putting together 65 highly impressive innings over his final 12 starts of the year. The key to unlocking a future spot in the Cubs rotation will be continued growth in his command profile and, most importantly, more consistency in working the lower ‘U’ of the strike zone with the heater. Supporters saw Johnson flirt with that potential through multiple August starts, and if he can build off that progress in 2015 he could find a spot in the Cubs’ rotation by 2016. Depending on offseason moves and spring training showing, Johnson may or may not start next season back in Double-A, but in any event should get significant exposure to Triple-A bats over the course of the summer, with a focus on staying healthy, logging innings, and finding consistency in execution.

Major league ETA: 2016

8. Gleyber Torres
Position: SS
DOB: 12/13/1996
Height/Weight: 6’1” 175 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: International Free Agent, 2013, Venezuela
Previous Ranking: NR
2014 Stats: .393/.469/.786 at Short-Season Boise (7 games), .279/.372/.377 at complex level AZL (43 games)
The Tools: 6 potential hit; 6 arm; 5+ field; 5 run

What Happened in 2014: In his stateside debut, the $1.7 million 2013 signee impressed at the complex before wrapping the year with a quick two-series stint in the Northwest League and a strong showing at fall instructs.

Strengths: Mature approach at the plate; keeps compact to contact and shows ability to work line to line; good hands and left-side arm; lower half works and allows profile to project to six-spot long term; completed first stateside season at age 17; game projects across the board; efficient barrel delivery produces hard contact and some power projection; high grades for work ethic and makeup.

Weaknesses: Lacks pro reps, experience; game can speed up on him in the field and on the bases; comfort in box exceeds comfort in other facets; average foot speed, first step could limit range at maturity.

Overall Future Potential: High 6; first-division player/all-star

Realistic Role: High 4; below-average major-league player

Risk Factor/Injury History: High; yet to achieve full-season ball; hit may be only potential impact tool.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: There’s certainly fantasy potential in Torres, but the upside is not so lofty that dynasty leaguers should say “ETA, be damned.” The power may yet develop, and he could be a five-category threat, but there’s so much distance between now and fantasy viability that it takes a toll on his overall value.

The Year Ahead: It’s not often you see this blend of upside, probability, and feel in a player this age and at this level, let alone at the shortstop position. With present power his only below-average tool, he has already begun to add some strength and it would not be a surprise to see him begin driving the ball with more regularity as early as next year. Torres is advanced enough to be challenged with a South Bend assignment to start next season, though the Cubs could opt to keep him in extended to wait out the worst of the weather while continuing to work with him on the finer points of his game. The young Venezuelan will play all of 2015 as an 18-year-old, so there is some flexibility as to how Chicago opts to move forward with his development. Further, the wave of young infield talent currently descending on Wrigley should permit Torres the luxury of progressing through the system at his own pace. The bat is impressive enough, however, that he could force his way into the major-league picture much quicker than any expected at this time last year.

Major league ETA: 2019

9. Dan Vogelbach
Position: 1B
DOB: 12/17/1992
Height/Weight: 6’0” 250 lbs
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted/Acquired: 2nd round, 2011 draft, Bishop Verot HS (Fort Myers, FL)
Previous Ranking: #8 (Org)
2014 Stats: .268/.357/.429 at High-A Daytona (132 games)
The Tools: 5+ potential hit; 6+ potential power

What Happened in 2014: The 2011 second rounder continued his steady climb through the Cubs’ system with a solid showing in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, highlighted by regular jaw-dropping power displays both in game and during batting practice.

Strengths: Natural feel for contact and easy power to all fields; double-plus raw; professional approach; capable of extending at-bats and working to find pitches to drive; loose hands with impactful barrel delivery.

Weaknesses: Bad body with non-existent value on the basepaths and in the field; DH profile in NL org; still learning to unpack advanced arms; can get caught guessing behind in count; some evaluators question ability to consistently identify spin.

Overall Future Potential: 6; first-division player

Realistic Role: 5; major-league regular

Risk Factor/Injury History: Moderate; value tied exclusively to bat; yet to achieve Double-A.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Yes, he’s guaranteed to be first base-only (at best) and he’ll offer zero value on the basepaths, but Vogelbach is a power hitter and we care about power hitters. After all, Albert Pujols hit .272 with 28 homers this year and was the 21st ranked fantasy hitter for the season—and that’s attainable for the big man.

The Year Ahead: Vogelbach will join a talented lineup at Double-A Tennessee, leaving him a stone’s throw from Wrigley where his bat-only profile will demand loud offensive performance in order to justify a roster spot. With Anthony Rizzo’s 2014 breakout and wonderfully reasonable contract locked in through 2021 (including team options), most outside the organization have tabbed Vogelbach as a likely trade piece to be wielded next summer or next offseason, depending on his progress and needs of likely AL suitors. If a spot were to eventually open up on the 25-man in Chicago, Vogelbach possesses enough upside with the stick to account for the negative value he will bring to the table in the field, with a chance to slot in behind Bryant, Soler, Baez, Schwarber, and Russell as yet another impact power bat.

Major league ETA: 2016

10. Carson Sands
Position: LHP
DOB: 03/28/1995
Height/Weight: 6’3” 195 lbs
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted/Acquired: 4th round, 2014 draft, North Florida Christian HS (Tallahassee, FL)
Previous Ranking: NA
2014 Stats: 1.89 ERA (19 IP, 15 H, 20 K, 7 BB) at complex level AZL
The Tools: 6 potential FB; 5+ potential CB; 5+ potential CH

What Happened in 2014: Sands saw a steady growth in stuff over the past 18 months, highlighted by a marked step forward his senior year at North Florida Christian and culminating in a seven-figure bonus and fourth-round selection in June’s first-year player draft. He capped off a whirlwind 2014 with impressive showings in the Arizona Complex League and fall instructs.

Strengths: Balanced repertoire featuring three above-average offerings and above-average command; reports of improved consistency in mechanics and arm action through instructs; comfortable pitching to all four quadrants; some room to bump velo band to firm plus in comfort zone; already showing feel for sequencing; sturdy build; solid presence and even demeanor.

Weaknesses: Curve can flash but lacks consistent requisite snap for present plus grades; some knocks for arm action; more conservative evals see arsenal settling in as average across the board with solid command and back-end profile; needs to demonstrate ability to maintain quality of stuff on pro schedule.

Overall Future Potential: High 6; no. 2/3 starter

Realistic Role: High 4; no. 4/5 starter

Risk Factor/Injury History: High; yet to achieve full-season ball; standard proximity/probability risk for prep arm.

Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: : Do not overlook Sands in dynasty drafts this year, as he deserves to be drafted much earlier than his status as a fourth rounder indicates and is a top-50 name in a deep draft class. It would not be a surprise at all to see him make Top 100 fantasy lists next offseason.

The Year Ahead: Sands is advanced enough to tackle the Midwest League in 2015, and some reports outside the organization maintain he could hold his own against High-A bats while conceding that would be an unnecessary stress for an arm yet to be challenged with a pro workload. His balanced arsenal, feel, strength, and maturity on the bump all suggest a future as a major-league starter, while history serves as a constant reminder that the path from acquisition to realization of major-league value is seldom linear for teenage arms. Provided he proves capable of weathering a full season’s load in 2015, he could begin to move quickly thereafter, with his name prominently placed on prospect and acquisition lists alike.

Major league ETA: 2019

Prospects on the Rise:

1. LHP Justin Steele: Steele had evaluators flocking to the Magnolia State this spring when word got out that the projectable lefty was hitting the mid-90s with his fastball, and the Cubs wound up popping the Southern Miss commit in the fifth round, inking him to a $1-million bonus. Steele lacks the physicality at present to maintain his velocity late into starts, and most comfortably operated in the 88 to 91 mph band while piggybacking with Sands in his pro debut. His breaking ball is a second potential plus offering that should settle as a consistent swing-and-miss weapon at maturity, and he shows enough feel for his changeup to project average or better, giving him a potential weapon against righties. His frame should allow for the additional strength necessary to handle the rigors of rotation work. There’s number three starter upside here with a chance for late-inning work should he shift to the pen at some point along the developmental journey.

2. RHP Jake Stinnett: Stinnett wowed this spring in ACC play, showcasing a plus fastball-slider combo, serviceable change, and aggressive demeanor on the mound. A relatively low-mileage arm, the Terrapins’ ace endured a long college season while maintaining his stuff late into starts, but showed significant signs of fatigue in his pro debut, including a sizeable velo dip and softer breaking ball. Stinnett throws with effort in generating his power stuff, leaving evaluators split as to whether he fits best as a power reliever or in a rotation where he could provide mid-rotation upside. The Cubs could ease him into full-season ball with a Low-A assignment in 2015, but if the fastball and slider return to form, he could quickly prove too advanced for Midwest League bats.

3. C Mark Zagunis: Though he lacks a current defensive home, Zagunis possesses above-average athleticism and the work ethic to build up his proficiency at a number of positions, including behind the dish, where he drew solid reviews internally during instructs and mixed grades from outside evaluators. Where the former Hokie will shine, however, is in the box, consistently putting together solid at-bats thanks to an advanced ability to track and good feel for contact. He projects to hit for average and gap-to-gap pop, and could fill a super-utility role at maturity that includes a time share between catcher, left field, and third base. Expect Zagunis to hit the ground running in 2015, and to quickly establish himself as another Cubby bat for the Wrigleyville faithful to monitor closely.

Factors on the Farm (Prospects likely to contribute at the ML level in 2015)

1. RHP C.J. Edwards: Edwards was shelved for three months this summer thanks to a shoulder strain and fatigue, adding to the narrative that the slender righty lacks the durability to hold up to a starter’s workload and is destined for the pen. Upon returning to action in late July, Edwards showcased impressive swing-and-miss stuff over six starts, with his fastball and curve each grading out as plus offerings and his change showing promise to boot. Were there more certainty that Edwards could maintain the quality of his stuff over the course of a full season at the upper levels, he would fit comfortably as one of the top-ten prospects in the system. But despite mid-rotation upside and solid athleticism and feel, signs continue to point to a late-inning fit where his arsenal could play up and durability concerns would play down. He’ll start 2015 back in Double-A and could be ready to provide useful major-league innings in short order if the opportunity should arise.

2. 3B Christian Villanueva: Were it not for the logjam of potential impact infielders populating the organization, Villanueva might have an opportunity to prove himself as a worthy everyday contributor at the major-league level. The glove plays to plus at the hot corner, and there is plus raw pop in the stick, but Villanueva’s contact issues were magnified between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014, calling into question whether the profile is ultimately that of a regular or corner backup with some pinch-hit utility. The timetable for Russell and Bryant could eat into Villanueva’s opportunity to see time in Wrigley next summer, making him an obvious candidate to figure into any offseason discussions involving trade partners in search of an inexpensive upside play at third.

3. RHP Arodys Vizcaino: Vizcaino has battled injury for the past three seasons, including Tommy John surgery in 2012. This year he worked his way back through three minor-league levels before logging major-league innings for the first time since 2011. The arm still produces power stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and low-80s power curve, but Vizcaino continues to struggle with feel and consistency, at present lacking the command to be trusted with high-leverage situations. There is optimism that the 23-year-old has finally put his elbow woes behind him, and he’ll enter 2015 with a chance to earn a spot in the pen, where he retains late-inning upside. He is under control through the 2018 season and still has plenty of time to establish himself as a useful piece on an up-and-coming club.

Top 10 Talents 25 And Under (born 4/1/89 or later)

  1. Anthony Rizzo
  2. Starlin Castro
  3. Addison Russell
  4. Kris Bryant
  5. Javier Baez
  6. Jorge Soler
  7. Arismendy Alcantara
  8. Albert Almora
  9. Kyle Hendricks
  10. Neil Ramirez

The Cubs are plodding along slowly in the major-league wins department, gradually climbing from a 100-loss team to a modest 73-win team in the three seasons since Theo Epstein and company came aboard. The organization is loaded with potential at the minor-league level, with a few young regulars already making positive contributions on the North Side. As has become custom under the current regime, this list is dominated by bats, giving the team plenty of options on the positional side as they continue to construct a big-league roster that appears to be on the verge of contention.

After working with Joey Votto in the offseason, Anthony Rizzo went on to garner comps to the former MVP thanks to a breakout offensive campaign in 2014 that was in large part due to tangible adjustments at the plate, including a set-up closer to the plate that helped minimize a hole down and in that had previously plagued him. Rizzo’s plus-plus power potential, which he’s hinted at in past seasons, is now showing consistently in games with improved results against southpaws providing an added bonus. The top-ranked player on this loaded 25-and-under list, Rizzo will enter 2015 regarded as one of baseball’s most productive offensive players.

Starlin Castro reverted to a more natural approach at the plate as he augmented his bat-to-ball skills with a selectively aggressive game plan at the plate. These adjustments nearly led to a career season at the plate for Castro, before an awkward slide into home resulted in to a high-ankle sprain, ending his year in early September. Statistically, Castro had his best defensive year, but he still has lapses in the field and has yet to display a strong grasp on the finer points of the position. Addison Russell will enter the mix at shortstop sooner than later, adding to a growing logjam in the middle infield and putting pressure on the club to decide who gets the long-term gig at short, who shifts positions, and who gets moved via trade to help address any areas of need.

It was an up-and-down 2014 for Javier Baez, following his career pattern of dominating a level late after struggling early, eventually earning a promotion to the big-league club in August. This season will be about making the necessary adjustments to stop pitchers from exploiting the current holes in his game, including his love for swinging at elevated fastballs which regularly put him behind in the count and help neutralize the effectiveness of his raw bat speed and power.

The back half of the 25-and-under list continues with a mix of major-league assets and top prospects, a testament to the improving balance of talent between the majors and minors and the overall organizational depth. Arismendy Alcantara struggled in his MLB debut, but is a “do-everything” player progressing in center field. His range and glove are fine, but the arm accuracy and carry are a detriment at present thanks to the continued implementation of an infielder’s short arm circle and wrist-heavy propulsion, a habit he’ll have to break in order to stick on the grass. With a fastball topping out in the mid-90s, Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have big stuff, but his pitchability has shone through at the major-league level thanks to improved access to—and a strong desire to utilize—robust advanced scouting reports. Neil Ramirez, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, has blossomed into a bonafide high-leverage reliever, wielding a mid-90s fastball and nasty slider, rounding out the top ten. –Mauricio Rubio

A Parting Thought: This may be the best system in baseball, providing impact and depth while boasting high-level talents ready to step out of the upper minors and into the bright lights at Wrigley. What’s more, the lower levels are flush with interesting profiles, making it possible that the organization could graduate a handful of its top prospects in 2015 without suffering any significant drop in system strength a year from now.

Nick J. Faleris is a practicing structured finance attorney and Sports Industry team member in the Milwaukee office of Foley & Lardner LLP. The views he expresses at Baseball Prospectus are his own, and not necessarily
those of the law firm.

Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here

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