big four almora baez bryant solerNothing drives home how deep this system is like trying to rank the prospects in it. After several hours of studying numbers, scouting reports, video, and combing through my calculated stats, I finally had narrowed down a list.

Unfortunately, that list still had sixty names on it.

Several hours later I had it down to forty five.  And, as is always the case, figuring out who should be the last five players removed was not easy.  Once you get that deep in the system the difference between the prospects grows quite small.

Assembling a list is just the start, though. The players on that list still needed to be ranked, and ranking prospects is a murky endeavor in the best of situations. Every year those of us who make a habit of this get better at adding more science and reducing the role of subjectivity, but we still have a long way to go. In many cases, including this one, ranking prospects remains more of an art than a science. If you called this entire article an exercise in guess work you would not be far wrong, but it is at least educated and semi-transparent guesswork.

I rank prospects for the Top 40 by considering two primary factors (each of which is made of a large number of objective and subjective bits that I will not enumerate here): Projection and Risk. Projection is not the same a ceiling, nor is it a prediction. Instead, projection looks at a probable outcome for a particular player assuming he reaches the majors. These are not the best case scenarios for a player, and they are not the most likely scenarios either, but they are fairly plausible ones given our current information.

To illustrate the difference, take the case of Vogelbach. If Vogelbach maximizes his tools and becomes the best player his tools suggest he can possibly become, he’d be roughly a league average defensive first baseman with a Hall of Fame bat. That would be his ceiling. His most likely scenario, on the other hand, would be that he fades as he moves up through the minors and never makes it to the major leagues (as is the case with most prospects). With projection I am typically placing a player somewhere in between those two extremes. In this case, based on scouting reports of his bat and a variety of statistical indicators, it is fairly reasonable to suggest to Vogelbach could make it to the major leagues and will hit for both power and a pretty decent average while he is there. And that’s effectively what I put down for his projection.

If we read projection as a plausible outcome for a player, risk could be read as the likelihood that a player will reach that projection. You could also interpret it as an indication in my confidence in the projection. These risk values are comparative, not absolute. A low risk guy still has at least some of the inherent risk that comes with any prospect, but he is more likely to hit his projection than a high risk guy. Risk, like projection, becomes easier to assess the higher a player gets in the system, and as a result the risk values fall in a general way as the player gets closer to the majors. For example, take a look at the risk on Hendricks. In this case, because he has already proven himself at Double A and Triple A and could probably have opened the season on the Cubs roster if the need arose, he is graded as a low risk. We pretty much know what he could be in the majors; he just needs a chance to go attempt to make that happen. He could fail in that attempt – he is a prospect, after all – but compared to other prospects in the system he is a low risk guy.

The final line for each player is ETA – when I expect that the player will reach the majors. Keep in mind that I am only talking about reaching the majors. A September call up counts (and is why both Bryant and Soler have an ETA of 2014). I am not saying that is the year in which the player reaches the majors for good, or claims a starting job, or makes an All-Star team, or anything of that nature. This also gets easier to estimate the higher up the farm system a player gets, and my confidence on the ETAs for players in A ball are fairly low as a result.

So now, without any further ado, let’s dive into the rankings. The names at the top should be very familiar to you.

1. Javier Baez, SS
Projection: One of the best hitting middle infielders in baseball
Risk: High. Strikeouts are a concern.
ETA: Soon.

2. Kris Bryant, 3B
Projection: An above average hitter with exception power who could star at third or in right.
Risk: Medium high. He is more disciplined than Baez, but he hasn’t been tested against Double A pitching yet.
ETA: Late 2014.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about Baez and Bryant. Both have ceilings that are sky high and both looks like fairly safe bets to at least reach the majors, but in both cases there are some red flags. Baez has an aggressive plate approach that amplifies the swing and miss inherent to his game and creates a not insignificant risk that his strikeouts will prevent him from fulfilling his apparent destiny as a league leading slugger. He will be working on refining that in Iowa, and I honestly think he can do it, but for now the risk remains. Bryant, according to most scouts, is a more disciplined and polished hitter than Baez and should not be too far behind Baez in reaching the majors – a few months, most likely. But even though the reports on Bryant are more encouraging, he too has some swing and miss to his game. That, combined with his lack of experience against the upper levels of the minors, keeps his risk elevated a little higher than some might expect.

I am very high on both these hitters and would not be at all surprised to see them anchoring the lineup in Wrigley by the end of the year. I actually like Bryant more as a hitter, but Baez wins the top slot by the thinnest of margins due to his extra defensive versatility.

3. Jorge Soler, OF
Projection: Powerful, bat first outfielder with a strong arm.
Risk: Medium high. There are no red flags on his stat sheet, but he has yet to take on Double A.
ETA: Late 2014.

4. C.J. Edwards, RHP
Projection: No 2 or No 3 starter
Risk: Medium. If he doesn’t make it as a starter, he should he a quality high leverage reliever.
ETA: 2015

5. Albert Almora, OF
Projection: Gold glove candidate outfielder who hits for average.
Risk: High. Injury has slowed him, and he has a long way to go to reach Wrigley.
ETA: Late 2015

I suspect some torches and pitchforks have come out by now. Soler takes the No 3 slot because he has more power than Almora, and has already shown a disciplined plate approach that should allow him to move quickly once he can stay healthy. Almora, while he shows signs of being a gifted hitter who could develop at least average power, right now is a guy whose value relies very heavily on his ability to get on base. He did a nice job of that last year, but he did so in Low A and with a pedestrian walk rate. I love the reports of the bat, but for now Soler’s extra power and higher level success gives him the edge between the two.

In the case of Edwards, I still buy into this guy as a starting pitcher. Until he shows he can’t handle the workload of a starting pitcher I am content to leave him in that category, and a starting pitcher who shut down High A is a valuable guy to have. Ranking him over Almora is not a shot at Almora, but an indication of how highly I think of Edwards.

6. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B
Projection: Potential leadoff hitter with 15 HR / 35 SB potential.
Risk: Medium. He’s nearly ready, but needs to prove himself against Triple A first.
ETA: 2014

7. Pierce Johnson, RHP
Projection: High quality mid-rotation starter.
Risk: High. There are still some concerns that his delivery may lead to arm problems.
ETA: 2015.

8. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
Projection: Above average hitter at third or first.
Risk: High. There are some questions about his glove, but the bat looks very good for his age.
ETA: 2016

9. Kyle Hendricks, RHP
Projection: Good back of the rotation starter. Maybe a No 3 guy if his control holds up in the majors.
Risk: Low. He could step into a starting job in Chicago at any time.
ETA: Very soon.

I might be a little high with Hendricks, but he slips into the top ten by virtue of being effectively major league ready right now. He might be the best control pitcher to come out of the Cubs farm system in a generation, and I am really looking forward to watching how he handles the majors.

10. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP
Projection: Shut-down reliever.
Risk: Low as a reliever. If the Cubs move him back to the rotation, jump this to Medium high.
ETA: Soon.

I’m not concerned at all by Vizcaino starting the year in Daytona. That just makes sense to me. I suspect he’ll be in Wrigley sometime in the middle of the summer.

11. Mike Olt, 3B
Projection: Slick fielding third baseman with above average power.
Risk: Medium low. He’s reached the majors. Now, can he hit there?
ETA: Now!

Had he opened the season in Iowa that Risk would read Medium. I hope Olt can hit, but I’m not buying in completely just yet. I really like what he can do with the glove, though.

12. Dan Vogelbach, 1B
Projection: He’ll hit. I’m not sure where he’ll play, but he’ll likely hit for both power and average wherever it is.
Risk: High. I’m not worried about the bat, but in a NL system he needs to stay on the field to stay in the lineup, and his defense at first needs a lot of work.
ETA: Late 2015.

13. Corey Black, RHP
Projection: Mid rotation starter.
Risk: Medium high. He has the stuff be a power pitcher in the rotation, but still needs to prove it against Double A. Some scouts still think he is a reliever.
ETA: 2015

This is likely as high as you will see Black ranked because of size-based fears he can’t stay in the rotation. His raw stuff is some of the most electric in the farm system, though, and seems that when he came to the Cubs he began to attack hitters more as opposed to working the edges for the perfect pitch. That is a trend I like and hope to see continue.

14. Rob Zastryzny, LHP
Projection: Mid-rotation starter.
Risk: Medium. He already pairs quality pitches with good command.
ETA: Late 2015

In the case of Zastryzny, this is probably a cautious ranking. If he does well in Daytona to start the season I suspect he will move up to Tennessee as soon as the Cubs can make an opening, and in that scenario he will likely move up this listing as well. Of the Cubs 2013 class of pitchers, I think he definitely has the best chance to carve out a spot in a major league rotation for himself.

15. Christian Villanueva, 3B
Projection: Excellent defender at third who will at least hold his own with the bat.
Risk: Medium low. The glove is ready now, and the bat showed pretty well in Double A.
ETA: Late 2014.

16. Josh Vitters, OF
Projection: Average starting outfielder.
Risk: Low. His bat should produce enough for the outfield if his glove can let him stay there.
ETA: Mid-2014.

I know the torches and pitchforks are out now. A large and very vocal contingent of Cub fans can’t understand why Vitters hasn’t been cut yet, but I still see a guy who has hit very well in Triple A in his age 22 and 23 seasons (when healthy). He needs to show he is healthy and get some repetition in the outfield, but I think he can at worst claim a platoon role in Wrigley sometime in the middle of the season. Based on what he has done in Iowa, I would not be at all surprised if he takes the everyday left field job and produces an OPS in the high .700s vicinity.

17. Paul Blackburn, RHP
Projection: Starting pitcher with front of the rotation potential.
Risk: Very high. He’s young and he’s a pitcher. That’s a near automatic very high risk.
ETA: 2016?

18. Ivan Pineyro, RHP
Projection: Back of the rotation starter.
Risk: Medium. If the improvement he showed after being traded to the Cubs holds up, he’ll be just fine.
ETA: 2015

I’m basing Pineyro’s risk on the assumption that the numbers he posted post-trade for the Cubs are for real. If he can sustain that kind of performance he is in very good shape. If those figures prove to be sample size aberrations, though, he reverts back to being a higher risk guy. Blackburn, on the other hand, has a ceiling nearly as high as his risk. He is one of the best young arms in the system, but those young arms all come with a ton of risk attached.

19. John Andreoli, OF
Projection: Fourth outfielder, but one you can dream on as a leadoff guy.
Risk: Medium low.
ETA: Late 2014 or 2015

I may be a little high on Andreoli, but as the Cubs become more starved for OBP in the majors I look more fondly on guys in the minors who can get on base consistently. Regardless of where he does play I think he’ll be a fan favorite.

20. Neil Ramirez, RHP
Projection: Middle of the rotation starter or high quality reliever
Risk: Medium low. Walk rates are a bit of a concern.
ETA: 2014

21. Dallas Beeler, RHP
Projection: Back of the rotation starter who could eat up a lot of innings.
Risk: Medium. He has lower strikeout rates than some other pitching prospects, but can be effective despite that.
ETA: Late 2014

Ramirez and Beeler are both hard to project. Depending on who you believe, these guys could be mid-rotation starters, fairly forgettable middle relievers, or career Triple A players. Ramirez needs to corral the walks if he is going to make it in the majors, but his ceiling is sometimes listed as high as a No 2 starter. Beeler, on the other hand, reminds me in some ways of Randy Wells. That may not sound like the most positive of comparisons, but remember that Wells had two pretty good years for the Cubs before his career began to fade.

22. Rubi Silva, OF
Projection: Quality fourth outfielder who should deal some damage from the plate.
Risk: Medium high. His ultra-low walk rate in Tennessee is concerning, but the rest of the numbers look fine.
ETA: 2015

Silva came practically out of nowhere to put up some very solid numbers for Tennessee, even allowing for his somewhat older age. If he drew walks at a normal rate and if it hadn’t been for Baez, he would have been the story of the summer for the Smokies.

23. Dillon Maples, RHP
Projection: He has the stuff to be a front of the rotation starter, but it is tough to say how close to that he will come.
Risk: Very high. A reworked delivery led to control issues last summer that set him back quite a bit.
ETA: 2017

Maples had a surprisingly disappointing season, but one that came with a fair bit of positiveness behind the scenes. The Cubs reworked his mechanics, something that led to control issues as he worked through the kinks, but the result should allow him to maximize his two plus pitches and hopefully reduce his injury risk. He is injured again now (broken rib, out eight weeks), and the main thing is just that he gets back on the mound and stays there for awhile.

24. Eric Jokisch, LHP
Projection: Back of the rotation starter.
Risk: Low. He could step up to Chicago as soon as an opening appears.
ETA: Sometime in 2014.

I’m high on Jokisch, so it sort of surprised me that he wound up this low on the list.

25. Jacob Hannemann, OF
Projection: Some compare him to Ellsbury, but I’m thinking a high average, good defensive outfielder is more likely.
Risk: Good question. Hannemann is a special case.
ETA: Another good question.

By normal metrics Hannemann is already a little old for the low minors, but normal metrics don’t apply in this case. Instead of going straight to college out of high school, Hannemann literally left baseball for two years to perform a mission trip. By calendar years he is old for his league, but by experience he really isn’t, and he has only been playing for a single season post mission trip to boot. It will take time and plate appearances for him to knock of the remainder of the rust and start to catch up to his age. The Cubs will be patient, I think, but when he starts to rise some think he could move up in a hurry. Don’t be surprised if he in the discussion for a top ten slot on this list by the end of the year.

26. Corbin Hoffner, RHP
Projection: Back of the rotation starter or set up guy.
Risk: High. He had plenty of success in short season ball, particularly in the strikeout department, and that bodes well.
ETA: 2016

27. Duane Underwood, RHP
Projection: He has the stuff to evolve into a No 2 or No 3 starter in time.
Risk: Very high. This ranking is all about projection, and there is a ton of development to be done before that projection hits reality.
ETA: 2017

Hoffner put up some of the best numbers in the low minors for the Cubs last season, but he has flown somewhat under the radar. Underwood, on the other hand, has been squarely on the radar since he was drafted. He has a ceiling that is very high, but he falls down to this ranking due to his also very high risk.

28. Matt Szczur, OF
Projection: High quality fourth outfield.
Risk: Medium low. Every year he focuses on baseball he makes improvements, and he’s already pretty good.
ETA: Late 2014. He could be up anytime the Cubs need an OF this summer.

I don’t think Szczur is likely to have more than doubles power in the majors, but he has the ability to drive the ball into the gaps and the speed to take advantage when he does so. The safest prediction is for him to take a Reed Johnson like role on the bench, but every year scouts and analysts watch him and come away saying that he looks like he has a future as a good major league center fielder.

29. Tyler Skulina, RHP
Projection: His hard fastball could work at the back of a bullpen or, with enough supporting stuff, at the front of a rotation.
Risk: Medium high. He’s far from the majors and has quite a bit of work to do.
ETA: Late 2015. As a collegiate pitcher, he could move a little faster than this.

30. Zac Rosscup, LHP
Projection: Potential set up man. He’s very effective against right handed hitters, so I don’t see him becoming just a lefty specialist.
Risk: Low. He could join the Cubs at any time.
ETA: 2014.

Just because of who else was in that trade, Rosscup was overlooked by many when Tampa sent him to Chicago along with Garza, and his arm surgery did not help his status any. Since coming back as a pure reliever, though, this guy has emerged as a very nice prospect. Rosscup had an impressive FIP of 1.02 against lefties in the minors last season, but his FIP against righties as an also good 2.54. It is very possible that Rosscup is next the series of high quality, home grown, Cubs lefty relievers that includes Sean Marshall and James Russell.

31. Shawon Dunston, OF
Projection: Very fast center fielder who should be a weapon on the basepaths.
Risk: Medium high. He’s young and raw, but he did walk more than he struck out last year. I love it when prospects do that.
ETA: 2016

This is a cautious ranking. If Dunston repeats his short season performance from last season with Kane County this summer, he will move up these rankings dramatically. That’s actually a fairly reasonable scenario. Because so many players who sign out of college go to the short season league, the talent at that level is about even (and for some teams even a little higher) than what we often see in Low A.

Over a full season we could see a 40 steal campaign paired with an OPS around .800 out of Dunston. That’s not bad at all.

32. Dustin Geiger, 1B
Projection: Starting first baseman.
Risk: Medium. His numbers were right about what I’d expect for his level.
ETA: 2015

33. Stephen Bruno, INF
Projection: Hard to say. He destroyed Daytona over a short stretch last season, but I’m not sure how much stock to put in that.
Risk: Medium. The Cubs jumped him to Double A, and that is a nice vote of confidence.
ETA: 2015, maybe. If all goes well, it could even be late this season.

Geiger and Bruno put up some good numbers in High A last season, and both are rewarded with a trip to Tennessee. This was expected for Geiger, and I expect he’ll hit 20 or so home runs for the Smokies. In the case of Bruno, though, it comes as something of a surprise given that Bruno had so little time in High A before his season ended last spring. One of the key stories to watch as the season unfolds is how Bruno handles Double A. If he find it as easy as he did High A, the Cubs could have another infield prospect surging up the charts.

34. Kevin Encarnacion, OF
Projection: Starting outfielder, and possibly a very good one.
Risk: High. He breezed through Boise last season (1.111 OPS versus right handed pitching), but higher levels probably won’t be that easy for him.
ETA: 2016

The main thing for Encarnacion is to get healthy, and then get back on the diamond after his car accident over the winter. At last report he was recovering in Arizona, but I don’t think we can expect him to get right back into baseball action as if nothing had happened. If he can recover fully by mid-summer, his progress in a full season league could be another story well worth following.

35. Gioskar Amaya, 2B
Projection: Starting second baseman.
Risk: Very high. He held his own in the Midwest League, but his numbers were down across the board.
ETA: 2016

36. James Pugliese, RHP
Projection: Starting pitcher.
Risk: High. Even though he dominated short season ball, he’s still a young pitcher and those come with risk.
ETA: 2017

37. Zeke DeVoss, OF
Projection: Tough question. He walks and steals a lot, but does not hit much. Fringey fifth outfielder is probably safest projection here.
Risk: Medium. His walk rate with Daytona was phenomenal (15.2%) and that bodes well for his ability to move up the system.
ETA: Late 2015. As the outfield picture grows more crowded, he may have a hard time finding a chance to prove himself.

38. Matt Loosen, RHP
Projection: Back of the rotation starter or middle reliever.
Risk: Very high. When he doesn’t have his control, he doesn’t look like a guy with a major league future.
ETA: Late 2015.

Loosen tossed a no hitter for Daytona, then went back to Tennessee some weeks later and looked pretty good. If you catch him on the right day he looks like a mid-rotation starter, but the consistency has not been there. He is creeping up in age, though, so if he doesn’t break out soon he could be passed over as the army of arms just behind him start to move up.

39. Marco Hernandez, SS
Projection: Good defensive shortstop or utility infielder.
Risk: Very high. He has done a lot with the bat the past two seasons.
ETA: 2016

40. Bijan Rademacher, OF
Projection: Quality left handed bat to stash in the outfield or on the bench.
Risk: Medium. So far the number have been good, including in the BB% and K% departments.
ETA: 2016

The Unranked

I typically don’t rank players who have not yet played in the United States. While there are stats and scouting reports on those players, the stats in particular are often suspect due to the uncertain and often uneven quality of the competition faced by those players. A lot of my work is based on stats, so rather than try to interpret those numbers I generally just don’t rank players until I have Stateside stats.

This year that means there are four players left off this list who otherwise might have been on it. Eloy Jiminez (OF) and Gleyber Torres (SS) are the stars of the 2013 international free agent class, and both are getting a great deal of respect among scouts and analysts who have seen them play. Both are solid candidates to appear somewhere in the top twenty here.

Jen-Ho Tseng might be one of the three best pitching prospects in the Cubs system. He impressed a panel of scouts, including representatives from Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, during spring training with his velocity and the movement on his pitches and shot up the rankings in the aftermath. It will be interesting to see how he handles the Midwest League this spring.

And they we have the second best name in the minors, Greyfer Eregua. A right handed pitcher, Eregua put up one of the best pitching lines I have ever seen come out of the Caribbean leagues last summer. When a guy has a WHIP of 0.854 and a K/BB ratio of 14.00, he gets my attention. He would likely have slotted in the lower ranks of the list.

And that’s the list. No doubt you disagree with some of it, but I hope you enjoyed it. Keep an eye on the Bleacher Nation Sunday feature “This Week In The Minors” after the draft for a mid-season (and much shorter) reranking of the Bleacher Nation Top 40.

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