The Chicago Cubs' minor league system has enjoyed a recent resurgence in the past two years. Going from an afterthought to one of the more talked-about farm systems in the game, credit goes not only to the current front office and senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod, but also to Tim Wilken, who was in charge of a very fruitful 2011 draft and is currently a special assistant to the president and general manager.
With only six weeks of results in, outside of a major injury or a complete degradation of talent, a scouting report on any minor leaguer isn't going to be much different than what it was when the season started. However, it's never too early to check in with some of the more intriguing prospects in the Cubs system and see how things have gone thus far.
A few things to remember when reading this piece: This is not a top-10 list or even a ranking of any sort. It's just a quick glimpse at some players who range from superstar potential to role player. Trying to judge a minor league player on his statistics is a highly imperfect way of analyzing prospects. Minor league stats never tell the whole story. That's why, as always, much of the information provided here is gathered from discussions with scouts and front office members from around the league.
All statistics are updated through Sunday's games.
Position: SS Age: 20 Current level: High-A Daytona
Baez came into the season as arguably the Cubs' top prospect and among the 25 best prospects in all of the minors. When it comes to power, Baez is near the top, with only Twins prospect Miguel Sano clearly ahead of him on the list. Scouts have also begun to come around on Baez's defense at short. Despite the fact that Baez has 19 errors early on this season, the number of people who believe he can stick at the position in the big leagues continues to grow. There are those who feel that when it's all said and done, he'll be a better option at the position than current Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro.
However, Baez doesn't come without his issues. While a very exciting prospect, it's his aggressive, almost out-of-control style of play that is a concern. This is currently being displayed with his .256/.293/.475 line and most glaringly his 46 strikeouts and only seven walks in 174 plate appearances.
Baez has to learn how to slow the game down and develop an approach. Right now, the book on him is that a pitcher doesn't have to throw him a strike to get him out. To reach his potential, Baez must make adjustments, and the fact is that that process may take some time. The Cubs have the luxury of being able to be patient with Baez since they're not competing, and they already have an All Star-caliber player manning short on the big league roster.
The fact that Baez's early struggles were not unexpected, at 20 he's still young for the league and the Florida State League is known to be pitcher-friendly all make Baez's problems at the plate a little easier to swallow. As one AL scouting director said prior to the season, "It's OK if we see him putting up bad numbers at Daytona -- it's all part of the process." Baez's disappointing start isn't something to get riled up about, but how he reacts and adjusts to these issues in the coming months will tell us a lot about his future.
Position: RF Age: 21 Current level: High-A Daytona
A pair of recent events has brought some negative press Soler's way. Soler charged an opposing team's dugout while wielding a bat and later was benched for a game by his manager for a perceived lack of hustle. The former obviously raised some eyebrows, while the latter incident seems to be something that garnered more attention than necessary due to Soler's fame. But by all accounts, Soler is a mild-mannered, quiet kid, and there are no lingering concerns about long-term issues with anger management or hustle.
Outside of those two occurrences, Soler has been very productive at the plate, putting up a .296/.366/.528 line on the season, and he was recently named FSL player of the week. Soler has a patient approach at the plate and a rare combination of big, raw power with a quick, short swing. He profiles as the prototypical corner outfielder who slots into the heart of a strong lineup.
A hulk of a player at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Soler runs better than one would think for his size. Due to his athleticism, scouts are optimistic he'll age well, as opposed to most big-bodied players who break down early due to their size.
While Baez was considered the better prospect coming into the season, Soler is actually much closer to Baez than many had assumed. On top of that, Soler's game requires less of a maturity breakthrough to reach his potential than Baez's does.
Position: CF Age: 19 Current level: Extended spring training
Almora is recovering from a broken hamate bone and is rehabbing at extended spring training in Mesa, Ariz. He is expected to be added to the Low-A Kane County active roster in the near future.
When discussing Almora with people in the game, the first thing that comes up is his makeup. People are so effusive in their praise of his maturity and leadership skills at such a young age, that it often takes a while to get to his actual on-field ability. But once they do, that's when another word is repeated over and over: instincts.
One NL scouting director said Almora was the most instinctual defensive amateur he'd ever scouted. Almora doesn't have the raw foot speed one would expect from a top center field defender (he's a 60 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale). But he has 70 range in center field due to his "other worldly" breaks on the ball.
Those instincts also translate to the offensive side of the ball where Almora's approach is very advanced for his age. He is able to square the ball up very well, which will allow him to hit for a little more power than one would expect from a hitter with his average raw power.
While Soler and Baez have higher ceilings, Almora is the best bet of the three to reach the majors and have prolonged success at the highest level. Pairing him with Anthony Rizzo in the clubhouse could give the Cubs two All Star-caliber players who have the innate ability to be leaders as well.
Position: SP Age: 22 Current level: Low-A Kane County
Johnson was a first-round talent entering the 2012 college baseball season, but a forearm issue allowed him to slip into the sandwich round, where the Cubs quickly snatched him up. Outside of Mark Appel (who was drafted seventh overall last year, but failed to reach an agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates), Johnson's curveball was arguably the best breaking ball in the 2012 draft. An athlete with an easy throwing action, Johnson has good life on his fastball, which regularly touches 96.
As with many young pitching prospects, Johnson needs to work on his command, but reports are that he's already coming along in that department. With an average changeup that's still a work in progress, Johnson has enough pitches to develop into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues. The Cubs' lack of depth in their system in the pitching department makes Johnson's continued progress crucial to their success.
In eight starts with the Kane County Cougars, Johnson has been solid, striking out 45 and walking 12 in 40 2/3 innings. His most recent start was his best, as he tossed six shutout innings, striking out nine and walking only one. At 22, Johnson is a little old for his level; a promotion to High-A Daytona shouldn't be too far off.
Position: 1B Age: 20 Current level: Low-A Kane County
As with Soler, the first thing everyone notices about Vogelbach is his size. Unfortunately, in Vogelbach's case, it's not in a complimentary fashion.
At 6 feet and 250 pounds, the focus is often on Vogelbach's weight. But the fact is, the former high school basketball and football player is an underrated athlete and is lighter on his feet than people realize. That doesn't mean he's going to be winning Gold Gloves with his performance at first base, and while he ideally profiles as a designated hitter, there is a non-zero chance that Vogelbach can play an adequate first base at the big league level. It will take work and discipline to maintain his already large body, but those who know him say work ethic is the last thing that is of concern when it comes to him.
Referred to as "Vogel-bomb" due to his thunderous raw power, Vogelbach has made his name on the offensive side of the ball. Not only does he possess elite-level power, he has a very mature bat and approach at the plate. Vogelbach has the ability to use the whole field and sees a lot of pitches. It's everything an organization like the Cubs has recently started preaching to all their prospects: Wait for your pitch and be selectively aggressive. Vogelbach never needed to be taught these things -- it's an ability that came naturally.
Position: SP Age: 18 Current level: Extended spring training
Another one of the pitchers the Cubs snagged in the 2012 draft, Underwood is a roll-of-the-dice arm. The powerful righty has huge arm strength but has inconsistent mechanics -- especially his lower half -- from outing to outing and at times even inning to inning.
However, Underwood may be one of the highest upside arms in the Cubs system. Along with his fastball, Underwood flashes a plus curveball and changeup, but lacks consistency on both pitches. He has all sorts of athleticism and a huge arm; now it's time for him to learn to pitch with it.
That's where minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson comes in. The highly respected former Vanderbilt pitching coach was hired over the offseason to help oversee the development of the Cubs' minor league arms. As one rival NL scout said, Johnson may have been the current Cubs front office's most important acquisition as his ability to help develop young, raw arms is unequaled.
Having been a coach in the past, Johnson is in a completely different position as a coordinator and is still getting accustomed to his new role. Johnson is working with many arms in the Cubs system, from pitchers at Triple-A all the way down to the Dominican Summer League, so it's not as if he is solely focused on Underwood. However, Johnson was brought in specifically to help develop and maximize high-ceiling pitching talent like Underwood.
Position: 2B Age: 23 Current level: Triple-A Iowa
Watkins isn't an impact player by any stretch of the word, but it's easy to see him getting to the big leagues and sticking around for a while. He is capable of playing four positions -- second base, third base, shortstop and center field -- and has an innate ability to get on base.
What Watkins lacks in power, he makes up for with his versatility on defense, athleticism and strong baserunning skills. Watkins has always displayed strong on-base skills, with a career .372 OBP through multiple levels in the minors. Even while he's presently struggling with the bat, hitting .223 at Triple-A through 39 games, he's still delivered a strong .365 OBP, driven by his highly impressive 17.1 percent walk rate.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum has an affinity for players who are able to play multiple positions on defense, which could make Watkins an attractive choice for a call-up later this season if a spot for him on the team opens up. If he can find a little more consistency with the bat, Watkins' high OBP and baserunning ability could fit nicely at the top of the Cubs' order.