There was a lot of talent on the lists for center field and second base, but even those positions are simply blown away by the depth and quality the Cubs have stacked on the left side of the infield. Many of these players are very young and very deep in the system, but they personify the promise of a much brighter future on the North Side.
Several of these players could play at short or third base, so rather than try to pick which player should go on which list, I just combined the two positions into a single list. Since the list covers both positions, I will be extending my Top Five to a Top Eight and giving preference to players that have Minor League data. It is very likely that some of the players I mention in ‘Others To Watch’ are better than some of the Top Eight, but without the data to back that up I opted to play it safe.
1 – Javier Baez. Age: 19. Major League ETA: 2014
As soon as the Cubs took Baez with their first round pick in 2011 the analysts began comparing him to Gary Sheffield and projecting a move to third base. Baseball America thought Baez had the best bat speed in the entire Draft and projected him to hit for both power and average. His bat will fit nicely in the middle of the order when he does make it to Chicago. His range and quickness are just adequate for shortstop right now, but there is a general consensus that he will have to learn a new position as he fills out. Third base is the most likely, but given the depth the Cubs have at third don’t be surprised if the Cubs consider him at second. Regardless of where he plays, he will likely move up the system as fast as his bat will let him. He should begin 2012 in Peoria.
2 – Josh Vitters. Age: 22. Major League ETA: 2012
Since he is blocked at first base and needs to improve his defense at third, we may ultimately see Vitters in left field more than we do on the infield. Ultimately, his position is the least of the Cubs’ worries. In order to enjoy long term success in the majors, Vitters simply needs to learn patience. The scouts tell us he has all the physical tools he needs to do that; he can hit nearly any pitch he swings at, he recognizes pitches well, and he can drive the ball to all fields. All his game is lacking is a more disciplined plan at the plate. Vitters will go to Iowa in 2012 with his career at a crossroads. The Cubs front office will be emphasizing the importance of plate discipline and getting on base throughout the farm system this season. That is a change from what Vitters is likely used to hearing. If he responds to the new coaching philosophy, he has a bright future as a quality major league starter with a middle of the order bat. If he doesn’t respond, his career could look more like Jeff Baker‘s. He is young for Triple-A, so there is no reason to give up on him. He should get his first taste of Major League pitching no later than September.
3 – Junior Lake. Age: 22. Major League ETA: 2013
Lake could easily have been listed second on this list, but was edged into third because Vitters is a little more advanced. Lake is an exciting prospect who has plenty of raw talent and five-tool potential but is badly in need of polish. He has a great combination of power and speed that any team would love, but is hampered by a severe lack of plate discipline. He has the quickness to play shortstop and easily has the arm to handle third base or right field, but given that he is at least 6’3″ and still growing it is hard to imagine him as a shortstop long term. He will return to Tennessee to start 2012. Like Vitters, there is reason to think his impatient plate approach could improve with the new focus implemented by the front office. When Lake finally puts things together, he could rocket into the majors very quickly. I am not sure what position he will ultimately play, but if he can establish the discipline to take advantage of his prolific tools he will have a nice career playing somewhere.
4 – Marco Hernandez. Age: 19. Major League ETA: 2015
Hernandez is the first player on this list who is likely to stick at shortstop. He also has a chance to be a very good defensive shortstop who hits for average and has the left handed power to hit more than his share of doubles. He has some work to do on his base running, but the potential is there for him to steal 20+ bags a year. In the Rookie League he totaled an OPS of .861 with 2 HR and 9 SB. If he can continue that level of production, he could be the best true shortstop prospect the Cubs have had since Starlin Castro reached the majors. Should he one day be forced out of short by Castro, Hernandez would have no trouble at second base. I’d like to see him jump straight to Peoria, but, as crowded as the Low-A infield is likely to be, I think he may open the year with Boise.
5 – Jeimer Candelario. Age: 18. Major League ETA: 2015
Projecting talent based on DSL numbers is an extremely risky game at best, but I can’t leave Candelario, a third baseman, off this list. In 2011 he had the best DSL season I’ve seen out of a Cub prospect in a long time. His line of .337/.443/.478 is nice, but the more impressive numbers are in his totals. In 305 trips to the plate he amassed 50 walks to go with just 42 strikeouts, hit five home runs and two triples, and swiped four bases. At worst, Candelario is a mobile switch hitter with plenty of power potential who is much more advanced at the plate than any typical seventeen year old prospect. Scouting reports praise his pitch recognition, bat speed, and willingness to use the whole field. In short, Candelario is a promising player well worth watching. Under the old front office I think he would have gone to Arizona or Boise, but, when Epstein was in Boston, the Red Sox did occasionally promote advanced hitters directly into a full season league (Xander Bogaerts, for example). Wherever he lands, he could reach as high as Peoria by the end of the season.
6. Wes Darvill. Age: 20. Major League ETA: 2014
In a system full of somewhat undersized middle infielders, Darvill is a relative giant at 6’2″. Like Hernandez, there is a good chance he can stay at shortstop as he moves up the system, and for that reason he slips into No. 6 on this list. Darvill should also report to Peoria at the start of the 2012 season, and given the crowded infield situation at that level he could be given every opportunity to play his way into a rapid promotion. In the deep Cubs’ system I think Darvill projects as a utility player, but I suspect there are other teams less rich in middle infielders who would consider him as a potential future starting shortstop.
7. Dustin Geiger. Age: 20. Major League ETA: 2014
Geiger came out of the middle rounds in the 2010 draft and has been creeping up the prospect charts ever since. He is a right handed third baseman who already shows signs of developing power, but needs to cut down on his strikeouts if he is going to enjoy long term success. He was unimpressive in a quick trip to Peoria late last season, but that experience should serve him well when he returns to that level this spring. He is definitely eclipsed by the top five names on this list, but he is a legitimate prospect in his own right. We will have a better idea what his ceiling might be after he gets a year of Low-A ball under his belt.
8. Elliot Soto. Age: 22. Major League ETA: 2013
There is not any one thing Soto excels at, but there is not really any holes in his game either. He is not especially fast, but I think he could steal 15 bases a season once he polishes that part of his game. At 5’9″ he will never have much power, but he doesn’t give many at bats away. I think he can hit enough to establish a future for himself as a defensive minded shortstop. His numbers improved significantly when he was promoted to Daytona late last season and the Cubs have apparently already decided that he will open the 2012 season with Tennessee. His ceiling is not high, but he is a true shortstop who has a chance to earn a job as a Major League backup in a year or two.
Others To Watch
In recent seasons the Cubs have devoted more money to signing players out of the Caribbean. Some of the best talent they have signed plays on the left side of the infield. Ricardo Marcano was highly touted as a third baseman when he signed with the Cubs last season. Shortstop Enrique Acosta was the bigger prize in 2011 and will join Marcano in the Dominican Summer League this year. Carlos Penalver was signed as a shortstop in 2010 and could spend this season in either the DSL or the Arizona Rookie League. Trevor Gretzky was drafted as a first baseman in 2011 but has apparently been moved to third. He is extremely raw but projects to have a good deal of power as he develops. He will likely begin his career in Arizona. Arismendy Alcantara is a toolsy infielder who had a moderate amount of success as a 19 year old in Peoria last season. He could open 2012 in Daytona.
That wraps up the position player prospects for the Cubs. We have two articles to go, though. Tomorrow I will cover the system’s left handed pitching.