This is quite possibly the most requested article I have ever written. There is even a thread on the Message Boards where a bunch of readers are getting in on the prospect ranking game. And one of them got pretty close to my top ten.
Prospect rankings are never easy to assemble, and mid-season ones are the most difficult kind to put together. Recent draft picks have very little professional experience, too little on which to get any accurate read of their numbers, but they still need to be factored in. Some players are producing above or below their talent level; it can be tough to take that into account and correctly reward one player for breaking out while not punishing another player for a normal (if badly timed) slump.
In the end, though, the same mix of Projection (how good a player is likely to be (not the same thing as ceiling)) and Risk (how likely a player is to reach the majors) that I used for the off season edition of the Top 40 again formed the foundation for these rankings. A prospect with a lower projection who is more likely to reach the majors could easily be ranked higher than a prospect with a much higher projection and a much higher risk. For that reason there is a slight tendency here to favor prospects who have had success in the higher levels of the minors. That also means I may be currently undervaluing some of the Cubs college pitcher draftees from the 2013 draft.
Also, just like last time, I did not consider any player who has not yet played in the United States. There are some nice prospects in the Cubs VSL and DSL teams but they did not factor into these rankings at all. Numbers from that level are tough to interpret and non-number information (like quality scouting reports) tends to be rare and unreliable. Some of those players likely deserve to be on this list, but for now I do not take them into consideration.
Finally, every player on this list I think has a genuine chance to reach the majors (and some of them have already been there). If the day ever comes when the Cubs do not have forty prospects I think have a shot at the majors, then this list will not be forty names long. That day is not today. My candidate list for the Top 40 is huge, and I can make a good case for a number of players who ultimately did not make the cut.
Before we get to the good stuff, though, we do need to make our weekly survey of the minors. Once again, we have several playoff races to talk about.
Iowa Cubs : 48-48
Iowa continues to play .500 baseball and continues to stay in first place by two games over the Redbirds. The Cubs also have the most home wins in the league at 31. Then again, they also have the second fewest road wins at 17.
Tennessee Smokies : 15-8
The Smokies are starting to pull away. This team is well over .500 now, and they have widened their lead over second place Birmingham to three games. Now that Baez appears to be heating up this lineup is looking as formidable as the starting rotation. Tennessee might just be the best team in the Southern League right now.
Daytona Cubs : 13-7
With their retooled lineup and some very impressive pitching lately the Daytona Cubs are holding onto to first place by a slim one game lead. There is a lot of baseball to be played yet, but it would be amazing if the Cubs could place their three highest level farm teams in the playoffs this fall …
Kane County Cougars : 4-17
… because they definitely won’t be watching all four full-season teams in the post season. The Cougars are not only 11 games out of first place, they are a stunning 13 games under .500. Their road record (1-12) is one of the worst in all of the minor leagues. What exactly is going wrong in Kane County is the subject of a full article (and one I may write later this week), but I still maintain that the talent on this team is better than the record shows. The non-pitching talent, that is. On the mound the Cougars are thin.
Boise Hawks : 12-16
The Hawks streaked in the wrong direction last week, and as a result they are four games under five hundred and six game back in the division with not many games left to play in the first half. The Hawks suddenly find themselves in possession of a good, experienced collegiate pitching core though. I’m not sure how long those 2013 draftees will stay in Boise, but if they remain the rest of the season they could propel the Hawks into second half playoff contention.
Arizona AZL Cubs : 9-10
The AZL Cubs are currently sitting 6.5 half back of the first place Giants, but they are also about to get one of the biggest bats in the state when (if) Bryant suits up for a few games. I have a feeling a few more fans than usual might show up at the ball park should Bryant make an appearance. A few more balls might leave the yard as well.
The New Top 40
I’ll save the long, more analytical article for the offseason. For this mid-season re-ranking the prospects will come in one big list with just a line or two about each. Starting with…
1. Javier Baez, SS. – He has a very high ceiling and is the only one of the top four to reach Double A. That makes him number one almost by default.
2. Kris Bryant, 3B – Whether or not Bryant’s power is really an 80, he is at least in that conversation. That elite tool combined with his ability to recognize and take pitches gives him a higher floor than any of the other top four, I think.
3. Albert Almora, OF – Almora is doing pretty much exactly what I expected this season, and that is not a bad thing. He is still at least a year and a half away, but I think his floor might be higher than a lot of us initially though.
4. Jorge Soler, OF – If Soler really was playing all spring with a half-injured leg as some have suggested, then he probably should remain in the No 1 spot. He drops down to four not so much because he did anything wrong as because the rest of the top four did a lot of things right.
5. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B – It is not every season that a player posts a career high in walk rate (9.8%) and slugging percentage (.475) in his first season at Double A. That is sort of rare, actually. Alcantara’s ability to do so has jumped him up from No 18. You might be looking at the Cubs second baseman of the future.
6. Pierce Johnson, RHP – He handled the Midwest League with no problem. He is handling the Florida State League with no problem. I don’t see ace potential here, but he has a chance to be a very good major league starter in a couple years.
7. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP – I do see ace potential with Vizcaino, but it comes with a lot of injury risk baggage. If he proves he is healthy and can start he arguably belongs among the top four. Even if he can’t be a starter, though, his stuff should work very well as a closer.
8. Junior Lake, 3B/OF – In his first season of Triple A Lake has put up the lowest strikeout rate of his career (19.5%). Unfortunately his walk rate has gone down as well. I still can’t decide if I’m seeing a potentially very good super-utility guy or the Cubs next starting third baseman. Either way, he should be up in September.
9. Rob Zastryzny, LHP – I have questions about the ceiling here, but based on the scouting reports I think Zastryzny may have one of the highest floors of any pitcher in the farm system. For now I am projecting him as a potential mid-rotation left handed starting pitcher and ranking him based on that.
10. Juan Paniagua, RHP – I’m still not sure what the Cubs have in Paniagua, but now that he is in the United States we will start to find out. The projections range from potential impact starter to flame throwing middle reliever. For now I’m parking him at No 10 and letting him pitch his way into a new ranking.
11. Dan Vogelbach, 1B/DH – I love the walk rate (9.8%) and the strike out rate (15.0%) and the rest of his numbers have been good. As a pure bat prospect, though, Vogelbach has to hit enough to outweigh the value he does not bring on defense. That is a tall order for any first baseman, even one with as much usable power as Vogelbach. I like the potential here, but I’d like it more if the NL used a DH.
12. Jeimer Candelario, 3B – As a teenager in the Midwest League the switch hitting Candelario has an RC+ of 101 with very nice looking walk and strikeout ratios. Most importantly, though, has been signs that his glove can stay at third long term. This is a name to remember.
13. Kyle Hendricks, RHP – When I miss, I miss badly. Hendricks wasn’t on the pre-season Top 40 at all. Now he’s one of the best pitching prospects in the Cubs system and looks like a solid candidate to make the rotation as a back of the rotation starter out of spring training next season. Only the lack of any very good pitch keeps him out of the Top 10.
14. Logan Watkins, 2B/Util – Watkins has the glove to take over at second base in the majors now, and I think he could outproduce Barney at the plate if he did. His ultimate future, though, may be as a utility man and defensive replacement off the bench. His high-OBP left handed bat will come in handy for Sveum in pinch hit situations as well.
15. Tyler Skulina, RHP – The Cubs snuck Skulina out in the 4th round, but his talent projects as high as a No 2 starter in the majors. Like most amateur pitchers he needs to work on his command, but unlike many of them he already has a nice breaking pitch to pair with his fastball. I’m looking forward to seeing what Minor League Pitching Coordinator Derek Johnson can do with many of the collegiate arms from the 2013 draft, and especially so with Skulina.
16. Jae-Hoon Ha, OF – Ha spent 210 games in the Southern League before finally getting a crack at Triple A this summer. Long term I see Ha as a fourth outfielder in the Reed Johnson mold. I think Wrigley fans are going to love this guy’s defense.
17. Paul Blackburn, RHP – Blackburn is pitching very well for a guy who was in high school a year ago. He was reported to be one of the more advanced pitchers the Cubs took in 2012, and so far this season he is showing that to be case. The ceiling here is hard to read – mid rotation starter most likely – but he has all the earmarks of a guy who can move quickly.
18. Gioskar Amaya, 2B – Amaya has been slumping for much of this season, but despite those struggles he has respectable wOBA of .332. He still projects as a starting second baseman who makes a living with very good defense and by spraying line drives to all fields.
19. Trey Masek, RHP – Masek could move up the system quickly, but for now he putting in some work with Boise. Masek could feature at the back of the bullpen or in the middle of a rotation, but right now I am leaning bullpen. In that capacity he could follow a trajectory similar to…
20. Tony Zych, RHP – If Zych can ever tame that walk rate (4.2 BB/9 this season) he would be the clear favorite for Closer of the Future. He has dropped his WHIP from 1.541 to 1.349 in his second year of Double A, and I still see him as a strong candidate for the Chicago bullpen sometime next season.
21. Christian Villanueva, 3B – I feel like this is a little low for a good defensive third baseman who has a wRC+ of 115 in Double A in his age 22 season, but then I look at the strike out rate (22.7%) as compared to the slugging percentage (.438) and I’m not sure the second of those numbers is large enough to justify the first one. There is a lot to like here, but there is cause for caution as well.
22. Jacob Hannemann, OF – This is another ranking I think might be a touch low. The more I study Hannemann the more I like what I see. Outside of Almora and Soler, I think Hannemann has the best chance of any Cub outfield prospect to have a marked impact at the major league level. This is another player to watch closely.
23. Alberto Cabrera, RHP – Cabrera has looked very good at times in his return to the starting rotation with Tennessee, but he has had success at this level before without that success translating higher up. Even so, I like his odds to emerge as a mid-rotation starter in Chicago perhaps as soon as this fall.
24. Matt Szczur, OF – I have a hard time picking holes in what Szczur had done this season for the Smokies. His line of .287/.357/.384 is a little light on slugging, perhaps, but as a high OBP guy with 20 steals he still has plenty of value. I haven’t given up on him as a starting center fielder quite yet, but I still lean towards him having a future as a fourth outfielder.
25. Dillon Maples, RHP – Maples plummets down this list thanks almost entirely to risk. He was my No. 8 in the preseason and he still has the same No 2 starter potential that led me to ranking him that high. But now he also has control issues connected to a work-in-progress makeover of his mechanics, and that is a little concerning. Don’t write him off, but don’t bank on him either.
26. Marco Hernandez, SS – Hernandez might be the best pure shortstop prospect in the system behind Baez (if you think Baez can stay at short) but he still has a lot of work to do before he is major league ready. He is on the young side for the Midwest League, though, so in a sense he is already a little ahead of schedule.
27. Josh Vitters, 3B/1B/OF – Unfortunately, this is looking like another lost season for Vitters. This guy has been banged around a lot in his career, but when he is completely healthy has actually produced pretty well. He had a very nice season for Iowa last year; hopefully he can build on that when he is finally able to return to the diamond.
28. Brett Jackson, OF – The glove is there. The power is there. The speed is there. The pitch recognition is there. The ability to make contact consistently? Well… that’s why Jackson is all the way down at 27. Right now he is a nice major league fourth or fifth outfielder who could do well in a platoon role. There is still a ceiling there, but we need to see some progress at the plate to keep him on this list at all.
29. Dustin Geiger, 3B/1B – Geiger exploded into the scene as the third power bat in Daytona’s three headed monster with Baez and Soler. But now that Soler is injured and Baez is promoted Geiger has been left to carry the offense alone… and he has done just that. Sometimes the raw, toolsy high school guys come together, and Geiger is looking like one of those cases. There is still a lot of risk here, but there is also some reason for excitement. Stay tuned.
30. Yasiel Balaguert, OF – Balaguert has been lurking in the Cubs organization and drawing some rave reviews from some scouts and analysts (including, if memory serves, Keith Law), for some time now, but we have never seen him put those talents into action like he has this season. An SLG of .511 and a walk rate of 13.2% in Northwest League at twenty years old is a very good sign for the future.
31. Duane Underwood, RHP – Underwood has not gotten off to a great start with Boise, but he has still struck out 18 in 20 innings while flashing the sort of stuff that made him an early pick in 2012. He is inconsistent still, and that makes his ceiling hard to peg, but the raw materials are there for him to emerge as a mid-rotation starter or better. He is a project, but one worth waiting on.
32. Shawon Dunston, OF – I need to see more out of Dunston than a few good weeks in Short Season A to rank him any higher on this list, but his talent levels argue for a slot quite a bit further up the list. His game is speed, but speed depends on getting on base. So far this season he has done exactly that. If he keeps that up we could be looking at much higher slotting the next time this list is assembled.
33. Corbin Hoffner, RHP – I think Hoffner is likely to remain a reliever, but he has been pitching very well for the Hawks in that capacity. The 18 K in 17.2 inning are a good sign, but it is the combination of that with the 2.00 GO/AO that sticks out for me. A ground ball pitcher who can get the strike out is a pitcher with a future. And to top it off, Hoffner does not turn 20 until 7/30.
34. Zach Rosscup, LHP – Rosscup should arguably be twenty slots higher on this list, but as good as he has been this season I am not yet convinced he has future closer potential. I am completely buying into Rosscup as a high quality bullpen arm, though. He is possibly the next Cubs lefty bullpen stable in the line of Marshall and Russell .
35. Eric Jokisch, LHP – Jokisch was quite a bit higher the last time this list was made, but his fall has nothing to due with his performance in Tennessee. He has pitched quite well for the Smokies, but we knew he could handle Double A. I’d like to see what he can do against Triple A competition soon, hopefully this season. Right now he projects as a fourth or fifth starter.
36. John Andreoli, OF – Andreoli is a speed-first outfielder who has a knack for getting on base. He followed up his .387 OBP in Daytona last season with an OBP of .394 in 303 trips to the plate there this year before finally being promoted. So far in Tennessee his OBP is a solid .351. Don’t let the surface comparison to Tony Campana fool you; Andreoli is better in the field, has a stronger arm, more power, and is a better hitter.
37. Bijan Rademacher, OF – Rademacher had a bit of a breakout performance for Kane County this season, and he was rewarded with a promotion to Daytona after 55 games. In limited time in High-A he is continuing to show the same patience and assortment of tools that allowed him to earn that promotion in the first place. Rademacher is a ways away from the majors yet, but he one of the more intriguing sleepers in the lower levels of the system.
38. Reggie Golden, OF – Golden has some of the best tools on Kane County’s roster, but thanks to a series of injuries he has lacked the time to learn to use them. He has predictably struggled in 27 games this season. It will take some time for Golden to shake off the rust and gain the experience he needs to translate his talents, but his ceiling is quite high. Right now the key for Golden is simply to stay healthy and play.
39. Matt Loosen, RHP – Loosen has not given up a run in 21 straight innings and has struck out 45 in 43 innings with Daytona this season. He struggled with Tennessee to start the season but since then is reported to have cleaned up his command and now is about as dominant as any pitcher in the minors. He will get another shot at Tennessee no later than next year, and I would not be surprised if he succeeds the second time around. Loosen has mid-rotation starter potential, but I’d be interested to see how his strikeout inducing stuff would work in the bullpen.
40. Jordan Hankins, C/INF – The Cubs have loaded up on interesting catcher prospects in the past two drafts; surely one of them will break out eventually. If that is to happen, Hankins might be the favorite to do so. Unfortunately, in very limited time with Arizona and Boise, Hankins hasn’t been playing catcher. Scouts were highest on his bat when he was drafted in 2013, and it appears the Cubs are willing to try him at a number of position in order to get that bat in the lineup. I’m not sure where Hankins eventually lands, but if it isn’t behind the plate I’m not sure he stays on this list.
And that’s the list. There are a lot of names that are not on this list, a lot of omissions (particularly from the 2013 draft) who could have fit anywhere in the lower parts, but but that is a good thing. That means the Cubs have a tremendously deep system. But unlike past years, it is also a system with a very impressive collection of very good prospects at the top. And, believe it or not, there is a fair amount of pitching depth appearing as well.
The Cubs have built an impressive farm system and the cornerstone of a bright future.