The CCO’s Top 20 Cubs Prospects for 2014

The Cubs farm system has improved dramatically over the last three years. As the current president of baseball operations said, the Cubs finally got it in 2011. And Tim Wilken’s last draft pointed the organization in the right direction.

Over the last three years the Cubs have added projectable impact talent to what was considered a barren system through the draft, international signings and trades.

PrintUnder the current administration, with Jason McLeod in charge of the minor leagues, player development has improved tenfold and the entire system, from top to bottom, is on the same page. Players are now being taught the same organizational philosophy with the same terminology at every level in the minors … a practice that did not exist under previous regimes.

It is easy to point to the accolades the system has received from well-respected national publications as a way to prove the organization is heading in the right direction. But the baseball operations department knows the hard work has just begun. There are voids that still must be filled, especially in the pitching and catching areas, while continuing to inject as much talent into the organization as possible. Player development is key and the organization must keep the players on track to ensure as many of them as possible ends up close to their on-paper projections.

The Cubs have what many consider a top four system in the game and the players that have regularly dominated the Cubs rankings are considered to be among the top prospects in baseball. So here is how Tom and I think the Cubs’ system stacks up with the CCO’s annual top 20 Cubs prospects list.

The CCO’s Pre-Season Top 20 Cubs Prospects for 2014

(2013 Ranking in Parenthesis, NA – Not Available, NR – Not Ranked)
  1. Javier Baez, IF (1)
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B (NA)
  3. Albert Almora, OF (3)
  4. C.J. Edwards, RHP (NA)
  5. Pierce Johnson, RHP (7)
  6. Jorge Soler, OF (2)
  7. Arismendy Alcantara, IF (NR)
  8. Jeimer Candelario, 3B (20)
  9. Dan Vogelbach, 1B (4)
  10. Christian Villanueva, 3B (8)
  11. Kyle Hendricks, RHP (NR)
  12. Mike Olt, 3B (NA)
  13. Neil Ramirez, RHP (NA)
  14. Duane Underwood, RHP (13)
  15. Rob Zastryzny, LHP (NA)
  16. Corey Black, RHP (NA)
  17. Paul Blackburn, RHP (NR)
  18. Kevin Encarnacion, OF (NR)
  19. Jacob Hannemann, OF (NA)
  20. Ivan Pineyro, RHP (NA)

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

#1 – Javier Baez, IF

Javier Baez is not only the top prospect in the Cubs’ system, he is also one of the top prospects in the game. Baez is coming off a huge season in which he put up ridiculous numbers over two minor league levels. Baez has a swagger to him, many have labeled him as cocky. But to his credit he has reported to big league camp this spring, kept his mouth shut and handled himself in a professional manner. Baez has a good reputation with his teammates and is rather quiet and reserved in front of the media. With that said, there appears to be a side to Baez that could allow him to be a very good big league ballplayer for many years.

Javier Baez has a sense of the dramatic. For example, in his first Double-A at bat he hit a long home run and announced his presence with authority. Baez will not be cheated at the plate and has shown improvement with his plate discipline. While he might have a higher ceiling than Kris Bryant, he could also go the other way and not become the player that many feel he will one day.

As for the numbers, Baez hit .282/.341/.578 with a .920 OPS in 130 games last year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee with 34 doubles, 37 home runs and 111 RBI. With the Smokies, Baez hit .294/.346/.638 with a .983 OPS in 54 games with 15 doubles and 20 home runs.

The bat speed is out of this world and Baez has drawn lofty comparisons to some excellent baseball players, both past and present. The Cubs have to make sure to keep him on track and Baez has to keep checking the boxes off on his player development plan. Baez should eventually move off shortstop. He would seem to be a good fit at second base, a position he prefers after short.

Javier Baez should see Wrigley Field at some point this season, and could make his big league debut as early as June. The Javier Baez Watch has already started and it will hit a fever pitch once he moves off of shortstop at Iowa.

#2 – Kris Bryant, 3B

The 2013 first round pick has been living up to his billing, so far.  With his performance in spring training, he will give Cubs’ management a lot to think about as he continues to develop.

A three-year starter at the University of San Diego after being a high school All-American, Bryant led the nation with 31 home runs in his junior season, batting .329 with 62 RBI. For that, Bryant won both the Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s best college baseball player. Drafted by the Cubs with the second overall pick, a prolonged negotiation kept Bryant from signing until July 10, missing the opening of both the rookie league and Short-Season A ball.

After not playing baseball since June 2, Bryant was sent to Arizona to scrape off the rust in the rookie league. There seemed to be plenty of rust as Bryant managed only one hit, plus he made three errors in two games. Nevertheless, Bryant was shipped off to Short-Season A Boise where he looked like a completely different player. Blasting a home run in his second at bat, Bryant batted .354/.416/.692/1.108 with four home runs and 16 RBI in 18 games as the Hawks went 10-8 over that span.

Bryant was promoted to High–A Daytona rather than spending any time at Low-A Kane County. As in his debut with Boise, Bryant homered in his first game with the D-Cubs and went on to hit .333/.387/.719/1.106 with five homers and 14 RBI in 16 games. For the regular season, Bryant was a composite .336/.390/.688/1.078 with nine home runs and 32 RBI. After booting three balls in rookie league, Bryant committed only three more errors the rest of the way, fielding .955 for Boise and .975 for Daytona.

Fast forward to this Spring Training, Bryant is already looking comfortable in the big league camp. The 22-year old has already hit two home runs while driving in four runs. Reports also have him fielding well at third base. While the organization is committed to Bryant opening the season at Double-A Tennessee, just how long he will be there and where he fits in the larger scheme are good problems to have.

#3 – Albert Almora, OF

Albert Almora does not act like a 19-year old. Almora is already considered a leader in the clubhouse after only 94 games in pro ball. Almora dealt with injuries last season and suited up just 61 times for the Kane County Cougars. Almora hit .329/.376/.466 with a .842 OPS (17 doubles, four triples and three home runs). Almora made up for some of the time he missed during the season with a trip to the Arizona Fall League. Almora impressed the scouts and everyone that saw him play in the AFL. Almora hit .307/.342/.480 with a .849 OPS in 21 games for the Solar Sox (six doubles, two triples, one home run).

Albert Almora is not a speedster and will not impress a single scout with his running ability. However, he takes excellent routes to balls in the outfield and that has to do with the reads he gets when the ball comes off the bat. And his arm grades as plus with accuracy that just adds to his defense. Almora needs time to develop, but defensively many feel he is ready for the big leagues and there could be a few defensive honors in his future.

Albert Almora needs to stay healthy and on the field this year. Almora should begin the year at High-A Daytona where his performance will dictate whether or not he finishes the year at Double-A Tennessee.

#4 – C.J. Edwards, RHP

As young player, C.J. Edwards already weathered some pressure situations. There have been several documented tales of the 15-year old Edwards facing grown men and striking them out it the sandlot baseball played in his hometown of Prosperity, South Carolina. Spotted by a scout from the Texas Rangers a few years late, the team thought well enough of the 145-pound Edwards to select him in the 48th round of the 2011 draft as a high school player. However, Edwards waited until December to sign, after the death of a close friend helped him decide to turn pro over going to college.

Edwards was almost an instant hit after stepping on the field for the AZL Rangers in 2012. Edwards went 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA and a 0.60 WHIP (25 strikeouts in 20 innings). Edwards was quickly promoted to Short-Season A Spokane where he ran into some slight resistance. Edwards posted a 2-3 record with 60 strikeouts in 47 innings (2.11 ERA, 0.96 WHIP). For the 2013 season, Edwards was bumped up to Low-A Hickory where he dominated once again. Edwards started 18 games and was 8-2 with a 1.83 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP … and an amazing 122 strikeouts in 93.1 innings. Then came the trade for pitcher Matt Garza, which brought Mike Olt, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, and Edwards to the Cubs. Edwards was assigned to High-A Daytona, where he did not earn a decision in six starts, but posted a 1.96 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP with 33 strikeouts in 23 innings.

For now, it appears that Edwards will return to Daytona to start the 2014 season in order to gain more experience. Now listed at 6-foot-3, 165 pounds, the 22-year old will need to get stronger in order to withstand the rigors of being a starting pitcher. But with a mid-90s fastball, a plus-curveball, and a change-up, Edwards may not stay for long if he continues to post impressive numbers.

#5 – Pierce Johnson, RHP

It is hard to imagine a Cubs’ prospect being overlooked, but with the Core Four and the arrival of C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson did not receive the publicity he deserved for the way he pitched last season.

The Cubs selected Johnson with the 43rd overall pick in the 2012 draft with the compensation pick the team received when Aramis Ramirez signed with the Brewers. Johnson is 6-foot-3, 170 pounds and does not turn 23 years old until May. Johnson’s fastball sits in the 90-94 mph range and he can run it up to 96 mph when he needs a little extra. Johnson’s other plus-pitch, a power curve in the low 80s is considered the best in the Cubs’ system. Johnson also throws a change-up to both left-handed and right-handed hitters.

Pierce Johnson ended up with an 11-6 record in 23 games, 21 starts, for Low-A Kane County and High-A Daytona with a 2.74 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP (124 strikeouts, 43 walks in 118 1/3 innings). Johnson went 6-1 in 10 games, eight starts, with a 2.22 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP after his promotion to Daytona.

Pierce Johnson projects as a middle of the rotation big league starter. Johnson should join C.J. Edwards in the Smokies rotation to start the season.

#6 – Jorge Soler, OF

Sometimes being a high priced prospect makes you a marked man, and Jorge Soler found that out the hard way last season.

The 22-year Soler created a buzz 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.

Soler was then assigned to the AZL Cubs, where he proceeded to hit .241 with two home runs, 10 RBI, eight stolen bases, a .328 OBP and a .717 OPS in 14 games. He was promoted to Low-A Peoria, where his numbers improved. Soler hit .338 with three homers, 15 RBI, four stolen bases, an on-base percentage of .398, a .513 slugging percentage, and a .910 OPS.

Soler was off to a good start with High-A Daytona in 2013 when a career minor leaguer from an opposing team picked a fight with him on the basepaths. Soler escalated the situation by going to the dugout to retrieve a bat and go after the player. Soler was stopped by his teammates, but ended up getting suspended for five games. His season was ended after 55 games when it was learned that Soler suffered a leg fracture from a foul ball in Spring Training. For the season, Soler hit .281/.343/.467/.810 with eight home runs, 35 RBI, and five stolen bases.

At 6-foot-3 and between 200-225 pounds, Soler’s game is about power.  He has very good bat speed and hits to all fields while projecting to be a 25-plus home run hitter at the Major League level. 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.

#7 – Arismendy Alcantara, IF

For some, Arismendy Alcantara is a new addition to the Cubs’ prospects list. Alcantara began creating attention for himself a couple of years back. The 22-year old infielder is coming off an excellent season, one in which he took several steps forward in his development.

Alcantara made strides with his pitch recognition and plate discipline and posted a career high .352 OBP. Alcantara is very close to a five-tool player that can impact the game in all three phases. Alcantara has speed, surprising power for a player of his size and can more than hold his own in the field. Plus, he is a switch-hitter that has the ability to hit at the top of a lineup.

Due to his body-type, and the fact that he switch hits and plays the middle infield, Alcantara is often compared to Jimmy Rollins

Arismendy Alcantara seemed to take to moving to second base, where he could see time at the big league level in the coming year. And his plus-arm could be a true asset for the Cubs down the road at second base. While the front office may have another problem on the their hands with finding a spot for Alcantara to play, he is versatile enough to play centerfield and could fill in at shortstop and play an above-average second base at the big league level. Alcantara could be the first of the top prospects called up this season, but for now he is ticketed to start the season at Triple-A Iowa.

#8 – Jeimer Candelario, 3B

Sometimes, being in the shadows is not a bad thing. With the spotlight on super-prospect Javier Baez, first round pick Kris Bryant, and defensive whiz Christian Villanueva grabbing the media attention, 20-year old Jeimer Candelario can develop in relative anonymity.

Signed by the Cubs in 2011, Candelario 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, and his 53 RBI were second in the league. He also had a .443 on-base percentage, a slugging average of .478, and a .921 OPS to go along with 50 walks against 42 strikeouts. For 2012, the Cubs took an unusual direction and placed Candelario at Short Season-A Boise, by-passing the 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.

Advancing to Low-A Kane County in 2013, Candelario experienced some of the growing pains that come with a player’s first full season of pro ball. Candelario batted .256/.346/.396/.742 with 11 home runs and 57 RBI. Candelario did show his trademark plate discipline with 68 walks and only 88 strikeouts in 500 at bats. While he is still a work in progress, his defense improved to a .925 fielding percentage.

With his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame, Candelario projects to above-average power, and he is a proven run producer. Although it would be no shame to return to Kane County for this season, it appears he will open 2014 with High-A Daytona. If Candelario can continue to hone his skills while maintaining his plate discipline, management could have the type of grinder they crave in the line-up.

#9 – Dan Vogelbach, 1B

Dan Vogelbach can hit and he showed the commitment this past off-season that is rare for a 21-year old. Vogelbach does not want to be considered as a one-dimensional player so he spent the winter getting into incredible shape and lost 30 pounds. Vogelbach didn’t just lose the weight. He got himself into shape and he is now built more like a NFL fullback than an offensive lineman.

After he reported to camp, Vogelbach and his coaches said he did not lose any of his bat speed. Vogelbach can now get to inside pitches that he could not before. Vogelbach wants to play in the field and be the best first baseman he can, and based on what was seen firsthand in Arizona, he has pointed his career in the right direction.

Vogelbach hit .284/.364/.450 in 114 games with Low-A Kane County last season with 21 doubles and 17 home runs. Vogelbach finished the season with High-A Daytona and posted a .280/.455/.440 line in 17 games with two doubles and two home runs.

Dan Vogelbach should begin the season with High-A Daytona and could very likely see a promotion to Double-A Tennessee by the end of the year.

#10 – Christian Villanueva, 3B

It is sometimes the make-up of a team that dictates which players are on it. And if future Cubs’ teams need defense at third base, Christian Villanueva will be around to answer the call.

Signed by the Rangers out of Mexico in 2008, Villanueva 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 AZL Rangers in 2010. Villanueva went on to hit .314/.365/.431/.796 with two home runs and 35 RBI while swiping six bases in 51 games. In his first full season with Low-A Hickory in 2011, he hit .278/.338/.465/.803 with 17 home runs and 84 RBI to go along with 32 stolen bases.

Christian Villanueva began the 2012 season at High-A Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League. In 100 games, Villanueva hit .285/.356/.421/.777 with 10 homers and 59 RBI. After he was acquired by the Cubs in the trade for Ryan Dempster, Villanueva went to High–A Daytona and hit .250/.337/.452 in 25 games to finish the 2012 season with a line of .279/.353/.427/.780 with 14 home runs, 68 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. Playing the entire 2013 season at Double-A Tennessee, Villanueva turned into more of a run producer. Villanueva hit a career-high 19 home runs while driving in 72 runs and hitting .261/.317/.469/.787.

At only 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, Christian Villanueva has a lot of pop in a small package. Villanueva has hit 50 home runs over the past four seasons. At times, Villanueva becomes a little pull-conscious, which has helped to drive his batting average down. His defensive skills are considered among the best in the minors despite a career .933 fielding percentage at third base. Villanueva displays above average range, soft hands, reliability, and an accurate throwing arm. He has an unusually high rate of double plays (78 as a third baseman over five seasons), which is considered a sign of good reactions.

#11 – Kyle Hendricks, RHP

Kyle Hendricks is not going to light up a radar gun, therefore he will not ‘wow’ many scouts at all. Hendricks understands how to pitch and what it takes to get hitters out. And that is what could land the Dartmouth grad in the backend of the Cubs’ rotation for years to come.

Hendricks was acquired from the Rangers in July of 2012, along with Christian Villanueva, for two months of Ryan Dempster. Hendricks made only five appearances for Daytona following the trade and posted a 1-0 record with a 4.24 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.

Hendricks started last season, his first full year in the Cubs’ organization, at Double-A Tennessee where he went 10-3 with a 1.85 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 21 starts. Hendricks allowed 107 hits in 126.1 innings with 101 strikeouts and only 26 walks. After his promotion to Triple-A Iowa, Hendricks went 3-1 in six starts with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. The Cubs named Hendricks the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year after compiling a 13-4 record in 27 starts with a 2.00 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP.

Kyle Hendricks relies on his command and his ability to locate to both sides of the plate. Hendricks’ fastball sits in the 85-92 mph range and will throw his changeup for both lefties and righties. Hendricks also throws a slider and a curve and has received a 70-grade on his control from scouts.

Triple-A Iowa is where Kyle Hendricks will start the year. But he should make his big league debut at some point during the upcoming season.

#12 – Mike Olt, 3B

Talent is not a question when discussing Mike Olt as a prospect. Whether he can get back to the high level he showed prior to suffering a career-threatening injury is what is on most people’s minds.

A four-year letterman at Branford High School in Connecticut, Olt was also a three-time All-League and All-State selection. Attending the University of Connecticut, Olt hit .318 with 13 home runs and 62 RBI in 54 games in 2008. Olt missed time in 2009 due to an injury, but batted .301 with eight homers and 40 RBI in 38 games. A supplemental first round draft choice of Texas in 2010, Olt went immediately to Short-Season A Spokane upon signing. Olt played in 69 games and hit .293/.390/.464/.854 with nine home runs, 43 RBI, and six stolen bases.

In what was supposed to be Olt’s first full season in 2011, he missed 74 days due to a broken clavicle. Playing for High–A Myrtle Beach (along with a four game rehab stint in the rookie league), Olt hit .264/.381/.500/.881 while slugging 15 home runs and driving in 46 runs in 73 games. Advancing to Double-A Frisco in 2012, Olt burst onto the national scene after bashing 28 home runs, driving in 82 runs, and hitting .288/.398.579/.977 in 95 games. Olt was named to the All-Stars Futures squad, and his big year earned him a promotion to the majors at the beginning of August. Olt saw action in 16 games, mainly at first base but he also played a little third base and spent time in the outfield. Olt hit .152 with five RBI in 33 at bats.

As a prelude to the 2013 season, Olt went to the Dominican Winter League in order to fine tune his skills. After hitting two home runs and picking up eight RBI in 18 games, Olt was beaned and suffered a concussion. The total effects of the concussion were not realized until after Spring Training, when Olt complained of problem with his depth perception. Olt struggled to hit .213 with 11 home runs and 32 RBI with Triple-A Round Rock. The Cubs made a blockbuster deal with the Rangers and acquired Olt, along with Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, and C.J. Edwards for pitcher Matt Garza. It was then discovered that Olt’s lacrimal gland was not producing tears, causing him to blink uncontrollably and causing his vision problems. Although he was prescribed eye drops, Olt still had problems both offensively and defensively after the trade and hit only .168 in 39 games for Triple-A Iowa with a home run and eight RBI.

When he is physically fit, the 25-year old projects as a plus defender with a strong throwing arm and quick reactions. The 6-foot-2, 210 pounder is considered to be a good athlete that can also play first base and a corner outfield position, and possibly even catcher if you asked him. If Olt can show he is over his vision problems, he could be the Cubs’ Opening Day third baseman.

#13 – Neil Ramirez, RHP

Neil Ramirez was the player to be names later in last summer’s Matt Garza deal with the Rangers. Ramirez has a big arm with excellent stuff that projects well as a reliever or a starter, if he can stay healthy.

Ramirez appeared in only 22 games last year and just once in the Cubs’ system after the trade was finalized. Ramirez went 9-3 in 22 starts with a 3.68 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP that included 132 strikeouts and 44 walks in 107.2 innings. Ramirez allowed only 78 hits.

As a starter, Ramirez sits in the 90-94 mph range with his fastball and has run it up to 95-97 mph when he pitches out of a bullpen. Ramirez also throws a high-80s changeup that has the potential to be a plus-pitch along with a slider and a curveball. But there are doubts his curve will be a useful pitch in the upper levels in the minor leagues or in the majors.

The Cubs should use Neil Ramirez as a starter at the Triple-A level this season. Worse case is that he ends up as another power arm in the bullpen; best case is that he becomes an option for the rotation.

#14 – Duane Underwood, RHP

Probably no other player on this list embodies the definition of a raw talent more than Duane Underwood. If the Cubs have patience, they may end up with a special player.

Attending Pope High School in Marietta, Georgia, Underwood was 6-1 with a 2.36 ERA as a senior. The Cubs selected Underwood in the second round of the 2012 draft, but he signed late and was not able to get much out of the rookie league. Underwood made only five starts and tossed 5.2 innings. Underwood was 0-1 with a 5.19 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP (seven strikeouts). With a full Spring Training under his belt, Underwood was assigned to Short-Season A Boise for the 2013 season. Though just 18 years old, Underwood appeared in 14 games (11 starts) and had a 4.97 ERA with a 1.64 WHIP that included 36 strikeouts in 54.1 innings (3-4 record).

With what Boise announcer Mike Stafford called ‘easy heat,’ Underwood seems to have trouble with his consistency. The now 19-year old can have his fastball in the lower 90s and the suddenly reach 97 mph plus. Underwood also has a change-up which he can throw for strikes and a curve that needs further developing. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Underwood is considered a good athlete with a very repeatable delivery.

As far as 2014 goes, the Cubs can use the same strategy they had last year with James Pugliese by starting Underwood back in Boise and moving him to Low-A Kane County if he shows expected improvement.

#15 – Rob Zastryzny, LHP

The Cubs selected the big lefty (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) in the second round of last June’s draft out of the University of Missouri. And it was not long after Rob Zastryzny signed that he was pitching in the Cubs’ system.

The soon-to-be 22-year old (March 26) skipped rookie ball and went straight to Boise where he pitched in eight games without a decision. Zastryzny allowed five runs on 15 hits in 14.1 innings with 16 strikeouts and four walks. Zastryzny ended his season with Low-A Kane County where he posted his first professional victory (1-0 in three games, no starts, with a 0.93 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP).

Zastryzny can hit 94 mph on the gun with his fastball but sits in the 86-91 mph range with good location. Zastryzny also throws a curveball that has potential and a ‘slurvy-slider’ with a changeup that is his best secondary pitch.

Rob Zastryzny should anchor Kane County’s rotation at the beginning of the season.

#16 – Corey Black, RHP

Acquired from the New York Yankees for popular outfielder Alfonzo Soriano, many fans expressed that the Cubs should have gotten more in the deal. But Corey Black is out to prove to everyone that good things can come in small packages.

As a prep player form Mission High School in San Diego, Black underwent Tommy John surgery as a junior. Primarily a shortstop, Black went undrafted in 2009 despite hitting .431 as a senior. He attended San Diego State University, where he was a two-way player as a freshman. In his sophomore season, Black made 11 starts and eight relief appearances and had a 3.56 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 73.1 innings. For reasons not known, Black was left off the San Diego State roster for his junior season, so he transferred to Faulkner University in Alabama. Black then dominated NAIA hitters, striking out 96 in 88 innings while posting a 1.53 ERA. The Yankees selected Black in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.

Black was moved through the system quickly after signing. A one game warm-up in the rookie league led to six starts at Short-Season A Staten Island, then it was on to Low-A Charleston for five more starts. Altogether, Black was 2-2 with a 3.08 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP that included 50 strikeouts in 52.2 innings over 12 starts. The Yankees then pushed Black up to High-A Tampa to start the 2013 season. Black went 3-8 with a 4.38 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP (88 strikeouts in 82.2 innings) before the trade. With a powerful High-A Daytona team, where he didn’t have to be the main man of the pitching staff, Black was 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP while recording 28 strikeouts in 25 innings.

Only 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Black has a fastball that regularly runs in the mid-90s and can hit triple digits. Black compliments his fastball with a change-up, curve, and slider which are still all in development. Due to his size and stuff, there has been talk of Black moving to the backend of the bullpen to become a closer. However, the Cubs still see Black as a starter, for now, and plan to have him at Double-A Tennessee for 2014.

#17 – Paul Blackburn, RHP

The Cubs selected the now 20-year old Paul Blackburn with the 56th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the comp pick the team received for Carlos Pena signing with the Rays. Blackburn went 2-0 in nine games, six starts, with a 3.48 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP with the AZL Cubs after he signed.

Blackburn spent last year with the Boise Hawks where he went 2-3 in 13 games, 12 starts, with a 3.33 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP. Blackburn allowed 41 hits with 29 walks and 38 strikeouts in 46 innings. Blackburn began last season by not allowing an earned run in 17 innings. Blackburn struggled with fastball location last season and that led to 27 walks in his final 31 innings of the season.

Paul Blackburn has the stuff to be a big league starter. He can hit 95 mph on the gun with his fastball but sits comfortably in the 90-93 mph range. Blackburn throws a curveball and a change-up that flashes as an above average pitch.

Paul Blackburn should spend the season at the top of the Cougars’ rotation in Low-Class A ball. Blackburn has a lot of potential and the upcoming season is a big one for the young right-hander.

#18 – Kevin Encarnacion, OF

It is hoped that tragedy doesn’t cut short a promising career, but Kevin Encarnacion will have an uphill battle for 2014.

Signed by the Cubs as an international free agent in 2010, Encarnacion played 63 games in the Dominican Summer League as an 18-year old and hit .233/.366/.295/.661 with 15 RBI and 15 stolen bases. Encarnacion returned to the DSL in 2011 and split time between the Cubs two teams in the league. He showed a lot of improvement and moved his line to .296/.396/.426/.822 with a homer, 27 RBI, and 28 stolen bases.

It is unclear as to exactly what happened for the 2012 season. While some reports state that Encarnacion had visa problems, it is generally thought that with the organization’s management in flux, they simply forgot about Encarnacion. For whatever reason, Encarnacion returned again to the DSL and showed marked improvement. Encarnacion raised his average again to .308/.447/.465/.912 and upped his home run and RBI output to five and 31, while stealing 12 bases.

Putting whatever issues from the previous year behind him, Encarnacion was in Arizona at the start of Spring Training in 2013, and ended up being assigned to Short-Season A Boise. Encarnacion was an instant hit, so much so that after 13 games, he was promoted to Low-A Kane County. In a month with the Cougars, Encarnacion hit .217/.314/.33/.648 with three RBI, along with a home run and a stolen base. Back in Boise, Encarnacion ripped through Northwest League pitching to win the batting title at .355/.431/.55/.997 with eight home runs, 30 RBI, and 10 stolen bases.

The tragedy that Encarnacion would experience occurred this offseason when the 22- year old had to be pulled from a car before it exploded following an accident in the Dominican Republic. Encarnacion was brought back to the United States and is currently going through rehab in an Arizona hospital for burns on his torso and arms. When physically fit, Encarnacion is a top of the order hitter who is just as comfortable leading off as he is batting second or third. As a defender, Encarnacion has the range to play centerfield and the arm strength for right field. He was slated to open at Kane County for 2014, with the possibility of moving up to High-A Daytona. However, a wait-and-see approach will have to be taken as to if and when Encarnacion is able to take the field, let alone where.

#19 – Jacob Hannemann, OF

The Cubs selected Jacob Hannemann in the third round of last June’s draft out of Brigham Young … and no one predicted the Cubs would take a chance on Hannemann with the third round pick. Hannemann is an intriguing prospect to say the least and he was off to a good start until a partially torn ligament in his right elbow (non-throwing) cut his season short. Hannemann did not require surgery.

In 17 games last season between the AZL Cubs and Boise Hawks, Hannemann posted a .268/.288/.437 slash line with five doubles, two triples and a home run. In 14 games with the Hawks (64 plate appearances), Hannemann hit .290/.313/.468.

Jacob Hannemann has drawn comparisons to Jacoby Ellsbury. He has plus-speed but a weak arm (some scouts have graded as a 20) but many scouts feel he will hit and hit well as he progresses through the Cubs’ system

If he does have any lingering effects from the elbow injury, Jacob Hannemann should spend a majority of the season with Low-A Kane County.

#20 – Ivan Pineyro, RHP

The last member to the ‘Gang of Four’ rotation that propelled Daytona to the Florida State League Championship last season is 22-year old Ivan Pineyro.

Acquired from the Washington Nationals in exchange for outfielder Scott Hairston, Pineyro was signed as an international free agent in 2011. He worked in the Dominican Summer League that year, and posted a 4-6 record with a 2.20 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP (73 strikeouts in 69.2 innings). Pineyro started his 2012 season in rookie ball, but was promoted to Short-Season A Auburn after five starts. Pineyro was battered around a little in the New York-Penn League (5.50 ERA and 1.66 WHIP). Overall, Pineyro was 3-2 in 13 starts in 2012 with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP (50 strikeouts in 57 innings) between the two stops.

Starting the 2013 season at Low-A Hagerstown, Pineyro earned a promotion to High-A Potomac after 13 starts in which he was 5-3 with a 3.14 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP (65 strikeouts in 66 innings). Pineyro got only three starts at Potomac before the trade, winning a game and recording eight strikeouts in 14.2 innings. Moving to High-A Daytona, Pineyro joined a rotation that included Pierce Johnson, C.J. Edwards, and Corey Black that set out to dominate Florida State League hitters. In his time with the D-Cubs, Pineyro went 3-1 with a 3.40 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP that included 38 strikeouts in 45 innings.

As far as his arsenal goes, Pineyro has a fastball that peaks in the mid-90s along with an advanced change-up and a curve in progress. Several reports marvel at Pineyro’s maturity and mound presence. Pineyro is scheduled to join Johnson and Black as part of the rotation for Double-A Tennessee this coming season.

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Quote of the Day

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