The Cubs find themselves in the enviable position of having a log jam of top prospects, all ready to contribute at the big league level at the same time. The Reds have found themselves in the same position a few times over the last fifteen years, (off the top of my head I count six Reds that finished in the top 5 of RoY voting since 2001, am I right?), but maybe never with this level of top flight talent.
As with all prospects, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s plenty of risk is this group, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not out of the question that the Cubs could have four players competing for rookie of the year honors come seasonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s end. And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s in addition to the relatively young core, built around Anthony Rizzo, already in place. If you arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t ready to be scared by the Cubs this season, they certainly look like they could be a nuisance for a long time to come.
This post is an introduction to five of the Cubs big time prospects that we might be seeing this year, in order of least interesting to most (to me). Weirdly, this is close to the reverse of order of how soon weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re likely to see them, which is a topic weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll get into later. Click the names for their minor league numbers.
Blessed with an incredibly entertaining name to say, AlcÃƒÂ¡ntara is penciled as the Cubs starting second baseman. A natural shortstop, AlcÃƒÂ¡ntara was signed from the DR at age 17, so heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been in the Cubs system for a long time with only one down season at low A. That was, until he broke into the majors last year. He got 300 plate appearances and slashed just .205/.254/.367 with 93 strikeouts and 17 walks.
The interesting thing about his rough start in the bigs was that he put up 10 HRs and 11 doubles. AlcÃƒÂ¡ntara is listed at 5Ã¢â‚¬â„¢10Ã¢â‚¬Â, 170lbs and has been known for his speed and ability to get on base. Now it looks like he may be coming into a decent bit of power, and is seen as a possible 20/20 threat. Scouts see him as an at least average fielder at second, and it looks like he could be a monster if he can stop swinging at everything and mostly missing. If not, his power may still play in a utility role (he can play the outfield as well), but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have limited value as a starter because of his inability to get on base.
The Cubs are planning to start Starlin Castro at short and AlcÃƒÂ¡ntara at second, which leaves Baez, the Cubs first round pick in 2011, as the odd man out in the infield for now. Baez is originally from Puerto Rico, but attended high school in Florida, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s where the Cubs drafted him from. He rose rapidly through the system, and after crushing AAA pitching last year, got the call. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s when things got iffy, to be nice, as he managed to rack up 95 Ks in just 229 plate appearances, en route to a truly terrible .169/.227/.324 line.
He had a rough spring training at the plate, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s put some doubt into peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s heads, but basically his power is off the charts. He may be dealing with some nerves, or he may have been rushed a little, but let me say this: you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t go from being one of the best hitters in the minors to stinking over night. Last year he hit 23 HRs in AAA in 104 games, and if he can get himself acclimated to the majors, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a 30+ HR threat this year. His defense isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t nearly as polished as some of the Cubs other prospects, so he may eventually find himself at third, or even the outfield, but his bat will allow him to play anywhere.
Soler is Cuban, but unlike some of the phenoms that have defected in recent years, Soler left at a young age and spent time in the Cubs minor league system. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not an issue for the Cubs, because they initially signed him to a 9-year $30 million contract, so they had the luxury of letting him develop. He raked at every level, and didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t miss a beat when he got the proverbial cup of coffee last year with the Cubs, slashing .292 /.330/.573 in 24 games.Ã‚Â (His initial tour in the NL Central was cut short by a hamstring injury). Now he seems healthy and is scheduled to be the Cubs starting right fielder.
Soler is the scary. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s got power, speed, and a great arm. He has power to all fields, but some scouts also say heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s got 70 power overall, which is to say heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no doubles hitter. Maybe scariest is heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gotten the reputation for being very coachable, and has improved at every level. For example, initially people thought he wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make enough contact to play every day, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s made his swing more compact at the suggestion of his coaches, and been able to keep up with better competition at higher levels.
Much ink and many pixels have been devoted to Bryant this spring, as he led the Cactus League in HRs but still found himself with a ticket back to Iowa. Drafted #2 overall out of college in 2013, Bryant doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really have much to prove in AAA, as he hit .295/.418/.619 with 21 HRs in just 70 games there last year. It seems like his demotion has much more to do with the Cubs not wanting to start his service time clock than to do with refining his skills, which is a little frustrating if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re a fan of the game. Clearly this is something that should be addressed in the next CBA negotiations, because it would be better if teams had a financial incentive to play their best players, rather than to hide them for a while to game the system.
Bryant is super tall at 6Ã¢â‚¬â„¢5Ã¢â‚¬Â and may end up at first base, despite the fact that he has a decent arm and can make the throw across the diamond. Mostly it just doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t matter where he plays, because heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s got a career OPS over 1.000 in the minors and projects to be among the elite power hitters in the game. A 50 HR season seems totally plausible, but weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll all just have to wait and see.
Joining Baez and Bryant in Iowa at the start of 2015 is my favorite of the bunch, Russell, who the AÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s drafted out of high school, developed, and then questionably traded for Jeff Samardzija. Whether you like Bryant or Russell more really comes down to defense, and Russell looks like heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be an above average shortstop at the big league level with a great bat. That gives him the edge to me, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s certainly not going to hit like Bryant, especially not the long ball.
Because Russell was drafted out of high school, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s got a long minor league track record, hitting .300/.379/.522 in over 1,000 plate appearances. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gotten Barry Larkin comps as heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s progressed, but his ceiling probably isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t that high. Scouts have noted that he isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t quite as smooth in the field as a truly elite defender at short, that his swing is still a little long, and that his timing at the plate can get thrown off. All of that is just nit picking though, because he looks like a good bet to be a good defender at short, hit for a decent average, take walks, and put up 60+ extra Ã¢â‚¬â€œbase hits. In todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s game, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an all-star, if not a possible MVP candidate.
If he plays well at AAA to start the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Theo Epstein trade Starlin Castro mid-season to clear room for Russell, like he did with Nomar in 2004 on the way to winning the world series.