Fans of the Cubs are watching an entire organization in transition right now as a new front office takes over, led by former Boston GM Theo Epstein. While changes are expected to be made at all levels and the MLB roster is likely to see turnover, not much of that new blood is likely to come from the minor league system in the short term. The system’s top prospect — Brett Jackson — should be ready in 2012, but precious few of the remaining Top 15 prospects are slated for arrival this year. There’s some talent to look forward to but it remains a couple of years away.
1. Brett Jackson (OF)
Nearly big league ready, Cubs fans can look forward to a quality player in Jackson. While he lacks star level projection, he should be solid in every facet of the game. He can handle center field and will hit just enough to play every day in an outfield corner should he move there. He won’t be a face of the franchise type player, but he should provide the new regime in Chicago with a piece around which they can begin building.
2. Javier Baez (SS)
The club’s top pick in June, Baez owns one of the more potent high school bats in this year’s draft class. His bat speed rates with just about anyone and he should hit for average and power once he learns the professional game. He won’t stick at shortstop long term but his bat will play at the hot corner and he could be a middle of the order run producer in time.
3. Dillon Maples (RHP)
The Cubs were aggressive in going after Maples, finally inking him for $2.5 million as a 14th round pick. He is the epitome of a projectable right-handed pitcher with good body including long limbs and plenty of present stuff. His fastball can already work as high as the mid-90s and his curveball could be a plus-plus yacker down the line. For all that, Maples still has work to do with his change-up and he desperately needs innings to develop.
4. Trey McNutt (RHP)
The 2011 season turned into a veritable lost year for McNutt as nearly everything in his game went backwards. His velocity dipped from the upper-90s to the 92-95 range and his control/command completely deserted him. He still has the potential to own a devastating fastball-slider combination that could work in the middle of a rotation or at the back of a bullpen. 2012 will be a big year for McNutt as a step forward could vault him to the big leagues.
5. Wellington Castillo (C)
There is power both in Castillo’s bat and his arm. He could hit 18-22 home runs in the big leagues, driving balls to all parts of the park, and his arm strength routinely earns 60 grades from scouts. The rest of his defensive game is just fine but the rest of his offensive game has some questions. He chases pitches and has an overly aggressive approach which could dampen the actualization of his power. He’s ready for at least part time duty in the big leagues and he should get to Wrigley Field for good this year.
6. Josh Vitters (3B)
The length of time over which Vitters’ swing has earned volumes of praise from scouts is nearly staggering. Despite middling and sometimes poor results the last few years, scouts have continued to insist that he had a beautiful swing. Vitters natural hitting ability can be his own worst enemy at times, taking him out of his approach and leading to weak contact when he should be looking for pitches to drive. He will probably be an MLB player but maybe not the offensive star he was once projected to be.
7. Rafael Dolis (RHP)
A potential late-inning reliever, Dolis garnered just a taste of the big leagues in 2011. That won’t be the last of the Major Leagues he sees as he could be a setup reliever for the Cubs in 2012. Armed with a fastball that sits 95-96 mph and at least a 60-grade slider he just needs to demonstrate the ability to throw strikes to earn a big league job. A large step forward with command could lead to him closing down the line, but he profiles easily as a setup man.
8. Matt Szczur (OF)
One of the best athletes in the system, Szczur offers strength and speed in all facets of his game. While none of his tools blow you away, he offers the potential for average power, an average arm and plus speed. There are questions about just how much he will hit and he needs to make strides defensively. What he lacks in impact tools he more than makes up for in makeup as he is a tireless worker with off-the-charts effort during games.
9. Dan Vogelbach (1B)
Another 2012 draft pick, Vogelbach’s calling card is his big time raw power. He has solid natural hitting ability to go with his power though he will sell out for home runs at times. There is little to like beyond the bat as Vogelbach is a beast of a young man with bottom of the scale speed and little defensive ability at first base.
10. Junior Lake (SS)
Lake has three tools that earn 55 or better grades from scouts. His arm is the truly elite tool, standing as a legit 80-grade cannon. Both his running ability and power play as above-average tools. The big questions for Lake are where will he play and how much will he hit. His hitting ability is raw and his approach is nearly non-existent while his defense remains below-average and has made very few strides.
11. Chris Carpenter (RHP)
Carpenter is a mid- to upper-90s right-hander with a breaking ball that will show as an average or better pitch. His velocity alone gives him a chance to pitch in relief but he has yet to consistently throw strikes or stay healthy. If he does both of those things in 2012 he could find himself with a trial in the big league bullpen.
12. Reggie Golden (OF)
Golden is a classic outstanding athlete that must learn how to play baseball. He offers the ability to run and throw and offers impressive strength. His lack of hitting instincts leave many scouts wondering if he will hit enough to let his strength play and even his outfield defense requires considerable work.
13. Gioskar Amaya (INF)
Amaya’s ultimate position remains up in the air but he has shown enough with the glove to handle either second base or shortstop. His plus speed gives him solid range to both sides and he has an innate ability to make contact with the baseball. Still very young and very raw, there is some potential for a contact-oriented utility infielder.
14. Marco Hernandez (SS)
Hernandez is one of the better infield defenders in the Cubs’ system. He can go get it to both sides with plus range, soft hands and great instincts. There is little doubt he will remain at shortstop long term. He can hit for average from both sides of the plate though his power projection is limited. Hernandez has the potential to bet a plus defender that hits at the bottom of a big league lineup.
15. Jeimer Candelario (3B)
Candelario garnered plenty of buzz in the DSL in 2011 thanks to an outstanding approach at the plate and plenty of power projection. One scout I spoke with believed he could grow into plus power without much trouble. A switch hitter he also offers some projection to hit for average. Defensively, many questions remain as few scouts believe third base is his ultimate home and some believe he may end up across the diamond at first base.