Javy Baez and Kris Bryant get a lot of publicity for two players who have not played one inning of baseball in the Major Leagues. You can add Albert Almora to that mix along with Jorge Soler. The big four, as they are collectively known, hold the reins to the Cubs offense of the future, hopefully, beginning this summer. Throughout the rest of this year and into 2015, those four should be arriving at Wrigley along with pitchers CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson. Combined with Dan Vogelbach, Arodys Vazcaino, Matt Szczur, and Arismendy Alcantara, there are plenty of prospects to see and read about in 2014. However, there are also some you may not hear, or have heard, about so much. I am picking five Cub prospects I think will have great years in 2014 and move up prospect lists and reshape their place in the organization. Currently, only one of them is in the Cubs top 20 prospect list.
What I like most about Stephen Bruno is his attitude. It is pretty infectious. Despite missing all of 2013, Bruno remained positive and supportive of his teammates from 2013. As a player, Bruno can do a lot of things. What gives Bruno the greatest chance to move up the ladder quickly in 2014 will be to stay healthy. He has a natural ability to hit and to hit well. If you watch him swing the bat, his head stays on the ball deep into the zone. It is an uncanny ability few players can do. Combined with quick hands, Bruno is able to do a lot of things with a baseball at the plate. When he went down and had Tommy John surgery, Bruno was hitting .362 at Daytona. Another reason for Bruno to move up the organization quickly is that he plays all over the field. At Boise in 2012, he played all three outfield positions, 3B, 2B, SS, and in fall instructs, got some catching in. His ability to hit makes his bat a necessary component to any lineup. The problem is where to play him. 2014 is key to develop either a home in the field for Bruno and to just accept the fact that he can play anywhere well enough to get by in the majors.
If one were to describe Ben Wells, we have an expression here in the country that fits – “He’s a big boy!” At 6’3″ and 220 pounds, Wells fills up the mound in a good way. Having just turned 21 this fall, Wells should be coming into his own in 2014. After an injury plagued 2012, the 2010 draftee came back in 2013 and scratched and clawed his way back in the game. He went 9-6 with a 3.28 ERA while striking out 5.5 batters every nine innings. That is the disturbing statistic. Wells has a loaded arm reaching up to 94 mph on the radar gun. He did pitch 112 innings in 2013 and should add another 40 to that total in 2014. In 2012 before his injury, he was averaging 7.7 Ks per 9 innings. However, his hits per nine innings were also down in 2013. The K/9 is a very misleading statistic. With a low ERA and a low Hits/9, Wells may be figuring things out. Like Bruno, Wells will likely start at AA Tennessee. It should be interesting to see him and the other more notable pitchers from the talented Daytona FSL champions perform at a higher level. Wells could surprise. Maybe his injury has taught him how to pitch, not necessarily mow people down, in order to save his arm. That’s a good thing.
Out of all the players on this list, Hannemann is the most athletic player. In fact, he is arguably the most athletic player in the organization. The 22 year old, with his two year Mormon mission and football career completed, was drafted by the Cubs in the 3rd round last year and made his debut at Boise. In 14 games, he hit .290 stole five bases, hit a home run and drove in five. His OBP was a little lower at .313 but he is an aggressive player. He reminds me of a more athletic Aaron Rowand. Jacob plays with that kind of abandon. It’s is both fun and painful to watch. I think a full season of playing baseball at Kane County will shed some light on just the kind of player he is and to develop his “Cubs Way” batting approach. Combining his speed and ability to hit for average, it is only natural that drawing more walks can make him a top prospect. I look forward to driving over to Geneva to see him play.
Out of all the players on this list, Masek, the Cubs 2013 fifth round pick, has the ability to jump the most levels this year. He will likely start out at Kane County and by the end of the year, he could be the prospect who is at the highest level on this list. As a reliever, Masek has shown qualities at Texas Tech, the Cape Cod Summer League, and last year at Boise, that he has the right stuff. Starting with a fastball that can jump up to 95, his best pitch is his curveball. A strange delivery keeps hitters off balance. After a brief layoff last year, he struggled in Rookie Ball but put it together at Boise to post a 2.16 ERA in 16 innings of work. While Masek could be a closer, he is likely, for now, a relief pitcher that will continue to adapt at each level. It would not surprise me, that despite beginning at Kane County, if Masek makes it all the way to Tennessee and maybe even Iowa this year. This fifth round pick might be fast tracked.
Paul Blackburn is my favorite prospect on this list simply because I will get to see him live several times this summer. And as a Cub fan, the Cubs biggest need (besides a third baseman and second baseman that knows how to use a bat) is pitching. Paul Blackburn was flat out filthy last year at Boise. This year, he should start out at Kane County. But like Pierce Johnson last year, Blackburn might not be long for the cornfield of north central Illinois and the western suburbs of Chicago. Combined with a nice fastball, Blackburn developed his breaking and off speed pitches last year to post a 3.33 ERA in 46 innings. What that statistic doesn’t show is that he started strong, had a few bad games, and made some corrections to become flat out dominant down the stretch and into the playoffs. This year, for Blackburn, will be about innings eating and building up the arm to pitch a 200 inning season somewhere in the future. Blackburn just turned 20 on December 4, and this year, he will not likely pitch more than 100-120 innings before he is shut down. But those 100 innings should be something to watch.
Honorable Mention: Tyler Skulina, Rob Zastryzny, Dillon Maples, Kevin Encarnacion, and Shawon Dunston, Jr.