Chicago Cubs: Jorge Soler
Cubs fans must be wondering when that magic is going to start to take place at Wrigley Field.
It's a valid question, and it's become obvious the fan base is split on this issue. Some believe better days are around the corner, while others simply answer that question with "never." If you don't believe better days are ahead for the Cubs then you aren't paying attention or you're just paying attention to their win/loss record. Or maybe you're worried about the managerial search, which hasn't produced any big-name candidates.
I just returned from watching Cubs prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and what I saw in Arizona is more important than whoever they hire to manage.
I saw two prospects, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, who most baseball observers believe are special. And yes, it's only fall baseball, but would you rather have Cubs prospects prospering wherever they're playing or struggling? Anyway, analyzing two players is too small-picture right now.
You may disagree with their entire rebuilding strategy -- that's another argument -- but if you're on board then you should be very pleased with 2013. Forget the record 50 home losses. Forget the putrid play for long stretches. Forget the record number of players they used on their roster for the second consecutive season. It's all by design.
MESA, Ariz. -- It's as if Cubs prospect Jorge Soler keeps having to start his career over again. Just as he was getting needed at-bats in the Arizona Fall League -- after missing so much time in 2013 -- Soler had to leave the Mesa Solar Sox for "residency" issues. Soler, a Cuban defector, will be back at the end of the week, so there's plenty of time to find his groove again. But according to a consensus of scouts watching fall ball, he has work to do.
"He's kind of raw for me," one scout said. "His bat speed isn't there."
"He's getting into baseball shape," Cubs Triple-A hitting coach Brian Harper said. "He wasn't running as he normally does. He was a little tentative. Now he's starting to run better and feels better."
Harper is one of the coaches for the Mesa Solar Sox, where Soler is hitting .229 with nine strikeouts and zero walks. His plate discipline was a plus during spring training this past February and March, so he needs to find that again. Harper understands what the scouts are seeing right now.
"I've spent time with him the last couple of weeks," Harper said. "He's a good kid who works hard and loves the game. At times when he doesn't do well, he feels a little embarrassed, and his body language might portray some of the things they are saying. That's not him at all."
Soler had a rocky year at Class A Daytona. Days into the 2013 season, he was suspended five games for charging the opposing dugout with a bat after being upset at personal comments directed his way. Not long after his return, he was benched for not hustling. Then his season ended in June because of a stress fracture in his left foot, but he put up some decent numbers with a .281 batting average and eight home runs in 210 at-bats.
After finally getting healthy for the fall league -- he leads the team in at-bats -- he has left for several days. It has been stop and start all year, and that has affected him.
"He's not the player I saw in spring training," one scout said. "I know he was hurt, but he just looks different."
The Arizona Fall League attracts many scouts, as teams send their top prospects for six more weeks of baseball. And while the consensus has been positive for other Cubs prospects such as Albert Almora and Kris Bryant, Soler has left question marks in the minds of the scouts. Those three, along with Javier Baez, are the main cornerstones in the system for the Cubs' rebuilding plan. Soler has had the roughest go of the four. Harper chalks it up to the lack of playing time.
"We need to get him as many at-bats as we can," he said. "He'll get it back."
But first he has to come back. And start over again.
Playing for the Mesa Solar Sox on just the league’s second day of games, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Wes Darvill and Kris Bryant combined for eight hits, three home runs and 11 RBIs in a 13-3 victory over the Glendale Dogs.
Almora had four hits, including a lead-off home run. Bryant also had a first-inning home run, while Darvill went deep in the eighth after taking over at third base for Bryant.
Bryant was a first-round pick in the June draft, while Almora was the Cubs' top pick in 2012. Soler was signed after defecting from Cuba in 2012, and Darvill was a fifth-round pick in 2009.
None of those Cubs are even the team’s top prospect. Shortstop Javier Baez was scheduled to play in the Fall League but opted out, citing exhaustion after his minor league season saw him dominate Single-A and Double-A.
Soler and Almora are getting their first game action after ending their seasons injured. Bryant led all college players with 31 home runs last year, while Darvill took Baez’s place on the fall roster. None of the prospects is on pace to make the Cubs out of spring training in 2014, but several could make it to the big leagues before the season is over.
After all, that's where some of the Cubs' future will be playing for the next six weeks and the new skipper might want to take a look at a few players who will help decide his future success as manager.
Soler, coming off an injury that ended his minor league season prematurely, went 1 for 6, batting third in the lineup. Bryant picked up where he left off in his first few months as a professional, going 3 for 6 with two RBIs. Outfielder Albert Almora didn't get in the game but pitcher Matt Loosen did, giving up two runs in two innings. Lendy Castillo gave up three in his inning of work while Armando Rivera struck out the side pitching the eighth inning.
The timetable for the pitchers to climb the minor league ladder and make it to the major leagues is much fuzzier than the hitters. First-round picks Almora and Bryant along with $30 million man Soler are on a path that could get them to Wrigley Field within the next season or two. Phenom Javier Baez chose not to play in the Fall League after a monster minor league season but should be the first to be called up if his Triple-A season goes well in 2014.
The best case scenario has Baez in Chicago mid-season with Soler and Bryant possible September call-ups. Almora needs at least another full year before even being considered. But those are the best-case scenarios. Soler missed much of 2013 with injuries and needs as much playing time as he can get.
Bryant, on the other hand, might be fast-tracked. The moment he put on a Cubs uniform -- after being drafted second overall in June -- he started to hit. Bryant went from working in Mesa to games with the Boise Hawks and then to Daytona, helping the Cubs' Single-A affiliate to a minor league championship. The Cubs will be careful with him but Bryant has already proven to be a hot prospect after turning in the best year at the plate of any collegian last spring.
Like Soler, Almora can use the extra at-bats as well due to an injury-plagued 2013 campaign so the Fall League will allow those Cubs hitters to make up for some lost time. It will also give Cubs brass a chance to see them up close without the distraction of the major league season going on.
Even without Baez in Arizona, the Cubs have some of their top names there trying to take the next steps of their careers even if they don't know who their manager will be. That should be resolved shortly as the Cubs prepare for Girardi's decision.
In the meantime, the business of getting better one player at a time resumes in Arizona with the Cubs patiently awaiting the arrival of their elite talent.
Vitters was drafted No. 3 overall in 2007 as a third baseman, but his progress has been slowed by injuries and ineffectiveness.
"He's going to come to spring training ready to re-establish himself," Epstein said.
The Cubs drafted and traded for two third-base prospects this summer, forcing a move to the outfield for Vitters. He was a minor league call-up last season but struggled to a .121 batting average and .193 on-base percentage in 109 plate appearances. He had a leg injury in spring training this season, putting him behind. He had back and rib problems as well.
"He has a program in place that we've signed off on that does not include winter ball," Epstein said. "It involves making himself a more complete baseball player. Working on the mental side of the game. He's really excited about it."
Epstein wasn't as certain about another first-round pick, Brett Jackson. He also was slowed by injuries and struggled during his time in the majors last season. This year he was demoted to Double-A.
"Still to be determined," Epstein said of Jackson's immediate future. "He may end up taking the same path."
Epstein said injured prospects Jorge Soler (foot) and Albert Almora (groin) are on pace to be healthy for the start of the Arizona Fall League.
Of course, it was just a decade ago that names like Mark Prior, Angel Guzman and Juan Cruz littered top-100 lists. But as the saying goes, there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, so it's likely a good thing the current Cubs system is heavy in high-ceiling offensive talent. They don't possess an elite, Archie Bradley-like arm, but through bulk-drafting and some shrewd trades, the Cubs have put together a solid group of pitchers, many of whom project as solid mid-rotation candidates or slightly better.
The fact is, if the topic of the Cubs system is brought up in front of opposing talent evaluators, one will quite often find oneself in a long conversation. Long gone are the days of people wondering who, beyond one or two players, has any real future impact in the Cubs system. In fact, Brett Jackson, who not so long ago sat atop the Cubs' prospect rankings, would find himself among the back half of a Cubs top 10, even if he were still at his peak prospect value.
A few things to remember here: 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.
Javier BaezPosition: SS Age: 20 Highest level in 2013: Double-A Tennessee
It's not often that broaching the topic of what a prospect could do at the major league level if everything goes right leads scouts to giggle with excitement, but that's what Baez's bat does to people. After struggling early at High-A Daytona, Baez quickly turned things around and forced a promotion by posting an .873 OPS with 17 home runs in 76 games in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (FSL), then went on to terrorize opposing team's pitchers at Tennessee.
In 54 games at Double-A, Baez's elite bat speed continued to wow scouts, while delivering numbers to do the same. With a .294/.346/.638 line and 20 home runs and 15 doubles, it's clear why many believe Baez will be ready to send fastballs over the ivy at Wrigley Field at some point in 2014.
That's not to say that Baez is without his warts. Baez struck out 147 times with only 40 walks and committed 44 errors at two levels this season. Baez is an aggressive player who believes he can hit any pitch when he's at the plate and make any play while on defense. The defensive issues have nothing to do with fundamentals, but reining in his at times out-of-control play would do a lot in helping him reduce the errors.
As far as his aggressiveness at the plate, Baez has definitely taken some strides in 2013. The slider breaking low and away from him was quite often a bugaboo, but he's learning to stay away from the offering, forcing pitchers to come back over the plate and often making them pay for that decision. Baez also had numerous games in August in which he'd see 25 or more pitches in only four or five at-bats. Not only does seeing so many pitches wear down the opposition with a rising pitch count, but it increases the likelihood that Baez will see a pitch more to his liking. When that happens, good things usually follow.
Early in his career, there were questions about Baez's makeup, but those have quickly faded away and proven to be a non-issue. When watching Baez play, effort is never a question. In fact it's his intensity that sometimes gets the best of him.
What we saw from Baez this season was a big step forward. He still has work to do before the questions subside, but Baez has passed the biggest test a player will face at the minor league level by having a monster season at Double-A. Now it's just a matter of time before he has the opportunity to show what he can do at the big-league level.
Shortstop Javier Baez (2011), centerfielder Albert Almora (2012) and third baseman Kris Bryant (2013) will join Soler and four pitchers to play for the Mesa Solar Sox in October. The pitchers are current Double-A prospects Dallas Beeler, Matt Loosen, Armando Rivero and the injured Arodys Vizcaino.
Almora has been designated a taxi-squad member and is only available to play on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Baez is ranked as the Cubs' top prospect and is finishing a huge season at Single-A and Double-A with a combined 35 home runs. Almora has battled injuries but is hitting .329 at Single-A Kane County, and Bryant has started his professional career on fire after being drafted in June. He's batting .368 with three home runs in 10 games for High-A ball in Daytona after hitting .354 for Boise in his pro debut.
Soler, who signed a nine-year, $30 million contract in 2012, has also battled injuries, but showed promise before being shut down this season with a stress fracture in his left leg. He was hitting .281 with eight home runs for Daytona.
The Arizona Fall League consists of six teams made up of prospects from all major league squads. They will play in five Cactus League stadiums, six days a week starting on Oct. 8. It will mark the first time the Cubs' top four prospects (Baez, Almora, Soler, Vizcaino, according to Baseball America) as well as Bryant (not rated yet) could be on the field at the same time on the same team.
The 21-year-old Cuban outfielder had been wearing a protective boot since the diagnosis. He hasn’t played for Class A Daytona since June 13. Epstein said at the time that Soler fouled a ball off his shin at the end of spring training and the injury escalated as the season went on.
Epstein, who had hoped Soler would return for the final month of the season, said he expects Soler to be ready for the Arizona Fall League season, which begins Oct. 8.
Soler was hitting .281 with eight home runs for Daytona.
Navarro was hurt in a home-plate collision with the Philadelphia Phillies’ Chase Utley on Wednesday. The Cubs called up catcher J.C. Boscan from Triple A Iowa before knowing how long Navarro will be out.
The injury to Navarro has focused attention on the fact the Cubs do not have many prime prospects at catcher in their farm system, something general manager Jed Hoyer acknowledged when speaking with the media before Friday's game.
"It opens some eyes because of the rarity of it," Cubs scouting director Jason McLeod said Wednesday.
Jokisch is part of a group of Cubs prospects that fly under the radar. There are many highly touted names that a few are going to slip through the cracks who people are not talking about. Jokisch, an 11th-round pick out of Northwestern in 2010, might be one of them.
"He is that left-hander that has that three-pitch mix," McLeod said. "Eric fits the bill as a guy who can maximize his ability, and I think you'll see him make some major league starts in the next couple of years."
The less-touted prospects hear the chatter as well. Shortstop Javier Baez joined Double-A Tennessee and Jokisch says he's getting the attention he deserves. But that doesn't mean only the big names are going to make it. Players such as Jokisch, who is 9-10 with a 3.57 ERA this season, know there will be opportunities in the coming years.
It's that combination of talent and makeup that pushed the Cubs to draft Albert Almora with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft. Almora has otherworldly instincts at both the plate and in center field, where many scouts rate him as a top tier defender despite lacking elite speed. Though he doesn't possess that one tool that jumps out upon an initial viewing, there's no doubt that Almora's among the top prospects in all of baseball.
"You come across a player like Albert, and he's not the type of player who just looking at him in uniform, you say, ‘Ok, that's the guy,' " McLeod said. "Obviously he's very fit and toned and all that, but it's not the explosiveness that's very easy to see with him. You watch this kid play the game and you understand his feel for the game, his instincts for the game, he's very talented at the plate, he can hit and hit to all fields. But it's just that innate awareness of the situation, his instincts, especially on defense, that for us is what set Albert apart."
While it became clear to McLeod and the rest of the decision makers that Almora had the talent they were looking for, it was when they met one on one with him that he really won them over. Not only was it plain to see just how passionate Almora is for the game of baseball, but in-home visits with Almora had Cubs officials coming away with glowing reports of him as a person.
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Javier Baez went 4-for-4 with seven RBIs in a 9-6 win over Fort Myers. Though the Cubs lost their game to the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, Baez’ night didn’t escape manager Dale Sveum.
“I heard about it,” Sveum said moments after his team lost 6-2. “Obviously it’s a pretty special night at any level for someone to hit four home runs. That’s what we’re hoping for when it all gets developed and ready to go here.”
Baez had his first career five-hit game Saturday night, collecting three doubles, a home run and six RBIs in the process. Soler also hit a home run Saturday, his eighth on the young season.
“We haven't had those (promotion) conversations yet,” scouting/player development director Jason McLeod said. “Those are conversations with (the front office) where we're constantly talking about their development, but more so we look at a monthly basis. We'll have a look back at how they performed that month, where they are in their player plans. As of right now, there are no discussions on moving either one of them up.”
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.