With opening day just two days away for several teams in the farm system, the Chicago Cubs enter the new season with the same farm they left 2012 with, not trading for any big-time prospects or trading any others away. Despite the lack of moves, many prospects leave spring training with even more hype than before. Ranked as high as 5th by ESPN or as low as 12th – still very respectable – by Baseball America, the Cubs will look to improve their collection of young talent even further in 2013, having the second highest international spending pot, the second highest draft pot, and of course the second overall selection in the 2013 draft.
Chicago Cubs – What is better than a top prospect crushing baseballs in the minors? Young players doing it in the majors! The Cubs don’t figure to be all that good in the upcoming season, but should be exciting to watch nonetheless. New father and newly-turned 23 year old shortstop Starlin Castro‘s “down” season last year was still significantly above average for a player at the position, and he is still third in the major leagues in hits over the past two seasons – his first two full seasons in the majors. Being asked to adjust his approach mid-season certainly contributed to Castro’s slowdown as he became acclimated with it, but the benefits were obvious by the end of the season. After drawing just five walks from March through May, he matched the total in June and exceeded it in July alone. He proceeded to draw twenty more walks from August through October. Hopefully the improved plate discipline will be obvious beyond the small sample size at the end of last season. While Castro, just 22 years of age last season, is already entering his fourth season in the major leagues, most prospects take a bit longer to break through and stay in the bigs. Anthony Rizzo struggled after being called up by San Diego, and was acquired by the Cubs in a trade that sent Andrew Cashner to the Padres. Rizzo quickly won Cubs fan’s hearts with multiple game winning RBIs in his first weeks with the team and a monstrous July that saw him bat .330 with seven home runs. Rizzo’s ability to draw walks increased gradually throughout the season as he drew more in each successive month and finished the season with an OBP fifty-seven points higher than his batting average. Heading into 2013, Rizzo’s biggest area for improvement is to be able to consistently hit left-handed pitching, which he struggled mightily with last year, with an OPS of just .599. Meanwhile, light-hitting and homegrown second baseman Darwin Barney is coming off a gold glove performance, and a moderate increase in his offensive prowess would go a long way to increasing his value even more. From the mound, Jeff Samardzija was very impressive in his transition from a reliever to a full-time starter, and has been named the Cubs’ opening day starter and is the de facto ace. After a 4.71 ERA in the first half of the season – due in large part to a 10.41 ERA in June – Samardzija excelled with a 2.58 mark down the stretch in the second half of the season.
Iowa Cubs – At least to start the season, Iowa is very much a team of “misfits”, or prospects with potential that they may never harness. Right-handeder Trey McNutt is a prime example, for a pitcher who was once one of the franchise’s top up-and-coming prospects is now a mere relief prospect. Brett Jackson was considered the top prospect for the team just a year ago, but strikeout problems have caused many to doubt the young outfielder who struggled in Chicago after being called up in August. A recent injury may keep Jackson from starting the season on the roster, but he will most certainly be to Iowa that he reports when healthy. Josh Vitters, the Cubs’ first round pick in 2007, third overall, has fallen off the radar of many, especially after struggling in a major league callup, despite a strong showing in Iowa. The consensus is that Vitters will be able to hit in the majors, but without a defensive position he can play strongly and doubts about his power – though he did hit nineteen homers combined between Iowa and Chicago last season – Vitters has become a fringe prospect. Junior Lake – after he returns from his spring training injury – also looks to reemerge as a prospect. Lake has always had pretty significant potential, but has never been able to harness it consistently. However, hopes are rising for the young infielder after strong showings in both the Dominican Professional Baseball League over the off-season and in spring training. Logan Watkins also brings a nice skill-set to the table for an Iowa team that has been refurbished with talent after losing Rizzo, Jackson, and Vitters to Chicago by the end of last season. All of the aforementioned prospects are prime candidates to be called up this year. McNutt could fill a bullpen role down the stretch, while a strong performance from Brett Jackson and his revamped swing in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League could correspond with claiming an outfield spot after an incumbent starter is traded. Vitters and Lake could each grab the starting job at third base from Luis Valbuena, and Watkins could get time at second base in the case of an injury to either Barney or Castro. Also expected to join Iowa at some point is Arodys Vizcaino, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in an official game since 2011 and will report to Extended Spring Training after not pitching at all yet this spring. Vizcaino, if all goes well, could also be a likely September call-up and could crack the major league rotation in 2014.
Tennessee Smokies – The Smokies will host many of the organization’s better known pitching prospects in 2013, including Dae-Eun Rhee, Robert Whitenack, Tony Zych, Kevin Rhoderick, Austin Kirk, Eric Jokisch, Zach Rosscup, Yeiper Castillo, and Barret Loux. However, the Smokies, like the rest of the organization, are lacking in impact pitching. The team’s positional stars are Matthew Szczur and Christian Villanueva – former top hundred prospects who have fallen from grace – as well as Cuban import Rubi Silva and Korean outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha. Szczur, a defense-oriented center fielder was once part of Jim Hendry’s vision for a future outfield also consisting of Brett Jackson and Tyler Colvin, who was recently optioned back to AAA by the Colorado Rockies. Now, Colvin is no longer in the organization, Jackson is questionable to ever be a major league starter and Szczur may have trouble ever claiming a bench spot. Szczur still does have potential, but after leaving football to focus on baseball, his development has not progressed as quickly as the Cubs may have liked. Villanueva, acquired from Texas in the Ryan Dempster trade, is a defense-first third baseman with a little bit of pop. Neither is a sure-thing major league starter, but both are still definitely worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.
Daytona Cubs – Daytona is the team that figures to leave Cubs fans drooling over the future, with two of the Cubs top prospects moving up after dominating the Midwest League last year with the Peoria Chiefs. Both of these slugging youngsters, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, were acquired within the past season and a half. Baez was the final first round pick of the Jim Hendry era, while Soler was the prized Cuban free agent outfielder the Cubs acquired after just missing out on Yoenis Cespedes, already an all-star with Oakland. Baez emerged as one of the very best prospects in the game last season, despite a stay at Extended Spring Training to begin the year, and Soler impressed in about a half season’s worth of action. It would be interesting to see if Baez switches positions this season or if the Cubs will hold off until next season, as the shortstop is blocked at the position by the incumbent Starlin Castro. Beyond the two major starts of the team that sit atop the Cubs’ farm system, Daytona also possesses some nice positional prospects such as Arismendy Alcanatara and Ronald Torreyes who played up the middle last season (it will be interesting to see how playing time at shortstop is divided between Baez and Alcantara or if Baez will assume a role at third base), outfielders Nelson Perez, John Andreoli, Anthony Giansanti, and Evan Crawford, and catchers Rafael Lopez and Micah Gibbs. Depending on how quickly Baez and Soler progress as opposed to Albert Almora of Kane County, it is possible that we could see all of the Cubs’ top three prospects together for at least a brief period of time this season in Daytona. Stephen Bruno, previously expected in Kane County, has jumped straight from Boise to Daytona to start the year in 2013.
Kane County Cougars – The Cougars replaced the rival Peoria Chiefs as the Cubs’ low-A affiliate for the 2013 season and have inherited a nice foundation of talent from Peoria and short-season A Boise Hawks. The biggest star prospect for Kane County, located in nearby Geneva, Illinois, is 2012 first-round draft pick Albert Almora, who will unfortunately be out until May with an injury that occurred this spring that required minor surgery to remove his hamate. Even without Almora, the team is reeking with talent. Right-handeder Pierce Johnson, one of the Cubs’ two supplemental first-round draft picks in 2012, though not shown on the Cougars’ roster, is most likely to head the Kane County rotation. Off-season international signing Yao-Lin Wang, 2012 Cuban import Gerardo Concepcion (who had a disastrous season after suffering from mono), Ben Wells, Jeffry Antigua, Jose Rosario, and Michael Jensen also figure into the pitching mix. Catching figures to be a strength with three competent catchers on the roster in Sergio Burruel, Yaniel Cabezas, and Chadd Krist. Dan Vogelbach, Jeimer Candelario, Marco Hernandez, and Gioskar Amaya, all figure to be make the roster as well after spending last season in Short-season A Boise. Vogelbach and Candelario have been cited as potential top hundred candidates, with Vogelbach exhibiting great power, although most likely a DH long-term, and Candelario having a nice all-around game with significant potential. Vogelbach was drafted with the Cubs’ second pick in the 2012 draft, after only Javier Baez, and Candelario jumped stateside after garnering attention when playing for the Cubs’ second Dominican squad.
Boise Hawks – A short-season squad, Boise will not begin their season until June 14th at the Eugene Emeralds, but opening day for the rest of the organization above them will be a big day for the Hawks too, as they unveil new logos and uniforms on Monday. Given that the Cubs have the second overall pick and that the deadline changes from the new Collective Bargaining Agreement give more time for draftees to play in their first season, it is likely that whoever the Cubs do select will see time with Boise this season as well.
AZL Cubs – The Cubs’ rookie-level team in Mesa will be composed mostly of players from the draft, and will open up their season at home on June 20th to begin their last season at Fitch before probably moving into the Cubs new spring training field.
DSL Cubs – The Dominican Summer League usually starts in early June, though no schedule has been released yet. The Cubs’ Dominican squad should be more stacked than in recent years since they are fielding only one team as opposed to two in years prior. The team may move into the Cubs’ new Dominican facility this season depending on when it is completed.
VSL Cubs – The Cubs entered the Venezuelan Summer League in time for the 2013 season, though MiLB.com still lists both Dominican squads and not the Venezuelan one as the foreign summer leagues usually don’t reveal too much ahead of time. The VSL is a five-team league (though their have been rumors of the Orioles entering a squad as the sixth team). Reports out of Venezuela have suggested that the VSL Cubs will feature many players from the Liga Paralela squad Caimanes from 2012. Though most Liga Paralela teams have loose affiliations, it seems as if the Caimanes were just a test team for the Cubs that didn’t use their name, as many Cubs prospects, even Josh Vitters, spent some time with them this off-season, and no team in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League shares that name.