Taking a Look at the Cubs Future Talent

Coming into the season, the Chicago Cubs already had an embarrassing amount of positional talent, and even if they’d added no one else, they would probably be the easy choice for the best group of non-pitchers in any system. And yet, the rich have gotten richer, since the Cubs drafted C/1B/OF Kyle Schwarber fourth overall last month, and traded for SS Addison Russell on the 4th of July in the Jeff Samardzija deal. But to say that they have the best collection of talent is one thing, while actually showing what that talent can produce is another.

So with that in mind, I’m going to take a stab at putting together a compilation of Cubs’ top prospects future statistical lines using a couple different sources. First is the Baseball Prospectus Futures Guide, which is the only publication of its kind that publishes tool grades across the board (Baseball America only writes the Overall Future Profile for each player, with the exception of the top prospect in each system) using the 20 to 80 scouting scale (if you are unfamiliar with the scale read thesetwoarticles by Kevin Goldstein). Second is an article from FanGraphs (found here) which attempt to quantify players’ WAR using that same 20-80 scale.

Using those sources, I’ll take a look at what each of the Cubs’ top prospects stat lines would look like if each player actually reached the ceiling of each of their tools as judged by the Baseball Prospectus staff.

Here’s how the Cubs top seven guys stack up in terms of tools:

And here they are with their skills translated into marginal (from the MLB average of 2.0 for a starter) WAR:

In the graph above, each bar is the amount of WAR away from the league average of 2.0. Any tools not shown are 50 grades, and therefore have no difference from the league average.

Finally, here is the total WAR of each Cubs prospect:

A few caveats before I discuss each player individually:

  • Each tool is displayed as judged by Baseball Prospectus before the season began. There will definitely be tool grades that you disagree with. I disagree with them too; such is the benefit of hindsight. We’ll get to the issues I have in the player profiles. Be patient.
  • I will be using the second table underneath the translation of power into WAR in the FanGraphs post I am using as source material. I chose that table with the intention of keeping these numbers as realistic as possible.
  • The margins of WAR for each tool are generally pretty conservative. A player can still be extremely valuable while grading out as below average in one area. This includes the hit or power tool. Go check out Josh Donaldson’s 2014 stats if you don’t believe me.
  • I chose to use the BP glove tool over the arm tool when translating the two tools into WAR, since the general consensus is that the glove tool is more important in determining a player’s defensive value.
  • Additionally, defensive WAR does not slide based on the player’s position. Obviously a 50 glove shortstop is more valuable than the equivalent first baseman, but we have no way to adjust for that here.
  • Remember that 2 WAR is generally considered the benchmark for a league average regular. 4-5 WAR is all-star territory, and anyone above 6 WAR is probably going to be an MVP candidate.

Now let’s get to the players:

Javier Baez, 2B/3B/SS/OF

Tools: 65 hit, 80 power, 50 run, 60 glove, 70 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.5 hit + 2.0 power + 0 run + 1.1 defense = 4.6 total WAR

Despite experiencing the toughest 2014 season of any prospect on this list, Baez’s value of 4.6 WAR seems like a reasonable ceiling for him. If his prime years leave him somewhere between four and five WAR, he’ll be a perennial all-star candidate.

That said, Baez’s hit tool grade of 65 stands out as an overgrade at this point in time. He obviously has a great deal of developing still to, but guys with his approach generally don’t hit for a high average without a Vladimir Guerrero level of hand-eye coordination. Baez can still reach the 5 WAR level considering his power potential, but it’s really hard to see him ever being more than a 55 level hitter.

Kris Bryant, 3B/OF

Tools: 55 hit, 75 power, 45 run, 50 glove, 65 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 1.7 power – 0.2 run + 0 defense = 2.0 total WAR

This is the stat line that stands out the most as being too low. Bryant has absolutely torn up AA and AAA this year to the tune of a .346/.444/.701 slash line. Like Baez, there’s a good amount of swing and miss in his game, but it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if that grade ended up being at least half a grade short at the big league level. Bryant may also have more power utility than a guy like Baez, considering his advanced approach, though neither player will lack for much in the department regardless.

He may end up in right field, but that shouldn’t alter his projection too drastically. Bryant has a plus arm, but he’ll be in the lineup to hit and hit for power. 2 WAR is probably the low end projection for last year’s no.2 overall pick.

Albert Almora, OF

Tools: 65 hit, 60 power, 50 run, 65 glove, 55 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.5 hit + 0.7 power + 0 run + 1.7 defense = 4.9 total WAR

While Bryant’s projection stands out as being too low, Almora looks the most overvalued in terms of WAR. Almora has suffered through a rough first half, although he has picked it up of late, including a cycle last night. But even considering the recent hot streak, the plus projections on both the hit and power seem especially optimistic. Then again, Almora is the youngest guy on this list, so he has more time than anyone to prove me wrong.

However, dismissing Almora as overrated is probably not fair to him, nor is it the right way to analyze an exercise like this. I’ll admit, and I’m not alone in this, that I tend to overvalue great hitting prospects in comparison to great defensive prospects. Part of that is rational: hitting is generally more valuable than defending. But another part of that is my brain saying ooh dingers. Almora may be a perfect example of the type of prospect that gets underrated while going through a rough stretch. A plus to plus-plus center fielder, like Almora, is extremely valuable, and unlike hitting, defense doesn’t slump.

Jorge Soler, OF

Tools: 55 hit, 70 power, 50 run, 50 glove, 70 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 1.4 power + 0 run + 0 defense = 1.9 total WAR

A borderline regular seems like a reasonable projection for a guy like Soler. At the plate, he has a very similar profile to Javy Baez: crazy raw power, but a questionable approach. But scarily enough, he’s actually probably less polished than Baez, and he is likely relegated to a corner while Baez has the potential to play a premium defensive position. But again, the defensive WAR in the table above does not adjust for position, so the difference isn’t reflected in Soler’s WAR calculation.

Additionally, Soler has missed the majority of the 2014 season with an injury, though he’s been tearing the cover off the ball since he got back. But combine the injury with the fact that he can’t play center and has faced character concerns in the past, and Soler may end up as the odd man out in a lineup that looks as crowded as the future Cubs’.

Arismendy Alcantara, 2B/OF

Tools: 55 hit, 55 power, 65 run, 60 glove, 60 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 0.5 hit + 0.4 power + 0.5 run + 1.1 defense = 2.5 total WAR

The lone big leaguer on this list, Alcantara was enjoying a breakout season with a .307/.353/.537 at AAA before being called up and getting four hits in his second game with the Cubs. An above average regular, which is what 2.5 WAR would make him, is exactly the kind of player the Cubs are expecting at this point. Alcantara can do a little bit of everything, and even if he’s never elite at any one thing, his well roundedness and versatility should be extremely valuable for Chicago. Since he’s already in the majors, he requires the least amount of projection. Things will only get easier for him as other guys from this list join him at the highest level.

Addison Russell, SS

Tools: 60 hit, 60 power, 50 run, 60 glove, 60 arm

Tool-based stat line(Marginal WAR):  1.0 hit + .7 power + 0 run + 1.1 defense = 2.8 total WAR

Regardless of what the Cubs choose to do with Starlin Castro, Russell is the guy that most likely will be filling the six hole for Chicago over the next decade. Russell is famous for perhaps the best pair of hands (both offensively and defensively) in the minor leagues, and that trait has elevated him to become one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Around 3 WAR seems like the floor for a guy as highly regarded as Russell, though the Cubs should be thrilled even if that’s all that he’s able to give them on a yearly basis. He’s not a freak show in the mold of Baez, but his floor is much higher, and none other than Billy Beane compared him to Barry Larkin after trading him away for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

Kyle Schwarber, C/1B/OF

Tools: 60 hit, 65 power, 45 run, 40 glove, 45 arm

Tool-based stat line (Marginal WAR): 1.0 hit + 1.1 power – 0.2 run – 0.1 defense = 1.8 total WAR

Like Bryant, Schwarber’s line is one that stands out as lower than I would have thought. While 1.8 WAR isn’t terrible, it’s certainly lower than the Cubs are expecting for the player who currently has more homeruns than the rest of the (brand new) 2014 draft class. With that said, this could again be some hitter bias creeping into my thinking. Despite being having plus hit and power tools, Schwarber may just be below average at everything else. The Cubs are currently splitting his time between catcher and left field, though most scouts believe that he’ll have to abandon the shin guards at some point. However, if Schwarber is able to stick behind the plate, this projection should shoot up if his bat meets projections. Regardless, I think Schwarber’s bat will play anywhere, and I’d expect more out of him than 1.8 WAR.

 

Future for Present: Samardzija to the A’s

In what is almost certain to be the biggest trade this season, and probably the biggest since the Red Sox – Dodgers trade in 2012, the Oakland Athletics went all-in on the 2014 season by trading top seven prospect Addison Russell, 2013 first-rounder Billy McKinney, RHP Dan Straily and a player to be named later to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Even though the A’s could have already been considered the favorites to win the title, this trade puts them firmly in the driver’s seat for October.

Despite ranking second behind the Nationals in team ERA, Oakland’s pitching staff was a middle of the pack 16th for xFIP, according to FanGraphs, meaning they were a pretty good candidate to regress over the second half of the season. Behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir (though his injury history isn’t exactly reassuring), guys like Jesse Chavez, Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz don’t have a history of sustained performance. So by grabbing two pitchers from the rebuilding Cubs, the A’s shored up the one area of their team that could have proved vulnerable down the stretch.

People may be surprised that general manager Billy Beane would be willing to sell the farm for guys that probably won’t be around long-term, it will be difficult to criticize him if Oakland ends the season with a championship. Oakland’s offense is currently a borderline-historic juggernaut, outscoring opponents by 1.5 runs per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The second place Angels come into today with a +0.8 RPG differential. Over a full season that’s about an 11 win advantage over just the Angels, let alone the rest of the league.

It shouldn’t be undersold that it is the Angels, rather than another team, right behind the Athletics. Oakland’s division rival can make a case as the second best team in the American League, and it’s difficult to underestimate any team that has the world’s best player. By adding Samardzija and Hammel, Oakland not only becomes one of the deepest staffs in the league overnight, but it takes two prime trade candidates away from their competitors.

Despite being considered the best team in the league before this trade, the A’s are just 3.5 games ahead of the Angels. If Samardzija and Hammel can pitch at about a combined three or four win pace over the remainder of the season (a reasonable expectation), Oakland should be able to win the AL West pretty comfortably. But where this trade will make a big difference for Oakland is in the post-season. Do you think A’s fans might be a little more comfortable with Samardzija or Hammel starting a playoff game instead of the aforementioned Chavez, Milone or Pomeranz? Yeah, me too.

Meanwhile, while Oakland looks set up for a title run, Chicago looks like they may be the front runners for the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, not that they mind. By adding Russell, I think the Cubs have the most impressive group of position players at the minor league level that I’ve ever seen. Russell is a no-shit shortstop, and with him, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara, the Cubs could have an infield with three guys capable of playing the six-hole at the major league level, should the Cubs choose to use that alignment.

Russell ranked third, seventh, 11th, and 14th on the top prospect lists for ESPN, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America, respectively.  The highest praise for him is about his hands, both in the box and in the field. He’s projected as a possible 70 hitter with above average power and a plus glove. If he reaches that ceiling he’ll be the starting shortstop for the National League most July’s. It’s truly rare to see a prospect of his quality moved in a trade, and we haven’t seen one move since the Wil Myers – James Shields trade in 2012. But unlike that trade, it seems difficult to criticize either side in this deal.

While Russell is the real prize in the Cubs’ haul, McKinney and Straily are more than just throw-ins. McKinney was a first rounder last June, and while he’s struggled a bit while an aggressive promotion to High-A this season, he projects as an average regular down the line. The only problem is that average might not be good enough to get in the Cubs’ future lineups, but I’ll get to that in another post. Straily exploded onto the scene two years ago, when he struck out 222 hitters between AA, AAA, and the majors. But he’s struggled ever since, and has bounced between AAA and Oakland the past two seasons. He doesn’t have elite stuff, but Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has done a good job of helping pitchers improve, as seen through Hammel and Jake Arrieta. Straily will have plenty of opportunities to make adjustments without consequence at the big league level, and the Cubs will surely hope that he can get back to the performance level he showed two years ago.

Like just about any trade, it would be dumb to declare a winner before any player involved has played a game with their new club, but I will say that I love this trade for both sides, which I something I can’t really ever remember thinking. While this deal might have swung the title in favor of Oakland this season, it may end up contributing to the end of a certain drought on the south side of Chicago a few years from now. We’ll see.