Welcome to the nineteenth and final edition of Prospects’ Progress. Even though I’ve already covered thirty four prospects (and the Rule 5 draft) over the past three months, there is still a lot of talent left in the system that hasn’t been discussed. The Cubs really do have a very deep farm system; writing a series like this just drives that point home again. That depth allowed me to save two of the Cubs’ best and brightest prospects for this finale. I think most Cub fans have heard of Javier Baez and Arodys Vizcaino, arguably the best hitting and pitching prospects in the farm system. These two will certainly have an impact on the future of the Cubs, one way or another.
But first, some housekeeping notes. Baring some wackiness on the trade market, this will probably be my final article in 2012 (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!). I travel back to the Midwest in a few days, and will not return until January. When I do return, I am planning to take a hard look at the Cubs’ history in the draft over the past few seasons. Once the draft series is complete, probably in early February, it will prospect ranking season at Bleacher Nation. We’ll kick things off with my first top prospects list since signing on with Brett, and continue with an exploration of the farm system position by position, just like we did last spring. All in all, it should be a great way to fill the cold and lonely weeks before baseball finally returns with the dawn of Spring Training. [Brett - a big thanks to Luke for a great year on the prospecting side here at BN.]
But first we have two potentially elite prospects to talk about. The future can be very bright for these two. The upside is tremendous. So is the risk.
Javier Baez, INF
Javier Baez had the fastest bat in the 2011 draft, and there were some very good hitters in that draft. He has the tools to possibly stick at shortstop, promises enough power to play third or in left, and has the kind of bat speed that leaves scouts pinching themselves. Baez has as high a ceiling as anyone in the farm system. He has the potential to not only be an impact player, but a true star. It is easy to love his potential.
The Cubs held him in extended spring training in 2012, and then sent him to Peoria.
His line from Peoria is impressive. In 57 games and 237 plate appearances, the young shortstop hit .333/.383/.596. For a nineteen year old infielder in the Midwest League, those are impressive numbers. Scouts traveled to the Midwest to watch him play and came back with stories about his great bat speed, his defensive potential, and his already impressive power (12 home runs, 5 triples). But they also mentioned his tendency to swing away, to attack pitches too aggressively, and to give away at bats.
And then Arismendy Alcantara, the regular shortstop in Daytona (and a good prospect in his own right), was injured. The Cubs decided to challenge Baez with a promotion to High A, and it did not go well. In 23 games (interspersed among a number of rain outs and doubleheaders), Baez limped to a final line of .188/.244/.400. He did draw 5 walks in 86 plate appearances (compared to just 9 in three times as many chances in Peoria), but struck out 21 times. His bat speed and aggressive approach hid a lack of selectivity in Peoria, and the more advanced pitching in Daytona appeared to exploit that flaw with reckless abandon.
Then the Cubs sent him to the Arizona Fall League, and in 60 trips to the plate over 14 games he managed a line of just .211/.250/.456. His BB% was just 3.3%, and his K% clocked in at 23.3%. Chicago, we have a problem.
Because he was just nineteen and was young for both Peoria and Daytona, and because it was his first taste of full season league baseball, and because his total package of tools is completely off the charts, and because he was promoted too aggressively, Baez gets a pass from me for his worrisome ending to the 2012 season. When my top prospects list comes out, Baez will be somewhere in the top three (baring any very unexpected trades, that is). I am still just about as high on Baez as I am on anyone in the system.
But I’ve seen too many very promising prospects be wrecked by a lack of plate discipline to ignore his numbers altogether. I need to see improvement at the plate in 2013, even if it comes at the cost of some power. Baez will likely be sent back to Daytona, and it will be there that we find out what he is made of. If Baez immediately goes to work making adjustments, changing his approach, working deeper into counts, and generally acting like a hitter rather than a swinger, then it will be tempting to bump his ceiling up a notch. That is exactly what we want to see out of young, potentially elite prospects when they are first challenged. If, on the other hand, he continues with the same approach that led to his struggles, then his future will look much less bright.
And if he manages to convince the Cubs that he will not make adjustments, he may not be in the farm system August 1. Theo Epstein has a track record of trading high draft picks when they are near the peak of their value. Baez, right now, is one of the best shortstop prospects in the game. He has quite a bit of trade value. Should the Cubs become convinced he will not make the necessary adjustments at the plate, I think they will deal him before that value starts to fall.
Fair or not, 2013 is a critical year for Baez. I don’t think we need to see big numbers, but we do need to see progress at the plate. He has the tools be immensely successful, but he also has the potential to never make it past Double A. A year from now we’ll have a much better idea of his ability to take advantage of those tools and convert them into sustained success.
If he fixes his flaws, his long term home is probably at third base. Offensively, he could be the Cubs number three hitter in the not too distant future. Until I see some adjustments I hesitate to project his major league ETA any earlier than late 2015, but it may ultimately be up to Baez. I would not be surprised if he beats my estimate.
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP
When the 2012 season began, Vizcaino was one of the most heralded pitchers in the stacked Atlanta Braves farm system. He ranked ahead of absolutely everyone but Julio Teheran; that is quite the compliment for a Braves’ prospect. Unfortunately, he also had arm issues that resulted in the dreaded surgery.
And then he was traded to the Cubs for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson in a deal that could go down as one of the biggest steals in decades. When healthy, Vizcaino is a legitimate No 2 starter or closer candidate. He is easily the best high level pitching prospect in the Cubs farm system, and there are only a few arms in the low minors that project as high as Vizcaino. This is a guy who reached the major league at the age of 20 and who did not turn 22 until November of this year. Landing him might be the single best move the new Cubs front office has made so far.
Yes, he had elbow surgery. That is not much of a problem. The sheer volume of pitchers in baseball who have undergone that procedure is startling. It has a very high success rate these days, and many pitchers actually come back from it throwing harder than they did before they went under the knife. That is not to say that there is no risk here … there very clearly is plenty of risk … but this is not a one-in-a-million, lottery-ticket type risk. This is a more like a buying-into-a-Fortune-500-company-stock risk. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this investment can pay off, and pay off in a big way.
Vizcaino has a fastball that sits comfortably in the low to mid 90s, but that has been routinely clocked as high as 97. His location on the fastball can be a bit of an issue, but there are few questions about his plus curve. He also has a very nice change up. That three pitch arsenal should set him up for success in the rotation or the bullpen, depending on need and his own durability.
The Cubs need an ace. Vizcaino has a ceiling that is very close to that territory. His critics like to point out that he has never pitched as many as 100 innings in any season in his entire career, and therefore cannot be counted on as a starter. After all, the argument goes, even the Braves were moving him to the pen.
Personally, I’m not sure either of those points hold water. The Braves have a mountain of pitching depth; they did not need Vizcaino as a starter. The Cubs do. And any questions about his durability ultimately come down to his surgically repaired arm. There are plenty of major league starting pitchers who have enjoyed plenty of success, have exhibited plenty of durability, and who went under the knife for the very same operation. The Cubs will take their time in letting Vizcaino recover from surgery and will likely start him out in the bullpen, but that should not be his final home. Look for Vizcaino to get at least one shot at a major league starting rotation slot in Chicago sometime in the next year or so.
And if Vizcaino does come back healthy and finds a home in the starting rotation for the 2014 season, the Cubs could find themselves in possession of a very good starting five that year. Vizcaino is not the key to the Cubs competing, but he could be a very big piece of the puzzle. I’d rather have seven or eight guys like him in the upper minors, just to be safe, but by himself this is still the best pitching prospect the Cubs have had since the days of Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano.
Ultimately he will decide his own future on the mound. If he proves he can start, he’ll be a No 2 starter in a good rotation. He proves to be better suited to the pen, he’ll take the ball from the likes of Tony Zych and Rafael Dolis as the Cubs new closer. Either way, if he stays healthy and can translate his stuff into major league success, he could be one of the young stars who lead the Cubs back to the top of the division.