[Brett: The final installment of Luke Blaize’s ranking of the top 40 prospects in the Cubs’ system. If you missed any of the first four pieces, I strongly encourage you to read them here, here, here, and here, not only for the prospect takes, but for the excellent intros to each piece.]
At the top of a truly great farm system, you expect to find a collection of impact talent, and that is precisely what we see with the Cubs. This group of hitters in particular might be the best we have seen in a single farm system in a very long time. And it could be a very long time before we ever again see anything like it. Current Cubs fans are a very fortunate group. Most fan bases will never experience something quite like this current Cubs farm system. Ever.
But a tremendous collection of talent like this create some tremendous difficulty in ranking them. At the very top of the system sit three guys with with projections that fly off the charts and risk factors that verge on invisibly small, and yet I can only rank one of them number one. That means there will a guy ranked number three here who could probably be the top prospect in the vast majority of other organizations.
We have five extremely talented players to discuss before we get to the illustrious top three, though, so let’s get started with perhaps the most surprising entry in the final eight.
8. Jake Stinnett, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Stinnett in the 2nd round in 2014.
Notable because: He has number two starter potential, and he could move up the system quickly.
2015: Myrtle Beach, and likely Tennessee.
Stinnett began his college career as a third baseman, but it was after he moved to the mound that he started drawing a lot more interest from scouts. The Cubs liked him enough to take him at the top of the second round, and while they did save some money on his signing bonus (money that later went to high school arms), it is getting hard to argue that Stinnett was a pure sign-ability pick. This guy has the potential to be very, very good.
When he was drafted, we knew Stinnett had an excellent sinker, and that he was able to use that sinker to both get strikeouts and to generate weak contact. What we did not realize at the time is that his slider is every bit as good as his sinker. In fact, Baseball America has labeled Stinnet’s slider the best in the farm system. That means this guy already has two pitches that grade out at plus (at least), good control, and change up that is average and improving. That is a great foundation for a pitcher with just 11 professional innings to his name.
If it all works out, we’re looking a legitimate number two starter. The tools say he could have the ability to avoid walks, avoid home runs, generate weak contact, and get strikeouts, so now all we need to see is those tools translated into success as a professional. He will start the year in A ball (probably South Bend, but Myrtle Beach isn’t out of the question), but I think the Cubs will push him up the system until he is challenged. That may not happen until he hits Tennessee.
He could be major league bullpen ready late next season, and may be competing for a rotation job by the spring of 2017.
7. Pierce Johnson, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Johnson in the 1st round (supplemental) in 2012.
Notable because: He has number two starter upside and could be ready soon.
2015: He should get a lot of time in Iowa, but may start in Tennessee.
Johnson lost time last season to some hamstring and calf issues, but he was healthy long enough to pitch 91 innings for Tennessee, during which he walked batters at the absurdly high rate of 5.30 BB/9. Most of the time a Double A walk rate anywhere near that high would be enough to keep a pitcher well out of the Top Ten, but there is a little more going on here.
Most notably, even though Johnson walked a total 54 batters in Double A, he gave up only 60 hits. Despite his control issues, hitters had a lot of difficulty making hard contact against him, ultimately posting an average against him of just .191. That was one of the best rates in the Southern League. Even though Johnson had command problems, he still managed to be very effective.
And the command problems may not have been permanent. He struggled most early in the season, and late in the year looked quite a bit better. I don’t think he’ll ever have Kyle Hendricks caliber control of his stuff, but I don’t think the 5.30 BB/9 is what we should expect going forward either. Factor in his healthy strikeout rate of 8.93 K/9 and the difficulty hitters had just getting the bat on the ball cleanly, and there is a lot to like here.
His fastball and curve both grade out in the 60 range, depending on who you read, but the control makes his projection hard to gauge. I think a future as a number two starter is definitely possible, but he’ll likely settle in a notch below that. He would also be a very nice option as a late inning reliever if the Cubs chose to take him in that direction.
6. Albert Almora, OF
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Almora in the 1st round in 2012.
Notable because: He is already brilliant defensively, and there are good reasons to believe in the bat.
2015: Tennessee and likely Iowa late in the season.
Almora is the best defensive outfielder in the system, and likely among the best in all of baseball. Even if his bat never develops at all I think he is likely to have some sort of a major league career purely based on his defense and base running. Whether or not he turns into a major league regular or possible star depends largely on his bat. In 2014 that bat was not great, so all eyes will be on his slash line this summer.
He is right handed hitter with the uncanny ability to put his bat on pretty much any ball in (or near) the strike zone. That results in a low strikeout rate (16.0% in Double A), but it also results in the same complications we saw with Josh Vitters. Just because Almora can hit a particular pitch doesn’t mean he should. Hitters with this ability are far better off not swinging at a pitch they are likely to turn into a weak grounder and waiting for a pitch they can hammer into the outfield. Some hitters never learn that selectivity.
Almora was saying the right things this spring. In the few late spring at bats I was able to watch on TV, it looked like he was more willing to take borderline pitches and/or to shoot them the other way than the guy I saw in Tennessee last summer, but the proof will be found in his regular season performance. If it all comes together he should hit for average and show roughly average power, although he may never be much of an OBP guy. Given his defense, that could be the formula for a 4 WAR center fielder.
5. C.J. Edwards, RHP
Acquired: The Cubs traded for Edwards in 2013.
ETA: 2015 if needed
Notable because: He has some of the best stuff in the system, and he’s nearly ready to go.
2015: Maybe a little Tennessee, mostly Iowa, and perhaps a bit of time in Chicago.
Shoulder trouble limited Edwards to about 68 innings in 2014, but it was not the sort of shoulder trouble that required surgery. Then again, no shoulder issue is good news for a pitcher and Edwards was already dealing with questions about his ability to start long term. Going into 2015 his future role is very much in question.
What isn’t in question is his stuff. Edwards has an excellent fastball, the best curve in the farm system, and the command to use them effectively. His fastball in particular has some late movement to it that makes him hard for hitters to square up. As a result, when they do make contact, it tends to be weak. In over 230 innings as a professional pitcher, he has only given up 2 total home runs.
If he can stay in a starting assignment he has front of the rotation potential. Because he carries just 170 lbs on his 6’3″ frame, though, many analysts feel the Cubs have no choice but to relegate him to bullpen duty. He would a very effective late inning reliever if he did have to switch, but the attractiveness of Edwards at the front of the Cubs rotation is probably strong enough to keep him starting for at least another season. He’ll need to demonstrate that he can maintain effectiveness late into his starts late in the season before the bullpen question goes away for good.
If he makes it to Wrigley in 2015, though, it will likely be on a bullpen assignment. The Cubs rarely increase the innings a pitcher works by more than 40 to 60 innings or so year over year, and that would likely not be enough for Edwards to stay in a minor league rotation all season. Look for him to see time in both capacities this summer, and to be on the short list of promotion candidates to Wrigley should the Cubs need a bullpen arm down the stretch.
4. Kyle Schwarber, C/OF
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Schwarber in the first round in 2014.
Notable because: Hitters this good don’t often show up behind the plate.
Schwarber has power comparable to Soler, and he has the potential to hit for average, as well. He shot up to High A Daytona in short order after the draft, and while there he walked at an impressive 13.6% rate while striking out just 19.9% of the time. His overall line, and remember that these are Florida State League numbers, was .302/.393/.560. In short, Schwarber is the best left-handed hitter in the farm system and could be a factor in the middle of the Cubs line up in a few years.
The big question in 2015 will be his position. The Cubs will be sending him to Double A as the primary catcher for the Tennessee Smokies, and, if by the end of the season he has convinced the baseball world that he can be a full-time catcher at the major league level, he may well be one of the most valuable prospects in all baseball. Catchers who have a bat that projects like Schwarber’s are rare, and rare talents tend to be ranked highly.
Schwarber will also likely be seeing some time in left field, and, if for any reason the catching experiment does not work out, the Cubs should be able to convert him into a full-time left fielder in short order and let him advance up the farm system as fast as his bat will take him. He could be a valuable hitter regardless, but the chance that he provides that value as a hitting catcher is well worth taking a little extra time.
3. Addison Russell, SS/Inf
Acquired: The Cubs traded for Russell in 2014.
Notable because: He’s the best shortstop in the minors no matter how you slice it.
2015: He’ll be in Iowa, at least for a while.
I have no criticisms. Russell is a good defender who could stay at short (at least until/unless he slows down a bit by adding some extra muscle) or could play pretty much anywhere else on the infield or in the outfield (except maybe center field, and that caution is more because I am not sure how quick he is than any criticism of his capability).
At the plate, Russell should hit for solid average and has underrated power. He’s no Bryant, but he could have some 25 homer seasons to his name one day. When he is in his prime, he could very well be the best hitter in a good major league lineup.
He should be the primary shortstop for Iowa, but it is hard to say where his long term future will be. Right now the most likely scenarios would put Russell at third or second, but another possibility is that the Cubs will take advantage of his athleticism and flexibility to use him as a super sub.
We may get to find out what the plan is sooner rather than later. Russell may not need much time in the minors and could he looking for work in Wrigley by mid-May. If he is still in Iowa on August 15, barring injury, I will be very surprised.
2. Jorge Soler, OF
Acquired: The Cubs signed Soler as an International Free Agent in time for the 2012 season.
Notable because: He’s a good hitter with very good power who is already batting second in the majors.
You know who Soler is. He is a selective hitter with plenty of power, a good eye, and who as an added bonus can play a pretty good right field (last night notwithstanding). Soler has the potential to be a very special hitter.
What you are probably wondering right now, though, is why I took Soler in the number two slot over a guy I just referred to as the best shortstop prospect in baseball.
Russell will be more valuable with the glove, but I think the extra power in Soler’s bat evens up that difference and pulls the two fairly even in the projection department. That means it comes down to risk, and in my view Soler has the highest floor of any player on this list. He isn’t a sure bet, no prospect is, but he is as safe as they come. I rank on a combination of projection and risk, and, as a result Soler, beats out Russell.
In fact, I believe this is as low as Soler has ever been ranked in the Top 40. And the only player I have ever ranked ahead of Soler is…
1. Kris Bryant, 3B/LF
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Bryant in the first round in 2013.
ETA: A road trip in late April.
Notable because: Monumental power, a chance to hit for a fair average, and a good approach at the plate make Bryant the best prospect in baseball today.
2015: A little time in Iowa, and a lot of time in Chicago.
There is not much left to say about Bryant that has not been said already, including by me. He’s the most anticipated prospect the Cubs have had since Mark Prior, and I very much doubt that Bryant will disappoint.
There will be strikeouts, and probably more strikeouts than we are comfortable with at times, but I think Bryant will produce enough to more than make up for those whiffs. The key with Bryant is his power, and that power is among the best in the game today. Even when the ball does not sound good off the bat it will launch explosively and often land … eventually … well beyond the outfield fence. Every time he swings he creates potential complications for the defense just as a result of his strength and his ability square up on a lot of pitches.
Defensively, he will get a chance to show what he can do at third, but with Mike Olt and Addison Russell also lurking as viable options I think the plan that makes the most sense for the franchise is to move Bryant into left field. He has the tools to be at least average out there, and his bat will ensure that he is an extremely valuable guy regardless.
When Bryant does make it to the majors, he will instantly form, along with Soler and Rizzo, the core of one of the most potent trio of young sluggers baseball has seen in some time. His career has already been a lot of fun to watch, and it should only get better from here.
In fact, that last line applies to this whole farm system. It has been a lot of fun watching the Cubs build one of the best collections of minor league talent in modern history, but now that those waves of talent are crashing into Wrigley it is only going to get better from here.