[Brett: As in years past, BN’s Minor League Editor Luke Blaize toiled away to compile a ranking of the top prospects in the Chicago Cubs’ system. He puts a great deal of work in these rankings, so show him some love (also, follow him on Twitter).]
Before we dive into the last eight prospects to make the 2015 Top 40 Chicago Cubs Prospect List, let’s take a look at how the rankings were produced and why these rankings may look a little different from some others.
There are a lot of ways to rank prospects, and everyone who does it values all the various factors somewhat differently. For example, some prefer to focus on how good a player could be if everything comes together, and rankings done by these analysts will trend towards placing athletic players with high-potential tools higher on the list. Others look more favorably on players who exhibit few risk factors, and these rankings may favor players who lack a high ceiling but seem like safer bets to make the majors. Some lean more towards scouting reports and will favor a player with a beautiful swing, and others will lean towards the stats and shy away from that same player due to troublesome contact rates.
I continue to rank prospects by looking separately at Projection and Risk. Projection, in this case, refers to how good a player is likely to be. This is not the same thing as ceiling (though in some cases it may be very close to a ceiling). There are a lot of players who could turn into major league regulars or All Stars if things break right (ceiling), but are more likely to emerge in a bench or platoon role (projection). Projecting a projection is not an exact science (to the extent that it is a science at all), but this approach does help reduce the risk of getting too excited by a player on the basis of unlikely best-case scenarios.
Risk refers to how likely a player is to reach his projection. Players with a lot of serious risk factors (such as a high strikeout rate) may be ranked a little lower than players with fewer risk factors, even if they have similar projections. The tricky part with risk comes into play when dealing with prospects at the very low levels of the farm system. It can be tough, very tough, to figure out how the risk factors for an A ball outfielder are likely to translate as he moves up the system.
And speaking of A-ball outfielders, one of them kicks off the list at number forty.
(Note: 2015 placements have not yet been announced by the organization, so these are best guesses.)
40. Charcer Burks, OF
Acquired: Drafted in the 9th round in 2013.
Notable because: His 13.5% walk rate for Boise last summer resulted in a line of .313/.416/.391 at age 19.
2015: South Bend
Patience is a virtue, and Burks showed of plenty of it with the Hawks last year. He hasn’t shown much power in his short professional career, but at 6’0″ and 170 lbs he has the room to add some muscle and develop a bit in that area. He also has not been all that adventurous on the base paths, but I think he is athletic enough to improve as a steal threat with experience. Defensively he has played all around the outfield, but with the Cubs probably fits best in right field.
Burks has a long way to go before he is in the major league conversation, but if he can maintain an elevated OBP he could emerge as a useful fourth outfielder type towards the end of the decade.
39. Ivan Pineyro, RHP
Acquired: Came from the Nationals’ system via trade in 2013.
Notable because: After an injury shortened 2014 regular season, Pineyro put up excellent numbers in the AFL (10.54 K/9, 3.21 FIP over 13.2 IP).
2015: Likely Tennessee to begin the year, but could finish in Iowa.
Pineyro arrived in the Cubs system in 2013 and found some success in the Daytona rotation thanks in part to his ability to limit walks (1.80 BB/9 for the Cubs that year). He only made 15 starts in 2014, though, and just 11 with Tennessee, thanks to some arm issues. And in all honesty, those Double A starts were nothing to get excited about. The walk rate was significantly elevated (4.25 BB/9), and so was the FIP (4.85). He started to look more like himself in a trip to Arizona Fall League, and posted his highest K/9 of any minor league stop in the process.
Now hopefully healthy, Pineyro needs to show that what we saw in the AFL is the real deal. So long as he can avoid the free passes, he has a chance to carve out a spot as a back of the rotation starter in the majors one day.
38. Jeffrey Baez, OF
Acquired: Baez signed as an International Free Agent before the 2011 season.
ETA: Late 2017 at best
Notable because: Between Boise and Kane County last season he hit 13 homers while stealing 17 bases and posting an OPS of .796.
2015: He may start in South Bend, but he should finish no lower than Myrtle Beach.
As a teenager in the Caribbean and Rookie leagues, Baez was a speed-first kind of player who had racked up 20+ steals in back to back seasons heading into 2014. In 2014, though, he more than doubled his career home run total as he began reinventing himself as a more of a power threat. Unfortunately, with the increases in power came an increase in strikeouts. He whiffed at a 32.2% rate in his 31 games in the Midwest League.
I think his future lies more in the power department, but the strikeouts call that future into question. There is every reason to be patient with his development, but right now I would continue to view his progress with cautious optimism at best. Down one road he becomes a 20+ HR right handed hitting right fielder in the majors one day, and down another his contact issues turn out to be a chronic problem that tanks his career before he reaches Double A.
37. James Norwood, RHP
Acquired: Norwood was drafted in the 7th round in 2014.
Notable because: Buzz about this 2014 draftee has been steadily increasing thanks in part to his high 90s fastball.
2015: He’ll likely start as a part of the South Bend rotation.
Last spring some thought that Norwood would be drafted a few rounds earlier than the seventh, but in the seventh he was and the Cubs were happy to take him. Much of the post draft pitching talk for the Cubs centered on their trio high school arms, but as more people started to see Norwood, the positive comments started to pick up steam.
The stat sheet is fairly unremarkable for a collegiate starter in the very low minors: 18 strikeouts in 18 innings for Boise, but an overall FIP of 5.15. The scouting reports, though, talk about a guy who can work in the mid to high nineties and has at least two pitches showing quite a bit of promise already. If starting doesn’t work out, that package could set Norwood up for a nice career as a late inning reliever.
36. Gioskar Amaya, C
Acquired: Amaya signed as an IFA prior to the 2010 season.
ETA: Good question.
Notable because: The bat shows a lot of promise, but how will he pan out behind the plate?
2015: South Bend
It feels like Amaya has been around the farm system for ever, but that is only because he attracted positive attention almost right away. He is coming off a very successful High A campaign in which he stole 14 bases and walked at a 12.2% rate on his way to a line of .276/.379/.369. For a 21 year old second baseman in the Florida State League, that is a nice set of numbers (and the walk rate goes way beyond nice; that’s awesome).
But he isn’t a second baseman anymore, and as a result he is moving back a level to the Midwest League instead of moving up to Double A Tennessee. The Cubs have converted Amaya into a catcher, and he is expected to get a sizable chunk of the starts behind the plate for the Low A Cubs this season. It may be a while yet before we see his bat tested against the upper levels of the minors, and by the time that happens we may be more concerned with his ability to frame pitches and block sliders in the dirt anyway.
Amaya’s position change makes him a very tough prospect to rank, at least for now, and it makes it nearly impossible to project his potential major league arrival. He should move back up the farm system as fast as his catching will take him, but no one knows yet how fast that will be. If the catching experiment fails, though, he may be morphed back into a utility guy. In that scenario he could be in consideration for a major league job next summer.
35. Kevonte Mitchell, OF
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Mitchell in the 13th round in 2014.
Notable because: He’s an athlete with plenty of potential who already shows some surprising polish at the plate.
2015: Eugene or South Bend
Mitchell is another popular sleeper pick from the Cubs 2014 draft. A tall outfielder with plenty of room to add additional muscle, Mitchell stole 19 bases in the Arizona Rookie League while posting an overall line of .294/.374/.371. The standout number is that OBP; we have seen a lot of raw, athletic outfielders come out the draft in recent years, but it isn’t as often that we see one with the patience to post an OBP of .374 on the strength of a 8.6% walk rate in his first professional showing. If he does have the batting eye and plate discipline those figures suggest, and he continues to leverage it while adding power as he fills out his frame, he could have a very bright future.
Those are two very big ifs, though. Right now Mitchell is a guy still looking for his first professional home run. His best fit would be as a center fielder, but it is still too early to say for sure if he can stay there defensively. Regardless, he is one of the players I am most looking forward to watching on MiLB.TV this summer.
34. Tommy Thorpe, LHP
Acquired: Another 2014 draftee, this time from round number eight.
Notable because: A successful college starter, this lefty may have the stuff to switch to the pen and move up fairly quickly.
2015: South Bend, most likely. He could finish up in Myrtle Beach.
I’ll admit, I’m going out on a bit of a limb with this one. When the Cubs 2014 draft class of pitchers is discussed, Thorpe usually isn’t mentioned. To me, though, the tape looks pretty good, as does the stat sheet. Thorpe sailed through Short Season A (working as a reliever) with 10.13 K/9 and a FIP of 3.02. Even better, he didn’t allow any home runs in his 18+ innings on the mound.
Thorpe is probably not a high upside guy; as a starter, I suspect he could become a back of the rotation candidate if the Cubs took him in that direction. However, he does look like a guy who has a chance to move up the farm system in a hurry. His ultimate future may be as a lefty strikeout artist out of the pen, or possibly a LOOGY, but that is hardly a bad thing. After all, the Cubs just gave Phil Coke a contract worth up to $2.25 million to fill that role.
33. Daniel Lockhart, 2B, probably
Acquired: Lockhart was drafted in the 10th round in 2011.
Notable because: The bat already shows promise, and he should have more power to come.
2015: Myrtle Beach
If you said Lockhart was a left-handed hitting Amaya, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. As a second baseman for Kane County last summer, Lockhart drew plenty of walks (9.0% rate), avoided the strikeout out (12.8% rate), stole some bases (12 in 17 tries) and was generally what you would expect from young second baseman prospect in the low minors. He also showed some versatility with a few games at shortstop, and that bodes well for his future as a potential utility guy.
If he stays on the infield, that is. According to FanGraphs, Lockhart worked at catcher during fall instructional ball. According to Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook, however, Lockhart is still an infielder. And according to his own Twitter profile, he’s an infielder. He played some infield for the Cubs this Spring. So … yeah. Pretty sure he’s still an infielder. Either way, Lockhart is a baseball player who hits left-handed, and the rest may be a surprise. Keep in mind that, even if he stays at second this year, he may yet move to catcher next year. Talk of converting Amaya actually began before, not after, the 2014 season. [Brett: For what it’s worth, I didn’t see Lockhart working with the catching group at the back fields this month.]
As a left handed hitting infielder with utility potential and a patient approach at the plate, I like his chances to emerge as a nice complement to a very right-handed hitting group of Cubs infielders in a few years.