This offseason I will be working on a series that examines the strengths and weaknesses of each of the 30 farm systems in Major League Baseball. The series will be broken up into 6 parts, with each section focusing on one division at a time. These are not prospect rankings, but rather a general outlook and a diagnosis on the overall health of the organization. I will also shed some light on some of the top prospects in each organization who are starting to generate some hype. The statistics, heights, and weights that are cited in this piece are courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. Unfortunately I will not be able to write about all of the prospects that I want to get to here, but if you have any particular questions I will be glad to answer them in the comment section.
No system in recent memory has had quite the same crop of talented young hitters, with the Royals system five years ago as the closest comparison. However, that Royals system should serve as a reminder that not all of these guys will immediately become all-stars. What makes this Cubs brigade even scarier is that so many of these guys are up-the-middle athletes. While guys like Baez, Soler, Russell, and Bryant get most of the attention, the Cubs have a second wave in the lower minors that is also extremely impressive. They grabbed some high upside international bats in last year’s July 2 market, including Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez. They also stashed away some quality arms in this past draft. The only big piece they are missing is a frontline starter, although that could be solved by a trade or free agent acquisition this winter.
Top Hitter: Kris Bryant, 3B — AGE: 22 HT: 6-2 WT: 215 B/T: R/R
Simply put, Bryant had one hell of a season. Splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A Bryant posted a triple slash of .325/.438/.661 and hit 43 home runs, edging Joey Gallo by one homer in an epic minor league home run race. Bryant also made some really good adjustments this season to his swing and approach. He elevated and narrowed his stance to the point where he looks a lot more comfortable. The stance better suits his style of hitting and really allows him to take advantage of the loft he generates from his long limbs and extremely high finish. There is still relatively little movement in his lower half, but he generates a lot of torque through his midsection. His hands follow the classic V-pattern that most sluggers his size possess, and his is especially pronounced. Given the the length and path of the swing, it is no surprise that Bryant struggles to make contact at times. Strikeout will always be part of his game, but this does not necessarily mean that he will hit for a low average. Bryant has elite control of the strike zone and a very advanced approach at the plate.
Top Pitcher: C.J. Edwards, RHP — AGE: 22 HT: 6-2 WT: 165 B/T: R/R
The former Round No. 48 pick came over to the Cubs as the centerpiece of the Matt Garza trade two summers ago. If you haven’t read the incredible story of Edwards’ career, you should stop reading this and go read that now.Edwards is extremely skinny and durability is a concern, although it looks like he is finally starting to fill out a little bit. He works in the 91-95 MPH range and has an athletic delivery, but what really sets him apart is the life on his fastball. His fastball has glove-side run and explosive life that makes it seem like it is speeding up as it approaches the plate. His curveball is inconsistent but when it is on, it is a dynamite pitch that features power and vertical depth. Edwards missed a substantial part of the season with a shoulder injury, but looked good in the Arizona Fall League.
Riser: Kyle Schwarber, C — AGE: 21 HT: 6-0 WT: 240 B/T: L/R
Schwarber played on the Cape for parts of two summers, and he was definitely one of the most fun players to watch both years. He also got off to a torrid start in his professional career and slugged at a .634 clip after signing. The swing takes some getting used to. He is built like a bowling ball, and really squats down at the plate, to the point where it looks like he is sitting down in a chair. Schwarber is country strong, with tremendous strength in his forearms and in his lower half. He incorporates that strength by using a big load that really allows him to tap into his power. Schwarber’s hands stay level through the zone and he has the ability to hit the ball to all parts of the field. He looked like a middle-of-the-order type hitter. He isn’t the most agile defender behind the plate, and I didn’t think he looked like a catcher, but catcher defense is extremely hard to evaluate and I am not going to pretend to know where his defensive home will be. If he moves out from behind the plate and focuses on hitting, he could rocket through the minors.
This is not an especially deep system and the Reds might be in trouble after 2015 when several of their big-ticket players will be eligible for free agency. But at the top there are some guys who could be impact players. Robert Stephenson headlines the system despite having a tough season in Double-A. Some of the Reds top prospects from the 2013 draft saw their stock slip in their first pro season, and the struggles of guys like Phil Ervin and Michael Lorenzen were noticeable. The Reds went college-heavy in the 2014 draft and acquired some players who could contribute relatively quickly. Ben Lively, Nick Howard, Nick Traveiso, and Daniel Corcino could all become factors in the rotation at some point, although probably in the back half.
Top Hitter: Jesse Winker, OF — AGE: 20 HT: 6-3 WT: 210 B/T: L/L
Winker had a freaky season where he suffered from a concussion and was also involved in a car accident that injured his wrist and prematurely ended his season. When he was on the field he was very effective, slugging .580 for Bakersfield and then earning a promotion to Pensacola. Winker is one of the better pure hitters in the minors. He has a very loose, handsy swing that looks rhythmical when he is in a groove. He has impressive power from the left side, but struggles a little bit and rolls over sometimes when he tries to go the opposite way. In limited action this year he drew walks at a 16 percent clip and profiles as an on-base machine. He put up stats to match the tools in the Arizona Fall League. Defensively he does not have the best reputation in the outfield, but his bat could profile at a corner spot or even first base.
Top Pitcher: Robert Stephenson, RHP — AGE: 21 HT: 6-3 WT: 195 B/T: R/R
In terms of raw stuff, Stephenson can match anyone in the minors. He has an ideal pitcher’s frame at 6-f00t-3 and with long levers. He gets great extension on his fastball and has a lightning quick arm. His heater can touch the upper-90’s MPH, but it is a lot more effective when he commands it at a slightly lower level. His power curve is an equally overwhelming offering for him when it is on. His change up is inconsistent, but still has swing-and-miss potential. The biggest thing holding Stephenson back right now is command, particularly fastball command. He struggled mightily at Double-A Pensacola where he walked about five batters per nine. Stephenson has a huge ceiling but he still has a lot of development ahead of him. It might be in his best interest to return to Double-A next season.
Riser: Nick Howard, RHP — AGE: 21 HT: 6-3 WT: 215 B/T: R/R
Due to an overcrowded Virginia rotation, Howard moved to the closer’s role this spring, where he excelled and became one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball. However, given his body and deep four-pitch-mix, the Reds intend to use him as a starter. Howard certainly has the repertoire to do this. He fastball operates in the mid-90’s MPH and he possesses two breaking balls that vary in shape, but both possess late, sharp bite. The Red’s may have to tinker with his mechanics a little bit as he looses feel for his delivery at times. This is usually when he looses some of the sharpness off his pitches.
his system ranked among the game’s worst a few years back, but has really improved over the last twelve months. The system has prioritized finding dynamic, two sport athletes and developing them into solid baseball players. That strategy is going to lead to some misses, but it is also going to result in some “hits”. As a result of that strategy there is not a lot of depth in this system, but there is some very intriguing talent at the top. The evolution of a guy like Tyrone Taylor is an example of what can happen when one of those types of players is successfully developed. The Brewers took this approach to an extreme level in the 2014 draft where the grabbed three high ceiling talents with their first three selections in Kodi Medeiros, Monte Harrison, and Jake Gatewood. All three carry extreme risk factors, but even if they can get just one of them to reach their ceilings, this draft could be a coup for them. They were also aggressive in the past international signing period and they shelled out over 3 million dollars to Gilbert Lara, one of top power bats on the market.
Top Hitter: Tyrone Taylor, OF — AGE: 20 HT: 6-0 WT: 185 B/T: R/R
With the exception of maybe his speed, nothing in Taylor’s game will really blow you away, but he has solid tools across the board. This is is the kind of player who falsely get identified as a “five-tool player’ because he does everything fairly well, but he is more of a solid complementary piece than a true impact guy. He makes consistent contact with his short, compact swing and only struck out at a 10 percent clip in High-A. His power is presently his weakest tool, although there is a chance that some of his 36 doubles to will eventually go over the fence with added strength. Taylor is a premium athlete and should be able to handle center field. Depending on the development of the bat and approach at the plate, he could become a big league table-setter, with his floor as a fourth outfielder.
Top Pitcher: Kodi Medeiros, LHP — AGE: 18 HT: 6-2 WT: 180 B/T: L/L
The Brewers made a splash when they popped Medeiros No. 12 overall last June, but you have to give them credit for taking a risk on his tremendous ceiling. Medeiros is really hard to evaluate because he doesn’t look anything like any other pitcher. The native Hawaiian has a funky windup that generates tremendous deception and unbelievable horizontal movement on all his pitches. His slider is especially intriguing, as it features ridiculous sweeping movement that almost moves like a boomerang. The changeup is behind the other pitches, but still shows good potential. Plus he can also get up to 95 MPH from the left side. While the stuff is outrageous, it is hard to predict exactly what role he will end up in. Given his size, mechanics, and extremely low arm slot, he could end up in the pen, but it is very hard to predict. Sometimes the movement on his pitches is so extreme that it is difficult for him to throw for strikes. In his first 18 professional innings he walked 13 batters butted fanned 26.
Riser: Monte Harrison, OF — AGE: 18 HT: 6-3 WT: 200 B/T: R/R
There is no question that Harrison was the best athlete in last year’s draft. He was a Nebreska recruit that would have played both football and baseball had he gone to school. His dunk highlight reel isn’t too bad either. The tools are extremely raw, but their is a lot of projection to dream on. In his limited debut in the Arizona League he stole 32 bases in 34 attempts. He also showed a more polished approach than many would have believed, and drew walks at a 13.8 percent rate. Harrison is the type of quick-twitch athlete with the bat speed that may be indicative of future power potential, but it is a long way away. He has a tendency to collapse on his backfoot when he tries to pull the ball which squanders some of his power output. If everything comes together he has a monster ceiling, but he could need four or more years of development.
The Pirates have usually had one of the premier farm systems in the game over the last several years, and while this one is not quite as loaded due to some graduations, there is still plenty for Bucs fans to be excited about. Tyler Glasnow flashed ace stuff and dominated the Florida State League and joins Jameson Taillon as another potential frontline arm in the system. Taillon missed the whole season with Tommy John but is now healthy and rehabbing to get back in 2015. There are bounty of other arms in the system including Nick Kingham, a 6-foot-5 righty with a powerful three-pitch mix. The Pirates got a haul in the 2013 draft when they got center fielder Austin Meadows and catcher Reese McGuire. Both got off to good starts in their professional careers. There is a nice balance of hitters and pitchers and guys with high ceilings and guys with high floors. Keep an eye on defensive specialist Elias Diaz who could be a replacement for the departed Russell Martin behind the plate.
Top Hitter: Austin Meadows, OF — AGE: 18 HT: 6-3 WT: 200 B/T: L/L
Austin Meadows is blessed with so many natural gifts. Even in high school he was known as a guy who “looks the part getting off the bus” because he has a big league body. He has the kind of swing that you just can’t teach. His command of the strike zone is so far ahead of other players his age. Simply put, Austin Meadows is a natural. He has a very easy, pretty swing. His bat takes a direct route through the zone to the ball. There are no moving parts to throw him off; he is just focused on making contact. His weight transfer is simple but efficient. He doesn’t sell out for power and is comfortable driving balls from gap to gap. There are some who are concerned with his lack of power, but usually that is the last tool to manifest, and with his potential it should eventually come. He is a very fast runner for his size and could steal 15+ bases a year at his peak. Unfortunately Meadows missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury that could impact his ETA to the big leagues. He should probably return to the South Atlantic League to get at bats and work on his defense in centerfield. During the time he was on the field he was very productive, posting a .322/.338/.486 line.
Top Pitcher: Tyler Glasnow, RHP — AGE: 20 HT: 6-7 WT: 200 B/T: L/R
With his size and velocity it is no surprise that Glasnow totally overpowered hitters in the Florida State League. He registered a 1.74 ERA and averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine in 124 innings of work. He can dial his fastball up to 100 MPH but he is learning that he can control it better in the 92-95 MPH range.It is still nice to have triple-digits in back pocket when he needs it. In the rare instances that opposing hitters could catch up with his heat he could drop a hammer curve on them that is a true bat-misser. He has big hands that help him get pretty good feel for his changeup. It is a pitch that will probably continue to improve as he gets better. The problem with Glasnow is that he has a hard time controlling that big body. Walks have been a problem for him, but it is an even bigger problem when he misses in the zone. At the next level, hitters will be able to turn on his fastball, so Double-A will be a big test for him.
Riser: Josh Bell, OF — AGE: 21 HT: 6-2 WT: 235 B/T: B/R
Josh Bell had a breakout season with the bat that many expected, hitting .335 and posting a 153 wRC+ for Bradenton in the Florida State League. However, in my look at him this spring I came away pretty disappointed. He was not the elite athlete that I expected and his body looked a little soft. There are a lot of moving parts in his swing and he gets off balance when he really tries to square up on a pitch, which can leave him exposed to fastballs on the inner-third. The Pirates will continue to try him at first base given their crowded outfield situation, although he does have the arm for right field. Bell’s calling card is his power which is better from the left side. He could hit between 20-24 home runs annually.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have been a machine in pumping out young talent, and there is no reason to believe that the “Cardinal Way” will end anytime soon. Part of the reason that St. Louis was willing to part with Shelby Miller is because they are confident that they already have his replacement in their organization. As usual, St. Louis is stacked with pitching prospects and no one is better at developing them than they are. In the 2014 draft they added talented RHP Luke Weaver and LHP Jack Flaherty to the mix. They also have Marco Gonzales who reached the big leagues just a year after being selected with the No. 19 pick in the draft. The southpaw should compete for a rotation spot in 2015 after pitching 34 impressive innings last season. The bats are not quite as impressive, but Stephen Piscotty leads the way and could also make an impact in 2015.
Top Hitter: Stephen Piscotty, OF — AGE: 23 HT: 6-3 WT: 210 B/T: R/R
Piscotty has been a consistent performer at every level and last year was more of the same as he slashed .288/.355/.406 for Memphis. He has a level swing from the right side. He has excellent barrel control and can hit the ball to the gaps and use the whole field. Piscotty’s bat doesn’t have middle-of-the-order power, but he should hit about 15 home runs and 30 doubles at his peak. Unfortunately the Stanford alum has moved to right field which hurts his profile a lot, although if he can continue to hit he could still be an everyday right fielder. The acquisition of Jason Heyward might delay Piscotty’s arrival a little bit, but with a good Spring Training he could force himself onto the roster.
Top Pitcher: Alexander Reyes, RHP — AGE: 19 HT: 6-3 WT: 185 B/T: R/R
In an organization that has pumped out one electric arm after another, Reyes is the next man in line. Reyes has extremely quick, short arm action that enables him to hit 98 MPH with his fastball, with life that makes the ball seem like it is rising. His mechanics are very fluid and repeatable. He also features a curve ball that is very inconsistent, but a weapon for him when he finds the feel to spin it. Sometimes he will cast it and it well miss by a couple of feet. He has a very mature frame and a very physical lower-half, and his body looks like he could log a lot of innings. The command is the biggest thing standing in his way, and he has a tendency to miss a lot with his fastball, especially when he tries to climb the latter. Reyes definitely flashed swing and miss stuff during his first stint in full season ball, he averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine, but also averaged 5.0 walks.
Riser: Rob Kaminsky, LHP — AGE: 19 HT: 5-11 WT: 190 B/T: R/L
Kaminsky is a undersized lefty, with a slingshot delivery, but he will get your attention quick when he unleashes his nasty Uncle Chuck. He gets tremendous spin on the pitch and it has deep vertical break that he can control on both sides of the plate. There are times when he has better control of his curve than with his fastball. The young southpaw used this pitch to dominate hitters in the Midwest League, posting a 1.88 ERA in 18 starts. His fastball is at its best when he keeps it at knee level, which is imperative to his success given his height. If he misses just a little bit, his fastball will flatten up right in the strike zone given his lack of vertical plane. His fastball works in the 91-95 MPH range with a changeup that showed improvement although it is still behind his other two offerings. He throws from a drop and drive delivery that has a some hitches in it. Kaminsky may wind up in the bullpen but has a starter’s mentality and could develop into a solid No. 3 if he can make his mechanics work.