The CCO’s Top 20 Cubs Prospects for 2013

The CCO’s off-season look at the Cubs’ farm system concludes with our list of the top 20 prospects in the Cubs’ organization.

The Cubs system as a whole is coming off a good year, the first under the new regime. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and Tim Wilken were able to add projectable talent to a system that was seen as being below average just over a year ago. While the system made improvements, the upcoming season will truly determine how much the Cubs’ organization has improved.

Each of the top five prospects in the system will either be playing their first full year in pro ball or recovering from injury that erased an entire season. While the oraganization made positive steps forward and depth was added, a majority of the top players will play in A-ball and the upcoming season will be a big one for many of the players and the organization as a whole.

Javier Baez tops our list of the top players in the Cubs’ system followed by Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach and Arodys Vizcaino. This year we added a best tools section to the rankings along with a list of prospects that did not make the top 20 but are among the top players in the Cubs’ system.

The CCO’s Pre-Season Top 20 Cubs Prospects for 2013

(2012 Ranking in Parenthesis, NA – Not Available, NR – Not Ranked)

  1. Javier Baez, SS (9)
  2. Jorge Soler, OF (NA)
  3. Albert Almora, OF (NA)
  4. Dan Vogelbach, 1B (15)
  5. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP (NA)
  6. Brett Jackson, OF (1)
  7. Pierce Johnson, RHP (NA)
  8. Christian Villanueva, IF (NA)
  9. Juan Carlos Paniagua, RHP (NA)
  10. Junior Lake, IF/OF (11)
  11. Trey McNutt, RHP (3)
  12. Dillon Maples, RHP (NR)
  13. Duane Underwood, RHP (NA)
  14. Josh Vitters, 3B/1B (5)
  15. Matt Szczur, OF (4)
  16. Barret Loux, RHP (NA)
  17. Tony Zych, RHP (20)
  18. Jae-Hoon Ha, OF (6)
  19. Logan Watkins, IF/OF (NR)
  20. Jeimer Candelario, IF (7)

Click on the player’s name to go to their page on Baseball-Reference

#1 – Javier Baez, SS

All in all, the top prospect in the Cubs system had a good 2012 campaign. Javier Baez began the season in extended spring training after playing only five games of pro ball in 2011. The new regime wanted to work with Baez and his approach to hitting as well as the way he played the game. Baez quickly earned his first pro assignment and skipped over short-season ball and went straight to the Midwest League.

Baez lit up the Midwest League and hit .333/.383/.596 with a .979 OPS in 57 games with the Peoria Chiefs. Baez ripped 10 doubles, five triples and launched 12 home runs. Baez also showed improvement in the field and managers named him the most exciting player in the league. Baez showed why he was a first round draft pick during his short stint with the Chiefs as well as reaffirming the questions about his makeup.

The Cubs promoted Baez to High Class-A Daytona and his aggressive approach at the plate did not pay dividends. Baez managed just a .188/.244/.400 line with a .644 OPS in 23 games and hit three doubles, a triple and four home runs. Baez continued playing shortstop and was inconsistent in the field.

The Cubs sent Baez to play in the Arizona Fall League and the thought at the time was he would be able to make-up the games he missed early in the year when they held him back in extended spring training. Baez suited up for the Mesa Solar Sox for only 14 games before he broke the tip of his left thumb in a celebration with a teammate. Baez hit only .211/.250/.456/.706 with two doubles and four home runs. Baez also moved over and received reps at third base and according to multiple reports, he was less than interested in playing the hot corner.

There is no doubt that the 20-year old has immense talent and special bat speed that has been compared to that of Gary Sheffield. But Baez must figure out a way to become the impact player most feel he can be while honoring and playing the game the right way.

Baez appears to be ticketed for the Daytona Cubs to begin the season and will reportedly remain at shortstop for the foreseeable future. There has been talk that Baez could see time at third base during the upcoming season but the Cubs have liked what they’ve seen from Baez defensively and Jason McLeod recently said that Baez is more advanced defensively than Starlin Castro was at the same age.

Javier Baez will be in big league camp this spring and should remain there as long as possible. Jed Hoyer is on record saying they would like to get as long a look as possible at Baez this spring.

#2 – Jorge Soler, OF

The soon to be 21-year old Jorge Soler stands out among Cubs prospects as the one closest to being the coveted “five tool player”. The buzz on Soler started when he was a member of Cuba’s 2010 World Junior Baseball Championship team. Soler batted .304 with a .500 OBP and a .522 slugging percentage. He then played briefly in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, defecting from Cuba in 2011 and establishing a residence in Haiti while training in the Dominican Republic. He was signed by the Cubs in early July 2012 to a nine year, $30 million contract.

Jorge Soler was then assigned to the AZL Cubs of the rookie league, where he proceeded to hit .241 with two home runs, 10 RBI, eight stolen bases, a .328 OBP and an OPS of .717 in 14 games. Toward the middle of August, he was promoted to Single-A Peoria and his numbers improved with the Chiefs. Soler hit .338/.398/.513/.910 with three homers, 15 RBI and four stolen bases.

At 6-foot-3 and between 200 and 225 pounds, Soler’s game is about power. He has excellent bat speed, hits to all fields, and projects to a 25-plus home run hitter. The right-hander has above average speed that is good enough to allow him to play centerfield, but most agree that he will end up settling in right field. His arm strength is considered superior and a few scouts have rated it the best for an outfielder in the Cubs’ system. Both Jim Callis of Baseball America and Keith Law of ESPN say that Jorge Soler would have been a top five pick if he had been eligible for the draft.

#3 – Albert Almora, OF

The Cubs made Albert Almora their top pick in last June’s draft and Almora did not disappoint once he signed and stepped on the field. Almora was impressive in his first 33 games of pro ball and put together a .321/.331/.464 line with a .795 OPS. Almora made solid contact and ripped 12 doubles, a triple and hit two home runs in 145 plate appearances. Almora’s reputation as a line drive hitter carried into minor league ball and he finished his season with the Boise Hawks. In 15 games at the short-season level, Almora hit .292/.292/.446/.738 with seven doubles and a home run.

Scouts like Almora’s bat speed, natural hitting rhythm and pitch-recognition skills. Almora must work on taking pitches and his overall patience at the plate.

Defensively, Almora is reportedly advanced for his age and has very good instincts in the field. Multiple reports have raved about the jumps he gets on balls, the precise routes he takes and his strong, accurate arm.

Albert Almora has the tools and makeup to be successful at the big league level and appears to be headed to Kane County to begin the season.

#4 – Dan Vogelbach, 1B

Cubs’ fans routinely like to adopt a “mascot” player. Usually, it is some tiny guy who scraps and scratches his way on to a roster. However, it seems that many have come to adopt one who may closer resemble themselves in the beer-keg shaped Dan Vogelbach. But unlike some of the mascots in the past, Vogelbach comes with some serious talent.

Drafted in 2011 in the second round directly out of high school, Dan Vogelbach brought more attention to himself from the weight he lost prior to the draft (reported at the time of around 50 pounds) than his .467 average with 19 home runs and 54 RBI. He also posted a .571/.1.239/1.810 slash line over 34 games while drawing 27 walks and striking out only eight times. After signing with the Cubs, he played six games in the rookie league and hit .292/.370/.542/.912 with a home run and six RBI.

Dan Vogelbach began 2012 in extended spring training to get in better shape and when camp broke he was added to the AZL Cubs roster. He lasted only 24 games and hitting .324 with seven home runs and 31 RBI while posting a .391 OBP and 1.078 OPS. Vogelbach was then promoted to Short-Season Boise and took the Northwest League by storm. Vogelbach drove in 31 runs with ten homers and a .322/.423/.608 slash line. At the end of the season, Vogelbach was named one of the top prospects in the league.

Coming into this season, it has been reported that Dan Vogelbach has gotten into even better shape. While his impressive body mass is the main source of his power, he also has a lightening quick swing that allows him to hit to all fields. He can also move once he gets his body going and belted a combined 21 doubles and three triples last season. Where Vogelbach gets low marks are on defense and he is considered “a work in progress” at first base. While most place Vogelbach at Single-A Kane County to start the season, wherever he ends up in 2013, his power and accessibility will make him a fan favorite.

#5 – Arodys Vizcaino, RHP

Arodys Vizcaino is widely considered the best pitching prospect in the Cubs system … and that speaks volumes on two fronts, Vizcaino’s immense talent and the lack of pitching depth in the Cubs’ system.

The Cubs acquired the Braves’ second best prospect and the 40th best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America last July. The Cubs sent Reed Johnson, Paul Maholm and cash to Atlanta for Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman … and as Jed Hoyer as pointed out, they would not have been able to acquire him if he was healthy.

Arodys Vizcaino spent last season on the DL after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March. And injuries have really derailed the 22-year old right-hander. After the Braves acquired Vizcaino from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez deal in 2009, Vizcaino spent the following season dealing with a partial torn elbow ligament.

Vizcaino was once considered one of the top prospects in the game due to a fastball that sat in the 93-95 mph range and topped out at 97. But that was considered his second-best pitch. Vizcaino throws a sharp curveball that he has had a tendency to fall in love with in the past.

Vizcaino struck out 100 batters with only 28 walks and 82 hits allowed in 97 innings over three stops in the Braves system in 2011.

As for his future role, the Cubs see him as a top of the rotation starter while some think he could end up as a dominate closer … either way it would be a win for the Cubs considering what they gave up to acquire him.

The Cubs are expected to be very cautious with Vizcaino during the upcoming season. He will be on a strict innings limit (around 100 for the entire year) and figures to throw to a familiar face in J.C. Boscan when he is ready to pitch in Iowa. Vizcaino could make his Cubs’ debut late in the year but reportedly the Cubs are eyeing 2014 for him to be a fixture in the big league staff.

#6 – Brett Jackson, OF

Coming into his third straight spring of trying to make the big league roster, some fans feel the bloom is off the rose for outfielder Brett Jackson.  However, don’t count out this 24- year old as a future contributor.

The former first round pick of the Cubs in 2009 (31st overall pick) put together a good first full year of pro ball in 2010, hitting a combined .297 with 12 home runs, 66 RBI and 30 stolen bases between Advanced-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Jackson was blistering in his first 100 at bats for Tennessee in 2011. Jackson hit .300 with seven doubles, two triples, four home runs, 14 RBI, 22 walks, and 10 stolen bases all from the lead-off position. However, a front office that overloaded itself with veteran outfielders had no room to bring up Jackson.

It would prove to be a disastrous decision for both Brett Jackson and the Cubs, as he injured his hand a few games later while sliding into second base. Jackson was on the disabled list at the same time veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd suffered facial fractures after being hit by a pitch. Jackson wasn’t ready at the time of Byrd’s injury and returned to Tennessee when he was able to play again. Jackson’s stay at Double-A was a short on and was soon promoted to Triple-A Iowa, where he put together a .297/.388/.551/.939 line with 13 doubles, two triples and 10 home runs in 48 games. However, when the rosters expanded in September, Jackson was not included … his second big league snub in four months.

The 2011 off -season provided a glimmer of hope for Brett Jackson, as veterans Reed Johnson and Kosuke Fukudome were off the roster, young lefty Tyler Colvin was traded, and Byrd fell into disfavor. But a new front office inked another lefty in David DeJesus and as another Spring Training ended Jackson was on the outside as a re-signed Reed Johnson and journeyman Joe Mather joined DeJesus, Byrd, and Alfonso Soriano in the Cubs’ outfield.

Brett Jackson returned to Iowa for the 2012 season and, predictably, pressed offensively as he tried to hit his way to the big leagues. He would only hit .256 with 15 home runs, 47 RBI and 27 stolen bases while having an alarming 158 strikeouts and seeing his OPS dip to .817 … and OBP drop to .338. Nevertheless, Jackson was brought up at the beginning of August and ended up hitting only.175 with four home runs, nine RBI, and no stolen bases in 44 games. Jackson did display great defense and  his face-first dive into a fence robbed Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen of extra bases and a couple of RBI in early September. Jackson has since spent the off-season rebuilding his swing under the supervision Dale Sveum and hitting coach, James Rowson. How he produces this spring will determine how soon fans will see him in Cubs uniform. For Brett Jackson, the sooner will be the better.

#7 – Pierce Johnson, RHP

The Cubs used the sandwich pick (43rd overall) they received for Aramis Ramirez signing with the Brewers to take right-handed pitcher Pierce Johnson in last June’s draft. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound right hander was selected by the Rays in the 15th round of the 2009 draft out of high school but did not sign and spent three years at Missouri State … and if not for a forearm strain in the spring that cost him a couple of starts, Johnson would have likely been taken much higher than the 43rd overall pick.

Johnson did not show any signs of a lingering injury to his forearm after he began pitching in the Cubs’ system. Johnson completed only 11 innings in six starts but struck out 14 batters and issued three walks while allowing 14 hits. Johnson consistently sits in the 92-94 mph range with his fastball and can run it up to 96. His curveball gives him another swing-and-miss pitch and he also throws a mid-80s cutter and a changeup.

The Cubs think highly of Pierce Johnson and it would not be a surprise to see him begin the year in a Cougars’ uniform … if not a level higher.

#8 – Christian Villanueva, IF

Acquired from the Texas Rangers along with RHP Kyle Hendricks for RHP Ryan Dempster before the 2012 trade deadline, Christian Villanueva has Cubs officials excited with his defense and overall potential.

Villanueva was signed by the Rangers out of Mexico in 2008 and was originally thought of as a shortstop before a knee injury warranted a move to third base. After playing sparingly in the Dominican Summer League in 2009, he was assigned to the rookie league AZL Rangers in 2010. Villanueva went onto to hit .314/.365/.431/796 with two home runs, 35 RBI and 32 stolen bases in 51 games. In his first full season with Single-A Hickory of the SALLY (Southern Atlantic) League in 2011, he batted .278/.338/.465/.803 with 17 home runs and 84 RBI.

The 2012 season saw Christian Villanueva begin at Advanced-A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League where in 100 games he hit .285/.356/.421/.777 with 10 homers and 59 RBI. After the trade, Villanueva went to Advanced –A Daytona and hit .250/.337/.452/.789 in 25 games to finish 2012 at with a slash line of .279/.353/.427/.780 along with 14 home runs, 68 RBI, and 14 stolen bases.

At only 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, Christian Villanueva has a lot of pop in a small package. Villanueva has hit 33 homers in just 310 minor league games. At times, Villanueva’s quest to hit for power results in him being a little pull-conscious but with some indoctrination into the “Cubs Way” and the presence of power hitters throughout the system, the need for him to show nothing more than gap power may help to improve his overall approach. Villanueva’s defensive skills are considered top notch despite a career .935 fielding percentage at third base. Villanueva displays above average range, soft hands, reliability, and an unusually high rate of  double plays (74 as a third baseman over four seasons), which is considered a sign of good reactions.

#9 – Juan Carlos Paniagua, RHP

The Cubs took a chance on Juan Carlos Paniagua last July when they inked the talented pitcher for $1.5 million. The signing counted against the Cubs international free agent signing pool but well worth the risk for the 22-year old right-hander.

Paniagua came with a little bit of controversy due to the fact he had two previous deals with big league teams voided due to fraudulent paperwork. Major League Baseball approved the signing even though they could not verify his birth-date and Paniagua pitched in two games for the Cubs rookie-level team last summer.

Paniagua turns 23 on April 4 if his listed date of birth is accurate and he has a real chance to make a lot of noise during the upcoming season. Paniagua has a big arm and a lot of upside. A report from Baseball America indicated that Paniagua’s fastball sat in the 94-98 mph range last year and he touched triple digits (100 mph) on the radar. Paniagua throws a changeup and a slider in the 82-94 mph range and could be a better fit in the back end of a bullpen down the road.

The Cubs view Juan Carlos Paniagua as a starter right now and he could begin the year in Kane County’s rotation.

#10 – Junior Lake, IF/OF

The varying opinions on the abilities of Junior Lake is one of the  reasons he keeps showing up in top prospect lists, but is also why some believe he will never be a difference maker.

Originally a second baseman when signed as a 17-year old in 2007, Lake got his start in the Dominican Summer League and hit .274/.341/.404 with three home runs, 40 RBI and nine stolen bases in 62 games. He advanced to the AZL Cubs in 2008, where he was moved to shortstop and had two homers, 23 RBI, and 12 stolen bases with a .286/.335/.417/.752 line in 47 games.

Junior Lake’s first full season of pro ball was with the Peoria Chiefs in 2009 and his numbers dipped to the point where there was talk about him ending up on a mound. He hit only .248/.277/.365/.642 with seven home runs, 42 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 131 games. His defense also took a dip, fielding only .912 with 28 errors in 75 games at shortstop. However, Lake was moved up the chain the next season and appeared at Advanced-A Daytona. Despite being in the pitching-rich Florida State League, Lake actually saw an offensive improvement and put together a .264/.333/.398/.731 line with nine home runs, 46 RBI, and 13 stolen bases while committing 35 errors and fielding .925 at shortstop.

Junior Lake was back at Daytona in 2011 and was very good (.315/.336/.498/.834 with 11 doubles, four triples and six home runs in 49 games) but struggled after he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee (.248/.300/.380/.680 with 10 doubles, two triples and six home runs in 67 games). A back injury forced Lake to sit out the first month of the 2012 season and once he was healthy enough to play he returned to Tennessee. His numbers for the season look like a carbon copy of his combined 2011 stats, .279/.341./.432/.773 with 10 home runs, 50 RBI, and 21 stolen bases.

The two consistent pluses scouts have identified for Junior Lake are that he is an explosive offensive talent and he has superior arm strength. His weaknesses have become more exposed as he has developed. Lake is not as good of an athlete as his numbers would indicate. He is more of an “opportunistic” base stealer than a speed threat, and only has a 72% success rate. Most damaging is that his poor overall approach at the plate will negate his power.

However, Lake hit .312 with five home runs, 24 RBI, and 11 stolen bases while playing five positions for Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League. He seems ticketed for Triple-A Iowa, and where he lines up will be just as interesting as how he performs.

#11 – Trey McNutt, RHP

Trey McNutt was considered the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system the past two seasons and one of the top pitching prospects in the game by Baseball America (49) in 2011. McNutt has dealt with nagging injuries and the possibility of being traded (Matt Garza and compensation for Theo Epstein) the past two off-seasons … and it should be interesting to see how McNutt responds during the upcoming campaign.

The Cubs added Trey McNutt to the 40-man roster in November and he will be in big league camp for the third straight spring. McNutt seemed to find a niche last year pitching out of the pen, a role many thought he would eventually take on as he progressed through the minor league system.

McNutt was 9-8 in 34 games, 17 starts, last year for the Smokies. In 95 innings he struck out 66 batters, walked 45 and surrendered 95 hits. As a reliever, McNutt posted a 4-1 record in 17 games with a 3.81 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP (26 strikeouts, 14 walks and 20 hits allowed in 28 1/3 innings). Command of the strike zone remains an issue for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right hander and something he must learn if he wants to make it to the Show.

McNutt’s velocity increased last year when the Cubs moved him to the pen. He threw his fastball consistently in mid-90s and still worked in his above-average slider and curveball. If McNutt can get past his lingering blister issues he may prove to be a valuable part of the Cubs’ pen in the years to come.

Trey McNutt could begin the year in Iowa’s pen depending how the relief corps at the Major League level shakes out in Spring Training. The Cubs have several former big league relievers in camp on minor league deals and McNutt could end up back at the Double-A level in a numbers game to begin the year.

#12 – Dillon Maples, RHP

Apart from first round pick Javier Baez, RHP Dillon Maples may be the most anticipated selection of the 2011 draft. Coming out of Pinecrest High School in North Carolina, he was 9-1 with a 0.92 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and 143 strikeouts in 68.2 innings as a senior. His fall to the 14th round of the draft was more of a function of a scholarship offer from the University of North Carolina football team as a punter. After taking up to the deadline to decide, Maples was inked to a $2.5 million bonus, the most for a player drafted a after the third round.

However, things turned very bad for Dillon Maples prior to the 2012 season. He began to experience pain in his right forearm, which was later diagnosed as a sprained right elbow ligament. That type of an injury sometimes leads to Tommy john surgery, so Maples was shut down for six weeks, and then began a program to gradually rebuild his arm strength. Later, Maples would take responsibility for the injury, admitting that he didn’t follow an off-season throwing program prescribed by the Cubs.

With a strict pitching limit, Dillon Maples joined the AZL Cubs and tossed 10 1/3 innings with a 4.35 ERA, 12 strikeouts, and a 1.55 WHIP. He also saw action in the Fall Instructional League and was limited to pitching no more than three innings per appearance.

When injury-free, the 6-foot-2, 195 pounder has a fastball that clocks in the 96 mph range and a plus curveball, along with a slider and change-up that could still use some work. Control has always been an issue, so the 20 year old will probably remain in Extended Spring Training and open 2013 with the Short Season-A Boise Hawks.

#13 – Duane Underwood, RHP

The Cubs selected Duane Underwood in the second round of last June’s draft out of Pope High School in Marietta, GA. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound right hander has a big arm and a lot of promise for an 18-year old (July 20, 1994). Underwood signed on time and pitched in five rookie ball games last year.

Underwood has the ability to throw Major League heat. His fastball has been clocked in the upper 90s but he can struggle with his confidence and he allows that to impact his performance. Baseball America reported that on some days Underwood would be able to show why he should have been drafted in the first round but on other days he could look like a fourth-rounder at best.

Underwood’s fastball can sit in the 91-94 mph range and he can run it up to 98 mph but he has been inconsistent with the velocity and command of the pitch. Reports indicate that Underwood’s fastball ranges from 88-98 mph and sometimes he simply does not know where it is going.

The Cubs are looking to build on the progress Duane Underwood made in instructs (improved and slowed down his delivery and showed better command) and it is very likely he could be held back this spring and begin his season in extended spring training before ending up in the Boise Hawks’ rotation.

#14 – Josh Vitters, 3B/1B

Cubs’ fans may feel they have been hearing about Josh Vitters “forever”. That will happen when you spend six years in the minors and still be considered “not ready” for the majors. But that will also happen when you draft a 17-year old in the first round.

As the third overall pick in the 2007, Josh Vitters essentially began his professional career in 2008 hitting .322/.357/.495/.852 with five homers, 38 RBI line in 65 games combined from Short Season-A Boise and Single-A Peoria. This started a pattern for Vitters of needing to “settle in” at a level before he was able to advance.

Vitters returned to Peoria in 2009 and hit .316/.351/.535/.886 with 15 home runs and 46 RBI in 70 games before being promoted to Advanced-A Daytona, where he went .238/.260/.344/.604 with three homers and 22 RBI in 50 games. Vitters improved his numbers at Daytona at the start of the 2010 season. Vitters hit .291/.350/.445/.795 with three home runs in 28 games. However, he struggled after being promoted to Double-A Tennessee and posted only a .223/.292/.383/.676 with seven home runs and 26 RBI in 63 games before a broken finger ended his season.

The Tennessee Smokies team he returned to in 2011 was chocked-full of prospects, such as Brett Jackson, D.J. LeMahieu, Ryan Flaherty, Marwin Gonzalez, and Steve Clevenger. Vitters hit near the bottom of the order and generally appeared lost among the talented line-up. Vitters scraped his way to a .218 average with five home runs and 31 RBI in the first half of the season. However, as the other players were promoted, Josh Vitters seemed to find himself and developed as a clutch hitter. He raised his final stats to .283/.322/.448/.770 line with 14 home runs and 81 RBI while leading Tennessee to within one game of the Southern League title.

For the first time in his development, Josh Vitters started at a new venue and was hit on all cylinders in 2012. Vitters opened at Triple-A Iowa and put together the most productive season of his career. Vitters hit for a .304 average with a .356 on-base percentage to go along with 17 home runs and 68 RBI. Vitters also posted career highs in slugging (.513) and OPS (.869) in 110 games. He was promoted to the parent club at the beginning of August, but returned to his “deer in the headlights” pattern, batting .121/.193/.202/.395 with two homers and five RBI in 36 games.

Along with his clunky, station-to station development, fans have also become frustrated with the lack of progress Josh Vitters has shown with his defense. His .913 fielding percentage in 2012 is not much better than his .909 percentage from his first full season. Blessed with a powerful throwing arm, Vitters has struggled with his footwork at third base and has trouble coming in on ground balls. He has fared better at first base, where he has a passable, but still not great, career .981 fielding percentage. Questions of his level of maturity have also dogged him throughout his development. That all said, Vitters is still only 23 years old and has some time to put things together, provided everyone is still willing to wait.

#15 – Matt Szczur, OF

Matt Szczur showed a lot of improvement last season but like many of the prospects on this list, the upcoming year is a big one for the speedy outfielder. Szczur can run like no one else in the Cubs’ system and showed he can take a pitch last year.

Szczur had a reputation of trying to hit his way on base over his first season and a half of pro ball. Szczur walked only 10 times in 116 plate appearances in 2010, and then only 26 times in 480 plate appearances in 2011. Szczur made major improvements last season with pitch recognition and working the count to get on base to utilize his speed. Szczur walked 61 times in 510 plate appearances last year with only 79 strikeouts. Szczur put together a .267/.360/.390 line with a .751 OPS in 113 games over two levels in the Cubs’ system last year. Szczur worked on his bunting and baserunning skills and swiped 42 bases while being caught 14 times.

A knee injury derailed his 2012 campaign and Szczur predictably struggled after he was promoted to Double-A and hit just .210/.285/.357/.641 in 35 games for the Smokies. The Cubs sent Szczur to the AFL to make up for the time he missed and he finished the year on a positive note. Szczur hit .264/.368/.363/.731 in 24 games for the Solar Sox with two doubles, two triples and a home run. Szczur walked (14) more times than he struck out (10) while swiping nine bases in 12 attempts.

Szczur made strides last year defensively as well and has turned himself into a reliable centerfielder with an average, accurate arm.

Matt Szczur figures to begin the year as the Smokies’ centerfielder and should remain there for a majority of the season. As for his future projection, some scouts see him as an everyday centerfielder in the big leagues and some see him as a fourth or fifth outfielder on a winning team.

#16 – Barret Loux, RHP

Acquired by the Cubs in a somewhat unconventional fashion, Barret Loux is making his first appearance on Cubs’ top prospect lists this off-season.

At the July 31 trade deadline last year, the Cubs dealt catcher Geovany Soto to the Texas Rangers for RHP Jacob Brigham and a player to be named later. Brigham pitched in two games for Double-A Tennessee and was 0-2 with a 19.64 ERA. It was found that Brigham was experiencing elbow soreness, a pre-existing condition. He was shipped back to the Rangers in exchange for Barret Loux.

Originally drafted in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, Barret Loux was not offered a contract after concerns over a torn labrum and elbow damage caused him to fail their physical. Major League Baseball than made the unprecedented move of declaring Loux a free agent and he signed with the Texas Rangers after throwing for scouts.

Loux was assigned to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League for 2011 where he went 8-5 in 21 games with a 3.60 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. In 109 innings, Loux struck out 127 batters and issued just 34 walks. Barret Loux was then promoted to Double-A Frisco in the Texas League for 2012 where he improved to 14-1 with a 3.47 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP in 25 starts. His strikeout total lowered dropped (100), while his walks increased to 41 over 127 innings of work.

The 6-foot-5, 215 pounder throws a fastball that tops out at 96 mph, along with a power slider and a curve. The 23-year old is considered close to being ready for the big leagues, and projects to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

#17 – Tony Zych, RHP

Tony Zych has a big arm and if things fall just right for the 22-year old right hander he could end up in the Cubs’ pen at some point during the upcoming season. The Cubs selected the right hander in the fourth round of the 2011 draft and he put together a good first full year of pro ball.

Zych began 2012 in the D-Cubs bullpen and posted a 3-3 record in 27 games with a 3.19 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. Zych saved six games, finished 24 of the 27 games he appeared in while striking out 36 batters with only seven walks and 32 hits allowed in 36 2/3 innings. Zych struggled a little when he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee.

While with the Smokies, Zych was 2-1 in 20 games with a 4.38 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP. In 24 2/3 innings, Zych struck out 28, walked 12 and surrendered 26 hits. Zych finished his year in the Arizona Fall League and seemed to run out of gas. Zych was 1-0 in 13 games with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP (four strikeouts, two walks and 18 hits allowed in 14 innings).

Zych has the type of power arm the Cubs want in the backend of their bullpen. His fastball consistently sits in the 94-96 mph range and he can touch 99 on the gun. Zych struggles with repeating his delivery and the inconsistency has an effect on his slider.

Tony Zych will likely start the 2013 season with the Smokies and depending on how the big league pen shakes out, he should receive a promotion to Triple-A rather quickly if he gets off to a strong start.

#18 – Jae-Hoon Ha, OF

The Cubs’ top prospect list seems to be loaded with outfielders, with Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Brett Jackson, and Matt Szczur holding down top spots … but somewhat in the shadows is Jae-Hoon Ha.

Signed out of Jinju City in the Republic of South Korea, many outside observers felt that Jae-Hoon Ha was brought is as a companion to top prospect, infielder Hak-Ju Lee. Indeed, when Lee began to struggle in 2010 at Single-A Peoria, Ha was promoted and seemed to settle Lee down. However, Ha performed better than expected and hit .317 with seven home runs, 46 RBI, a .468 SLG and a .802 OPS in 77 games. He started out 2011 at Advanced-A Daytona and was counted on to be their run producer, something the Ha was not used to doing. Even though he struggled with the level of pitching, he still hit .311 with six home runs and 26 RBI in the first half. Ha was then moved up to Double-A Tennessee to substitute for an injured Brett Jackson, but returned to Daytona after 12 games and put together a .276/.311/.422/.733 line with eight home runs and 47 RBI. He was sent back to Tennessee for good in mid-July of 2011 and was instrumental in the Smokies’ playoff push. Overall, Ha batted .283/.320/.403/.722 with three home runs and 25 RBI for Tennessee … and hit .313 with two homers and five RBI in the playoffs.

Returning to the Smokies for the 2012 season, Jae-Hoon Ha was placed in a difficult position by manager Buddy Bailey. With outfielder Evan Crawford and infielder Junior Lake out, Bailey placed the offensive burden on Ha and infielder Logan Watkins. Ha stumbled out of the gate, and was not aided when he had to miss several games after being hit by a pitch. Ha was rounding back into form by mid-June and was hitting .256 with two homers and 20 RBI when he was named to the World Team for the 2012 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. Ha went 2-for-2 in the game with a home run and two RBI.

Back in Tennessee, Jae-Hoon Ha suffered another setback has he missed several games after colliding with a concrete wall. Ha had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. He fully recovered and ended the 2012 season hitting .273/.352/.385/.737 with six home runs, 47 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Ha then went on to play for Bailey in the Venezuelan Winter League. In an arena that is noted for both its intensity and hostility to foreign players, he batted .218 with a home run, six RBI, and six stolen bases in 27 games.

From both an athletic and production standpoint, Jae-Hoon Ha matches up well with prospects Albert Almora and Matt Szczur. Even though he was originally signed as a catcher, Ha is considered the best defensive outfielder in the system. Not only was Ha the youngest player on the Tennessee Smokies last season, he was one of the youngest in the entire Southern League. At 22 years old, Jae-Hoon Ha may still be just scratching the surface of his potential.

#19 – Logan Watkins, IF/OF

The Cubs Minor League Position Player of the Year is coming off a very good year that ended with a short stint in the Arizona Fall League. Logan Watkins is the type of player the Cubs’ regime would like to have more of in the system. Watkins has the reputation of a “smart player” that plays the game the right way.

The Cubs selected Watkins in the 21st round of the 2008 draft out of Goddard High School in Kansas. Watkins has moved up the Cubs system, one level at a time. Watkins put together his best season of his pro career last year with the Smokies. Watkins hit .281/.383/.422 with a .805 OPS in 133 games. Watkins hit 20 doubles, 11 triples and nine home runs in 588 plate appearances while walking 76 times. Watkins set minor league career-highs in slugging percentage (.422), walks (76), doubles (20), games played (133) and home runs (9). Watkins makes good contact but needs to cut down on his strikeouts … last season was the third straight year he struck out 97 times.

Watkins has spent time at third base, left field, centerfield, right field and shortstop but he is a natural second baseman. Watkins has been compared to Darwin Barney and there are many similarities … but several scouts think that Watkins has a better set of tools than the Cubs’ Gold Glove second baseman.

The Cubs added Logan Watkins to the 40-man roster in November and while it is a possibility that he makes his big league debut in 2013, Watkins should spend the year with the Iowa Cubs.

#20 – Jeimer Candelario, IF

Second only to RHP Duane Underwood, third baseman Jeimer (pronounced JAY-mer) Candelario is one of the youngest players on this list. Born in New York City, but raised in the Dominican Republic, Candelario is slated to play his 2013 season at Single-A Kane County at only 19 years old.

Jeimer Candelario was signed by the Cubs in 2011 and played that season in the Dominican Summer League. At only 17 years old, the switch hitter was fifth in the league with a .337 average, seventh with 16 doubles, and his 53 RBI were good enough for second in the league. Candelario also posted a .443 on-base percentage while slugging .478 for a .921 OPS to go along with 50 walks against 42 strikeouts.

Last year the Cubs took an unusual direction and placed Jeimer Candelario at Short Season-A Boise and he bypassed the Arizona Rookie League. Candelario was up for the challenge and hit .281/.345/.396/.741 in 71 games. He also had six home runs and was fourth in the Northwest League with 47 RBI. However, his defense could use some work as he fielded only .891 with 20 errors in 59 games at third base.

Although his walk total fell back to earth this past season, Jeimer Candelario still displays an advanced hit tool for his age. His 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame projects to above-average power and he is a proven run producer. While at Kane County, he’ll have a chance to work with ground-breaking Cuban national Barbaro Garbey and assistant coach Kenny Socorro to smooth out his defense at third base. While his developmental arc may not be the same as Cubs’ shortstop Starlin Castro, if he improves his defense, it could be close.

Best Tools

  • Best Hitter for Average: Tie – Tim Saunders, Steven Bruno
  • Best Contact Hitter: Rubi Silva
  • Best Power Hitter: Dan Vogelbach
  • Best Clutch Hitter: Tie – Josh Vitters, Javier Baez
  • Best Plate Discipline: John Andreoli
  • Most Fearless: Steven Bruno
  • Fastest Baserunner: Matt Szczur
  • Best Baserunner: John Andreoli
  • Best Defensive Infielder: Christian Villanueva
  • Best Infield Arm: Junior Lake
  • Best Defensive Outfielder: Tie – Jae-Hoon Ha, Trey Martin
  • Best Outfield Arm: Rubi Silva
  • Best Athlete: Jae-Hoon Ha
  • Best Offensive Catcher: Justin Marra
  • Best Defensive Catcher: Carlos Escobar
  • Best Game-Caller: Michael Brenly
  • Best Arm – Catcher: Anthony Giansanti
  • Best Fastball: Tony Zych
  • Best Curve: Yao-Lin Wang
  • Best Slider: Kevin Rhoderick
  • Best Change-up: Eric Jokisch
  • Best Sinker: Ben Wells
  • Best Knuckleball: Joe Zeller
  • Best Control: Frank Batista
  • Best Strikeout Pitcher: Tie – Matt Loosen, Hayden Simpson
  • Best Pickoff Move: Chris Rusin
  • Best Fielding Pitcher: Brooks Raley

Other notable players down on the farm: Luis Acosta, IF/OF; Arismendy Alcantara, IF; Gioskar Amaya, IF; John Andreoli, OF; Jose Arias, RHP; Frank Batista, RHP; Paul Blackburn, RHP; Justin Bour, 1B; Stephen Bruno, IF/OF/C; Alberto Cabrera, RHP; Erick Castillo, C/IF/OF; Lendy Castillo, RHP; Steven De La Cruz, C; Shawon Dunston Jr., OF; Jenner Emeterio, IF; Bryant Flete, IF; Dustin Geiger, 3B; Trevor Gretzky, 1B/OF; Michael Heesch, RHP; Marco Hernandez, SS; Corbin Hoffner, RHP; Michael Jensen, RHP; Eric Jokisch, LHP; Austin Kirk, LHP; Mark Malave, IF/C; Trey Martin, OF; Ryan McNeil, RHP; Carlos Penalver, SS; Anthony Prieto, RHP; Brooks Raley, LHP; Carlos Rodriguez, LHP; Chris Rusin, LHP; Alexander Santana, RHP; Tim Saunders, IF; Tayler Scott, RHP; Nick Struck, RHP: Ronald Torreyes, IF; Daury Torrez, RHP; Yao-Lin Wang, RHP

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