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big four almora baez bryant solerMLB.com’s prospect coverage, now led by a combination of Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis (formerly of Baseball America), has really stepped up its game over the past 12 months. Perhaps sensing a great market for consumers – we love our prospect stuff, man – or perhaps simply recognizing that the emergence of prospects means more and more at the big league level in the current era, MLB.com is doing some really good prospect-related stuff at MLBPipeline.com. That’s just a general, unsolicited plug, I guess.

Against that backdrop, Jim Callis has updated the Cubs’ top 20 prospect list heading into 2014, and then he tacked on another five over at his blog. Each read comes with a whole lot of commentary and depth, so give them a look for a little more info on your favorite prospects.

The list:

  1. Javier Baez
  2. Kris Bryant
  3. Albert Almora
  4. C.J. Edwards
  5. Jorge Soler
  6. Arismendy Alcantara
  7. Pierce Johnson
  8. Arodys Vizcaino
  9. Jeimer Candelario
  10. Dan Vogelbach
  11. Christian Villanueva
  12. Eloy Jimenez
  13. Neil Ramirez
  14. Mike Olt
  15. Paul Blackburn
  16. Kyle Hendricks
  17. Corey Black
  18. Jacob Hannemann
  19. Tyler Skulina
  20. Gleyber Torres
  21. Duane Underwood
  22. Rob Zastryzny
  23. Dillon Maples
  24. Zac Rosscup
  25. Alberto Cabrera

Among the interesting things that jump out at you: Edwards is ahead of Soler and Alcantara, Jimenez and Torres are already up there in the rankings, Hannemann is very well-liked by Callis (sub-note: Callis was high on Matt Szczur back in the day, and there are some similarities there), and the 8, 9, 10, 11 range of prospects is really looking similar on most lists.

Callis adds infielder Daniel Lockhart as his favorite deep sleeper in the system.

A snippet from Callis on one of the best possible “risers” in the Cubs’ system going into 2014, Paul Blackburn:

Blackburn has one of the best combinations of stuff and feel among the system’s mound prospects. Though his control wavered after he opened 2013 with three scoreless starts, he still projects as a potential No. 3 starter with command of three average or better pitches.

Blackburn’s best pitch is a 90-93 mph fastball with the sink to generate plenty of groundouts. He spins a nice curveball, too, and already has an effective changeup. Blackburn is already starting to add strength and has the athleticism to repeat his delivery on a regular basis.

If Blackburn pops up as a Johnson/Edwards type next year? The Cubs’ pitching situation will look a whole lot better, especially if the recent helium attached to Jen-Ho Tseng has merit.

Similarly, I’m digging the write-up on Ramirez. Here’s a bit:

While Ramirez lacks consistency and had a tender arm down the stretch in 2013, he has four solid or better pitches when he’s on and when he’s healthy. He can dial his low-90s fastball up to 96 mph and has improved its sink the last two years, getting more groundouts than before. Ramirez’s changeup can be extremely deceptive, and both his curveball and slider can be effective.

Ramirez’s delivery features little effort, yet he struggles at times with throwing strikes and keeping the ball down in the zone. At his best, he looks like a possible No. 2 starter. If Ramirez doesn’t prove to be a reliable starter, he could be a late-inning relief weapon.

To my untrained eye, Ramirez really looked the part in Spring Training, and I can’t wait to see if he can take another step forward now that he’s in the Cubs’ system.

I could go on and on with the interesting snippets on each of the players, but you’ll want to check them all out for yourself.

  • JCubs79

    Paul Blackburn has been my pick to breakout as a big time pitching prospect for some time now. I loved the fact that he added 30 lbs to his lanky frame after last offseason, so I’m eager what he can do after another year of conditioning and seasoning. I think he is gonna have a big year.

  • SenorGato

    It’s crazy to think we’re mere months away from as many as both of Baez and Bryant.

    The pitching in this system is starting to get some buzz. Seems like it could really take off this year, though personally I still want bigger talents in here. Seems like “potential #3 starter” is the new “potential #2 starter,” everyone can be that if they just believe or something. Have to admit I like Edwards more than I thought I did.

    • SenorGato

      I do love the potential to put together a bullpen with these system arms btw…Long thought Johnson’s best future role is in the bullpen…Corey Black could be electric out of the pen…Armando Rivero is almost a prototypical relief prospect…Rosscup has the potential to eat lefties up…Maples’ fastball/breaking ball could work well there…I like Cabrera’s arm…I’d be happy with key bullpen arms and the future 4 and/or 5 from the current crop of arms in the system. Obviously I know there are a couple of guys, almost literally a couple, have the kind of arms that could be more than that.

      Random breakout pitcher this year – more minor than major breakout THO – Austin Reed.

      Please draft Tyler Beede at 4!

  • JB88

    To me, one of the fascinating items about this list is there are more pitchers on this list than position players. While there aren’t many TOR candidates among that list, the number of starting pitcher candidates is also pretty high (10 of the 13) and that sort of depth never hurts when building a bullpen or trying to trade for other pieces down the line.

    • mjhurdle

      I agree. I also like that the quality is slightly creeping up. It seemed like for the longest time that every AAA pitching prospect had the label ‘possible 4/5′. It is nice to seem some 2 and 3 projections in there, even if they all don’t get there.

  • Featherstone

    Why does it feel like every piece from the Garza trade is really busting out at the same time. Just feels like really good scouting on the Cubs part.

    • Kyle

      Because it’s spring training and everyone feels like they are busting out with no real competition or meritocracy to challenge them.

      • SenorGato

        I’ll be happy to get a batting glove out of one of those guys!

  • IA_Colin

    I was just trying to track down Stephen Bruno and thought this was interesting. Take what you will from a projection but Oliver projections has if he got 600 PA he would put up .278/.331/.409 with 10 bombs and 2.3 WAR.

    I find this interesting because his season was cut very short at Daytona last year but that was enough for their system to pickup something that they really liked about Bruno. Anyway hope he comes back and continues to rake. Inf is looking even more crowded.

    • another JP

      I’d like to see what a healthy Bruno could do this season. He might very well have the second best hit tool in the organization besides Almora.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Bruno’s season was cut so short that I’m not sure how much of his 2013 numbers was luck. If he opened on a random hot streak, then got injured, his actual ability level may not match his apparent performance.

      I am definitely looking forward to his 2014 campaign though. I suspect he’ll be in Tennessee, if not to open the season, to finish it.

  • Edwin

    Callis’s blurb on Rob Z is a little strange to me: “He really knows how to pitch off his fastball, which he can run anywhere from 86-95 mph while commanding it in all four quadrants of the strike zone”

    “86-95″ seems pretty unlikely. Not a big deal, but it seems like re-hashed draft hype.

    • JCubs79

      Rob Z likes to change speeds on his fastball IIRC. It’s part of how he pitches to keep hitters off balance.

    • SenorGato

      It’s weird to read I guess but the thing to take out of is it that Zastryzny has the arm strength to at least hit 95 without seeming as if he’s overexerting himself. Lilly was weird like that when he was a Yankee – clearly had good arm strength and could hit 94-95, but varied the speeds. David Wells…Cliff Lee…when I think about it a bunch of quality lefties pitch like this.

      The bigger deal with him seems to be the offspeeds, specifically the breaking pitch. It’s supposed to be inconsistent. So far so good on his fastball for me – no one seems to be complaining yet. We’ll see when he gets to AA, hopefully at least opening there next year.

      • Edwin

        Usually, when I hear of a pitcher changing speeds, it’s in relation to their breaking stuff, or to their change-up or some other offspeed. As far as fastball speed, it seems more about throwing different fastballs, such a 4-seam, 2-seam, or cut fastball. From a physicas standpoint, wouldn’t varying the speed of a fastball from 94-95 to 87-88 create enough of a difference in arm action that batters at the MLB level would be able to pick up on it?

        • mjhurdle

          Im no pitcher, but FWIW i have heard interviews here in STL where Wainwright would talk about varying the speed on his fastball 4-5 mph to keep hitters off-balance. Maybe Z is doing the same.

          • Edwin

            I’ve heard pitchers and commenters talk about it, but I wonder what kind of effect it really has. Maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s just something people say because they “know” it’s true, and because it sounds like a credible theory.

            • http://fullcount1544.blogspot.com FullCountTommy

              As a former college pitcher, not at a high level or anything, but a guy who changed speeds a lot, there are definitely ways to throw a hitter off while maintaining the same arm action. Now keep in mind, my changing speeds on my fastball was from 78-83 instead of their 90-95, but the principle remains the same. I know when I wanted to change speeds on my fastball there were a couple things I could do. First, I could keep the same arm action but ease up with my lower half. The second thing that I did which was much easier to control was simply to grip the ball slightly deeper in my hand. This created almost an in between changeup, but allowed for the same arm action and the same rotation on my fastball while giving the hitter the same look. That was just how I did it, but hope that helps!

              • Edwin

                I appreciate your comment, thanks. I’m probably just nervous because these types of comments about a player are similar to comments made when a scout is trying to cover up a flaw in a prospect.

        • SenorGato

          Actually when a guy is healthy and has such a large variance in fastball velocity I lean towards it being a strength issue. Also as FullCountTommy suggests – alot of changing speeds is just in how you grip the ball. You suggest it yourself actually with the fastball grips – there’s not necessarily anything special done with the arm itself to throw those pitches.

          • Edwin

            Sure, but it’s also the movement that makes those pitches successful, not just the change in speed.

            • SenorGato

              Grips and pressure are huge factors in how the ball moves. A ML changeup is thrown with the exact same motion and arm action as the fastball, the grip is the major difference in creating the necessary backspin to slow it down and get some fade. Rivera did nothing special for his cutter but have exceptionally strong fingers (even for a pitcher) to deliver the correct amount of pressure so that he didn’t have to do anything crazy like turn over his wrist. He just threw it like a fastball.

              • Edwin

                Yes, I understand that. If Rob Z is changing his grip to get a change in movement or create some fade in addition to changing speeds, then it makes more sense to me.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      We’ll find out this season, but everything I’ve read up on Zastryzny suggests that speed variation is legit and is as impressive as it sounds.

  • SenorGato

    http://www.fangraphs.com/not/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Rodon-to-Dopson-1.gif

    Never thought about it until now but Rodon kind of has a LH Ben Sheets thing going on. That slider is on par with Sheets’ curveball, which I think is the best single breaking ball I’ve seen outside of RJ’s slider.

  • ssckelley

    Year of the pitchers in the minor leagues!

  • noisesquared

    The reason the Cards system is so great is that they just keep churning out productive big league players whether they were big time prospects or not. But KC, for all the hype and top-rated prospects, has not. It’s one thing to draft and acquire talent, it’s another to develop that talent. Seeing as the first of the impact Cubs prospects who’ve spent a full 2 years in the ‘Cubs Way’ system are approaching the big leagues, we should start to get an idea of how the organization is really doing – can they turn prospects into production?

    Looking at this list, I think we could see as many 7-8 of these prospects with the Cubs this year. I’m looking forward to the year just to see the development, and to see what these kids can do at the big league level.

    • Blackhawks1963

      KC has developed Gordon, Moutsakes, Hosmer, Perez, Butler, Myers, and now Ventura and Duffy.

      I’d say they are doing SOMETHING right. Their challenge is they need to develop pitching…but that said, Ventura and Duffy are a helluva one-two punch.

  • Funn Dave

    How does such an interesting, meaningful article about the Cubbies’ few bright spots get like 1/3 as many comments as an article about the possibility of teams with injured pitchers signing Samardzija, which almsot definitely won’t happen?

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