Now more than at any point in the history of the storied franchise, the focus for the Chicago Cubs is building a system with sustained success. A lot of improvement has been made with the farm system in just over two years. The Cubs have projectable impact talent not too far away from the big leagues and the system figures to only get stronger as more talent is added.
Jim Callis, formally of Baseball America and current Senior Writer for MLB.com and MLBPipeline.com, graciously answered a few questions about the Cubs’ system and top prospects for ChicagoCubsOnline.
ChicagoCubsOnline: Let’s begin with the obligatory questions about the ‘Big Four’ hitting prospects in the Cubs’ system. What are your impressions of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler? Do you see any of the four making his big league debut in 2014? Are there any makeup or maturity issues?
Jim Callis: That’s the best foursome of hitting prospects in any farm system. I could see both Baez and Bryant making it to Wrigley Field if the Cubs so choose, though the big league club won’t contend in 2014 and they may not want to start service-time clocks ticking. Baez and Soler can be more flamboyant than scouts like at times, and Soler’s focus can wander, but there’s nothing glaring from a makeup/maturity standpoint.
CCO: Defensively, where do you see each player ending up if/when he makes it to the majors? And, do you feel the Cubs have handed the position question with Baez properly?
JC: Assuming that Starlin Castro remains at shortstop for the long term, I think Baez will move to third base and the outfield from left to right will be Bryant, Almora, Soler. Baez can play a decent shortstop but can be a Gold Glover at third base. Bryant can make it work at third base but isn’t as good as Baez. Almora should be a Gold Glover in center. Speaking of Castro, the best shortstop on the big league roster is probably Darwin Barney, but that’s another story.
CCO: Is there a position player or two in the system that might be flying under most radar that you are high on?
JC: A year ago, I would have said Arismendy Alcantara, because a lot of fans were surprised when I ranked him No. 10 on Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects list. But after his breakout, he’s no longer under the radar at all. Not sure if he’s truly under the radar, but Christian Villanueva does get lost in the shuffle among Cubs third-base prospects with Baez, Bryant and Jeimer Candelario. He’s a solid hitter with good defensive ability, and his power took a step forward this year.
CCO: For years, Cubs fans heard about the next big prospect on the horizon. Why should these players be viewed differently from the likes of Corey Patterson or Felix Pie?
JC: Both Patterson and Pie were pushed aggressively through the system without ever being forced to address their weaknesses. Neither performed in the upper minors like Baez has. Neither had close to the power Bryant has.
CCO: The argument could be made there is more pitching in the system than has been recognized. Who are the pitching prospects that have impressed you the most? What are your thoughts on Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards? And does Edwards end up in a big league rotation or in a bullpen?
JC: The new regime has amassed more pitching depth than existed before it got there. The two best pitching prospects in the system are Edwards and Johnson, both of whom have frontline-starter stuff. With Edwards, the concern would be whether he’s sturdy enough to hold up over a full season of starts, year after year. I wouldn’t bet against him though.
CCO: Is there a pitching prospect or two that we should keep an eye on?
JC: I really liked a couple of the Cubs’ middle-round picks in the 2013 draft, fifth-rounder Trey Masek and fourth-rounder Tyler Skulina. They were both kept on a short leash in their pro debuts but I thought they were steals where the Cubs got them.
CCO: How much of an impact do you think Derek Johnson made with the Cubs’ system last year?
JC: That’s hard to say precisely — the results won’t bear out at the major league level for a while. But I will say that he was a tremendously respected college pitching coach at Vanderbilt and I’ve heard nothing but good things about him in pro ball.
CCO: There are several former top prospects in the system that are not viewed as highly as they once were. Players like Mike Olt, Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson and right hander Arodys Vizcaino. It sounds like Mike Olt will compete for the starting third base job in the spring. Do you think Olt is ready for the majors if the vision and concussion issues are behind him?
JC: The more scouts I talk to, the more concerns I hear about whether Olt can get back to where he was before he got beaned in the Dominican Winter League last offseason. I’d be kind of surprised if he broke camp as the Cubs’ third baseman. I think he needs to take it slow and get back on track in Triple-A before expecting him to do anything at the major league level.
CCO: The Cubs moved Josh Vitters from third base to left field, do you think he has a future in the big leagues as a utility player with a similar career path as Jeff Baker? Or do you think he could still be an everyday player?
JC: I don’t think he’s as athletic or versatile as Baker. Vitters is still relatively young, but I see him as a platoon bat/extra guy at best.
CCO: What are your thoughts on Brett Jackson? He is working with his college coach this winter trying to get back on track. He has the tools and is only 25 years old.
JC: Jackson has regressed terribly the last two years. I’d be surprised if he becomes the solid regular he once looked like he’d become.
CCO: Scouts loved the stuff Arodys Vizcaino had before Tommy John surgery, do you think his future is as a reliever or a starter if the Cubs can get him back on a mound?
JC: Vizcaino has had problems staying healthy. He has the stuff to start but has yet to prove he can handle the workload in the rotation. I believe the Cubs will try to develop him as a starter, and if he can’t do that, he could become a closer.
CCO: While the rankings are important, if you had to place a bet today, which prospect would you put your money on to have the best big league career?
JC: I think Baez is the Cubs’ best prospect, but Bryant is a safer bet to be a big league star, if that makes sense. And Almora has a higher floor than either of them.
CCO: One of the concerns continually brought up by our readers is over management continuing to target players and other personnel from Boston and San Diego. Is this a legitimate concern or just good practice?
JC: I think executives always like players they’re familiar with or drafted/signed with other organizations. But I don’t think the Cubs are myopic in this way or that it’s a concern.
CCO: What would you say is the biggest different in the Cubs’ organization under the current ownership and front office from three to four years ago?
JC: The new regime has been given a mandate to rebuild, while the old regime had a mandate to win now. It will take some time to turn the Cubs back into a contender, but I believe they have a capable management team and are on the right track.
A huge ‘Thank You’ to Jim for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk Cubs’ prospects with the CCO.