Originally written on World Series Dreaming  |  Last updated 10/16/14
With the first game of the spring, a five-inning intra-squad match, on Thursday, it is time to release the second annual WSD Top 13 Prospects List, coupled with a review of the top of last year’s list and a look at a few of the league Top 100 lists that have been released. Quick Look Back – 2012 Top Three Prospects #1 – Center Fielder – Brett Jackson – Jackson came into the season as a young, athletic outfielder with renowned plate discipline, and happened to be among the top prospects in the game.  Unfortunately, despite the ability to take a walk, Jackson fell off significantly this year and struggled mightily with strikeouts.  Jackson has developed a new swing for this season, but only time will tell if this new development will work out for him better than the one that got him all the way to the majors. #2 – First Baseman – Anthony Rizzo – Rizzo came into the season having lost just a little bit of stock following a dismal performance in the majors with San Diego.  However, the young slugger dominated his way through the Pacific Coast League again and claimed a starting spot in the Cubs’ lineup by the end of June, a status he wouldn’t relinquish. #3 – Shortstop – Javier Baez – Baez was surprisingly sent to extended spring training instead of full-season ball to start the season, causing concern among several fans, but when he did get to A-level Peoria, he absolutely dominated and was named the top prospect in the Midwest League by Baseball America.  Now ranked as one of the best prospects in baseball, Baez looks to keep up the pace against Advanced-A pitching after an impressive, but brief, performance in the Arizona Fall League. Cubs Ranked in 2013 Top 100 Lists Baseball America (Jim Callis) – Javier Baez (#16), Albert Almora (#33), Jorge Soler (#34), Arodys Vizcaino (#83). Baseball Prospectus – Yet to be released, though they surprisingly ranked Albert Almora #1 in the Cubs’ system, ahead of Javier Baez. ESPN (Keith Law) – Javier Baez (#31), Albert Almora (#33), Jorge Soler (#42), Arodys Vizcaino (#64), Jeimer Candelario (#106), ranked Cubs as 5th best farm system in baseball. Former Prospectus Writer, Bradley Ankrom – Javier Baez (#17), Albert Almora (#21), Jorge Soler (#29), Dan Vogelbach (#87), Arodys Vizcaino (#88), Jeimer Candelario (#99). MinorLeagueBall (John Sickels) – Yet to be released, ranked Cubs as 11th best farm system in baseball. And Now, The 2013 WSD Top 13 Prospects List Right-handed Pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa was excluded due to age and experience in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.  If he were to be included, he would be ranked at #12 ahead of Arismendy Alcantara and Josh Vitters. #1 – Shortstop – Javier Baez.  Highest 2012 Level: Advanced-A Daytona Cubs.  Age: 20. The first-round pick for the Cubs in 2011, Javier Baez was highly touted right from the get-go, being ranked as the 61st best prospect in baseball in 2012, after playing only six professional games.  After a stint in extended spring training, Baez crushed A-level Midwest League pitching to the tune of a .333/.383/.596 line over fifty-seven games in which he hit twelve homers, earning himself the honor of being named the top prospect in the entire Midwest League.  Baez would struggle in his brief promotion to the Advanced-A Daytona Cubs, due in part to weather-induced sporadic playing time.  While he is in major league camp, Baez will almost certainly begin the season back in Daytona.  Baez will primarily get time at shortstop this season, but has made it clear in recent comments that he’s willing to move to second base or third base if it means getting to the majors.  The willingness to change positions could prove to be very important with two-time all-star Starlin Castro locked in at the position for the forseeable future.  ETA: 2013 #2 – Outfielder – Jorge Soler.  Highest 2012 Level: A-level Peoria Chiefs.  Age: 20. Perhaps the largest splash yet made by the Epstein-Hoyer regime was the signing of outfielder Jorge Soler after his defection from Cuba.  Soler was reported to have been signed – illegally – as early as February, before really signing with the team officially in June to a nine-year major league contract, the longest in team history.  Having not faced live pitching in almost two years, Soler began the season with the Cubs’ Arizona League team, posting a mediocre line of .241/.328/.389 as he adjusted to life in the United States.  It is important to note the small sample size of that stat-line – just fourteen games – as he put up much more impressive numbers in twenty games (again a small sample size) with Peoria.  After the call-up to the Chiefs, Soler went on to hit .338/.398/.513, good enough for a great OPS of .910, though still shy of Baez’s even more mark.  Soler could find himself starting in Daytona in 2013, or could start the year with the Cubs new A-level affiliate, the Kane County Cougars.  ETA:  Late 2014. #3 – Outfielder – Albert Almora.  Highest 2012 Level: Short-season A Boise Hawks.  Age: 18. The Cubs took Almora in the first round of the 2012 draft, impressed by his polish, instincts, and athleticism.  Almora had been known for his ability to draw a walk, yet he walked just twice in thirty-three games combined between Mesa and Boise.  Almora’s make-up and high floor cause many to favor him over the aforementioned Jorge Soler (who has a much higher ceiling but comes with significantly more risk), yet he is not exceptional in any specific tool – which are becoming more and more redundant in the game of baseball.  In his final season with Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, Almora batted .603 with six home runs, twenty-seven steals, and thirty-four RBIs.  Almora is slated to begin 2013 for the A-level Kane County Cougars.  ETA: 2015. #4 – Right-handed Pitcher – Arodys Vizcaino.  Highest 2012 Level: Did Not Play.  Age: 22. Vizcaino was attempting to win a job on the Braves roster last spring when he suffered an injury and required Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his 2012 campaign.  He did make his major league debut with Atlanta in 2011.  The Cubs were able to pry Vizcaino from the Braves in the Paul Maholm trade due to this injury, and with a full recovery expected, Vizcaino could become part of the Cubs’ young developing core, whether it is as a member of the starting rotation or in the back of the bullpen.  Vizcaino figures to begin his 2013 season for the AAA Iowa Cubs, with a mid-season call-up possible.  ETA: 2013. #5 – Outfielder – Brett Jackson.  Highest 2012 Level: MLB Chicago Cubs.  Age: 24. The Cubs made Jackson their first-round draft pick in 2009, and he immediately made the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects List in 2010, checking in at #74, before moving up to #38 and #32 in successive years and then falling off the list completely due to his obvious strikeout problems.  While Jackson’s home run totals increased every year before this past season, his OPS went down each year.  This fall from grace has caused Jackson and Cubs personnel to work on completely restructuring his swing over the off-season, but only time will tell how far it gets him.  For now, his defensive abilities, premium position, and close proximity to the majors keep  him in the top five on this list.  Though he is expected to start the season with AAA Iowa regardless, Jackson has stated that he has “no intentions” of going back to the minors.  ETA: 2013. #6 – First Baseman – Daniel Vogelbach.  Highest 2012 Level: Short-season A Boise Hawks.  Age: 20. Drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, after Javier Baez was taken in the first round, Vogelbach does not have the appearance of your typical athlete.  The young first baseman, who is anything but thin, may be a designated hitter long-term, with no obvious position to play in the majors.  However, off-setting the lack of a position and the poor defense wherever he is placed, Vogelbach has the best power in the Cubs farm system, hitting .322/.410/.641 with seventeen home runs between Mesa and Boise.  His OPS of 1.051 was even higher than that of Baez – albeit, at a lower level – and he has exhibited a great eye at the plate and a very quick swing for someone of his size.  Vogelbach is expected to join a very talented Kane County Cougars team in 2013 that will also feature the likes of Albert Almora, Pierce Johnson, and possibly Jorge Soler.  ETA: 2015. #7 – Third Baseman – Jeimer Candelario.  Highest 2012 Level: Short-season A Boise Hawks.  Age: 19. Jeimer Candelario is somewhat of an enigma, in much the same way as fellow prospect Junior Lake, though Candelario has become the much more highly touted of the two.  Candelario, who came stateside for the first time in his career after playing a season for the Cubs’ now-defunct second Dominican squad, put up a merely decent stat-line in Boise of .281/.345/.396, good for an OPS of just .741.  However, scouts rave about his talent, and Keith Law went as far as to put him into consideration for the Top 100 list.  One must also keep in mind that he did have to go through an adjustment phase to the culture of the United States, and made his state-side debut at a higher level than the more typical Arizona or Gulf Coast League teams.  He has the ability to remain at third base long term, and scouts believe that he will develop the ability to hit for more power and a higher average, though he comes with a significant amount of risk.  Candelario is another prospect who figures to begin the year in Kane County.  ETA: 2016. #8 – Right-handed Pitcher – Pierce Johnson.  Highest 2012 Level: Short-season A Boise Hawks.  Age: 21. Johnson by-passed his first opportunity to go professional when he attended Missouri State instead of signing with the Tampa Bay Rays after being selected in the fifteenth round.  The move appears to have paid off, as the Cubs drafted him in the supplemental first round, giving Johnson a much heftier signing bonus.  As with all 2012 draftees, Johnson’s ranking involves significantly more speculation, and much less statistical success, for the sample size is too small, and the level of competition is too low, to determine much about the player.  Johnson pitched three scoreless innings with Mesa, and then proceeded to surrender five runs – four earned – in eight innings with Boise.  With only eleven innings pitched in his professional career, it is way too early to hype up Johnson, though he has top-of-the-rotation potential.  Johnson too seems destined for Kane County, which is the newest prospect hotbed that Iowa was at the beginning of last year when it featured Rizzo, Jackson, and Vitters.  ETA: 2015-2016. #9 – Third Baseman – Christian Villanueva.  Highest 2012 Level: Advanced-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans and Daytona Cubs.  Age: 21. On July 23, 2012, the Cubs acquired Right-handed Pitcher Randall Delgado from the Atlanta Braves, who immediately became the Cubs’ new top pitching prospect – only they didn’t.  The trade fell through after a leak from a Braves source, and Dempster chose not to approve the deal.  Instead, the Cubs acquired the young third baseman Christian Villanueva from Texas, who had been named the hundredth best prospect in baseball by Baseball America before the season.  The second or third highest ranked third baseman on this list (dependent upon where one believes Baez will play long-term), Villanueva is defense-oriented, though he has put up solid offensive numbers throughout the minors as well, with a career minor league OPS of .789, which happens to be identical to the number he posted with Daytona.  Overall, between the Texas and Chicago organizations, Villanueva hit to a .279/.353/.427 line with fourteen home runs.  Villanueva, while certainly not the best of prospects, fits the mold of the new Cubs management regime rather nicely: he can play defense, and he can draw a walk.  With Daytona, Villanueva’s .337 OBP was eighty-seven points higher than his batting average, an impressive statistic despite the fact that his average was only .250.  Villanueva, after a full season of Advanced-A ball, should start 2013 with AA Tennessee, and could be the top prospect to watch on the outset the Smoky Mountains. #10 – Right-handed Pitcher – Juan Carlos Paniagua.  Highest 2012 Level: Rookie-level AZL Cubs.  Age: 22. At age twenty-two, Paniagua was definitely old for the Arizona League, but playing at such a low level should not be taken as an indicator of Paniagua’s potential.  In many ways a “trouble prospect”, Paniagua had experience in the Dominican Summer League in 2009 and 2010 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, in which he had limited success in an even more limited sample size.  Major League Baseball would put an end to his stint in the Diamondbacks organization by voiding his contract due to false documentation.  Paniagua would later sign with the New York Yankees, and the league then proceeded to void his contract again for the same reason before he even threw a pitch in the organization.  The Cubs signed Paniagua in 2012, and he pitched 3.2 innings in Arizona after not having appeared in a minor league game since the 2010 stint with the Diamonbacks.  Paniagua has the potential to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm, or a shut-down closer, but he does come with obvious risks.  Due to his age, the Cubs may choose to have Paniagua skip short-season A Boise and join the prospect-laden squad in Kane County to start 2013.  ETA: 2015. #11 – Right-handed Pitcher – Duane Underwood.  Highest 2012 Level: Rookie-level AZL Cubs.  Age: 18. Drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2012 draft, Underwood appeared in just five games last year in the Arizona League, accumulating only 8.2 innings.  Underwood has significant upside, and has already developed a fine arsenal of pitches, featuring a mid-90′s fast ball with nice movement that he commands well, a decent change-up, and two different breaking balls.  Given the very limited time in the Arizona League last year, the Cubs may be more inclined to send Underwood to short-season A Boise of the Northwest League, rather than Kane County.  ETA: 2016. #12 – Shortstop – Arismendy Alcantara.  Highest 2012 Level: Advanced-A Daytona Cubs.  Age: 21. Toolsy shortstop Arismendy Alcantara had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012, hitting .302/.339/.447 in Daytona, good enough for a .786 OPS, up from a dismal .655 mark posted in Peoria just one year prior.  The Dominican-born shortstop plays good defense and had a nice year at the plate in 2012, but also has never played more than one hundred games in any minor league season.  The aforementioned batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS were all career highs for Alcantara, while his on-base percentage was second only to his 2009 performance in the Dominican Summer League against mostly talent that doesn’t make it state-side mixed with future stars.  With Junior Lake set to move off of shortstop, and coming from a position of depth, the Cubs could challenge Alcantara with a promotion to AA Tennessee, despite only having played eighty-five games with Daytona.  ETA: 2014-2015. #13 – Third Baseman – Josh Vitters.  Highest 2012 Level: MLB Chicago Cubs.  Age: 23. The Cubs had great hopes for Vitters when they drafted him third overall in the 2007 draft out of high school, but Vitters has never quite lived up the the expectations that perhaps were not fair to hold him accountable for.  After playing fourteen games in 2007, Vitters got his first taste of full-season ball in 2008, with a brief four-game stint in Peoria.  Between Boise and Peoria that season, Vitters hit .322/.357/.495, but his stat-line would get worse in each season to follow until some improvement was shown in the second half of the 2011 season with Tennessee.  Having fallen almost completely off the radar, Vitters tried to prove himself again in 2012, and had some pretty nice success with AAA Iowa, hitting .304/.356/.513 with seventeen home runs in 110 games.  Though the Pacific Coast League is a very hitter friendly league, his numbers at the level are still quite impressive given his young age for the level (22 last season). Vitters also showed some improvement on defense, though it is still far from being good, but for all of his improvements and successes with Iowa, he left a bad taste after a borderline disastrous MLB performance in which his OPS was just .395.  Vitters still has some of the potential he once showed, and it is mostly a matter of whether he will ever harness it, for which most have their doubts.  Slated to start 2013 back in AAA Iowa, Vitters will have to fight his way back to majors after the “planned struggle” call-up last season.  ETA: 2013.   The Cubs 2013 Top 13 Prospects List features eight new faces from last season after the graduation of Anthony Rizzo, the influx of new talent, and, in some cases, the failure to advance as prospects.  Seven prospects on the list were acquired through the amateur draft, while two were acquired via trade and four were acquired as international free agents.  This Cubs farm system is significantly better than the one that existed at this point last year, as the first year under Epstein and Hoyer (who also brought in last year’s #2 prospect) was a great success, at least on the minor league and player development fronts.  The most exciting team in the system to follow prospect-wise is easily the Kane County Cougars, who are set to feature Almora (#3), Vogelbach (#6), Candelario (#7), and Johnson (#8) to start the season, along with several others who narrowly missed the list and further second-half additions.  The Cubs best position in the farm system is the outfield, as Jorge Soler (#2), Albert Almora (#3), and Brett Jackson (#5) sit atop the farm system.
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