With the major league ball club continuing to struggle, much of optimism surrounding the Chicago Cubs organization can be found in the minor league system, where many young players work their way to Wrigley Field.
It has been interesting first month at the minor league level as a lot of injuries have delayed the development of a lot of important prospect, including 2012 first round draft pick, Albert Almora. But as the weather has been heating up, a lot of the Cubs prospects have as well.
Here’s a look at the minor leagues by each level. All prospects ratings come from MLB.com
Iowa Cubs(AAA): Just like the major league ball club, the Iowa Cubs have had a rough start to the season with a 10-17 record. But they have had a fair share of injuries that have hurt their ball club. The main players of importance in Iowa are Brett Jackson(4 rated prospect in organization), Junior Lake(9), and Josh Vitters(14).
Brett Jackson has continued to struggle in the first month of the season. But the Cubs hope that injuries were the reason for that. He was recently placed in the disabled list so hopefully some time to heal will do him some good. In 64ABs, Jackson has a poor .219 average with 24 strikeouts. But nine walks has his OBP up to .315. We are starting to learn more about what Jackson will turn into and that’s a good fielder, with good speed, and some power when he does make contact. The problem that haunts Jackson is the strikeout totals. With David DeJesus possibly being traded mid season, Jackson has a good chance of returning to Chicago in July, if he is healthy.
Junior Lake has been out all season as he continues to rehab a rib injury that he suffered in spring training. Bad timing for Lake to go down with an injury after a solid spring training and a chance for him to see some action in the majors later this season. I still see him getting called up in September if he returns to action sometime in May and continues to produce.
Josh Vitters also has struggled with injuries and is probably one of the more disappointing Cubs prospects of the last decade. Many scouts predicted that Vitters would be the Cubs everyday third baseman by now but that is far from the case. Vitters returned to Iowa this year after having a great deal of struggles in the big leagues last August and September. However, Vitters has finally seem some action after recovering form injury. On Sunday, Vitters broke out in a double header as he went 5-9 with a home run and backed that performance with another long ball on Monday. If Vitters can find his swing in the next few months, he will get another shot with the Cubs if Lake does not pass him up. Unless Louis Valbuena or Ian Stewart are playing really well(which probably won’t be the case), the Cubs will give Vitters another shot.
Away from the big name prospects, the most impressive player in Iowa so far has been Brian Bogusevic. The 29 year old left fielder was a a first round pick by the Astros in 2005 but never lived up to his high selection. But given a fresh start with the Cubs, Bogusevic has batted a phenomenal .419 in 93 at-bats. He could get a shot on the big league roster if the Cubs trade David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz are dealt away at the trade deadline.
Tennessee Smokies(AA): The Smokies have had an average start to the season with a 15-14 record. Tennessee is home to five of the Cubs top 20 prospects and most have them have been pretty successful early into the season.
Christian Villanueva(8) is the highest rated Cubs prospect in Double A but has had the most struggles of any the high tier prospects on the Smokies roster. The Cubs acquired Villanueva from the Texas Rangers last year at the trade deadline. Being a third baseman, he did not have a very good shot of passing up Mike Olt in Texas so it was a good for him to join a new organization. However, Villanueva has not started 2013 the way he wanted to, posting a .202 average with 25 strikeouts. Hopefully Christian can turn he season around as summer approaches.
Matt Szczur(10) broke MLB.com’s top 100 prospects last season but fell out of that list after a poor second half of the season after being called up the Double A. Szczur is probably the most athletic of the Cubs prospects to watch. He plays in center right not but can play any of the outfield positions. After a hot start, his average has dipped down to .259 but his OBP still sits at .333. Hopefully Szczur turns into a solid leadoff hitter in the big leagues as he is a patient hitter that can steal bases.
Jae-Hoon Ha(12) has been one of the most impressive prospects in the Cubs organization so far this year. Also a versatile outfielder for Tennesse, Ha has posted a .305 average with an even more impressive .408 OBP. Jae-Hoon is not as well known as some of the bigger name prospects, but if he continues a strong season, he could easily move up the ladder within the organization. Ha is also one of those guys that the Cubs need to have a breakout year to increase trade value.
Alberto Cabrera(18) was sent back down to the Double A level after making his major league debut out of the Cubs pen last year. He pitched 21.2 innings for the Cubs last year but has returned to his starting role this year for the Smokies. Cabrera has had an average start to the season, posting a 3.31 ERA Pitching is very thin for the Cubs at the minor league level so a big year could make him stand out amongst the Cubs brass.
Arismendy Alcantara(20) is one of those prospects the Cubs haven been waiting for the breakout. Being a shortstop, Alcantara will have a very slim shot of every making it to Chicago. He is still only 21 years old so he is certainly a prospect the Cubs could be trying to trade in the next year or so. Just like Ha, the Cubs need a player like Alcantara to breakout to increase his value. He currently features a .236 average with four home runs,14 RBIs, and 12 stolen bases. As you can see from his numbers, Arismendy has a mix of speed and power which is always valuable, plus he is a switch hitter.
Daytona Cubs(A+): Daytona has probably been the most watched Cubs minor league team this season as Javier Baez(1) and Jorge Soler(3) have begun the year there.
Jaiver Baez was sent the High A after having an explosive spring training. The youngster certainly grabbed the attention of all Cubs fans with all the home runs he hit, but he certainly has a lot of developing to do before reaching the big leagues. Being the Cubs top prospect, Baez can hit for power and average, is a great fielder, and has above average speed. He got off to a slow start in April but his average is up to .237 after sitting under .200 for a while. Despite the low average, Baez still has five home runs and 20 runs driven in. The Cubs main point of emphasis for Baez is patience and he continues to struggle with that this season. In 119 at-bats, Javier has 39 strikeouts with just five walks. Whether the Cubs will keep Baez at shortstop or switch his position remains unknown but the earliest Baez will be in Chicago is the latter portion of the 2014 season.
Jorge Soler has been better then Baez but has had his fair share of issues. Soler was recently suspended for five games because he approached the visitors dugout with a bat after some arguing between him and players of an opposing team. The Cubs brass immediately addressed the issue with Jorge. After a very hot start, Soler had cooled off lately. On monday night, Soler had his best game in a while, going 2-4 with a home run and a triple.
Soler is a further ahead in his development than Baez and you can bet to see to him in Chicago first. His approach at the plate is very good as he has 11 walks with just 14 strikeouts. If Soler continues to play well as he progress through different levels of the minor leagues, Soler could find himself making his major league debut next June or July. But just like Baez, it may not be until 2015 to see him at Wrigley.
Kane County Cougars(A): Kane County is in its first year as an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs and has had a lot of excitement surrounding the ball club with a lot of great play by the Cubs prospects.
Pierce Johnson(7) was selected in the first round of the 2012 MLB draft. After a rough opening day outing where he gave up five earned runs in two and a third innings, Johnson has been lights out ever since. In his past four outings, he has only allowed three earned runs over 21.3 innings. Another impressive stat for Pierce is that he has only walked seven hitter while striking out 25. In my opinion, Johnson is the best pitching prospect the Cubs have since Arodys Vizcaino and Dillion Maples have a lot of injury problems.
Dan Vogelbach(11) is a very popular prospect with his big size and strength. He has had a great season so far with a .299 average with five home runs and 20 RBIs. With all prospect, plate discipline is a key area of focus and Vogelbach has been very good as he had drawn 14 walks. Since the Cubs have Anthony Rizzo as their current and future first baseman, Vogelbach will probably be a piece in a big trade as the Cubs will look to trade for an all-star as they begin to contend in a few years.
There are a lot more low tier prospects worthy of mention but that will be covered more in depth in a future article. As I mentioned, The Cubs have a lot of prospects who are still rehabbing injuries so they haven’t begun action yet this season. Expect to see Albert Almora and Junior Lake back on the field in late May.
The Cubs Low A team, the Boise Hawks also begin their season in June as well.