This is a couple days old now, but Baseball America released its list of the Cubs’ top 10 prospects, which is always interesting since BA is the industry leader among prospect publications. A subscription is worth every penny, and out of respect to them, I don’t want to quote anything from the actual scouting reports, but I do want to share what I think about these guys. First, the list, and some of my general thoughts on it:
1. Brett Jackson, OF
2. Javier Baez, SS
3. Matt Szczur, OF
4. Trey McNutt, RHP
5. Dillon Maples, RHP
6. Welington Castillo, C
7. Rafael Dolis, RHP
8. Junior Lake, SS
9. Josh Vitters, 3B/1B
10. Dan Vogelbach, 1B
The first thing that jumps out at me is how high Matt Szczur ranks here. People’s opinions on this guy seem to be all over the place; I know ESPN’s Keith Law isn’t high on him at all, and I also know he’s not alone in that regard. Like I said, though, Baseball America is the industry leader on this subject, so as long as I’m taking someone else’s opinion on players I haven’t seen, I usually defer to them before anyone else.
Before adding anything else about Szczur, a few other initial thoughts on the list. 2011 draftee Dillon Maples is surprisingly high up this list. I don’t have much of anything to say about him, since, as far as I can tell, he’s yet to throw a single pitch in an official game, but Maples was a highly touted two-sport athlete coming out of high school, and the Cubs bought him away from an athletic scholarship from the University of North Carolina. The fact he got $2.5MM as a 14th-rounder speaks to his upside, although his scouting report includes concerns about his mechanics, which may have him ticketed for the bullpen if he can’t iron them out.
The other thing I took immediate notice of is Josh Vitters’ spot all the way down at #9, behind a relief pitcher, and a shortstop that’s been discussed as a candidate to be converted to pitching (yeah, Theo and Jed inherited a pretty thin farm system). Vitters is a former third-overall selection who could be a great hitter, except for one small problem: he’s drawn just 71 walks in 1,666 plate appearances (roughly 4%, which explains his career sub-.320 OBP). His defensive shortcomings are one thing– there’s a reason he’s listed as a 3B/1B– but as long as he’s willing to swing at anything within a quarter mile of the plate, he’s unlikely to ever reach his enormous ceiling, which is a shame given where he was taken in the draft. Vitters is universally believed to have one of the best looking right-handed swings in professional baseball, and he’s still just 22 years old, but plain and simple, he’s gotta learn to work the count to have a shot at becoming the star he was supposed to be. If he moves off third base like a lot of people think he will, his aggressive approach will only hold him back even further.
Now I’m just gonna go down the list and give my two cents on the rest of these guys.
I really think I might be Brett Jackson’s biggest fan outside of the Cubs’ organization. Full disclosure: this probably has everything to do with the fact I was an intern with the Daytona Cubs during his stint there, so as likable a player he is for many other reasons, getting to see him play on a regular basis explains in part why I’m so partial to him. That being said, I really don’t think I’ve allowed this to cloud my perception of him as a player. I understand he’s got his weaknesses, the most obvious of them being his lofty strikeout totals, but if you ‘get’ baseball, then you probably get that strikeouts aren’t nearly as big a deal as old-folks would have you believe; they just don’t hinder run scoring to the degree that the Joe Morgans of the world would have us believe. Striking out in 30% of his ABs in Triple-A ball might not bode well for his immediate big league future, but Jackson is young and talented enough that he should be able to settle in as a guy who contributes while striking out in something like a quarter of his ABs. And, honestly, rather than dwell on his weaknesses, we oughta try and appreciate what he’s good at, which is, well… almost everything.
Jackson is the rare breed of player who can handle a premium defensive position, while being a legitimate offensive asset. His future in center field may depend on how soon Matt Szczur, or some other, more natural fit for the position comes along. But in mine and Baseball America’s opinion, he’s more than adequate there for the time being. More importantly, he’s an on-base machine (career .393 OBP), who’s got both speed and power. He went 20-20 this year between Double and Triple-A, something I think he’s capable of doing perennially in the big leagues. The reality is, it doesn’t matter if Jackson’s ceiling is a .260-.270 hitter, as BA suggests, because his combination of skills is a fit for any of the three outfield positions. If he stays in center, he’s a future star. If he moves to a corner, then he’s just a good player, and a very nice asset.
One other consideration, which is something I can add because of my experience in Daytona– Jackson has absolutely off the charts makeup. Anyone and everyone I spoke with that had to deal with him described him as a terrific guy, and the consummate teammate and professional. In my opinion, this is a big reason why he is a major part of the Cubs’ future.
Javier Baez is the Cubs’ most recent first-round draft pick, so it isn’t a surprise he ranks second on this list considering how thin the farm system is these days. He’s unlikely to stick at shortstop, but other than that, all I have to say about him is that BA says he’s got the highest ceiling of any Cub prospect. Hopefully he isn’t the next Josh Vitters, and this kid learns how to talk a freakin’ walk.
Matt Szczur became the second player the Cubs recently bought out of a career in the NFL, and is another guy with reported off the charts makeup. That isn’t why he’s such a highly touted prospect, though. His football exploits speak to his athleticism (he was a stud running back in college at Villanova), although his baseball skills remain largely untapped because of his commitment to a second sport. His statistics from this year aren’t eye-popping, and he really struggled in his first taste of the Florida State League, but we can’t just disregard the fact he didn’t get any break between the end of college football season and the start of his pro baseball career. Baseball America suggests he wore down toward the end of this season, which I find very easy to believe. His secondary skills are the biggest questions about his game, but he’s a plus-plus runner, who profiles as a quality defensive center fielder.
Trey McNutt was a steal of a 32-round pick back in 2009, but after starring in his first professional season, he struggled through an injury plagued 2011 to the tune of a 4.55 ERA in 22 starts. Like Dillon Maples, there are concerns over McNutt’s delivery, and if he doesn’t make some progress with his secondary stuff, his future may also be in the bullpen. His struggles haven’t gone away in this year’s Arizona Fall League, as he’s allowed four home runs in 18 innings, with an unimpressive 8:7 strikeout to walk ratio. I’m honestly not sure McNutt would be a top ten prospect in half of baseball’s farm systems.
I’m a little bit higher on Welington Castillo, a six-year vet of the Cubs farm system, than I am Trey McNutt. For one, he’s a position player– a catcher, no less– and from what I can tell, there’s a lot to like about him. He seems to have the defensive ability to stay behind the plate– for one, he’s thrown out a respectable 37% of career base stealers– but best of all, he’s got very good secondary skills for a catcher. The Pacific Coast League is a hitter’s paradise, but in 523 Triple-A plate appearances, Castillo has hit 28 homers and drawn 39 walks. He finished 2011 with an .875 OPS in Iowa, and he and Steve Clevenger are big reasons why I think the Cubs should consider trading Geovany Soto at some point in 2012.
Rafael Dolis was a starter when he and I were in Daytona, but his conversion to relief was sure to come, and yet, his good stuff hasn’t allowed him to excel in that role yet. Dolis struck out under six batters per nine innings, working almost exclusively as a reliever this year. He’s a live arm with dicey command. Not sure there’s a lot else to be said about him.
Junior Lake might have the strongest arm I’ve ever seen in person, and he’s killin’ it right now in the Arizona Fall League, running an .898 OPS while going a perfect 18 for 18 in stolen bases. But he’s a big, lanky guy who’s future is at 3B, if not the pitcher’s mound. Lake made some progress at the plate in 2011, but he’s an uber-aggressive hitter, who walks about as often as Josh Vitters, but strikes out about twice as often. Lake’s tools make him an interesting prospect, but he’s still got a ton of work to do before he can be taken seriously as a hitter.
Dan Vogelbach is an enormous dude who the Cubs took in the second round last year. His size, raw power, and left-handedness have drawn natural comparisons to Prince Fielder. The weight has been a cause for concern in the past, and though he managed to get it a little under control in his senior year of high school, the hope has to be that he will benefit from professional strength and conditioning help. A native of Fort Myers, Florida, some of my best friends from college are familiar with his family, and by all accounts he’s a good kid, with a real passion for baseball. His brother was a D-II college football standout, and his dad supposedly runs a gym in Fort Myers, so hopefully his size merely belies some of the athleticism he’s got in his family. If you ask me, he’s got a good lookin’ swing. I get a kick out of this video where someone, maybe his dad, gets pretty excited by a homer his kid launches into right field. I also like how, after he fouls off the first pitch he sees, he’s visibly pissed at himself. I’m cautiously optimistic about this guy.