Minors : : General
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Top Prospects: Chicago Cubs

Todd Gold        
Photo: Iowa Cubs

General Manager:  Jed Hoyer
Minor League Director:  Oneri Fleita
Scouting Director:  Tim Wilken

AAA:  Iowa Cubs (Pacific Coast League) 66-77
AA:  Tennessee Smokies (Southern League) 83-57
Hi A:  Daytona Cubs (Florida State League) 76-61 FSL Champions
Low A:  Peoria Chiefs (Midwest League) 60-79
Rookie Adv.:  Boise Hawks (Northwest League) 36-40
Rookie:  AZL Cubs (Arizona League) 28-28
Dominican:  DSL Cubs1 (Dominican Summer League) 25-42
Dominican:  DSL Cubs2 (Dominican Summer League) 47-25

System Overview

Prior to the 2011 draft the Cubs had been reluctant to open up the checkbook and agree to large signing bonus demands. The strategy was epitomized by selecting RHP Hayden Simpson out of Southern Arkansas University with the 16th overall pick in 2010, signing him for well under the slot recommendation at $1.06 Million ($1.512 M recommendation). The conservative signing bonus expenditures combined with trading several high level prospects led to what was a weak farm system heading into 2011.

In spite of their budgetary constraints, the Cubs scouting staff made several good picks in the middle rounds over the past few years to supply the system with talent. However, former GM Jim Hendry consistently traded prospects for Major League help, preventing the farm system from gaining much traction. Prior to the 2011 season the Cubs sent SS Hak-Ju Lee, RHP Chris Archer, OF Sam Fuld, C Robinson Chirinos and OF Brandon Guyer to Tampa Bay for Matt Garza.

The lack of high level prospects beyond OF Brett Jackson combined with the impending changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) led the Cubs to a spending spree in the 2011 draft, aggressively selecting and signing expensive high school prospects with a lot of upside.

After the hiring of new team President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer the Cubs continued to attempt to replenish the long neglected farm system, landing power hitting 1B Anthony Rizzo and RHP Zach Cates in exchange for reliever Andrew Cashner and OF Kyung-Min Na. The first big trade of the Epstein-Hoyer era looks to be a positive first step for the Cubs, as they land an elite prospect in Rizzo, giving up only a relief pitcher (albeit a good one) in exchange, thanks to the Padres’ newfound surplus of first basemen after they acquired Yonder Alonso as part of the Mat Latos trade with Cincinnati.

The Cubs international efforts have yielded positive results in recent years. SS Starlin Castro is looking like one of the best finds of the 21st century, having quickly become a franchise cornerstone at the age of 21 years old, five years after the Cubs signed him out of the Dominican Republic for $45,000 in 2006. The Cubs have invested heavily in the Dominican in recent years, with a pair of teams in the Dominican Summer League, and have plans to upgrade their Academy in 2012. Current prospects playing in the US Minor Leagues from the DR are highlighted by C Wellington Castillo, RHP Rafael Dolis, SS Marco Hernandez and SS Junior Lake. 3B Jeimer Candelario was one of the best prospects in the DSL last year, so there is reason for optimism as he heads to the states for the first time in 2012.  

The other half of their international effort has been a strong influence in Asia. Korean SS Hak-Ju Lee was signed out of Korea as a 17 year old in 2008, and was used as one of the primary pieces of the Matt Garza trade. RHP Dae-Eun Rhee got his career off to a good start after signing for $525,000 out of Korea before injuries began to take a toll, but a rebound in 2011 suggests he is back on track. OF Jae-Hoon Ha, another product of Korea who is a polished defender in center field reached AA Jackson as a 21 year old in 2011. Taiwanese OF Pin-Chieh Chen has shown good on base skills in the lower levels and will move up to Low-A Peoria in 2012.

While the Cubs now boast a pair of impact bats at the highest levels of the system in Jackson and Rizzo, they lack much depth beyond them. They acquired several exciting high school selections in the 2011 draft, but most have yet to play an inning of professional baseball to this point. How the 2011 draft class pans out and the development of Matt Szczur and Junior Lake will make a significant impact in the strength of the Cubs farm system, which the new front office regime says will be a vital part of their efforts to bring the first World Championship to the north side of Chicago since 1908.

2011 Draft

The Cubs were uncharacteristically aggressive in 2011, spending $11.99 Million on signing bonuses, fourth most of the draft. They got a lot for that money, landing Javy Baez with the ninth overall pick, but getting several other high level talents as well. Baez, a Puerto Rican born shortstop was a standout who popped up on the national radar a bit late for a toolsy shortstop, once he joined the powerhouse East Cobb program out of Georgia in 2010 that changed in a hurry. The pick was seen as a slight reach, given that many expect Baez to move to third base as his lean athletic frame fills out, leading many to view him as a mid to late first rounder prior to the draft. But that is what potentially makes it a very good choice for the Cubs as well, as it wasn’t the obvious pick, yet it could very well turn out to be the right pick.

In the second round the Cubs continued to make their presence felt, picking one of the most intriguing players in the 2011 draft in 1B Daniel Vogelbach. Vogelbach was a polarizing prospect, as his body type limits him to first base at 5-foot-10 250 pounds. He runs surprisingly well for his size and is a solid present defender at first, but 18 year olds who will have to work hard to stay at first base are a scary proposition for scouts. Defense and body type aside, Vogelbach was one of the best, if not the best hitters in the draft. By the time the Cubs were on the clock in the second round Vogelbach was easily the best bat on the board and the northsiders pounced on the opportunity.

With Baez and Vogelbach already in tow the Cubs kept on making aggressive picks on expensive, highly talented prospects from the high school ranks as the draft went on. In the eleventh round they took a player who practically grew up at Wrigley Field in OF Shawon Dunston Jr. Dunston was seen as a tough sign, with a commitment to national powerhouse Vanderbilt. But the son of one of the franchise’s icons agreed to a $1.27 Million signing bonus.

In the fourteenth round the Cubs made the Dunston pick look conservative, when they handed out an astonishing $2.5 Million to RHP Dillon Maples. It was the largest signing bonus ever paid to a player outside the top three rounds. Maples was asking for $3 Million to forgo a dual sport scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he would also have been a punter on the football team.

It was a torrid spending spree, capitalizing on the last opportunity to spend unlimited money on draft signing bonuses. But the Cubs also acquired some intriguing college players for less gaudy signing bonuses as well. Switch hitting OF Zeke DeVoss, a fourth rounder out of Miami had a strong debut, hitting .311/.458/.386 in the Northwest League after signing quickly for $500,000. Former Louisville closer Tony Zych created a lot of buzz with his 100 mph fastball during his time in the Cape Cod League before becoming the Cubs fifth round pick and signing for $400,000.

Other interesting selections and signings include the Cubs efforts to land a power hitting catcher, selecting Neftali Rosario of Puerto Rico in the sixth round and Justin Marra from Canada in the fifteenth. Both players have impressive raw power at the plate and tools to develop defensively but both have a long way to go. 1B Trevor Gretzky, the son of NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, signed for $375,000 as a seventh rounder out of Oaks Christian Academy in California. Ninth round OF Garrett Schlecht is an interesting pick with a chance to develop into a quality hitter. 1B Rock Shoulders out of Manatee CC (FL) has serious power from the left side, and if he learns to harness it he will be well worth the $294,000 the Cubs paid him as a 25th round pick.

In 2011 the Cubs made up for lost time after spending just $8.7 Million on the 2009 and 2010 drafts combined. Even the most hardened Cubs fans who have endured a lifetime of losing have to be optimistic about the promise of the 2011 draft efforts. While it is one of the riskier drafts from 2011, it is likely to be one of the highest yielding in terms of infusing talent into a farm system that desperately needed it.

With the new CBA in place the unbridled aggression the Cubs unleashed on the draft in 2011 will not be possible in the future, but they do own the sixth pick in 2012. Given their track record, it is expected that the new administration at the top of the Cubs front office will allow, if not encourage, Scouting Director Tim Wilken to be as aggressive and creative as the rules will allow going forward.

Top 10 Prospects

1. OF Brett Jackson
Baseball-reference player profile

The Cubs made Jackson their top pick out of Cal-Berkley in the 2009 draft with the 31st overall pick, signing him for a $972,000 bonus. After signing quickly, Jackson hit his way to Low-A Peoria in 2009, showing better than expected power. His power numbers dropped a bit in 2010 before rebounding with a 20-20 season in 2011 between AA Tennessee and AAA Iowa.

Jackson lacks any truly elite tools, but his game also has no holes and he does just about everything on the diamond well. While his power is not plus, it is very good for center field, showing the bat speed and bat whip to crush hard line drives that carry well off the bat. His plate discipline has improved during his professional career, leading to very good walk rates. Jackson still shows some inconsistency with his contact skills, occasionally allowing pitchers to get away with mistake pitches. Whether or not he ever learns to barrel up consistently will determine if he can realize his full potential. At the very least, Jackson should post good enough on-base numbers to hit at the top of the order, hitting for extra bases and posting good stolen base totals. Jackson is a relatively safe bet to be an above average everyday Major Leaguer, with upside to be a frequent All-Star. His routes in the outfield have shown improvement as well, and he has become a well above average defender in centerfield. He may also have enough arm for right field to be an option later in his career.

The Cubs don't appear to have an immediate opening available in the outfield to start 2012 after signing free agent David DeJesus to a two year deal in the offseason. Jackson will likely force the issue with his bat at some point in 2012, but the Cubs will likely send him back to AAA Iowa to open the season for some additional fine tuning and to delay the start of his service clock.

2. 1B Anthony RizzoBaseball-reference player profile

After being a sixth round pick out of Stoneman-Douglas High School (FL) in 2006 by the Red Sox, Rizzo slugged his way into top prospect status. A powerful left handed hitter, Rizzo has found himself on the move each of the past two offseasons. Rizzo was one of the four prospects leaving Boston for the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez trade prior to the 2011 season. After a very strong 2011 in AAA Tucson (and a slow MLB debut) Rizzo became expendible when the Padres acquired Yonder Alonso from Cincinnati as part of the Mat Latos deal. Rizzo becomes the first impact prospect acquired by the new administration.

Rizzo's calling card is his tremendous raw power from the left side, he possesses the 30+ Home Run a year potential. In his brief stint in the big leagues Rizzo struggled to a .141/.281/.242 line in 128 at bats. His strike zone judgement and discipline has always been a weakness, and it was exploited by big league pitching at the end of 2011. He's shown severe splits, dominating right handed pitching, but struggling against lefties. While there is a lot for Rizzo to overcome he has the most valuable commodity in baseball; light tower power. If he can shore up his weaknesses Rizzo has an outside chance at eventually becoming an MVP candidate, though he is currently a long way off from realizing that potential. Rizzo provides a big target for his fielders at first, but lacks the speed for any other positions, meaning his high level bat will have to carry him.

The only obstacle to the everyday first base job is 29 year old Bryan LaHair, who will be given an opportunity at the job out of spring training. Rizzo is likely to overtake him at some point in 2012 and the Cubs hope/expect him to be their first baseman of the future.

3. OF Matt SzczurBaseball-reference player profile

Szczur took an interesting route to professional baseball, choosing not to sign after being drafted as a Catcher by the Dodgers in the 38th round out of Lower Cape May Regional High School (NJ) in 2007. Szczur went on to Villanova where he was a two-sport star as a Wide Reciever and Kick Returner, missing his freshman season of baseball with a football injury. Szczur was seen as an NFL prospect coming out of Villanova, but after signing him for $100,000 as a fifth round pick in 2010 as a dual sport player, the Cubs were impressed enough with his debut (.347/.414/.465 across three levels) to pay out an additional $1.4 Million prior to the 2011 season to give up football and focus on baseball exclusively. He continued to hit well at Low-A Peoria in the first half of 2011, earning a promotion to High-A Daytona where he finally struggled initially, before finishing the season strong for the Florida State League Champions.

Szczur combines plus speed and good routes to cover a lot of ground in centerfield. If he hits enough, he has a chance to force Brett Jackson to a corner position should they both play their way to the north side of Chicago. Szczur has a very solid hit tool, with quick hands and short easy swing. He has good strength in his hands and forearms, causing the ball to jump off his bat well in spite of a contact oriented approach at the plate. Though he hits a decent number of Home Runs, his game is built on putting the ball in play and using his speed. In order to be a productive offensive player at the Major League level he will need to improve his walk rates and refine his aggressive approach, but has the tools to potentially develop into a good top of the order hitter. If not, his defensive ability in centerfield may be enough to get him to the Majors anyway.

Sczczur has found success in his early career. Though a promotion to AA Jackson generally proves challenging to most players, Szczur has the tools to hit in the Southern League, where he will likely open the 2012 season.

4. SS/3B Javy Baez Baseball-reference player profile

The Puerto Rican native came to the United States in 2005, moving to Florida, where he dominated the high school ranks at Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, FL. Baez was relatively unknown outside of northern Florida until 2010, when he wowed scouts at the 2010 National Showcase and starred at several high level tournaments with the top ranked team in the nation, the East Cobb Braves 17u. Though it took over $2.6 Million to sign him, the Cubs picked him ninth overall, with the hope and expectation that he can quickly become an impact prospect.

Baez has exceptional raw tools across the board, with speed being the only tool that grades as merely average. His plus bat speed, strong hand-eye coordination and raw power give him near elite level offensive potential. As a high school player Baez was ultra-aggressive in every facet of the game, an encouraging sign for a young prospect, but to be successful as a pro Baez will need to learn to pick his spots. In addition to plus offensive tools, Baez has very good defensive actions with a strong arm  and very quick release. He has enough present range to play shortstop, but his lean wiry frame projects to add muscle, which is a positive sign for his power potential, but may force him to shift over to third base. At either position, Baez projects as a potential impact player on the left side of the infield, though he has a long way to go to reach it.

Baez got a very brief taste of pro ball in 2011 after signing at the August 15 deadline. The development he shows by the end of Spring Training will determine where and when he opens the 2012 season, though he should find his way to Low-A Peoria at some point.

5. 1B Daniel Vogelbach – Baseball-reference player profile

Vogelbach could turn out to be an absolute steal for the Cubs as a second round pick, even with his above slot signing bonus of $1.6 Million. In spite of his obvious ability, Vogelbach has been, to some extent, overlooked for one reason: his weight. As a junior Vogelbach measured 5-foot-10 and 275 pounds, and while he was a surprisingly close to average runner, making it easy to dismiss his ability because of his body type. Vogelbach got the message, putting forth the effort to transform his body, shedding significant weight heading into his senior season, in which he terrorized opposing pitchers while leading Bishop Verot High School to the 3A state championship.

Writing off Vogelbach is a huge mistake, as scouts who compare him to Babe Ruth are only half joking. He is a unique player, while he has similarities to fellow Florida products Billy Butler and Prince Fielder, there are no truly similar players to compare him to.  He possesses elite level power, and not all of Vogelbach's weight is soft, as he is very strong. He uses his strength well and showed picturesque left handed swing, generating tremendous bat speed with ease. His loose wrists and swing actions allow him to not only blast towering Home Runs to all fields, but he is also a very good pure hitter as well. It could be argued that Vogelbach is one of the best hitters to come through the high school ranks in several years. However, he has had to work extremely hard to maintain his athleticism to handle first base, which is a scary proposition for scouts looking at an 18 year old prospect with a seven figure price tag. Some scouts believe he won't be able to play a defensive position at the Major League level, in spite of the fact that he has shown himself to be more than adequate defensively throughout his high school career. Even though his value is tied to his bat, Vogelbach is a rare hitting talent who has a chance to become an impact bat in the heart of a big league order for years to come.

Highly polished for a high school draftee, Vogelbach should make his professional debut with Low-A Peoria at some point in 2012, possibly to open the season.

6. SS Junior Lake Baseball-reference player profile

Lake was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006, and made slow but steady progress after coming to the United States the following year. In 2011 Lake hit well (.315/.336/.498) in his second stint in High-A Dayton, but struggled after a promotion to AA Tennessee. He had a very strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted third and played shortstop in the Rising Stars Game.

While his tools are impressive, they have yet to translate into impressive results. At 6-foot-3 215 pounds, Lake stands out from the moment he walks into the ballpark. Though the physical build leads many to believe he will eventually outgrow shortstop, where he has above average range and solid fielding actions. Of course, shortstop appears to be blocked in Chicago for the forseeable future, further increasing the likelihood of a position change. Lake runs well and stole 38 bases (44 attempts) in 2011. He has good bat speed and good raw power. But he also has on-base skills reminiscent another Domincan born player under current employ of the Cubs: Alfonso Soriano. As a result, he hasn't hit as well as his tools suggest he should, especially as he has moved to higher levels.

Lake will probably return to AA Tennessee to open 2012, and earn a promotion when he proves he can hit high level pitching. Physically, he's capable of contributing at AAA Iowa, if not in the Major Leagues, but he won't do so until his skills begin to catch up to his talent.

7. RHP Trey McNutt – Baseball-reference player profile

McNutt was widely overlooked, after going undrafted out of high school the Cubs grabbed McNutt out of Shelton State CC (AL) in the 32nd round of the 2009 draft. He pitched well in his brief debut (27 innings) in 2009, and carried over his success to 2010, earning a promotion to AA Tennessee at the end of the season. But he has yet to succeed above A-ball, struggling with his command in his second stint in Tennessee in 2011.

A stout 6-foot-4 220 pounds, McNutt is a classic power pitcher. Not only can he run his fastball into the upper 90s and back it up with a power breaking ball, but he also has a power approach to pitching. McNutt was able to blow his explosive stuff by hitters at the lower levels, but AA hitters have been able to work him deep into counts and battle him until he either makes a mistake or gives up a walk. The Cubs would like to see McNutt develop his changeup into an above average pitch and learn to become more efficient with his pitches in order to be a starter. While he has pitched effectively as a starter with a low-mid 90s fastball in the past, his body and power repertoire has caused many scouts to slap the "future closer" label on him. At this point that remains a viable fall back option, though if is able to make progress with his command, develop his changeup and cut down on his walks, McNutt has a chance to be a early-mid rotation starting pitcher.

What the Cubs view McNutt's future role as will impact where he pitches in 2012. If they believe he can be a starter he will likely return to AA Tennessee to continue working on adding polish. Should they decide to make a reliever out of him then he could potentially reach the north side by season's end. 

8. RHP Dillon Maples Baseball-reference player profile

Maples represents a huge gamble by the Cubs, and epitomizes their 2011 draft efforts. On the one hand Maples possesses a high level power arm and an athletic body, he is exactly the type of young pitcher you can dream on. But his $2.5 Million price tag as a 14th round pick is also unheard of, and for better or worse, it is a signing bonus that epitomize the era of unrestricted draft spending under the old CBA. If Maples pans out the Cubs will look like geniuses for landing a quality prospect in the 14th round, if he doesn't they will look foolish for spending so much money on the riskiest of all baseball assets: high school pitching.

What excites the Cubs most about Maples is his plus plus raw arm speed. His body still has room to fill and Maples' delivery in high school was raw and violent. While that is on one hand a red flag that he could be at even higher risk of injury, it also illustrates just how strong his arm is to be able to run his fastball into the mid 90s with less than optimal mechanics. As he learns to do a better job of extending to the front side of his delivery and finishing his pitches, it is reasonable to expect that Maples could see his velocity increase. Though at the same time there is a general reluctance to mess with what has worked in the past. Maples backs his high level heater with a power curveball with hard snap and 12-6 break and low 80s velocity. While he occasionally showed a changeup at high level events as a member of Canes Baseball, he has had little use for it.

Maples is young and raw, and will likely begin the 2012 season in extended spring training. But eventually the Cubs will unleash the flamethrower, and he has the talent to succeed right away in Rookie ball, and possibly even in the Low-A Midwest League.

9. 3B Josh Vitters Baseball-reference player profile

The Cubs saw a potential superstar in Vitters when they drafted him third overall out of Cypress High School (CA) in 2007 and paid him a $3.2 Million signing bonus. Vitters has shown slow but steady progress throughout his pro career, and while he hasn't posted eye popping numbers, he has hit well at every level.

Vitters' bat has always been impressive, which is perhaps a big part of why his modest progress is seen as a big disappointment to many. Part of the reason he hasn't improved a great deal is that Vitters was so polished as a high school player. He really stood out for his pitch recognition at the 2006 WWBA World Championship, the highest level of high school aged competition. He also stood out for his good bat speed, smooth balanced swing and ability to drive the ball with authority. But therein lies the problem, Vitters had nearly reached his ceiling in terms of pure hitting ability. In order to get better he needed to improve his plate discipline and make better decisions at the plate against professional pitching. To some extent he has improved in that area, but he has done so slowly, struggling in his first stop at each level before making up for it in his second go-round. Vitters is a solid defender at third base, and though he saw time at first in 2011, his future is likely on the hot corner. While he may not turn out to be the future superstar that the Cubs had hoped, Vitters looks to be on pace to be a solid everyday Major Leaguer.

Vitters will move up to AAA Iowa for the first time to open the 2012 season. Should the recently acquired Ian Stewart struggle at the beginning of the season, the Cubs will likely give Vitters a chance to prove he is ready to call Wrigley Field home.

10. RHP Rafael Dolis Baseball-reference player profile

A converted shortstop, Dolis has had a long and interesting career for a 23 year old. Dolis has missed significant time due to injuries earlier in his career, but pitched in 52 games in 2011, including an inning in the Major Leagues. While he has worked as both a starter and reliever, his 2011 usage and raw stuff suggest his future lies in the bullpen.

At 6-foot-4 215 pounds Dolis is an overpowering righty, capable of hitting triple digits on the radar gun when pitching in relief. The heavy sinking action he imparts on his fastball thanks to the severe downhill leverage his delivery creates leads to high ground ball rates. His second pitch is a low 80s slider with tight spin, which has plus potential but remains inconsistent to this point. Dolis can lull hitters to sleep with his effortless delivery and the ball explodes out of his hand, but he needs to be more consistent with repeating his delivery and timing. His tendency to rush his delivery led to higher walk and lower strikeout rates than he should post with his stuff.

Dolis will enter spring training with a change to earn a spot in the Major League bullpen on opening day. But if the Cubs want to give him another chance at being a starter they will send him to AAA Iowa. While its not a foregone conclusion that his future is as a late inning reliever, it does seem likely.

Others in the conversation (listed alphabetically): RHP Chris Carpenter, C Wellington Castillo, OF Reggie Golden, RHP Dae-Eun Rhee, RHP Tony Zych

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