Heading into the year, the Cubs had a very intriguing collection of hitting prospects. The group was lead by a triumvirate comprised of elite talents like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora. During last Thursday's Rule IV Draft, the Cubs went against the industry consensus when they bypassed Oklahoma's Jonathan Gray and elected to take Kris Bryant with the second overall pick, adding yet another potent bat to their system. Just about every prognosticator predicted that Chicago would pick one of the top college arms, or whoever Houston didn't take between Mark Appel and Jonathan Gray, as Chicago's system was already loaded with bats, but light on arms. However, Bryant's top of the scale 80 power proved to much to pass on, and they chose to draft for the best player available and not by positional need. While this pick was surprising, the BPA strategy has proven time after time again to be the best way to go. Oppose to the NFL and NBA, it will take two to five years for a prospect to develop, and in that tame organizational strengths and needs can change dramatically. It is always safer to just take the best player on your draft board because the worst case scenario is that you have two really good players at one position and you get to use one as trade-bait.
With the emergence of other prospects like Arismendy Alcantara and Daniel Vogelbach, plus the influx of talent from this past draft, the Cubs have one of the very best systems in the game. It is foreseeable that Bryant, Soler, Almora, and Baez could all be top 50, even top 25, prospects by the time my top 100 list is published at the end of the season. But who is the best among such an impressive array of bats?
Kris Bryant is the shiny new toy in the system. He was the most feared hitter in the country at the University of San Diego, and is a front-runner to be the recipient of the Golden Spikes Award. His nation-leading 31 home runs were a record in the BBCOR era, and he flashes easy 80 raw power (best possible grade on the scouting scale). Their are some concerns that because of his size he will have to move across the hot corner to first base, squandering his plus arm. It is also a possibility that because of his athleticism, he could possibly make the transition to right field, where is powerful bat would profile nicely. Regardless of where he winds up on the diamond, you are buying offense first here. Bryant projects as a prototypical middle of the order slugger and he is one of the only prospects in the game that has a chance to hit 35 more home runs annually.
Bryant's elite power tool is so rare that it could earn him the top spot on my off-season Cub's top prospect list, but I would prefer to see how he performs in the minors before I rank him over Javier Baez and Jorge Soler. With that said, if Bryant signs early and rakes in A-ball, he could absolutely be the Cubs top prospect by years end. Picking between Baez and Soler though is another matter. Both pass the eye test, and both have the stats to back their tools. To decide between the two I am going to test my new SPEC formula, which attempts to boil down scouting grades and performance into a single formula. The Scouting Plus Evaluation Calculation is still currently in the developing stages and it is based on a very crude version of the WAR metric using this simple calculator. What the formula does take into account however, is factors such as age versus level, league climate, and chance for a player to remain at a premium position. For example, the formula will reward a prospect performing against competition that might be a year or two his senior, but will punish one that is too old for his league and behind in the developmental curve. After interpreting the stats in a manner that levels the playing field, a stat that averages out their scouting grades (20-80 scale) is added to it to create SPEC. I hope to get a more detailed set of guidelines for SPEC up this coming week, but for now this will serve as a test run. I will include all the values used in a skeleton chart to walk you through the process.
Baez was the ninth overall pick in a loaded 2011 draft class, and tore up the Midwest League in his first go-around in the minor leagues. He is well renowned for his lightening quick hands that help him generate tremendous bat speed. He projects to have plus-power and to be a plus-hitter, making him an offensive force. Baez does need to work on his strike-zone discipline and his approach at the plate however. Defensively, Baez's actions are very smooth and he plays with a lot of swagger. He also has a rocket for an arm. Because of his size and lack of plus foot speed he might have to move off short and slide over to third, but it looks more and more likely that he can stick at least for a while there. Baez's flash can sometimes rub opposing players and coaches the wrong way, as he was hit 10 times in just 57 games last year in the MWL. Baez made headlines last week by launching for home runs in a single game. He came into the year as Minor League Radar's 16th best prospect, but could rank even higher next year because of his awesome potential at the plate coupled with his ability to possibly stay at short.
Soler defected from Cuba in 2011, and soon after he inked a $30 million deal paid over the course of nine seasons. Soler's hands aren't quite as quick as Baez's, but he probably still has more raw power than Baez. His approach at the plate and ability to make adjustments on the fly is also impressive. With his plus arm and explosive power, Baez fits the bill of the ideal MLB right fielder. Despite his 6'3" 210 frame, Soler moves pretty well for a big guy. He is not a burner, but he could post double digit stolen base totals on an annual basis.
When these guys are both putting up such good numbers and both close to equal talents, it is hard to pick one over the other. While SPEC is far from a be-all end-all for evaluating prospects, it is a good way to put things into context. The two are similar in tools, but Soler probably has the slight edge. Both have performed well, but Baez's has been clearly more impressive. He has completely annihilated the pitcher-friendly Florida State League despite being very young for the level. In this case the data also supports my gut feeling. Baez's chance to stick at the most premium position on the diamond is the separator for me. For now, I would go Baez, Soler, Bryant, and then Albert Almora; but that could all change by the end of the year. And while the Cubs currently rank 12th out of the 15 National League teams in OBP (.298), I think thins are looking up.