After watching the Chicago Cubs in 2012, it's evident that they were playing for the future. They gave ample playing time to prospects Brett Jackson, Dave Sappelt and Josh Vitters—as well as young relief and starting pitchers—and were met with mixed results.
But most of the Cubs’ best young talent spent 2012 at the lower levels of minor league baseball; many not making it above High-A ball. And they are young…really young. Five of the top 10 are under 20 years old.
While the present for the Cubs may be dark or hazy, the future looks bright.
A handful of Cubs prospects are in most—if not all—major lists of top 100 prospects, including three being in Baseball America’s 2012 Midseason Top 50 prospects list.
Yet slotting the players is difficult. Should the rankings be based on how they have performed thus far or how they are projected to perform? Practice or theory?
Some will be ranked by how they have been projected to perform, and some have the numbers that do not necessitate performance projection.
Javier Baez is far and away the Cubs' best prospect. That, unequivocally, is the truth.
He heads every major publication’s list of Cubs prospects. His scouting report can best be summed up by one of the finest baseball writers:
By all accounts, Javier Baez is deserving of the high praise and recognition he has garnered. He has excellent bat and base-running speed, which should allow him to sustain a high batting average and on-base percentage as he makes his way through the minors.
While his power is adequate for his size and position, most baseball scouts believe this aspect of his game could, and should, improve as he matures.
But for more proof of his talent, Baseball America named Baez as the No. 1 prospect in the 2012 Low-A Midwest League—above Francisco Lindor and Miguel Sano.
Soler, like Albert Almora, had been named to the AZL Top 20 Prospects by Baseball America, coming in at No. 4—the second of three Cubs players to be named to the list.
Jorge Soler looks to be the definition of a “stud” in baseball terms. In 20 games with Single-A Peoria, Soler had a line of .338/.398/.513 with three home runs with four stolen bases.
Jorge Soler is a physical specimen at 20 years old. Measuring in at 6’3" and 225 pounds, he has good power and the potential to be a future five-tool player according to a staff report from SportingNews.com. But by all accounts, Soler is not major league ready and will need time to develop in the minors before being called up to the majors. The caveat is the unknown amount of time he will need in the minors.
He is still a raw talent, however. Instead of having Jorge Soler take part in the Arizona Fall League or play winter ball, the Cubs want to take his development slow. The Cubs’ Director of Player Development, Brandon Hyde, said the following about the club’s offseason plans for Soler:
He was in Arizona getting in shape and we're excited about the start he's had in Peoria. He just hasn't played much. We'd like to get him to instructional league and to get him five weeks to continue get his legs underneath him and just get into playing shape. He was just short on experience this last year and so we're excited about getting down there and getting with him every day. He's a special talent.
Almora was ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 2012 AZL by Baseball America after being drafted this past June.
Baseball America is not the only major baseball publication to give high praise to Almora.
According to Baseball Prospect Nation, he has the potential to be a high-average hitter with the ability to adjust to the ball in flight and use the entire field, and with more experience, he has the tools to become an elite defender with an above-average glove
He still needs time to mature physically. At 6’2" and 170 pounds, he has the frame to build a lot of muscle on, increasing his power capabilities. But all the tools necessary to be an impact player are there.
Having undergone Tommy John surgery earlier this year, to base a ranking on such a small sample size would be ridiculous. Regarding Vizcaino, we might as well be a high school A/V club because we’ll be dealing with projections. Get it?
His projected value took a slight dip after Tommy John surgery, but prior to that, Keith Law named Arodys Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect—above Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. Both are named above Vizcaino in every prospect list post-surgery.
Vizcaino’s scouting report can be summed up by that same great baseball writer previously referenced to:
Despite his small sample size, Vizcaino was ranked the Atlanta Braves’ No. 2 prospect and the MLB’s No. 40 overall prospect by Baseball America after the 2011 season; and No. 62 by Baseball Prospectus—above Dellin Betances (63), Javier Baez (66), Nick Castellanos (71), and Anthony Rizzo (75).
According to Baseball Prospect Nation, ScoutingBook.com, and MLB Prospect Watch he has the heat and a curve, along with a developing slider to become a number two or three starter. But if the slider fails to materialize, he could become a dominant relief pitcher which would allow his fastball, already at 95-97 mph, to bump up a tad.
Vogelbach is ranked as the Cubs' No. 5 prospect for this simple reason: He’ll either rake the yard at Wrigley or bring back a top pitching prospect in trade.
That is the biggest dilemma the Cubs have with the powerful lefty. Do they have him or Rizzo move to the outfield to get such a rare bat in the lineup, or do they deal him for a top pitching prospect down the line?
Whatever their decision, it will not be an easy one.
Dan’s a big lefty that can hit the cover off of the ball to all fields and has legitimate plus-plus power—earning him comparisons to the Detroit Tigers’ Prince Fielder.
In 2012, he split time between the Arizona League and the Northwest League where he added to his hitting lore.
At only 19, he posted a combined line of .322/.410/.641 between the two leagues. If he continues his 2012 performance in 2013, he should finish the year in Double-A.
The only thing going against Christian Villanueva is that he plays third base.
He could end up with the same likely fate of Dan Vogelbach—being traded. As Javier Baez makes his way up the minor league ladder and eventually to MLB, it is unlikely that Villanueva will be able to supplant Baez or Castro at third.
That is not to say he isn't talented or without value. He adds depth to a farm system that for so long did not know what the word meant.
Villanueva might not have a future starting role with the Chicago Cubs, but he can add depth to the bench or be a valuable piece in a trade.
Once thought to be a shoe-in for a future spot in the Cubs' starting rotation, Trey McNutt is destined to be one hell of a relief pitcher.
McNutt just does not have the endurance to become a top-flight starter as many had hoped. Even ScoutingBook.com believed McNutt could have received a spot start this past season.
His track record would suggest otherwise. In 2012, he averaged 2.8 innings per outing. In an injury-plagued 2011 season, he averaged a whopping 4.13 inning per start.
McNutt can be a standout reliever for the Cubs possibly next year or in 2014. But projecting him as a quality starter would be too far-fetched.
It’s strange to say that a pitcher straining his forearm could have been good for the Cubs, but it was.
Prior to the 2012 supplemental draft, Johnson strained his forearm, causing clubs to pass on the righty.
Not the Cubs, however.
Johnson has three pitches in his arsenal, but his most impressive pitch is a hard curve which he utilizes as his out pitch. He also has a fastball in the mid-90s and a developing changeup.
He has good command and control of his pitches and is projected to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter—though he could become a No. 2 if he fully develops the changeup and adds the slider.
If Matt Szczur turns out to be as good of a baseball player as he is a person, the Cubs have nothing to worry about.
But for those of you who want to know what kind of player he is, here it goes. From MLB.com’s 2012 Prospect Watch:
He hits for average, with power potential, is a threat on the basepaths and has makeup that comes as highly touted as his tools. An asset on defense as well, Szczur could be patrolling the outfield alongside Brett Jackson before long.
He seems to be projected to an all-around solid MLB outfielder. Maybe not a superstar, but quality and reliable nonetheless.
Dillon Maples was a steal in the 2011 draft for the Cubs. If not for his indecision on whether or not to attend UNC for baseball and football, Maples would have been drafted in the first round.
He has a fastball topping out in the mid-90s and a nasty hard curve.
He still has a few areas that need improvement, most notably his mechanics. To say he is destined for arm trouble would not be inaccurate, but it was also said that Mark Prior’s mechanics would make him impervious to elbow or shoulder problems.
And if he wants to make it to the majors, Maples will also have to develop a changeup and continue to work on his command. Yet his stuff is good enough to be a future No. 2 or No. 3 starter on the North Side.