The Bleacher Nation Top 40: From 30 to 21

josh vitters[In case you missed the first installment of the Bleacher Nation Top 40, you can see 40 to 31 here.]

The Bleacher Nation Top 40 continues as we count upwards from 30 to 21. Today will feature a few well-known names as well as a nice stack of pitching prospects. This section on of the list also features a good mix of high level prospects who are nearly major league ready and some players who will be playing at some of the lowest levels of the system.

I mentioned yesterday that a number of different stats were considered when creating this list. Which ones? More or less all of them to one degree or another, but I do have a few favorites that I rely on more heavily. For hitters I really like wOBA. wOBA, or weighted On Base Percentage, assigns a weighted value for nearly every offensive play a player can make. These weighted values are then compiled into a number that reads roughly like a batting average. However, due to the weights, wOBA does not skew a player who draws a lot of walks (like batting average can), or overly favor batters who hit lots of home runs (like slugging percentage does). If I were only allowed a single offensive stat, wOBA would be my pick.

On the pitching side, particularly when looking at prospects, I tend to prefer WHIP over ERA. A good pitching prospect is one that does not allow runners to reach base, and that is exactly what WHIP measures. I also like the K/BB ratio and GO/AO. That last one stands for Ground Outs / Air Outs and is a measure of how good a pitcher is at getting ground balls. A GO/AO over 1.40 is pretty good. Anything over 2.00 is fantastic.

I imagine the only numbers you care about right now, though, are numbers 30 through 21.

30. Matt Loosen, RHP
Where to watch him: Tennessee
Wrigley Field ETA: 2014
Projects as: Mid-rotation starter or setup man

The Cubs farm system has gotten the reputation for being pitching poor, and that is certainly true if we only consider the very high ceiling prospects with ace potential. If we are looking for young hurlers who could emerge as three or four starter, though, the Cubs are loaded. Matt Loosen might be one of the best examples of that. Loosen is definitely not a groundball pitcher, but despite that he manages to prevent home runs (0.8 career HR/9) while piling up some impressive strikeout totals. He fanned 110 with Daytona in 2012, good for a rate of 8.8 K/9. Should he continue that success when he returns to Double A this season, Loosen could be considered one of the best starting pitching prospects in the organization a year from now.

29. Chris Rusin, LHP
Where to watch him: Iowa and Chicago
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Back of the rotation starter

The crafty-lefty model of starting pitcher has gotten a bad rap lately, and I think that has caused a lot of people to overlook Rusin. Rusin does not have any exceptional pitches, but as a durable southpaw with a good track record of getting ground balls he has some value at the back of a major league rotation. His HR/9 rate has jumped over 1.00 in the past two seasons, but he is still managing a GO/AO around 1.40. In other words, when he hits his spots low in the zone he is an effective starter. When he misses, he gets hammered. I strongly suspect that, with more experience, he’ll miss less often and limit that damage. Even so, I’m not projecting him any higher than a potential fifth starter. That is definitely one of the lowest ceilings of any prospect in this Top 40, but he makes the list by virtue of being one of the safest bets among the pitching prospects (not to mention one of the few lefties with major league potential).

28. Barret Loux, RHP
Where to watch him: Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Back of the rotation starter

Loux ultimately became the final piece dealt by Texas to Chicago, but he is far from just some throw in. The Cubs now have the services of a 6’5” starting pitcher who tossed 127 innings in Double A in just his second professional season. The lack of any true standout pitches keeps Loux from qualifying as a likely top of the rotation option, but he is a very good candidate to eat up a ton of innings at the back of a major league rotation one day soon. All his pitches grade around average and he uses them to good effect by keep the ball in the ballpark (0.6 career HR/9) and consistently throwing strikes (career 2.9 BB/9). I expect he will get 140 or so innings as a full-season starter in Iowa this year, and his name should frequently be on the short list of candidates if a spot were to open in the Chicago rotation. Next spring he should be a part of the major league rotation picture in spring training.

27. Marco Hernandez, SS
Where to watch him: Kane County
Wrigley Field ETA: 2016
Projects as: A good all-around shortstop

I love the idea of a switch hitting shortstop; that is what the Cubs potentially have in Hernandez. After a short stint in Peoria to open the 2012 season, a stint that did not go well, the Cubs dropped him back to Boise. Although Hernandez played much better in the Northwest League, he was still one of the weaker bats on that admittedly loaded team. I love the potential here, but a career OPS of .730 in the lowest levels of the minors does not inspire confidence, not when Hernandez lacks a single standout tool. Still, his ability to switch hit and stick at shortstop is sufficient to keep him on this list. I like his chances to break out in 2013, but at the same time I have to admit that another mediocre offensive season could take him off this list entirely. It will interesting to see where he stands a year from now.

26. Josh Vitters, INF/OF
Where to watch him: Iowa and Chicago
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: A quality hitter in need of a position

When he is healthy, Josh Vitters has shown he can hit for average, has enough power to play at third or in the outfield, and probably is not going to be the long term answer at third. Finally completely healthy after a wrist injury a few seasons back, Vitters opened some eyes with his .304/.356/.513 performance as a 22 year old in Triple A in 2012. The bat speed and ability to make consistent contact that made him a very high draft pick are still there, and now he is adding to that a dose of patience, selectivity, and willingness to wait on a pitch he can hammer that he has been lacking throughout his career. The result was the highest season OPS in his professional career (and that came against the toughest competition of his career). As a hitter, he should be just fine in the majors.

The downside is that he probably will not be better than a sub-par third baseman and his value as a left fielder remains to be seen. In most organizations he would be moved to first, but Anthony Rizzo is not going anywhere. Once he finds a position, though, I think Vitters should have a nice career… though it may be as a utility player with another team.

25. Matt Szczur, OF
Where to watch him: Tennessee / Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Good center fielder with top of the order potential

Meet one of the most divisive prospects in the Cubs’ organization. If we look past the rough edges and lack of baseball experience, Szczur looks like an average-to-plus defensive center fielder with all the offensive tools necessary to be a factor in the leadoff slot. The problem is looking past the rough edges and lack of experience.

The most remarkable part of Szczur’s rise through the farm system has been his coachability. In 2011, split between two stops in A ball, he compiled an OBP of .335 and stole 24 bases. According to reports, the Cubs told him they wanted him to concentrate more on getting on base and using his speed. The result? In 2012 he posted an OBP of .360 and stole 42 bases. Now concerns center on his lack of power. It remains to be seen if he can again adjust his game to strengthen that weakness. Whether he can or not, look for him to be called to Chicago in September.

24. Christian Villanueva, 3B
Where to watch him: Tennessee
Wrigley Field ETA: Late 2014
Projects as: Light-hitting infielder with good defense

The Cubs plucked Villanueva from the Rangers at the trade deadline last year, and he instantly became one of the most undervalued players in the organization. Villanueva has the glove to be a truly great third baseman, that is not going to a problem. He has the accurate arm, soft hands, quickness, and instincts to make all the regular plays and more than his share of highlight reel ones. If it were only up to his glove, he might be a fixture in the majors later this year.

Unfortunately, his bat does not profile nearly as well at third. He should hit for average and reach base at a good pace, but he seems unlikely to provide more than doubles power on a consistent basis. The same plate approach that allows him to spray line drives to all fields also detracts from his power and cuts down on his overall SLG. He, along with Lake, is the most advanced third base option in the farm system, but he will ultimately be competing for playing time against bigger bats like Baez, Candelario, and Lake. Some have suggested that he could follow Sandberg’s path and switch to second base, but the Cubs are not exactly hurting for second base options either. If he can adjust his approach at Tennessee this year I may have to rethink this projection, but for now I see him as a defense-focused utility player in the majors. In that capacity I would not be surprised to see him get a taste of Chicago in September.

23. Eric Jokisch, LHP
Where to watch him: Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Back of the rotation starter

At number twenty three, Jokisch is the highest lefty on this list. That’s a problem. Fortunately for the Cubs, Jokisch continues to exceed expectations every time they challenge him. At one time he was considered a fringe prospect, at best. Since then, however, he has pitched his way into Cubs pitching prospect conversation and could be a legitimate threat to crack the Chicago rotation next season. Despite not having any single exceptional pitch, Jokish generally stays out of trouble by avoiding the long ball (career 0.8 HR/9), limiting the walks (career 3.1 BB/9), and inducing plenty of ground balls (1.40 career GO/AO). Left handed pitchers who can keep the ball on the ground and out of the bleachers should have some success in Wrigley; Jokisch may get his first chance at that late this season.

22. Ben Wells, RHP
Where to watch him: Daytona
Wrigley Field ETA: 2015
Projects as: Mid-rotation starter

He was looking like one of the safer pitching prospects in the Cubs lower minors until an elbow injury sidelined him for much of 2012. He did pitch again at the end of the year, but it remains to be seen if the arm is going to become an ongoing concern.

When healthy, Wells was flashing a pretty good trio of pitches and the command to use them to their best effect. In his 44 inning with Peoria last season he amassed a K/BB ratio of 3.00. That’s not bad for a 19 year old in his first full professional season. If he can stay healthy he has a chance to move up the system fairly quickly. He has the size and arsenal to eat up a lot of innings in the middle to later part of a major league rotation one day. I suspect the Cubs will limit his workload somewhat this season, but I still hope to see him in Tennessee late in the year.

21. Duane Underwood, RHP
Where to watch him: Arizona or Boise
Wrigley Field ETA: 2016+
Projects as: Too raw to project

When the Cubs drafted Underwood he was better described as a thrower, not a pitcher. His fastball often sat in the mid 90 to upper 90s, but some days he could not get it out of the 80s. His curve was good … when it worked. Location came and went. He flashed the potential to be something special, but then hid that potential behind a mask of inconsistencies. It will likely take longer for the Cubs to craft Underwood into a pitcher than it will some of the other pitching prospects they selected last year, but Underwood may have the highest ceiling in that group. I expect him to spend some time in Boise this year, but don’t be surprised if he makes half a dozen more starts in Arizona first.

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation. He can be found on Twitter as ltblaize.

66 responses to “The Bleacher Nation Top 40: From 30 to 21”

  1. cubzfan

    Nice that some of these names, like Underwood or Loux can reasonably be in the 20s, when in past years they might have made a top ten.

    Biggest surprises here (to me):

    Marco Hernandez being that low. I can see it, but think he has much greater potential.

    Christian Villanueva is probably a top-10 prospect on most people’s lists. He has plenty of time to add more power, and turn out to be a .280/.350/.450 guy, which, with his defense would basically make him one of the better third basemen in the league. However, the team will probably fill the 3B hole some other way before he gets a chance, so he’s probably trade bait if he has a good season.

    Matt Szczur being damned with faint praise…or is it the opposite? Praised with faint damns? Feinting with damned preys? Anyway…It doesn’t seem to fit that he would start the year at Tennessee, be needing so much development, and yet get a September call up this year. Let’s give him two more full years in the minors and see what we have. Unless he can steal bases by the bushel, he’s no more likely than Ha or Lake to end up with significant playing time in the Cub outfield by 2015, IMHO.

    Not a criticism, but a different take on Rusin. Comparing his and Raley’s splits in the minors, Rusin is more likely to have a solid floor as a LH reliever, at least a LOOGY.

    Looking forward to the next segment.

  2. OkieCub

    Been looking for this since I woke up! Great stuff Luke!

  3. JoeyCollins

    Great work as alwyays Luke. Only comment i can make is that it would be nice if you included each players age after their position. Age just seems to really help provide context especially for some of the very young guys. Just a thought. Looking forward to 20-11, keep up the good work.

  4. OkieCub

    See a lot of trade bait in this group.

    1. BluBlud

      If these guys are good enough to be trade bait, why aren’t they good enough to be future Cubs. If we are not trading for Price, Stanton, Kemp, Trout or someone like that, then lets play with our own guys.

      1. hansman1982

        Odds are 8 out of 10 of this group will never even make it to the bigs. You trade them while they have some upside left (or while you can convince another GM there is upside there). The other part of this is you have multiples at the same position.

        Also, even if everyone on this list makes it, you will have some of them that are below league average. The goal is to have as many above-average players as possible, not have as many “home-grown” players as possible.

        1. BluBlud

          I agree, but how many GM’S don’t know that only 2 out of 10 of these guys will make it. So what exactly are we going to trade these guys to get. Another Valbuena, another Schierholtz, another Hairston.. If we can get another Castro, Rizzo, Barney, or Castillo, I’m all for it. In other words, I don’t see the point in trading prospects for guys you can sign as a free agent for just money. So, yes, if there is a top player out there that is available, by all means, trade them all. If Tampa is offering Price, or Miami is offering Stanton, I say trade Baez, Soler, Almora, Vogelbach and anybody else who might be a top prospect. But dumping prospects for Major League fillers, when most your prospect will turn into major league fillers, doesn’t make sense to me. I’m more interested in prospect for prospect trades from a position of strenth for a position of weakness, such as the Rizzo trade, than Prospects for major league filler or average to slightly above average major leaguers. If we aren’t getting true impact players, I would rather keep out guys.

          1. MDel

            If your premise is “no one is untouchable” for the right player, I agree. However, if you are arguing that if a Price or Stanton is available the Cubs should do ‘”whatever it takes” to get them, I disagree. The Cubs are more than one player away, and trading away every potential impact prospect you have for one player is ridiculous on many fronts. There is no way to create a consistent, competitive roster without developing your own impact prospects (even if the free agents were available regularly, which they aren’t, until we know how other revenue streams are going to look, and even then, the Cubs aren’t going to have an unlimited payroll). The best way to develop your own prospects is to have an Almora, Soler, Baez, Vogelbach, etc. and hope one, maybe two reach their potential.

            So in effect, I agree with your filler comment, but if you gut your system for one guy, you are left with filler and you won’t be able to field a competitive team.

            1. BluBlud

              I didn’t mean trade them all for one player, I meant you could trade any of them, as needed, to aquire a player, basicly saying no prospect is untouchable for the right player.

            2. DB Kyle

              There are certain commodities so rare that you do not pass on opportunities to acquire them no matter where you think you are in the success cycle. You don’t pass on a player of Stanton’s caliber because of a few prospects. If you do, you are making it harder on yourself to win the World Series.

              1. When the Music's Over

                A lot of people have a really hard time grasping this concept.

              2. MDel

                Agree, and there aren’t a lot of Prices or Stantons out there. I would love to have them on the Cubs. I’m just saying the Cubs aren’t one player away, and I don’t think it is realistic to build a consistently competitive team without generating some all-star level talent from your farm system (i.e. well above average, cost controlled commodities.)

                I’m not saying I wouldn’t trade top prospects in a package for a Price or Stanton, I’m just saying a hypothetical package including multiple top prospects (or doing “whatever cost it takes”) to get one of those elite talents isn’t going to work on a team with little major league talent and a limited budget on what they are going to spend on the major league roster.

                I just think too many people think the Cubs should have an unlimited spending capacity, but I think we are seeing that, especially without additional revenue streams, this team isn’t going to be able to spend like the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, or Dodgers.

                1. Kyle

                  The revenue streams are coming. There’s going to be a brief donut hole between a few other teams’ revenue streams kicking in and ours that we won’t quite be able to keep up, but otherwise no.

                  At what point do we stop saying this team has “little major league talent”? People seem to be so enamored with the idea that they don’t notice we already have exactly they are talking about.

                  Our starting catcher, 3/4ths of our starting infield, and our Opening Day starting pitcher are pre-FA farm products. Three of them are All-Star caliber players. That’s not including guys like Valbuena or Travis Wood, who are pre-FA but not really farm products. There’s a decent chance that we add a pre-arb CF to that list midseason, and a few other possibilities knocking on the door. And this is in what looks like to be a relatively down year for promotions.

                  We’ve got the cheap, cost-controlled, homegrown core everyone is clamoring for. What we’re missing is elite talent surrounding it.

                  1. MDel

                    Kyle,

                    Thanks for the quick chat. I hope to look back at your comment as prophetic in the not to distant future. I don’t think the guys you mention are at that level right now, especially not to the point where we are a few pieces away.

                    Castro certainly has been phenomenal and has shown the ability to improve. Will the power ever develop, will he draw more walks, where will his defense end up? Is he really a 6 or 7 hitter?

                    Rizzo also showed signs, but will he be able to hit lefties consistently?

                    Barney, well, will he be able to hit ever.

                    Shark put it together last year, but will he continue to develop to turn into that true top of the rotation guy to be more than a 3?

                    Not sure if you are referring to Jackson as the pre-arb CF, but the reality is he probably isn’t even a 50/50 proposition to be more than a 4th OF at this point.

                    I just don’t see the current talent at the same level as you do, though I hope you are right about them.

                    1. DB Kyle

                      It’s not that we necessarily disagree on the talent level. I actually think we’re pretty much on the same page there.

                      We just disagree on how much talent needs to be in place before you try to add more.

  5. MightyBear

    Great work Luke. Curious to see how Jokisch works out. Cubs need left handers.

    1. MightyBear

      Next up, the top 20. Oooooh Aaaaaah!

      1. Brett

        INTRIGUE!!! ANTICIPATION!!!

        1. hansman1982

          sleepy-cat1.jpg

  6. EQ76

    “Feinting with damned preys? ”

    - Love it.

  7. BluBlud

    Barrett Loux should definitely be higher on this list, somewhere in or near the top 10. He is a sure bet to pitch in the majors, and he is probably the best of the Cubs Minor leaguers that will debut this year. I don’t think he an ace, but he is much more then a BOR pitcher. He more like a 3 IMO. In fact, the other headline should have read, “The Cubs 6th tarter is Loux.”

    Josh Vitters has dropped, but I don’t know if he has dropped to 26th. But either way, it’s doesn’t make much difference. I think he has actually slipped into the underrated category.

    Duane Underwood at 21, WOW. He is clearly a top 10 prospect. He may be the most talented pitcher in the organization. He difinitely has the most upside in the organization. I suppose Pierce johnson will be in the top 10. I have Underwood ahead of Johnson, so having underwood all the way down at 21 is mind boggling

  8. mak

    A great sign that the Cubs are essentially 30 deep with good/solid prospects, with probably another 20-30 guys who most would call “intriguing.” Feels like over the last few years, it was 10-15 good prospect with 20 more intriguing names.

    It’s hard to critique/debate the list without seeing the whole list together, but I’d have Hernandez and Vitters in the top 20 probably. Hernandez for his potential (he’s still 19 or 20 right?) and Vitters, because I think his floor is a pretty good hitting platoon guy.

  9. Andrew

    Obviously I can’t make any definitive statements without seeing the whole list but I would probably say that Vitters, Villanueva, and probably Szczur and Hernandez seem rated to low on this list. I guess I’ll have to see your top 20 to decide who I think would get bumped to make room for those guys.

  10. Patrick W.

    Holy Cripes, it’s SandbErg.

  11. MightyBear

    Is there a podcast today?

    1. JoeyCollins

      Shadev tweeted a little while ago that they are recording tonight.

      1. Brett

        Yup. And, unbelievably, it wasn’t baby that pushed us back – it was weather.

  12. Idaho Razorback

    Concur Patrick W. That jumped out to me too.

  13. Norm

    wOBA for minor leaguers? Too much BABIP influence. I personally stick with the basics; BB%, K%, avg/obp/slg, and then adjust for BABIP. But can’t really gather too much without insight from the scouting world.

    1. hansman1982

      Any influence BABIP has on wOBA will have the same influence on avg/obp/slg.

      1. Norm

        And that’s why I make an adjustment to those numbers, as stated. Bring it down to the .300-.320 range and subtract the difference from his avg/obp/slg to get a more realistic slash line.

    2. DocPeterWimsey

      BABiP is one of the areas where scouts really fail us: far too many of them will see “grinding” if a guy has a high BABiP for a stretch or “sluggish” when a guy has a low BABiP for a stretch.

      That said, one could redo wOBA the way that xFIP is redone, particularly for singles. That is, replace the singles component with the expected singles given GB & FB. That is largely independent of the player. The problem is replacing extra-base hits with expectations, as those are much more player dependent, and no doubt are evolving a lot at the minor league level.

  14. #1lahairfan

    Barret Loux had a plus curve in college. I REALLY hope he regains that. If he does he could become a solid number 3 starter.

    1. Brett

      He’s pretty impressive in that he can throw, I believe, four pitches effectively and for strikes. But, right now, none of them are plus. You’re right, though – if just one or two of those pitches improved a bit, he could be a very quality guy in the rotation.

  15. Kirbs414

    I know names, but not faces. Who is the guy in the picture associated with the article?

  16. Crockett

    I pretty much agree with this portion of the list, though I still think Szczur is overrated, if only because he’s never going to be more than a 5th OFer.

    His swing is still mechanically/fundamentally awful and he’s one leg injury away from losing his only two skills. If any other teams holds any value on him at all, I think the Cubs have to find a way to deal him.

  17. IlliniBone

    Luke,

    Just curious, how does Reggie Golden project to an All-Star outfielder? Isnt there maybe, maybe 15 or 20 prospects in all of minor league baseball that have that projection? If you do project him to be an all-star outfielder, wouldnt he be higher than 38th? You also have 7 pitchers so far that project to be mid to back rotation starters. Isn’t that crazy optimistic?

    Maybe I am reading your legend wrong and confused with your projection/risk. It seems most of those “projections” are actually the height of their ceilings and not accurate projections. If our 38th ranked prospect projects to be an all-star, our system is much better than anticipated.

    Set me straight if I am looking at this wrong. Thanks.

    1. Crockett

      I think Luke would have had more clarity if he’d posted these as “floor/ceiling” type things. But I think he means if ALL the dominos fall perfectly, Golden has that kind potential because of his purely physical tools.

      1. Jack Weiland

        Right. Projection does not take into account the actual chances of that happening. That’s the balance he was trying to explain in the intro to this series.

        1. Edwin

          I just don’t see how it’s practical to rank a player as having “all-star” potential based soley off of percieved athletic ability/draft position, when his numbers clearly don’t support it.

    2. Cedlandrum

      Well of course you look for the peak of the potential. That is how prospecting works. Guy could be this good ^^^^^^ through the roof. Golden is only ranked so low because of injuries. Borderline top 10 going into 2011 offseason.

      1. Crockett

        I think the counterpoint to that is that he was only ranked that high because of the situation within the farm system at the time plus where he was drafted.

        He has proven nothing so far and doesn’t deserve anything just based on draft status.

      2. Edwin

        If you rank players on peak potential you’ll almost always wind up over-ranking young high draft picks. I think it’s hard to take many prospects (except for the obviously elite ones) seriously until they reach AA.

        Take McNutt for example. He looked like a solid #3 or better SP prospect for the Cubs before AA, but once he reached AA, his stock took a huge drop.

        1. bbmoney

          Certainly it wouldn’t be practical to rank players “only” on peak potential. But certainly it should be a factor. We can argue all day about how much weight to give it, but that’s completely up to you.

          1. Edwin

            Agreed.

  18. Bilbo161

    I don’t think we should be using projection and ceiling interchangeably. Ceiling is what is possible if all things go right. Projection has to take into account the reasonably expected outcome. Projection is more akin to prediction in my mind.

    1. DocPeterWimsey

      I agree: there really has to be an idea of “most probably will be like Player Y” with a ceiling of Player Z and a floor of Player X. My guess is that, historically, players come in at the floor or even below: usually Player X also is a major leaguer, and most of these guys won’t make the majors.

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