02/08/12 10:30 AM EST
Cubs organization preview, Top 20 Prospects
By Ismail Soyugenc / MLB.com
Theo Epstein's arrival has reshaped more than the Cubs' front office.
His first hire, GM Jed Hoyer, made a trio of trades that showed the new brass wasn't tied to the players it inherited, moving two former first-round picks and a top setup man to infuse the system with young talent.
The marquee addition was first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who, if he pans out, is the type of player a team can build around.
"I think he's a leader, and he's someone who can help put this organization and our team on the right path as far as our culture," said Hoyer on the day the Cubs traded for him. "He's a very impressive individual."
And he's obviously captured the imagination of Hoyer, Epstein and new senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod, who were working side by side in Boston in 2007 when they drafted Rizzo in the sixth round of the First-Year Player Draft. Hoyer acquired him again in 2009, when as Padres GM he made sure Rizzo was part of the Adrian Gonzalez trade with the Red Sox.
The pursuit is understandable. Rizzo has hit everywhere he's played -- except in the Majors. He struggled last season in his first callup, hitting .141 in 128 at-bats while striking out 46 times. But that blip hasn't deterred the Cubs' enthusiasm for the 22-year-old slugger, who produced a 1.056 OPS in 356 Triple-A at-bats in 2011.
While the Rizzo deal gave the system a potential star, the trade of Sean Marshall to Cincinnati provided depth. Projected for the rotation, Travis Wood was the big name for Chicago in that deal, but outfielder Dave Sappelt was the Reds' Minor League Player of the Year in 2010 and infielder Ronald Torreyes, while undersized, has hit .364 over 627 combined at-bats at the Rookie and Low Class A levels.
Epstein referenced the future when announcing that trade with the Reds, saying he believed it had gotten brighter. By adding three players this offseason that ended up cracking the Cubs' Top 20 Prospect list, he could be right.
Top 20 prospects
Rizzo, who's ranked as MLB.com's No. 1 first-base prospect, may have bumped Brett Jackson from the top of the Cubs' list, but Jackson may get to Wrigley first. The outfielder possesses all the tools, and he could develop into a legitimate power-speed threat at the big league level. Expect to see Jackson in front of the ivy before the season's through.
While Jackson can handle center field, the Cubs probably hope he eventually slides to left to make room for Matt Szczur, who would have been an NFL draft pick if he hadn't decided to pursue baseball. His makeup is off the charts, and he's a plus defender who could develop some pop as he matures.
Between Jackson and Szczur on the Cubs' list is 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez. The shortstop is a talented hitter who will likely move from short eventually, especially if Starlin Castro remains in front of him.
A quintet of pitchers populate the back end of the Cubs' Top 10, with Dillon Maples one of the more intriguing players in the system. Expected to play college ball, the hard-throwing righty signed out of high school, with the Cubs offering an aggressive deal. He sports a mid-90s fastball and a good curve, and he'll make his pro debut this year at age 19.
Torreyes and Sappelt are among the second 10 of the Cubs' best prospects, as is Dan Vogelbach, a second-round pick last year who has the type of power that makes you squint trying to track it. He impressed at the plate in Rookie Ball, but he'll need to stay in shape to realize his potential.
Also among the Top 20 is 2007 first-round pick Josh Vitters. He's had his ups and downs since coming out as one of the top high school hitters in the country, but last year he seemed to start putting it back together after an injury-plagued previous season.
cubs' top prospects
Under the Radar
Hard to say a guy is under the radar when he's given $7 million, but Gerardo Concepcion wasn't on many before he agreed to a multiyear contract with the Cubs. Though his deal has yet to be announced, once it becomes official the 19-year-old Cuban likely becomes the Cubs' best left-handed prospect -- and he's yet to throw a pitch in the Minors. Named the Cuban Rookie of the Year in 2010-11, Concepcion sports a low-90s fastball with life, but he has work to do on his secondary offerings. He'll probably begin his U.S. pro career at Class A, but if he harnesses his talent, he could be a fast riser.
Concepcion may be the Cubs' best lefty prospect, but the system isn't devoid of southpaw potential. Keep an eye on Austin Kirk. At first glance it may seem he struggled last year at Class A Peoria, but his secondary numbers (1.19 WHIP, 2.3 BB/9) were strong as he turned in a career-high 151 innings. He also tossed a no-hitter.
Hitter of the Year
Baez has as pure a swing as there is in the organization, and he'll get a chance to prove it in his first full year in pro ball. He gets overaggressive at times, but he's only 19, and his plus bat speed should enable him to hit for average and power. He won't be rushed, which means he'll definitely be in the Minors the full year, something that can't be said for the Cubs' other top position prospects.
Pitcher of the Year
If right-hander Ben Wells can make it to Wrigley one day, his repertoire should play well there, as he has a sinking mid-90s fastball that's very difficult to lift. At 6-foot-2, and 220 pounds, Wells' frame belies his being only 19. He's got good command and knows how to pitch, and he could move fast in a system devoid of top-flight arms at the upper levels.
Ismail Soyugenc is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.