|The Cubs still hope Brett Jackson can become the center fielder of the future. (AP)|
Prior to the start of the season, we'll highlight a few players in each team's minor-league system to let you know which players you should be paying attention to throughout the year. These aren't meant to be comprehensive top-prospect lists, but should provide a look at some key players within each team's organization.
Jim Hendry's Chicago Cubs spent their last four years trying to compete in vain with an old and overpriced roster. After a year under new president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, the stage is set for a youth revolution. Alfonso Soriano remains as a final taunting vestige of Hendry's failures, but the Cubs' farm system has been stocked with young impact talent. Wait for next year is still the rallying cry on the North Side, but the proverbial next year is starting to look a whole lot brighter.
2013 Impact Player
The particularly enviable parts of the Cubs' farm system currently sit in the low minors -- the proverbial next year is probably more like two or three years away. Of those ready to contribute in 2013, Jackson is the best -- assuming you don't count Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa as a prospect. Many publications do, but I don't -- he is, after all, 32.
After torching the Pacific Coast League -- as most good prospects do -- in 154 games between 2011 and 2012, Jackson earned 44 games with the Cubs last season. It was a mighty disappointment for the 2009 first-round pick, as Jackson hit .175/.303/.342 in 142 plate appearances. He could disguise his strikeout issues in the hitter's paradise of the PCL -- he managed an .855 OPS despite striking out 222 times in 682 plate appearances (32.5 percent).
The combination of better pitchers and less forgiving fences left him impotent in the major leagues -- he struck out 59 times, a whopping 41.5 percent of plate appearances, and not even 22 walks (a great 15.5 percent rate) or an above-average .167 isolated power (SLG-AVG) could save his season. The positive is the secondary skills of power and patience remained even as he struggled to make contact in the majors. He has a big job in paring down the strikeouts to an acceptable level, but if he does, his discipline, power and speed can make him a good major league player.
Baez's high school stats can best be described as "hilarious" -- he hit .711 with 20 home runs as a senior, and his performance and obvious talent pushed him high enough on draft boards to land with the Cubs as the ninth pick of the 2011 draft. Now, Baez rates as the Cubs' top prospect with five above-average to great tools. He projects as a slick-fielding shortstop with pop.
The Cubs' development staff is tasked with reining in Baez's obviously immense talent. He hit .333/.383/.596 in his first full-season action at Low-A Peoria in 2012, including 12 home runs, incredible power numbers for a 19-year-old middle infielder. But his wild approach was exposed by the more experienced pitchers in the High-A Florida State League and again in the Arizona Fall League. Baez hit .188/.244/.400 at FSL Daytona and .211/.250/.456 in the AFL. The power was still impressive -- eight home runs in 37 games -- but his willingness to swing at everything will be the limiting factor as he progresses.
Baez's talent is apparent, and just a few tweaks should have the 20-year-old progressing up the organizational ladder with alacrity. In a league bereft of quality bats at shortstop, players with Baez's potential are to be treasured.
If it weren't for injuries, Vizcaino likely would have occupied the first spot in this spotlight. As is, Vizcaino's recovery from Tommy John and reacclimation with professional baseball could keep him in Triple-A for 2013, leaving his debut in either the Cubs' rotation or bullpen for 2014.
If Vizcaino returns from his injury with the form he showed in 2011 as a 20-year-old, the Cubs may have themselves the steal of the 2012 trading deadline. Vizcaino had a 3.06 ERA in 26 appearances (17 starts) across three levels in 2011 and 100 strikeouts in 97 innings. He has a fastball ranging from 93-97 MPH and Baseball America says it might not even be his best pitch -- a scary thought, but his sharp curveball is the true strikeout weapon. The Cubs only gave up fourth outfielder Reed Johnson and mid-rotation starter Paul Maholm for Vizcaino -- a trifle if Vizcaino hits his ceiling.
Although pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery have a strong track record upon return, Vizcaino has to prove he's able to handle a starter's load. If he can't, he still has great potential as a closer. His front-line fastball and breaking ball should only play better in the bullpen. The Cubs should have no trouble finding use for him even if he doesn't quite live up to his full potential.