If there’s anything the Cubs have beaten to death, it’s that they’ve built up an elite farm system. Whether it’s on MLB Network, over the radio waves, or at the Fan Convention in front of a throng of season ticket holders, conversations with Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod begin with the same talking point: that prodigious list of prospects.
It’s not just because the big-league club has had little to showcase (sorry, Justin Ruggiano). It’s because the farm system the Cubs have loaded up through the draft, trading and the international market is a division contender starter set, a deep and talented core around which the next North Side pennant winner will be built.
The question isn’t whether all of the prospects will pan out, or whether they’re all going to flame out. Some will have terrific careers, some will become simply decent players, and a few, most definitely, will be afterthoughts in a few years. Time, as always, will tell.
Instead, let’s take a cursory look at all those prospect rankings across the baseball community. Let’s see where the scouting experts agree on Cubs prospects and where they disagree. Let’s see which kids they love and which kids they don’t.
Below is a composite chart of the top 100 prospects in baseball across five independent scouting outlets, stripping out all prospects who aren’t Cubs property. The rankings featured are those of FanGraphs, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and Keith Law of ESPN:
Kris Bryant/Addison Russell
Literally right off the top, we see a clear tier.
Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are universally considered top-five prospects, with the only debate being which is slightly more valuable. FanGraphs, Baseball America, MLB.com and Keith Law are all rolling with Team Bryant, while Baseball Prospectus is a one-man Team Russell.
The next visual to stick out is that everybody really likes Jorge Soler, to generally the same extent. This isn’t exactly surprising, since Soler’s short-but-terrific 2014 stint with the big-league club smoothed a lot of the risk in his profile.
FanGraphs, Baseball America and Keith Law all slot Soler in the 12-13 range, and the closest thing to an outlier is MLB.com’s ranking of 23. Considering that Soler was widely labeled as recently as a year ago as the Cubs prospect most likely to flame out, it’s a stroke of good fortune that he’s now considered a consensus upper-tier prospect.
After Soler is where things get unwieldy and consensus becomes elusive.
Schwarber is the next prospect to get on the map, cracking the top 25 for FanGraphs and Baseball America, who stick their respective necks out for the Schwarbomber (royalty check’s in the mail, Evan). That’s no surprise, as it’s been documented by this here blogger that Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs envisions occasional starts at catcher for Schwarber, while Baseball America slapped the Best Power Hitter and Best Overall Hitter labels on him in its 2014 MLB Draft retrospective.
Less high on Schwarber, at least for now, are the other three scouting outlets. And it’s understandable; Schwarber’s power and approach might draw universal praise, but the positional projection is where the skeptics pull back the excitement. If it turns out he simply can’t competently work behind the plate or in left, the value of that bat will dip quite a bit. That’s where the cautiousness kicks in.
Almora also polarizes the scouts, but for entirely different reasons. Baseball Prospectus, which has long gushed about his makeup, bat-to-ball ability and instincts in center, is the only outlet to slide Almora into its top 50. In fact, MLB.com is the only other outlet to slot him anywhere near that range, at 58. FanGraphs sneaks Almora in the back end of its top 100, and Keith Law and Baseball America simply keep him off their respective lists, though we’re not sure exactly how far off.
The recent drop in Almora’s stock makes plenty of sense. Yes, he’s still a month away from legally being able to buy booze. And by most accounts, he’s also taken his setbacks – in health and performance alike – in stride. The problem, though, is a potentially big one: as Baseball Prospectus recently highlighted, no big-name prospect comes even close to Almora’s virtually non-existent walk rate. And, as the article points out, it gets worse:
More strikingly, there are literally no current major leaguers who walked as infrequently in the minors as Almora has as a professional. [And] it’s trending the wrong direction, declining at each full-season level he’s reached, from 6.3 percent in Low-A in 2013 to 3.1 percent in High-A at the start of 2014 to 1.4 percent in Double-A after his promotion.
Can Almora push the reset button on his approach? Possibly, because time is still on his side. However, if he isn’t able to rein in that aggressiveness in Tennessee, he’ll have to develop into an absolute base-hit machine to bring his profile back in line with the lofty draft status.
Edwards is essentially as polarizing for the scouting community as Almora. Baseball America and MLB.com were always high on the kid, and they continue to be. Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs is a relatively big fan as well, saying the ingredients are there for a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law, however, are a lot more reserved. They have their reasons, not the least of which are Edwards’ durability and whether he’s able to put some real weight on that frame. Moreover, while the stuff is undeniable, there are real concerns as to whether it can show up consistently.
Billy McKinney/Pierce Johnson
What’s more “fringe-top-1oo” than cracking the list on two of out five scouting outlets? That’s where McKinney sits, as he receives rankings of 81 and 83, respectively, from Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America. Not bad for a throw-in to a trade that, even with without him, was already a total fleecing.
For good measure, Johnson comfortably makes it on to Baseball Prospectus’ rankings, slotting in at 82. The others aren’t quite as high on him, though FanGraphs does peg Johnson at 125 overall on its ambitious top 200 list. Not bad for a supplemental-round pick.
Now, how would things look if we input the data from those five sets of rankings into a chart? Well, something like this:
This chart is sorted by median ranking, or in other words, the center-most value of the five sets of rankings per player. Not that the rest of it needs much explanation, but “highest” means highest ranking given from any of the scouting outlets, and “lowest” meaning the opposite.
Unsurprisingly, the baseball community is in relative lockstep on Bryant, Russell and Soler. All three prospects are universally ranked high up each respective board, with very narrow gaps between the “highest” and “lowest” rankings. That suggests very low-risk profiles for all three, something Cubs fans can take comfort in as Javier Baez, the epitome of a boom-or-bust talent, continues to climb an incredibly steep learning curve with his pitch recognition.
The disparities with the other five prospects across these lists, though, are significant. In some cases, they’re eye-opening. Edwards is man-crushed by one outlet, yet he’s also a relative afterthought for a couple others. The same goes for Almora.
On the flipside, it says everything about the strength and depth of this Cubs farm system that Billy McKinney and Pierce Johnson even crack the top 100 in any of the scouting outlets, let alone two (McKinney). Think about that. The Cubs, in the aggregate, are rolling eight deep on top-100-type prospects, and that’s without the inclusion of the recently graduated Baez and Arismendy Alcantara.
With names like Gleyber Torres, Carson Sands, Justin Steele and Jake Stinnett percolating below the surface, there’s a reasonable chance that future charts like the one near the top of this article will be decorated with just as many colorful ornaments.
It’s a prospect stampede, in technicolor.