Spring training has been officially underway for a few days and some of you just might not know who those players walking around with numbers such as 70, 67, and 71 stitched to their jerseys are.
But as random as their jersey numbers are, the player’s presence at spring training is not.
Some of those players are the organization’s best and brightest overall and positional prospects taking part in their first or second big league spring training. While others, yes, are simply trying to earn any sort of contract.
The following players lie somewhere in the former.
This list is not a compilation of scouting reports of the organization’s overall top 10 players, but rather the 10 best prospects at currently participating in the Cubs 2013 spring training.
Once thought to be one of the best prospects in the Cubs’ farm system despite his shortcomings, Josh Vitters’ relevance to the Cubs long-term future has taken a hit since the infusion of younger, better prospects.
But people in baseball are obsessed with a prospect’s intricacies.
By all accounts Josh Vitters has great form in the batter’s box, a beautiful swing, and even better bat speed that can cause scouts’ mouths to water. However, he does not seem to read the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand very well and tends to swing at balls out of the strike zone—evidenced to his career strikeout to walk ratio of 3.3:1.
He’s nothing spectacular in the field and is defensively outclassed by fellow club prospect, Christian Villanueva, in that respect.
With the exception of his .926 fielding percentage in 29 games played in the field with Chicago last season, his previous highest achieved percentage at third base was a meager .922 in 42 games with Daytona in 2009.
In order to make an MLB roster, a switch to left field may be required.
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.
Trey McNutt is a big pitcher and reminiscent of Kerry Wood. He stands at 6’4” and 220 lbs— and like Wood did later in his career—McNutt should transition from a starter to a reliever.
McNutt has had an up-and-down career.
Early on he was considered to have good mechanics and two plus-pitches: a mid-90s fastball and a hard-breaking curve. But after the breezing through Peoria and Daytona in 2010, he hit a wall when he was promoted to Tennessee.
He still has those plus-pitches, but the command and control—not to mention a third pitch—necessary for a major league starter is not there.
McNutt can be a standout reliever for the Cubs in 2014 after receiving bullpen time as a late-season call up this season. But projecting him as a quality starter would be too far-fetched.
Prior to acquiring Arodys Vizcaino last season from Atlanta, Robert Whitenack was considered the Cubs best pitching prospect. He had excellent command of the strike zone with comparable pitch control. Cubs Vine Line Blog went on to write:
Whitenack had a power sinker with a big hammer curve and a good change-up.
He was able to dominate early in 2011 at Daytona and Tennessee, Whitenack went 7-0 with a 1.93 ERA, .940 WHIP, and strikeout to walk ratio of 3.4:1.
Then he suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. And after spending the rest of that season and the beginning of 2012 rehabbing, he had his first start of the season at Daytona.
He did struggle in Double-A, but he was still healing from the surgery and had yet to regain the command and control he used to dominate in 2011.
The Cubs obviously see a lot of promise in Robert Whitenack—indicated by participating in his second MLB spring training—and if he is able to regain the previously demonstrated command and control, he could begin the 2014 season as part of the Cubs’ MLB five-man rotation.
Junior Lake is—by most—considered one of the most talented prospects in the Cubs organization. But he is considered to still be raw; even after six years in the minors.
He’s as complete as prospects come with a very high ceiling. Lake has a cannon for an arm that one scout told FanGraphs.com it is “one of the best in professional baseball.”
Lake has a wide stance with a nervous, Gary Sheffield-esque bat waggle circa mid-1990s. That batter’s box energy does translate to a little extra pop in his bat, but it also let’s everyone know he has no intention of being patient at the plate.
And while he has some of the best tools in the Cubs organization, the thing is, though, he hasn’t put it all together. Think of Junior Lake in terms of a pizza.
A baker could have perfect dough, ripe San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce, the freshest of toppings, and mozzarella straight from the farm. But if he does not know how to properly mix the dough, puree the tomatoes, portion the toppings, or how much mozz to put on the pizza, or does not bake the pizza at the right temperature for the correct length of time, then the quality of the separate ingredients will be inconsequential to the grade of the end product.
Among all of the Cubs third base prospects Christian Villanueva arguably has the best defense. In fact his defensive tool-set is so good that, unlike most third basemen that are forced to switch positions, Mike Newman of FanGraphs.com believes Villanueva could move to the more difficult defensive position, second base:
On defense, Villanueva is in the top three of third baseman I’ve had the opportunity to scout along with Marlins Matt Dominguez and Phillies Travis Mattair. He possesses lightning quick feet, soft hands and a strong throwing arm leaving little doubt as to whether Villanueva can stick at third base long term. In fact, Villanueva’s defensive skills and body control are so strong, second base seems like a viable option.
When the Cubs made the trade with the Texas Rangers that sent Ryan Dempster to Arlington in exchange for prospects including Christian Villanueva, MLB insider, Jon Heyman, tweeted that scouts believe Villanueva to be quite good and is a top-100 prospect in baseball.
His bat may not carry the same credentials as his glove, nor does he have the prototypical power of the usual MLB third baseman. Villanueva still has a lot of room to grow both metaphorically and literally (5’11, 160 lbs) while making his way up to the Majors.
Yet, if he doesn’t bulk up over the next few seasons and he continues to bat around the .280 mark, he still projects to be a solid big-leaguer as a number six- or seven-hitter; to go along with a golden glove in the field.
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.”
FanGraphs.com had this to add to Matt Szczur’s scouting report:
[T]he outfielder has plus-plus speed and average defensive skills. He hits with a wide, well-balanced stance and has some gap power but he’s not overly physical despite his athleticism.
This time last year Brett Jackson could have found himself sitting atop a list of the Cubs’ overall top prospects—along with Anthony Rizzo. But with the recent injection of talented prospects into the organization’s farm system, his stock has slightly dipped—just slightly.
But if you saw him play last season you saw why he ranked so high among the organization’s top prospects—then again, you also saw his greatest drawback.
Yet, while he still needs work on his pitch selection to reduce his strikeout rate, this offseason Jackson spent time working on his swing with a former MLB hitting coach, Dale Sveum.
In his 44 games with the Chicago Cubs, he managed only a .175 batting average and struck out 59 times. However, he earned 22 walks translating into a .303 OBP.
His speed should lend him to a base-running threat whenever he permanently makes it up to the MLB roster.
But where Brett Jackson’s speed serves him best is complementing his great fielding instincts.
He can track the ball very well off the bat, and his instincts allow him to utilize his speed to get a quick jump on the ball, expanding his range. He has a strong and accurate arm that gives him the ability to make throws wherever the ball happens to take him.
Despite coming off of Tommy John surgery, Arodys Vizcaino was the Cubs’ fourth of four prospects listed in Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects at #83.
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.
Arodys was a steal in last July’s trade with the Braves. He has all the ingredients needed to be successful in Chicago.
He may not break camp as part of the Opening Day 25-man roster, but you should expect to see him at Wrigley Field in September at the latest.
Jorge Soler is another one of the Cubs’ prospects to be named in Baseball America’s MLB Top 100 at No. 34—the third highest Cub on the list.
Jorge Soler looks to be the definition of a “stud” in baseball terms. In 20 games with Single-A Peoria, he had a line of .338/.398/.513 with three home runs with four stolen bases.
Jorge Soler is a physical specimen at 21 years old. Measuring in at 6’3" and 205 pounds, he has good power and the potential to be a future five-tool player according to a staff report from SportingNews.com.
Soler has been compared to Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins as to the type of player he can develop into. According to Cubs Vine Line Blog:
Think Giancarlo Stanton in the tape-measure home run department… Soler profiles perfectly for right field, where he runs well and has a plus arm.
But by all accounts, Soler is not major league ready and will need time to develop in the minors before being called up. After he signed with the Cubs last June, Jorge was sent to the Arizona League—where he did struggle a bit for nearly three weeks—before being moved to the former Class A affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs, where he excelled.
He is still a raw talent and the Cubs want to take his development slow, as the Cubs Vine Line Blog detailed.
“[The] Cubs brass will hold their breath and hope the skills he’s shown hold up as he faces tougher pitching. Soler will be just 21 this season, but the Cubs aren’t going to be conservative with him—he’ll move as he proves he’s ready."
By all accounts, Javier Baez is deserving of the high praise and recognition he has garnered. He has excellent bat speed and base-running ability, 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. However, you have a question of his position as he makes his way up the Cubs’ farm system.
In order to reach the majors with the Cubs, he may indeed need to change positions. Since the Cubs already have their long-term shortstop, Starlin Castro, Baez would be remiss to believe he will stay at short if or when he is called up to the North Side.
Regardless of Castro’s defensive liabilities, a positional switch seems likely for Baez.
But if he can continue to improve his defense—remember he will be entering only his second full season of minor league baseball—as he moves up through the minor leagues, he could one day usurp Starlin Castro as the Cubs everyday shortstop; moving the predecessor to third.