The Bleacher Nation Top 40: From 20 to 11

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The Bleacher Nation Top 40: From 20 to 11

Chicago Cubs

dan vogelbach cubs[The third installment of the top 40 Chicago Cubs prospects for 2013. In case you missed the first two installments, they are here and here.]

And now things really get interesting. We are ready for the second half of the Bleacher Nation Top 40 and some of the biggest names are on the horizon. Actually, forget the horizon. Some of the stars of the farm system are coming out to play in today’s Top 40, and after today we still have ten names to go.

The Cubs really do have a deep system, but already the uneven nature of that depth stands out. The pitchers on today’s list are all either relievers or come with a lot of risk or projection, and that situation will not get much better tomorrow. The Cubs have hitters up and down the organization, but the pitching largely projects as mid-rotation starters and bullpen arms. There is some depth in those departments, depth that will pay dividends when the Cubs are back in contention, but the lack of top tier pitching talent does create some challenges for the team as they work to get back into regular contention.

And that brings us to the other great benefit of having a deep farm system. The Cubs are going to be in a good position to deal out of their depth to shore up their weakness in pitching. Provided, that is, they can find some trading partners. Good young pitching is hard to find, and the teams that have it tend not to deal it.

If Cubs can find some pitching to trade for, though, I think they have the assets to make the deal thanks in large part to their volume of shortstop prospects. Between Baez, Lake, Alcantara, and Hernandez, the Cubs have an unusually large number of pretty good infielders that have at least a chance to stay at short. When really good pitching talent is traded, we often see pretty good young shortstops going in the other direction. The Cubs have the shortstops. Now all they need to do is find some pitching to flip them for.

Speaking of Alcantara, his spot on the Top 40 is coming up very soon now.

20. Paul Blackburn, RHP
Where to watch him: Boise
Wrigley Field ETA: 2016
Projects as: Either a mid rotation starter or a late inning reliever

Blackburn is another of the Cubs Army of Arms from the early rounds of the 2012 draft, and scouts are already speaking in glowing terms about his feel for his pitches and his understanding of how to attack hitters. Not a lot of 18 year olds who throw in the low to mid 90s have the discipline to pound the lower part of the strike zone and attack both sides of the plate, but that is exactly what Blackburn is doing. Somewhere along the line this guy had some very good coaching, and it shows. As exciting as it is to see a teenager this advanced, he still has a long way to go before he reaches Wrigley. Like most young pitchers, he still has some muscle to pack on, some off speed stuff to polish, and will need to develop the endurance to survive playing a professional sport for nine solid months a year. He’ll begin that stage of his development in either Boise or Kane County later this year.

19. Trey McNutt, RHP
Where to watch him: Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Potential setup man

Once upon a time, McNutt was considered to have two plus pitches and was well on his way to No. 2 starter status. But he never could add a quality off speed pitch. And then he was slowed by blisters. And then a freakish injury (that did not affect his arm). And then he was sent to the bullpen. And finally he re-emerged in the latter part of the 2012 Tennessee season as a reliable weapon out of the bullpen. Right now that is how he projects, and that is how he is ranked. I expect he will see Chicago’s bullpen this September, if not before.

But let’s not write him off as a starter quite yet. It was not all that long ago that Cubs fans were generally down a struggling relief pitching prospect named Jeff Samardzija. McNutt was only 22 last season. His stock may be down right now but, like Samardzija, the raw materials are there for him to emerge as a very good pitcher. He’s in the bullpen for now; let’s check back in two or three years.

18. Arismendy Alcantara, SS
Where to watch him: Tennessee
Wrigley Field ETA: 2015
Projects as: League average middle infielder or utility guy

When a switch hitter with a good chance to stay at shortstop reaches High A at the age of 20 and posts an OPS of .786 while hitting a solid .302 and compiling career highs in both HR and SB despite having his season cut short by injury, you might expect him check in higher than 18th on a Top Propects list. And, indeed, if you look around the internet you will find plenty of places where Alcantara is ranked quite a few spots higher. I’m taking a more cautious approach on Alcantara for two reasons: first, he’s only had one good offensive season after a couple of more mediocre ones; second, I’m not quite convinced he is staying at shortstop. He has the tools to do so, but some scouts believe he’ll be better off on the right side of the infield. A year from now, depending on how things go in Tennessee, we could be talking about Alcantara about ten spots higher on this list.

17. Jae-Hoon Ha, OF
Where to watch him: Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Defensive fourth outfielder

If not for Almora, Ha would likely be acclaimed as the best defensive outfielder in the Cubs organization. Even with Almora in the system I’m not sure that Ha still doesn’t take the title. Prior to the 2012 season that high end glove was about all Ha was known for. But then he went to Tennessee and posted a career high in OBP (.352), BB% (9.5%), and SB (11). Those are not the numbers of a future All-Star, but it isn’t hard to imagine the guy who put up that line as a 21 year old in Double A emerging as a decent starting centerfielder one of these days, especially given that he is still learning to steal bases and projects to add a little more power. I still think his most likely future is that of a fourth outfielder, if he can stay healthy. That is an important caveat with Ha because he plays hard all the time, even if it means running full speed into the fence in an effort to make the play. Fans are going to love him. Trainers perhaps not so much.

16. Tony Zych, RHP
Where to watch him: Iowa and Chicago
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Set up man

Zych has the pitches and mentality to come out of the pen. The Cubs drafted him as a reliever out of college, and last season he shut down Double A hitters to the tune of 10.2 K/9. His walk rate was a little elevated, but I don’t think we need to worry about Zych evolving into another Marmol. Instead, look for his hard stuff and deceptive delivery to continue to wrack up the strikeouts at the back of the Iowa pen. If the Cubs need a right hander in Chicago sometime in the second half of this season, Zych should be in consideration to take that call.

15. Logan Watkins, 2B
Where to watch him: Iowa
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: A solid starting second baseman or above average utility player

When was the last time a Gold Glove winner had to fight for his starting job in spring training? That is what we could be watching twelve months from now. Logan Watkins is a pretty good defender in his own right, and he offers more power, more speed, more patience, and a lefty swing over the Cubs’ incumbent second baseman. On the other hand, Watkins can also handle center field, and even shortstop in a pinch. He would be valuable off the bench both in pinch hit roles and as a defensive replacement at a number of position. I expect Chicago fans to get their first look at Watkins in September, and I think he’ll be up to stay early next season.

14. Alberto Cabrera, RHP
Where to watch him: Iowa and Chicago
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Mid rotation starter or quality setup man

Cabrera has one of the best fastballs in the organization, but he has tended to have trouble with his command. The Cubs worked hard on that last year; fans in Iowa will get front row seats to watch the results of those efforts. Cabrera, when he is at his best, has the sort of arsenal that we can imagine towards the front of the Cubs rotation. When he is off, he’s walking batters like Marmol before the All-Star break. That said, I love the idea of moving him back to the starting rotation. If the new coaching staff can help him harness his stuff, the Cubs have added a badly needed starting pitching prospect to a system depleted in that department. And if it doesn’t work they still have a nice bullpen arm with extra polish on his supporting pitches. Either way, the Cubs win.

13. Dan Vogelbach, 1B/DH
Where to watch him: Kane County
Wrigley Field ETA: 2015
Projects as: Potentially a very good hitter

Vogelbach is a fringe Top 100 prospect with a fan club the size of Siberia, and here I am burying him at No. 13. That’s an indicator of how deep this system is, not an indictment of Vogelbach. I like Vogelbach the hitter about as much as anyone, and I actually think he could one day be only slightly below average as a defensive first baseman. That’s about as optimistic an assessment as any analyst is willing to make.

But at the end of the day, Vogelbach will go exactly as far as his bat will take him. The early results (.410 OBP, .641 SLG in 2012) suggest that his bat will take him quite a long ways, but this guy is a hitter in search of a position. He will need to continue to hit, not just well enough to reach the majors, but so well that it overcomes the value he does not provide on defense. I love the ceiling, but the risk that comes from being a no-position player keeps him from moving into the Top 5 of this list. At least for now.

12. Robert Whitenack, RHP
Where to watch him: Tennessee
Wrigley Field ETA: 2013
Projects as: Number three starter

Whitenack was soaring up the farm system in 2011 when his flight was ended early by elbow surgery. 2012 marked his recovery year, and like many recovery years, it was a mixed bag. Now is the time to see what the post-surgery Whitenack looks like and if he can get back on the fast track to Chicago.

At his best, Whitenack used control and a devastating knuckle-curve to mow through hitters in Daytona and Tennessee. Some reports claim he has dropped the knuckle-curve, but that the slider he replaced it with may be even better. Whatever his arsenal, he looks likely to feature two plus pitches backed by a decent changeup. I still see him as a solid number three starter, but I am basing that in no small part on his pre-injury numbers. If he can get back to that form in the early part of 2013, he should become a very strong candidate for the 2014 rotation. Given the track record of pitchers with this surgery, I like his chances.

11. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
Where to watch him: Kane County
Wrigley Field ETA: 2015
Projects as: A good, offense-first style of corner infielder or left fielder

Of all the hitters in the Cubs’ low minors, including Almora and Baez, I think Candelario might be the safest bet to reach the majors. Candelario put himself on the prospect stage by drawing more walks than strikeouts as an 17 year old in the DSL. The Cubs then challenged with him a trip to Boise and made him one of the youngest players in the Northwest League. The switch hitter seemed to wear out in the later part of the season, but he still posted a quality season OPS of 0.741 and drew some fairly consistent praise from the regular scouts on that circuit. That performance should be enough to move him on to the Midwest League this year where I expect he will be the primary third baseman.

The upside on Candelario is that of a patient batter who can hit for both average and power from both sides of the plate. His bat alone makes him an asset; his glove will determine just how good of an asset he can be. Right now he is on the hot corner, and there are some reports that he could stay there long term. I think the jury is still out on that one, but if he can prove he can handle third this season, then he could start rapidly rising up a number of ranking lists.

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Author: Luke Blaize

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