“As the Cubs’ draft went on, we were sitting around in our draft room and we could tell what they were doing. We said ‘hey, they get it, they’re finally getting it’….That got my attention, the attention of a lot of other people in the game.”
Those words, spoken by Theo Epstein at his introductory news conference in Chicago in October of last year, speak volumes about the state of the Cubs’ farm system. Obviously, there is an element of intrigue there, with the Cubs’ drafting of a very strong class last year. They got several big prospects, and they were able to sign a big chunk of them, spending more in bonuses than they had in the previous two drafts combined.
In addition to that intrigue about the quality of the class, there is an understanding that the farm system isn’t exactly brimming with talent that is ready to contribute on the field. The Cubs ended last season as the fourth oldest roster in the National League, and despite jettisoning some serious contracts from their books, they still have guys like Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd on the roster, so there is still an element of entrenched guys with big money owed them blocking the way if a hotshot starts making his way up through the system.
The one thing the Cubs’ system does have in lieu of eye-popping prospects is a tremendous amount of depth. John Sickels of the SB Nation blog Minor League Ball said the Cubs’ system may not have Major League-ready guys right now, but they have a lot of guys with potential, much like the Cleveland Indians farm system. That comparison is an accurate one, and indicates that the team very well could get contributions from these guys sometime in the future, although not in 2012.
With all of that in mind, here is a look under the hood at 10 of the top position players in the Cubs’ system today:
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Rizzo was acquired in the trade that sent Andrew Cashner to San Diego, and there is a good reason it took a nice return like Andrew to net a player like this. Rizzo is widely regarded as one of the top prospects in all of baseball, even being named the number one first base prospect in MLB by the league’s website.
He not only is a solid defensive first baseman (a must in an infield with Starlin Castro), but he can also drive the ball with a good amount of power, having belted 25 homers in the minors in 2010. He didn’t impress much with his first foray into the Majors last year, but General Manager Jed Hoyer obviously believed strongly enough in him to bring him along when he came from San Diego to join the Epstein regime. Bryan LaHair will likely start the season at first base for the Cubs, but Rizzo will be ready and waiting should the call arrive for him to join the roster.
Brett Jackson, OF
Another Cub almost assured of seeing serious playing time with the big club this season, Jackson is a prototypical jack of all trades in the field. He has decent speed, some serious pop in his bat, and he is one of the best defensive outfielders the Cubs have in their system. The main issue facing Jackson is that he is prone to striking out a lot, whiffing in 64 of his 185 plate appearances for triple-A Iowa last season.
Jackson could theoretically bump into the starting lineup with a good spring training (or if Epstein and Hoyer pull off the impossible and actually ship Soriano elsewhere), but his path will be stymied by Alfonso, Byrd, and the newly acquired David DeJesus. He has 20-20 potential and is very highly thought of (Baseball America has him ranked #1 in the system) in baseball circles.
Matt Szczur, OF
Named the best athlete and fastest runner in the Cubs’ system by Baseball America, Szczur has a lot of scouts buzzing because of his penchant for stealing bases. He stole 24 bases a season ago in split-time action between single-A Peoria and high-A Daytona, and he was only caught five times. He is also a very solid defender, having only committed three errors in 241 chances last year.
Szczur’s most underrated ability is probably his plate discipline. It did slip a little bit in Daytona, but overall for the year, he only struck out 48 times in 480 plate appearances, and that excellent eye at the dish could lead to a future spot as a lead-off hitter for this club.
He does still need to develop more power as he gets older, and he will need to prove that last season’s dip in production when he switched teams was a blip on the radar, and not a sign of things to come.
Javier Baez, SS
The number eight rated-shortstop prospect according to MLB, Baez was the Cubs’ first round pick in 2011, and with good reason. He is a very solid hitter who wowed scouts with his bat speed and ability to hit for both average and power. In limited action in the Cubs’ system over the summer, he had five hits and two doubles in 18 plate appearances.
His defense is in need of some serious work, as he made six errors in only 27 chances last year. Rumors are swirling that he will eventually be moved to third base, but he could surprise as he is still only a matter of months removed from high school.
Wellington Castillo, C
The most likely option to usurp Geovany Soto behind the plate for the Cubs this upcoming season, Castillo has caught the eye of baseball experts with his powerful bat and his fantastic arm behind the plate. He threw out 29% of would-be base stealers last year in the minor leagues, and that number would have ranked him in the top eight catchers in MLB.
Castillo’s 15 home runs in 227 at-bats at triple-A could help land him a spot on the Cubs’ opening day roster, but he will need to work on striking out less, as he fanned 57 times with Iowa last season.
Junior Lake, SS
Lake is a prospect that a lot of people around the Cubs have been talking about, and with good reason. He has a great blend of power and speed (he hit 12 home runs and stole 38 bases in split time between high-A and double-A a season ago), and he has one of the best arms not just in the Cubs’ system, but in the minor leagues overall.
His biggest obstacle in getting to the big leagues will be whether or not he can prove capable of playing shortstop every day. With speculation growing that the Cubs could move Castro to another position, Lake would seem to be a decent fit there, but his incredible lack of plate discipline and his range could be a problem.
Josh Vitters, 3B
It has seemed like forever since Vitters entered the organization, and that’s because it has been. Drafted in 2007 (the first year of the Lou Piniella era), Vitters has been both the beneficiary and the victim of having a guy like Aramis Ramirez at third base, and the organization has made it a point to be very patient with him.
He has shown signs of coming around, hitting 14 home runs and driving in 81 runs last season in double-A, but he will need to continue to step up his game as the Epstein/Hoyer regime starts to rework the Cubs’ farm system. If he is able to become versatile enough to play first or third base, then he should be a key cog in years to come. If not, it may be time for the Cubs to go in a different direction.
Jeimer Candelario, 3B
Candelario is a tough player to project, simply because his only numbers available have come from the Dominican Summer League, but he looks like a very promising prospect. He hit for a .337 average in 249 at-bats in the DSL, and he walked 50 times while striking out 42 times. He also drove in 53 runs and hit 16 doubles in his stint there, so his bat is definitely an asset that the Cubs are looking at developing.
He will need to work on his discipline on the basepaths, however, as he was thrown out on four of eight stolen base attempts last year.
Dan Vogelbach, 1B
The 10th-ranked first base prospect according to MLB.com, and rated as the best power-hitter in the Cubs’ system by Baseball America, Vogelbach is turning a lot of heads already. A second-round pick by the Cubs in 2011, Vogelbach stormed out of the gate with the team’s rookie league club in Arizona, racking up an impressive .912 OPS with three doubles, a home run, and six RBI in only 27 plate appearances for the club.
A big complaint about Vogelbach has been his weight, but he has slimmed down going into his first full professional season, and his development will be closely watched by a club on the lookout for talent at the corner infield positions. He should be a prospect to keep an eye on for years to come.
Marco Hernandez, SS
Hernandez is a very solid defensive shortstop, and has tremendous power to the gaps, as he illustrated in rookie league ball last year. He hit 16 doubles and five triples in only 233 plate appearances, and even though he only hit two home runs, he still drove in 42 runs. His plate discipline is also pretty good, and at only 19 years of age, he has plenty of time to develop that skill a bit, as well as his power numbers.
According to Sickels, Hernandez is a guy who could shoot up the chart in terms of prospects this coming year, so the Cubs will certainly have to keep an eye on him as he develops, despite the other shortstops that they have in the organization.