It’s not just Baez and Bryant: Cubs building deep farm system

It’s not just Baez and Bryant: Cubs building deep farm system

March 11, 2014, 3:00 pm
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Tony Andracki

When fans daydream about the Cubs running out onto Wrigley Field for a playoff game in the future, it's easy to imagine hearing names like "Javier Baez" or "Kris Bryant" ring out through the PA system in the chilly October air.

[RELATED: The buzz building around Kris Bryant and Javier Baez]

But what about hearing "Christian Villanueva" or "Eric Jokisch?” What about the best ballplayer name ever? “Rock Shoulders.”

Theo Epstein's front office knows acquiring prospects is a "volume game." The more quality young players you add to the organization, the better chance you’ll get several players developing into difference-makers at the big-league level.

In addition to Baez (5th) and Bryant (8th), the Cubs boast five other players in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects rankings — C.J. Edwards (28), Albert Almora (36), Jorge Soler (41), Pierce Johnson (87) and Arismendy Alcantara (100) — while Dan Vogelbach has emerged as one of the game's top hitting prospects. But the guys flying under the radar might make or break this rebuilding effort.

"Everybody wants to talk about the 'Core Four,'” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. “But after that, we really have a significant chance of some impact from multiple players. Generally speaking, you feel pretty good if you have one or two guys who you think have the ability to become stars.

"We have multiple guys who have the ability to get there, so that makes us feel really good. Of course, we know that not all of them will become the type of players we think they can be or want them to be. But when you have more volume, it makes you feel good as an organization."

[MORE: Ryan Braun and the education of Kyle Hendricks]

Villanueva doesn’t move the needle like Baez or Bryant. But Villanueva was actually ranked as the game's No. 100 prospect by Baseball America before the 2012 season, and the kid from Guadalajara, Mexico, turned heads in Double-A Tennessee last season, leading the Southern league in doubles (41).

"Villanueva had a hell of a year last year that no one really talked about," McLeod said. "Maybe he didn't have the sexy .300-plus batting average. But this 22-year-old last year hit 40 doubles, 19 home runs, .265 [average] and is hands down the best defensive third baseman in our organization — the guy can flat out pick it over there.

"But he's someone you don't really hear too much about."

Villanueva flew under the radar even on his own team, as Tennessee's double-play tandem of Baez and Alcantara garnered all the hype.

As he heads into his second full season in the Cubs organization, Villanueva says he feels at home and doesn't care if he's overlooked. Acquired in the Ryan Dempster deal with the Rangers in 2012, Villanueva got his first taste of the Chicago market when he was invited to the team's rookie-development program in January and is slated to start 2014 at Triple-A Iowa.

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"I feel better this year," Villanueva said. "I know everybody now. Last year was my first year with the Chicago Cubs. It was totally different. But now I feel comfortable, like I'm a part of this."

Jokisch gained notoriety when he threw a no-hitter with Tennessee last summer, but the 24-year-old lefty has been an afterthought when experts rank the organization’s top pitching prospects.

Jokisch grew up a Cardinals fan in Virginia, Ill., a hundred miles north of St. Louis, but went to school at Northwestern and saw firsthand how the Cubs were the toast of the town during their 97-win campaign in 2008. He has rattled off three straight successful seasons in the Cubs system, including Tennessee, where last year he won 11 games and sported a 3.42 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 27 appearances (26 starts).

"He's a left-handed starting pitcher that throws strikes and commands the zone," first-year Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "He's looking forward to a nice future, hopefully, at the major-league level at some point."

Everywhere you look in the lower levels of the Cubs' system, there are players flying under the radar.

Corner infielder Dustin Geiger (17 homers, 86 RBI) provided some offense for an advanced Class-A Daytona team that won the Florida State League championship. 

Corey Black and Ivan Pineyro — a pair of young right-handers acquired in trades for veteran outfielders Alfonso Soriano and Scott Hairston — helped bolster a Daytona rotation headlined by Edwards and Johnson.

[MORE: Welington Castillo wants to be a big part of Cubs' future]

Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez — the two low-profile additions in last season's Matt Garza trade with the Rangers — provide pitching depth at the upper levels and could make an impact in Chicago as soon as this season.

"We feel really good about where we're at," McLeod said. "Yeah, maybe everybody doesn't reach their ceiling. But then there are the guys we're not talking about that could become better than we think they are."

If the Cubs want to reach the level of sustained success they're working towards, they're going to need guys like Villanueva and Jokisch to make an impact. Baez and Bryant can't do everything.