You start to realize that Spring Training is right around the corner when Baseball America and MLB.com announce their annual prospect rankings, tracking not only the Top-100 minor league players in baseball, but also the Top-10 players for each position in the minors.
Recently, the Cubs farm system didn’t have the star power that other clubs did – minimal Draft talent at the upper reaches of the prospect list (Brian Dopirak, Ryan Harvey, and Grant Johnson didn’t pan out; Josh Vitters has not established himself as a viable option at third base; while Jeff Samardzija and Andrew Cashner are probably the best picks in the last 10 years – and are middle of the rotation starters at best). The best draft prospects have ended up being Brett Jackson (’09 Hawk) and Josh Donaldson (’07 Hawk) – with Donaldson now the third-baseman for the A’s, while the top Cubs’ prospect of the last decade would probably be Starlin Castro, who was a NDFA.
There is much optimism in 2013, as unlike in the past, a trio of Cubs’ youngsters are in not only in the Top-100, but the Top-50, while three former Boise Hawks are in the Top-100. 2011 alum, Javier Baez (pictured right), tops the list of Cubs’ prospects at No. 16 – coming off a season where he hit 16 homers and drove in 46 runs in just 80 games. Baez had a quick drink of coffee in Boise during his rookie season and was with the squad during the 2011 postseason run. A 2012 Hawk is also on the list, as outfielder Albert Almora (pictured left0, the Cubs top-pick from the most recent draft, is No. 39. Scouts love Almora’s make-up and Boise fans can attest – he is a true gamer and has that “it” factor. Almora hit .321 with 12 doubles, two homers and 19 RBI in 33 professional games last season. A third Cub on the list is one that bypassed Boise, Jorge Soler, as the Cuban defector is ranked No. 42 after hitting .299 with five homers and 25 RBI last season – and looks to be a possible right-fielder of the future in the Chicago system.
Lost in the list is the third former Boise player – Hak-Ju Lee (pictured right), who was a Northwest League All-Star in 2009. Lee (who was remembered as much for his singing in Boise as his stellar play, who was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays as part of the deal that sent the Cubs’ Matt Garza, was the No. 56 rated prospect in baseball. With the AA Montgomery Biscuits, he hit .261 with 10 triples and 37 stolen bases and is one of the top defensive shortstops in the minor leagues.
What intrigues me about the list – is how good the Northwest League truly is and how many blue chip prospects come through Memorial Stadium on a yearly basis. Most fans don’t realize the caliber of talent that wear the uniforms of Vancouver, Everett, Spokane and Tri-City; Salem-Keizer, Eugene, now Hillsboro, and the Hawks.
A total of nine of the Top-50 players on the list are Northwest League alumni, while a total of 18 former NWL players are in the Top-100. I remember many of them vividly – including the top prospect in all of pro baseball, Jurickson Profar (pictured left) of the Rangers, who made his MLB debut last September. He was a 17-year-old raw talent a couple years back in Spokane, but one could tell that he had the make-up of being a superstar.
Spokane has had its share of talent – slugging third-baseman Mike Olt, who was a college teammate of former Hawk, Pierre LePage at UConn, is No. 22, slick fielding catcher Jorge Alfaro (I can still hear Mike Boyle saying Jorrrr-hayyyyy Al-farrrr-o after a big hit against Boise) is No. 88, while tough left-hander Martin Perez is No. 95.
Vancouver has been loaded in the pitching department the past few years – helping the club to two-straight NWL titles, and those arms are prevalent on the list – including No. 29 Noah Syndegaard, No. 35 Aaron Sanchez, No. 72 Justin Nicolino, and No. 90 Roberto Osuna – who pitched Game 2 against the Hawks in the 2012 NWL championship series.
A pair of Eugene infielders – Jedd Gyorko (No. 50) and Rymer Liriano (No. 55) made the cut, as did former Yakima (now Hillsboro) third-baseman Matt Davidson at No. 77. I do feel for Everett, as the Mariners skipped many of their top pitching talent that rank highly on the chart, but did send No. 23 Mike Zunino to the Aquasox, as the Hawks saw first-hand in the five-game set in the Puget Sound area last summer – as the catcher hit 10 homers in just 29 NWL games.
It will be interesting to see who the new cast of characters will be this summer and potentially crack the list in the near future.