If you’re unsure as to which team may be more exciting to watch in April, the Chicago Cubs or the Iowa Cubs, you’re not alone. A Triple-A infield featuring Kris Bryant, Addison Russell (who hasn’t been assigned to a level, but is likely heading to Des Moines), and Javier Baez is arguably better than what the big-league Cubs will have with their middle infield and third base trio. This may be the most intriguing minor-league baseball team to watch, of my time at least. They’re right up there with the 2005 Portland Sea Dogs roster that showcased future big-league talents Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, and Jonathan Papelbon.
Our BP Prospect staff has tabbed the Chicago Cubs as the organization with the best farm system in baseball, with seven prospects in the BP Top 101 and Russell and Bryant ranked second and fifth, respectively. This gives fans in Des Moines the opportunity to watch two of the 2015 top five prospects in baseball, and on top of that, a prospect who made last year’s top five in Baez.
Investing so heavily in prospects can be dangerous, but the Cubs have done it, and the upside is there. We know they’ll be loaded at the Triple-A level with top prospects who have played well in the minors, and who could likely arrive at the major-league level at some point this season. Let’s take a look at the prospects to watch in Triple-A, and some interesting things to keep our eyes on.
Kris Bryant, 3B
Bryant hit .325/.438/.661 between Double- and Triple-A last season. He slugged 22 home runs in 68 games at the Double-A level while producing an ISO of .347, which is better than most players’ average. He also slugged 21 home runs in 70 games at the Triple-A level, while producing another outstanding .324 ISO. When Bryant makes contact, he does severe damage. This leads us to the one concern offensively for Bryant: He strikes out quite a bit. He struck out 27.3 percent of the time last season between the two levels. Another alarming statistic was his contact percentage. Bryant made contact less than 65 percent of the time. That’s only 2 percent better than Baez, and we’re all well aware of his contact issues.
Strikeout rates can stabilize in less than 100 plate appearances, so his alarming strikeout and contact rates are the main—and only, when we’re talking about the bat—concerns when he gets the call up to Chicago. However, he does draw walks at a very respectable rate as his BB% was 14.5 percent last season. If his strikeout rate and contact percentage are going to stay relatively the same, then he needs to continue to maximize his power and keen eye, which I suspect he will. He has power to all fields and like I said, when he makes contact, it’s of tremendous quality. He’s still young, so his contact problems can still be resolved, but if they stay relatively the same, he can still succeed. Giancarlo Stanton profiles similar to Bryant, and he’s doing quite well.
By now, we all know why the Cubs assigned Kris Bryant to the minors. Sure, the fans, Scott Boras, and Bryant himself, wanted him in the lineup on Opening Night, but can you really blame the Cubs for making the decision to assign him to the minors? What is a few weeks in April compared to another full season of control through the 2021 season? He could use a little work on the defensive side in Triple-A, but that’s a rather minor thing when looking at Bryant. He showed us in spring training what he could do against big-league pitching, so we should expect him to get the call-up to Chicago very soon.
Addison Russell, SS
Our BP Prospect Staff has pegged Russell as the No. 2 prospect in baseball, even higher than Bryant. Russell—a 2011 first-round pick—missed the beginning of the 2014 season due to a hamstring injury, and ended up appearing in 63 games at the Double-A level between the A’s and Cubs organizations, where he put together a slash line of .297/.353/.513. He only had six stolen bases in 2014, but has shown signs of plus speed in the minors with 17 stolen bases in only 55 games in 2012, and 21 steals in 110 games in 2013.
Russell lost quite a bit of weight at the end of his high-school career so he could improve his quickness and stay at shortstop. He flashes above-average tools across the board. He has great hands and footwork that project to be an above-average shortstop at the major-league level, and would be an improvement defensively from Castro. But if the Cubs want to keep Castro at short, Russell could possibly see a move to third base, assuming the Cubs want to move Bryant to the outfield. Should he move to third, we could see him put on the extra weight which could lead to an increase to his in-game power.
He’s still young, so another full season in the minors can help him tremendously, but there are those who believe he could be up in the bigs by July. Russell projects to be a .280 hitter with 20-plus home runs, and above-average speed at the big-league level, which makes him an exciting prospect to keep your eye on, especially if he sticks at shortstop. Determining his defensive position is one of the more interesting stories for this upcoming season.
Javier Baez, 2B
Baez has the physical makeup that is almost unparalleled in baseball. His confidence can be seen at the plate, and he looks to be swinging for the fences with every blow. He has tremendous bat speed and tremendous power, but one major downside: His plate discipline needs a lot of work.
Baez was optioned to Triple-A to start the season, and it really didn’t come as much of a surprise. To say Baez struggled in his call-up to Chicago in 2014 would be an understatement. In 52 games for Chicago, Baez put together a .169/.227/.324 slash line that he paired with a disastrous 41.5 percent strikeout rate. He chased pitches outside of the strike zone 39.2 percent of the time, but only made contact on them 39.7 percent of the time. Of major leaguers with at least 200 plate appearances, Baez had the lowest contact percentage at 59.2 percent. His free swinging ways resulted in pitchers only throwing pitches inside the strike zone 40.3 percent of the time, which was again the lowest among big-league hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. He’s a free swinger who has seriously struggled to make consistent contact.
With his approach, one would assume Baez would dominate fastballs, and struggle against off-speed pitches low and away. Well, Baez really struggled against the fastball in his short stint in the big leagues. According to PITCHf/x, he only produced a .100 average against fastballs, coupled with a .114 ISO. He especially struggled against the high fastball. Here are his whiffs per swing against the fastball during his stint in Chicago.
He really struggled against fastballs on the outer portion of the plate, and up in the zone. Baez often drops his back leg when swinging, which creates an uppercut in his swing. We can largely attribute his high fastball struggles to this mechanical flaw. We originally thought Baez would struggle against off-speed pitches, especially low and away. This turned out to be true. Baez had a 61.9 percent and 60.6 percent whiff/swing on changeups and curves, respectively.
The demotion to Triple-A will give Baez time to work on his mechanics and improve his plate discipline. He has an extremely high ceiling, and Cubs fans can only hope he makes the adjustments and taps into his potential.
C.J. Edwards, RHP
We’ve talked about the offensive prospects, and many are aware of who they are. But, for those who aren’t well acquainted with the Cubs organization, C.J. Edwards is a guy who flies under the radar. Edwards is a 23 year-old, 6-foot-2, 155-pound righty with a very thin frame. A 48th-round pick out of high school, the Cubs got him and other when they sent Matt Garza to Texas two summers ago. It’s that earlier-mentioned, rail-thin frame that is his biggest question mark. Many scouts fear that he will not put on the necessary muscle and weight to sustain a 200-inning season. However, he has great command and his stuff projects to be a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher at the major-league level. He has three pitches that project to be average big-league pitches. His fastball is fairly straight and sits 91-95. He throws a big curve that sits near 80, and a change that sits 82-86.
Edwards was the organization’s No. 5 prospect going into last season, but he missed much of last season with a shoulder strain, which only adds to the concerns that his body will not be able to sustain the innings required from a major-league starter. The skinny righty will be moving to the bullpen to start the season, and a solid reliever is exactly what many believe his future holds. Because of the lack of games last season, Edwards will start the season in Tennessee, but should certainly be in Triple-A at some point.
Edwards is a possible September call-up, but I’m interested in seeing if he can stay healthy and improve his strength and frame in the minors. He projects as a reliever, but should the body improve, there’s always hope he can make it as a starter. He made 10 starts at Double-A last year, posting a 2.44 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and a 1.06 WHIP. While Bryant, Russell, and Baez are the big names to watch in Triple-A, and likely to get the call-up before any other prospects, Edwards is a very intriguing pitcher who all Cubs fans should keep their eye on.
The Cubs are heavily investing in their young prospects. They have question marks, but all prospects do, because there is no such thing as a perfect prospect. The Cubs have a good chance of making the playoffs this season, and a big part of their strategy is getting positive results from their young prospects. Should Bryant, Baez, and others produce up to their abilities, the Cubs should only increase their chances of being in the mix for the playoffs.