Last year's top prospect, Anthony Rizzo, met all expectations in his first year with the organization, ascending to claim the first-base job at Wrigley Field. This year's No. 1, shortstop Javier Baez, inspires similar admiration from those charged with finding the next wave of future Cubs.
"He can just do things that can kind of make your mouth drop with the power and the bat speed, and how he plays shortstop," said Jason McLeod, Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development.
Baez's potential is through the roof, and the hype surrounding him is reaching phenom proportions, but don't expect the 20-year-old to join Rizzo in Chicago in 2013, which will be Baez's first full season of pro ball. The Cubs want him to first show that he can handle the pressure that comes with his newfound attention and harness the aggressiveness that makes him a standout hitter, but can also lead to his losing control at the plate and expanding the strike zone.
"It's going to be a big year for him," said McLeod. "To go out and play every day and be consistent with his approach on the offensive side."
Like Baez, outfielders Albert Almora (No. 2) and Jorge Soler (No. 3) are just the type of players the Cubs' brass wants to accumulate: highly skilled athletes who can make a difference at the big league level. And like Baez, they'll also enter their first full seasons at the professional level.
The 18-year-old Almora, the sixth overall pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, has shown an ability to drive the ball to all fields, and the club believes he'll only get stronger. If he develops that power, he could become a truly dynamic center fielder, where he's already shown he can be a plus defender with a strong arm. But it's Almora's makeup that is truly off the charts, especially for a player one year removed from high school, with McLeod saying "his instincts for the game are very rare for his age."
Soler, signed in June as an international free agent after defecting from Cuba, is a prototypical right fielder who drives the ball with Waveland Avenue power (he launched two out of Wrigley in a September batting practice session). His pop is complemented by a solid approach at the plate, especially for a 20-year-old.
"He's got all the tools," said McLeod. "He's big and physical, with tremendous, tremendous raw power."
It's the type of power that has the Cubs thinking of what could be in the not so distant future, one that could have Baez, Almora and Soler in the heart of the order.
Top 20 prospects
Center fielder Brett Jackson, last year's No. 2 on the Cubs' Top 20 list, made it all the way to Wrigley after a strong season at Triple-A Iowa, and it's a testament to the talent of Baez, Almora and Soler that he was bumped to No. 4 this year. Jackson struggled in a September callup, striking out in nearly half of his 120 at-bats, but he's been working with manager Dale Sveum in Arizona, trying to develop a consistency with his approach at the plate. If the extra practice pays off, Jackson, a legitimate five-tool prospect, could become a star.
Right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, one of those power arms added in the past year, ranks No. 5 after the Cubs acquired him from the Braves in exchange for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. Vizcaino, whose fastball sat in the mid-90s before the injury, will use 2013 to build arm strength after undergoing Tommy John surgery last April, with the hope that he'll return to his pre-surgery ways by '14. There's been talk of moving him to the bullpen to protect his arm, but the Cubs still want to see what he can do pitching every fifth day.
"He has shown electric stuff with the fastball and his power breaking pitch," said McLeod. "At his age, we want to give him every chance to start."
Another dynamic arm among the top 10 is right-hander Pierce Johnson (No. 7), whom the Cubs selected with a sandwich pick in last year's Draft. His fastball touches the mid-90s, complemented by a curveball that he uses as an out pitch.
Third baseman Christian Villanueva, acquired in the Ryan Dempster trade with Texas, is an intriguing player at No. 8. The right-handed hitter has shown some pop at the plate, hitting 14 homers last season between the Class A Advanced affiliates of the Rangers and Cubs. But he really shines with the glove, with McLeod calling him a "lockdown defender" at the hot corner.
The second half of the Top 20 begins with Dan Vogelbach, a first baseman who has shown he can hit the ball as far as anyone without compromising his ability to get on base. He may lack a true position -- there are questions about his ability in the field -- but the bat is undeniable, and he sported a .410 on-base percentage with 17 homers in just 245 at-bats between the Arizona League Cubs and Class A Short-Season Boise.
Josh Vitters, who reached the Majors last year in his sixth season with the organization, remains among the club's Top 20 prospects. Still only 23, the first-round pick from 2007 struggled mightily after being called up. If he wants to return to the Friendly Confines, he'll need to make adjustments at the big league level to find the stroke that got him there in the first place.
Under the Radar
Rebuilding their pitching stockpile -- especially impact starting pitching -- is a priority for the Cubs, and they'd like nothing more than to see one of their farmhands make an unexpected leap. Right-hander Matt Loosen could be that guy. Taken in the 23rd round of the 2010 Draft, the 23-year-old turned in a solid season at Daytona last year, going 11-5 with a 1.145 WHIP and 8.8 K/9 over 23 starts.
"He's got a really good arm, good size, low-90s [fastball] and on the right night he shows you a hard, power breaking pitch," said McLeod. "I really like what he brings to the mound every night."
Hitter of the Year
Somewhat of a no-brainer here. Baez should continue to show why he was taken with the ninth overall pick in 2011. He has all the tools to become a dynamic offensive player, and he has recovered from a fractured right thumb suffered in the Arizona Fall League. He'll have to rein in his aggression at the plate and cope with the raised expectation of being the Cubs' No. 1 prospect, but if he does, the questions about which position Baez will play for the Major League club will only grow louder.
Pitcher of the Year
This is Johnson's for the taking. Outside of Vizcaino, there aren't a lot of other arms in the system with top-of-the-rotation stuff. He's got the makeup, power fastball and knee-buckling curve to rise fast, and at 21 years old, he likely won't be coddled as much as those with less experience.