The Bleacher Nation Top 40: From 30 to 21

josh vitters[In case you missed the first installment of the Bleacher Nation Top 40, you can see 40 to 31 here.]

The Bleacher Nation Top 40 continues as we count upwards from 30 to 21. Today will feature a few well-known names as well as a nice stack of pitching prospects. This section on of the list also features a good mix of high level prospects who are nearly major league ready and some players who will be playing at some of the lowest levels of the system.

I mentioned yesterday that a number of different stats were considered when creating this list. Which ones? More or less all of them to one degree or another, but I do have a few favorites that I rely on more heavily. For hitters I really like wOBA. wOBA, or weighted On Base Percentage, assigns a weighted value for nearly every offensive play a player can make. These weighted values are then compiled into a number that reads roughly like a batting average. However, due to the weights, wOBA does not skew a player who draws a lot of walks (like batting average can), or overly favor batters who hit lots of home runs (like slugging percentage does). If I were only allowed a single offensive stat, wOBA would be my pick.

On the pitching side, particularly when looking at prospects, I tend to prefer WHIP over ERA. A good pitching prospect is one that does not allow runners to reach base, and that is exactly what WHIP measures. I also like the K/BB ratio and GO/AO. That last one stands for Ground Outs / Air Outs and is a measure of how good a pitcher is at getting ground balls. A GO/AO over 1.40 is pretty good. Anything over 2.00 is fantastic.

I imagine the only numbers you care about right now, though, are numbers 30 through 21.

30. Matt Loosen, RHP
Where to watch him: Tennessee
Wrigley Field ETA: 2014
Projects as: Mid-rotation starter or setup man

The Cubs farm system has gotten the reputation for being pitching poor, and that is certainly true if we only consider the very high ceiling prospects with ace potential. If we are looking for young hurlers who could emerge as three or four starter, though, the Cubs are loaded. Matt Loosen might be one of the best examples of that. Loosen is definitely not a groundball pitcher, but despite that he manages to prevent home runs (0.8 career HR/9) while piling up some impressive strikeout totals. He fanned 110 with Daytona in 2012, good for a rate of 8.8 K/9. Should he continue that success when he returns to Double A this season, Loosen could be considered one of the best starting pitching prospects in the organization a year from now.

29. Chris Rusin, LHP
Where to watch him: Iowa and Chicago
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Back of the rotation starter

The crafty-lefty model of starting pitcher has gotten a bad rap lately, and I think that has caused a lot of people to overlook Rusin. Rusin does not have any exceptional pitches, but as a durable southpaw with a good track record of getting ground balls he has some value at the back of a major league rotation. His HR/9 rate has jumped over 1.00 in the past two seasons, but he is still managing a GO/AO around 1.40. In other words, when he hits his spots low in the zone he is an effective starter. When he misses, he gets hammered. I strongly suspect that, with more experience, he’ll miss less often and limit that damage. Even so, I’m not projecting him any higher than a potential fifth starter. That is definitely one of the lowest ceilings of any prospect in this Top 40, but he makes the list by virtue of being one of the safest bets among the pitching prospects (not to mention one of the few lefties with major league potential).

28. Barret Loux, RHP
Where to watch him: Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Back of the rotation starter

Loux ultimately became the final piece dealt by Texas to Chicago, but he is far from just some throw in. The Cubs now have the services of a 6’5” starting pitcher who tossed 127 innings in Double A in just his second professional season. The lack of any true standout pitches keeps Loux from qualifying as a likely top of the rotation option, but he is a very good candidate to eat up a ton of innings at the back of a major league rotation one day soon. All his pitches grade around average and he uses them to good effect by keep the ball in the ballpark (0.6 career HR/9) and consistently throwing strikes (career 2.9 BB/9). I expect he will get 140 or so innings as a full-season starter in Iowa this year, and his name should frequently be on the short list of candidates if a spot were to open in the Chicago rotation. Next spring he should be a part of the major league rotation picture in spring training.

27. Marco Hernandez, SS
Where to watch him: Kane County
Wrigley Field ETA: 2016
Projects as: A good all-around shortstop

I love the idea of a switch hitting shortstop; that is what the Cubs potentially have in Hernandez. After a short stint in Peoria to open the 2012 season, a stint that did not go well, the Cubs dropped him back to Boise. Although Hernandez played much better in the Northwest League, he was still one of the weaker bats on that admittedly loaded team. I love the potential here, but a career OPS of .730 in the lowest levels of the minors does not inspire confidence, not when Hernandez lacks a single standout tool. Still, his ability to switch hit and stick at shortstop is sufficient to keep him on this list. I like his chances to break out in 2013, but at the same time I have to admit that another mediocre offensive season could take him off this list entirely. It will interesting to see where he stands a year from now.

26. Josh Vitters, INF/OF
Where to watch him: Iowa and Chicago
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: A quality hitter in need of a position

When he is healthy, Josh Vitters has shown he can hit for average, has enough power to play at third or in the outfield, and probably is not going to be the long term answer at third. Finally completely healthy after a wrist injury a few seasons back, Vitters opened some eyes with his .304/.356/.513 performance as a 22 year old in Triple A in 2012. The bat speed and ability to make consistent contact that made him a very high draft pick are still there, and now he is adding to that a dose of patience, selectivity, and willingness to wait on a pitch he can hammer that he has been lacking throughout his career. The result was the highest season OPS in his professional career (and that came against the toughest competition of his career). As a hitter, he should be just fine in the majors.

The downside is that he probably will not be better than a sub-par third baseman and his value as a left fielder remains to be seen. In most organizations he would be moved to first, but Anthony Rizzo is not going anywhere. Once he finds a position, though, I think Vitters should have a nice career… though it may be as a utility player with another team.

25. Matt Szczur, OF
Where to watch him: Tennessee / Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Good center fielder with top of the order potential

Meet one of the most divisive prospects in the Cubs’ organization. If we look past the rough edges and lack of baseball experience, Szczur looks like an average-to-plus defensive center fielder with all the offensive tools necessary to be a factor in the leadoff slot. The problem is looking past the rough edges and lack of experience.

The most remarkable part of Szczur’s rise through the farm system has been his coachability. In 2011, split between two stops in A ball, he compiled an OBP of .335 and stole 24 bases. According to reports, the Cubs told him they wanted him to concentrate more on getting on base and using his speed. The result? In 2012 he posted an OBP of .360 and stole 42 bases. Now concerns center on his lack of power. It remains to be seen if he can again adjust his game to strengthen that weakness. Whether he can or not, look for him to be called to Chicago in September.

24. Christian Villanueva, 3B
Where to watch him: Tennessee
Wrigley Field ETA: Late 2014
Projects as: Light-hitting infielder with good defense

The Cubs plucked Villanueva from the Rangers at the trade deadline last year, and he instantly became one of the most undervalued players in the organization. Villanueva has the glove to be a truly great third baseman, that is not going to a problem. He has the accurate arm, soft hands, quickness, and instincts to make all the regular plays and more than his share of highlight reel ones. If it were only up to his glove, he might be a fixture in the majors later this year.

Unfortunately, his bat does not profile nearly as well at third. He should hit for average and reach base at a good pace, but he seems unlikely to provide more than doubles power on a consistent basis. The same plate approach that allows him to spray line drives to all fields also detracts from his power and cuts down on his overall SLG. He, along with Lake, is the most advanced third base option in the farm system, but he will ultimately be competing for playing time against bigger bats like Baez, Candelario, and Lake. Some have suggested that he could follow Sandberg’s path and switch to second base, but the Cubs are not exactly hurting for second base options either. If he can adjust his approach at Tennessee this year I may have to rethink this projection, but for now I see him as a defense-focused utility player in the majors. In that capacity I would not be surprised to see him get a taste of Chicago in September.

23. Eric Jokisch, LHP
Where to watch him: Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Back of the rotation starter

At number twenty three, Jokisch is the highest lefty on this list. That’s a problem. Fortunately for the Cubs, Jokisch continues to exceed expectations every time they challenge him. At one time he was considered a fringe prospect, at best. Since then, however, he has pitched his way into Cubs pitching prospect conversation and could be a legitimate threat to crack the Chicago rotation next season. Despite not having any single exceptional pitch, Jokish generally stays out of trouble by avoiding the long ball (career 0.8 HR/9), limiting the walks (career 3.1 BB/9), and inducing plenty of ground balls (1.40 career GO/AO). Left handed pitchers who can keep the ball on the ground and out of the bleachers should have some success in Wrigley; Jokisch may get his first chance at that late this season.

22. Ben Wells, RHP
Where to watch him: Daytona
Wrigley Field ETA: 2015
Projects as: Mid-rotation starter

He was looking like one of the safer pitching prospects in the Cubs lower minors until an elbow injury sidelined him for much of 2012. He did pitch again at the end of the year, but it remains to be seen if the arm is going to become an ongoing concern.

When healthy, Wells was flashing a pretty good trio of pitches and the command to use them to their best effect. In his 44 inning with Peoria last season he amassed a K/BB ratio of 3.00. That’s not bad for a 19 year old in his first full professional season. If he can stay healthy he has a chance to move up the system fairly quickly. He has the size and arsenal to eat up a lot of innings in the middle to later part of a major league rotation one day. I suspect the Cubs will limit his workload somewhat this season, but I still hope to see him in Tennessee late in the year.

21. Duane Underwood, RHP
Where to watch him: Arizona or Boise
Wrigley Field ETA: 2016+
Projects as: Too raw to project

When the Cubs drafted Underwood he was better described as a thrower, not a pitcher. His fastball often sat in the mid 90 to upper 90s, but some days he could not get it out of the 80s. His curve was good … when it worked. Location came and went. He flashed the potential to be something special, but then hid that potential behind a mask of inconsistencies. It will likely take longer for the Cubs to craft Underwood into a pitcher than it will some of the other pitching prospects they selected last year, but Underwood may have the highest ceiling in that group. I expect him to spend some time in Boise this year, but don’t be surprised if he makes half a dozen more starts in Arizona first.

written by

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.

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