This offseason, MiLB.com is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.
We at MiLB.com can't print the plaques fast enough for the Chicago Cubs this offseason. The organization has earned three of our most notable MiLBY awards, including Best Offensive Player (Kris Bryant), Best Team (Kane County) and Best Farm System.
They netted all that hardware after a season when many of the organization's top performers also happened to be top prospects. The Double-A and Triple-A clubs were especially loaded with talent, as seven of the Cubs' Top 10 prospects finished with Tennessee, Iowa or in the Majors -- that list excludes farm graduates Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara.
The Cubs' system also stands out for its plethora of offensive prospects relative to pitchers. When the team has a chance to acquire marquee talent, it's almost exclusively gone after offensive players, which are more resistant to injury attrition than pitchers. Those talents have included first-round picks (Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber), big-money international signees (Jorge Soler, Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres) and trade acquisitions (Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Victor Caratini).
Baez and Soler have already broken into the Majors, while Almora, Bryant, Schwarber, Russell and more aren't far behind. After averaging 69 1/2 wins over the past two seasons, a tidal wave of offensive talent is washing ashore Lake Michigan's coast, and folks on the North Side are ready for the kids to move off the farm and into the spotlight.
Cubs Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Rafael Lopez, Tennessee (45 games), Iowa (61 games), Chicago (7 games): The Florida State product was already 23 when the Cubs selected him in the 16th round in 2011. His late start was a result of redshirts and transfers, a journey that took him through Boston College and Indian River Community College before he replaced Buster Posey behind the dish in Tallahassee.
Since turning pro, Lopez needed just three years to reach the Majors; the 27-year-old earned a September call-up to Chicago after hitting .290 with a .393 on-base percentage in 106 Minor League games. Lopez excelled at times but also showcased his aptitude and grit at Triple-A, fighting through a stretch when offspeed pitches gave him fits in July. He rebounded and hit .338 with an .854 OPS in August, then collected his first Major League hit in September.
The Iowa staff also made some adjustments to Lopez's defense, squaring up his squat to improve his receiving and pitch-framing. Iowa manager Marty Pevey, for one, is bullish on Lopez's defensive chops.
"We got him squared up more, made the target and his base better," Pevey said. "He was a guy who has extremely good, sure hands. He receives the low pitch well, and his best assets are his game-calling and his arm strength."
First base -- Dan Vogelbach, Daytona (132 games): Vogelbach spent the entire season in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, and his power numbers took a slight drop from the previous year in part because of that. The left-handed hitter found it difficult to pull the ball out of FSL ballparks early in the season, but improved from the experience by adopting more of an all-fields approach. Of his 16 home runs, four went out to left field and three more to center -- a notable improvement after he hit just one left-field homer and three center-field blasts out of 19 dingers in 2013.
Those 16 homers tied Vogelbach for fifth in the FSL, and he also finished in the top 10 for doubles and OPS. He'll head to Double-A next season, where he'll try to tap into more of his promising power while attempting to avoid a potential move from first base to a designated hitting role.
Honorable mention: Jacob Rogers was among the Midwest League's oldest players in 2014, and indeed he performed like a man among boys at times. The 2012 40th-round pick hit .268 with 16 homers and an .806 OPS, numbers on par with Vogelbach's in an environment that was also tough on hitters.
Second base -- Arismendy Alcantara, Iowa (89 games), Chicago (70 games): Alcantara played his way out of Triple-A by posting a .307 average with 10 homers and 21 steals with the I-Cubs. The switch-hitter has a well-rounded game with the athleticism to stick at second or center -- he played both positions in the Majors this summer. Alcantara's coaches praise his ability to barrel fastballs and think he's just a few small adjustments away from establishing himself as an offensive threat in Chicago.
"His hands want to travel with his foot as it comes down," Pevey said about Alcantara's swing. "He needs to learn how to consistently stay back on offspeed and especially when guys have really good changeups.
"He's a work in progress, but the kid has got, at times, he has light-tower power and he's [five-foot-10]. He really drives the ball and, again, he has extra quick hands. He doesn't cheat to it."
Shortstop -- Javier Baez, Iowa (104 games), Chicago (52 games): Baez became the face of the Cubs' rebuilding efforts over the past few seasons, but after heating expectations to a boil with an excellent Spring Training, the 21-year-old briefly came undone at Triple-A. In his first 27 games with the I-Cubs, he hit .142 with 45 strikeouts.
"Pitchers, if you're swinging at pitches three inches off the plate, they'll go six inches off, and then 12 inches off, and they'll keep going until you make the adjustment," Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison said. "That was the biggest thing he had to deal with early on at Triple-A. He was facing more veteran pitchers who weren't just throwing fastballs.
"They'd throw their offspeed stuff and try to get him to chase. Early in the year, he was aggressive, expanding the zone and [giving] away at-bats. In the middle of the year, he was waiting for good pitches."
The shortstop rediscovered the strike zone in mid-May, hitting .305 with 20 home runs and 85 strikeouts over his final 77 Triple-A games. Baez hit just .169 in his Major League debut, but the Cubs are confident he has the mental fortitude to adjust and succeed in the Majors -- Baez's work ethic is as noteworthy as his prodigious bat speed.
"There were many, many home games where he was in the cage, by himself, trying to figure things out," Pevey said. "He did a great job with that. I mean, he was in the cage after games, just hitting off a tee, making sure he got his work in. As they say, you're your own best hitting coach. I think he'll figure it out."
Honorable mention: Addison Russell was acquired from Oakland in July and put on a show in 50 games with Double-A Tennessee, hitting .294 with an .868 OPS. Chicago targeted him in trade talks because the club thinks the 6-foot Floridian and his promising bat can stick at shortstop. The Cubs are leaning toward an assignment to Triple-A to start 2015, with Madison noting that could be contingent on his performance in the Arizona Fall League. Russell hasn't done much for his case in the AFL with underwhelming offensive numbers but should see Iowa at some point next season regardless.
Third base -- Kris Bryant, Tennessee (68 games), Iowa (70 games): As Madison was quoted saying in the writeup for Bryant's Best Hitter MiLBY, the Cubs had zero plans to promote the 2013 first-rounder (second overall) out of Double-A when the season started. Bryant left them no choice. The slugger finished the year with a .325 average, 43 homers and a 1.098 OPS across two levels, and also impressed with his work at third base late in the season.
"There were always questions, especially leading up to the Draft, about him staying at third base, just because he's so big and he liked to pop up a little bit," Madison said. "He did a lot of work, worked his butt off with our infield coaches on his footwork and staying low, staying through the ball and he made huge strides defensively. There's no doubt in our minds he can go out and play third base and stick there for a while as a big league player."
Outfield -- Jorge Soler, AZL Cubs (8 games), Tennessee (22 games), Iowa (32 games), Chicago (24 games): Since he signed out of Cuba in 2012, injuries have slowed Soler's march to the Majors Even after missing a chunk of time to a hamstring issue, the outfielder slugged his way to Wrigley Field in 2014. In 62 Minor Leaguers games, Soler hit .340 with 15 homers and a 1.132 OPS and then hit .292 with a .903 OPS in his MLB debut.
"He's really patient at the plate. He'll take a walk," Pevey said. "He's going to get pitched to in the big leagues next year, and that will be a test. He's got range in the outfield, above-average arm strength. He has just sick, sick power to right-center. It's ridiculous. That's why he got the big league contract out of Cuba -- he can play."
Bijan Rademacher, Daytona (111 games): A 13th-round pick out of Orange Coast Community College in California, Rademacher was a switch-pitcher in college, claiming to top out at 95 mph from the left side and 88 from the right. His left wing has proven an asset in the outfield, where he has as many assists (18) as errors in pro ball. Rademacher came alive with the bat in 2014 -- among qualified Florida State League players, he finished second in OPS (.811) behind a .281 average and 10 home runs.
The Cubs thought enough of Rademacher to send him to the Arizona Fall League, where he's continued to mash and show some aptitude on the bases, stealing three bags in his first seven games after swiping four bags during the regular season.
Billy McKinney, Daytona (51 games): McKinney is the rare player who hit better after leaving the California League. Acquired along with Russell, McKinney took off with the bat after the trade, batting .301 with a .390 on-base percentage in Daytona. The Cubs are high on McKinney's hit tool, swing and approach, with some suggesting he thrived in part because he had Schwarber and Vogelbach hitting behind him in Daytona.
"Those guys around him, that had to have helped with his confidence and ability to stay within himself," Madison said. "He doesn't have to try to win every game. He's a tremendous hitter. He has a great swing and approach at the plate. It's just a matter of him maturing and getting strong. He will be stronger, and he'll be someone you're talking about for a while."
Utility player -- Kyle Schwarber, Boise (5 games), Kane County (23 games), Daytona (44 games): The Cubs knew Schwarber's bat was too good for the Northwest League when they started him in Boise, but they didn't expect him to club four homers in five games, then slug straight through the Midwest League, too. The fourth overall pick in the 2014 Draft finished the year with a .344 average and 1.061 OPS primarily as an outfielder, then went to instructs to work extensively at catcher. He drew rave reviews from coaches for his makeup and plate approach, with Kane County manager Mark Johnson calling his at-bats, "super professional."
Schwarber will probably start 2015 as the everyday catcher in Double-A. Depending on how he improves behind the plate, he could slow cook at catcher in the upper Minors for a year or two or fast track to Triple-A and the Majors as a bat-first corner outfielder.
"There was no doubt in the Draft room that he was the most advanced bat out there, that he would move quickly," Madison said of the Indiana University product. "The biggest thing he needs is reps behind the plate to develop as a catcher if he's going to stay there. … He has more value as a catcher, so we'll pencil him in at Tennessee and see what happens."
Right-handed starter -- Jen-Ho Tseng, Kane County (19 games): The Cougars' rotation was loaded with inexperienced hurlers who pitched beyond their years, and none was better than the 20-year-old Tseng. The Taiwanese righty posted a 2.40 ERA over 105 innings, striking out 85 and holding opponents to a .204 average. Despite pitching the entire season at age 19, Tseng showed a deep arsenal and a good idea how to apply it. Kane County pitching coach David Rosario thinks Tseng could reach the Majors by 2016, and though that's perhaps a bit aggressive for Madison's taste, the Cubs farm director does project Tseng as a fast mover.
"He's really mature, has a really good feel for himself as a pitcher, his stuff, understanding moving the ball around the zone and pitching to different spots," Madison said. "He has three quality pitches that are Major League quality.
"He has a great work ethic. He really battles and understands himself and buys into the type of pitcher he has to be. Not being [a hard-thrower like Duane] Underwood or [C.J.] Edwards, he understands himself and what he can do."
Honorable mention: Pevey made a pitch for Kyle Hendricks to repeat as an All-Star that boiled down to, "He couldn't have pitched any better, could he?" The 24-year-old was dominant in the Pacific Coast League, posting a 3.59 ERA in 17 starts. The Dartmouth product struck out 97 in 102 2/3 innings and pitched his way to Chicago, where he managed a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts. Hendricks doesn't have big stuff but does have an advanced feel for cutting and sinking the ball. That, paired with his ability to locate, lets him to generate results beyond his repertoire.
Left-handed starter -- Eric Jokisch, Iowa (26 games), Chicago (4 games): Like Hendricks, Jokisch hails from an esteemed academic institution (Northwestern) and pitched his way into the Majors this season. After grabbng headlines with a no-hitter and making his first appearance as a Cubs Org All-Star in 2013, Jokisch improved his strikeout rate to 8.1 punchouts-per-nine and posted a 3.58 ERA in 26 Triple-A starts. The southpaw held hitters to a .255 average against and allowed just 12 homers in the hitter-friendly PCL.
Reliever -- Armando Rivero, Tennessee (26 games), Iowa (23 games): Rivero was a force out of the bullpen in Double-A and Triple-A, collecting 11 saves with a 2.22 ERA over 49 appearances. The 26-year-old right-hander struck out 13.8 batters per nine innings over 65 frames, showing a promising return on Chicago's $3.1-million investment in the Cuban defector in 2013.
Tall and lanky at 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Rivero was pitching his first full season since defecting late in 2011 and appeared to effectively shake any rust. Rivero did stumble to the finish line with a 5.68 ERA in August, but the hard-throwing righty looks like he should be able to help in the Major League bullpen as soon as 2015.