It’s an exciting time to be a Cubs fan. The annually optimistic fans, whose resilience each spring has withstood a century of torture, have genuine reason to be positive, with new ownership firmly in place and a new front office that has experience turning around cursed franchises.
That’s the kind of stuff fans cling to—ideas like a general manager actually having the ability to undo curses, and that there are curses in the first place. But, in addition to the hope that Theo Epstein arrived on the North Side with some kind of anti-goat wizardry, there is a nice little farm system that could have a little more to do with turning things around at Wrigley.
Notice I didn’t say best. The Cubs farm system is not the best. In fact, if I ranked the entire league, the Cubs would probably land somewhere in the middle of the pack. But they do have some intriguing prospects who could be solid regulars and a few potential impact players.
The best trait of the Cubs system is the proximity of most of their top prospects to the majors. Third baseman Josh Vitters, shortstop Junior Lake, and pitchers Trey Mcnutt and Rafael Dolis have all appeared at Double-A or higher. And the best of all of their prospects, outfielder Brett Jackson, got 185 at-bats in Triple-A last year and should be ready for the majors at some point in 2012.
I’m higher on Jackson than a lot of people. After being drafted out of Cal, Jackson got the “good at everything, not great at anything label,” which can be a positive assessment for some, but typically comes with a ceiling somewhere below star player.
Jackson fell to the Cubs at the end of the first round in 2009 because scouts were concerned whether he would make enough contact at the professional level. He’s had some issues with strikeouts, but he’s been productive in spite of it and he’s shown no reason yet why that won’t continue. His power/speed production combo puts him in rare company in the minor leagues, and the only real knock on him is that his inconsistencies making contact could make him a .270-.280 hitter rather than a true five-tool guy.
Luckily, these issues don’t have anything to do with over-aggressiveness. Jackson still takes enough walks to post above-average on-base percentages.
Once in the majors, he should be good for a solid prime of .275 with 30 doubles, 20 homers and 15 steals. The only center fielders in the game who did that last season were Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury.
Jackson isn’t quite in their class, but he’s going to be an above-average player. If we search for the same criteria among all outfielders, we add Ryan Braun, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur to the list.
I like Gordon as a decent comparison to what Jackson could become, but with the ability to play center field. Gordon hit .300 this season, and Jackson might do that once or twice in his career, but he should come in just below that. But given his ability to play center field, a few points lower in batting average is a fair trade off for the Cubs.
Jackson is the club’s top prospect, but the development of the rest of the aforementioned crew from the upper minors will go a long way in determining the success of the Cubs. Vitters, for instance, was the club’s first-round pick in 2008, and while he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, he did have his best all-around year in 2011 and could still be the team’s third baseman of the future within the next year or two.
Lake has yet to put it all together for an entire season, but he’s shown flashes of tools worth getting excited about, and his performance in the Arizona Fall League this past year has left the team excited. He won’t be a shortstop in Chicago with Starlin Castro around, but he could hop across the second base bag and man the keystone if he shows enough offensive consistency.
On the mound, Dolis has been a starter throughout most of his professional career, but could be an impact reliever in the back of the Cubs bullpen by the end of 2012. McNutt is slated to head back to Double-A after a disappointing 2011 season, but the minute he turns it back around and looks like the 2010 version of himself, he could be fast-tracked to Chicago.
But the Cubs’ depth doesn’t just reside at the top of their system. They have some legitimate talent in the lower levels as well. They spent a lot of money to buy Matt Szczur out of a potential football career, and he made it look like a good decision in his first full season of professional ball. He should head back for more at-bats in the Florida State League, where he spent the second half of last season, and he should only get better as he makes the transition from athlete to baseball player.
The Cubs first-round pick in 2011 was yet another shortstop, Javier Baez, a prep prospect from Jacksonville, Fla. In a draft that had a number of strong prep shortstops, Baez was a good fit for the Cubs, as a strong bat that might outgrow the position. Given that the Cubs have Castro at short, they could afford to draft an impact hitter who might have to change positions.
Others to watch
Logan Watkins: As a player without any power to speak of and no true position on the field, Watkins still profiles as someone who has some value for a big league club. He’s held his own at shortstop, while also playing second base, third base and both corner outfield spots. He has doubles and triples power, good speed, and enough versatility that he should be able to carve out a utility role on a big league club. He’s continuing to refine his game, and should head to Double-A next year, meaning he might be ready for that utility role around the time the Cubs are getting competitive.
Daniel Vogelbach:Big boy, big power. The Cubs’ second-round pick in 2011 is a first baseman with all his value tied into his bat. He got only 24 at-bats after signing, so there’s no telling how it’s going to turn out just yet, so this season will tell us which direction Vogelbach’s career is headed. At 18 years old, he’s already had weight issues, but if he can keep things under control, he should hit, and has plenty of power to play at first base.