The Cubs have made big strides over the past few years building up their minor league system. According to Keith Law at ESPN.com, the Cubs moved from 27th out of 30 teams for minor league strength in 2009 up to 7th in 2010. That seems fluky to me and I suspect that Law got it wrong last year. The Cubs minor league system has improved, but I don’t think it was as bad as he said in 2009.
Whatever the case, things are improving. Starlin Castro was recently named to the MLB Top 50 Prospects List. Having a player on the Top 50 Prospect List is nothing new. The Cubs had three players in the top 50 as recently as 2007 (Eric Patterson, Felix Pie, Donald Veal). The big difference now is the depth that the Cubs have in the minor leagues.
The Cubs have several MLB-legit prospects at all levels of their minor league system. Castro is at the top of the list* and will most likely start the year at Triple A. Of course, that assumes that the Cubs don’t succumb to the urge to have him start the year in the majors. He’s only 19 years old and there’s no reason to rush him. That doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t rush him, but they shouldn’t. He will benefit from a half-year or more in Triple-A.
Brett Jackson, perhaps the most athletic player in the Cubs minor league system, will likely start the year at Hi-A Daytona. Although he only played 26 games (112 ABs) in Peoria last year after sprinting through the Arizona League and Rookie League in Boise, don’t be surprised if he does the same thing in Daytona and ends up in Double AA before the end of the year.
The Cubs #3 prospect is Josh Vitters. He was the #1 prospect in the Cubs organization in 2008 and 2009, but slipped to #3 this year. Great things are still expected from him, but his defensive ability at third base hasn’t progressed as well as expected. However, he can still hit and Baseball America predicts that at some point, the Cubs will shift Vitters to the outfield so they can take advantage of his bat without having to suffer through his growing pains at third base. Although Vitters struggled a bit at Hi-A Daytona last year, there’s a good chance he’ll start the 2010 season in Double A Tennessee.
Right handed pitcher Andrew Cashner comes in as the #4 prospect for the Cubs. He pitched well in Double A last year (3-4, 2.60 ERA, 1.19 WHIP) and will likely start 2010 in the starting rotation at Triple A Iowa. He may see time on the big club in 2010 depending on injuries. Cashner was a terrific closer in college. The Cubs have turned him into a starting pitcher, but I could definitely see him in the Cubs bullpen in the next year or two in either a set-up role, or perhaps even closing.
Jay Jackson is another right handed pitcher who will likely start the year in the starting rotation in Triple A. He has good stuff and I can see him in the Cubs starting rotation in a year or two. He’s a tremendous all around athlete who can hit (ala Carlos Zambrano). To me, even though he’s the Cubs #5 prospect, he seems a little bit like a sleeper to me. He doesn’t get a lot of publicity (certainly not like Castro or Vitters), but he has the stuff to be a successful big league pitcher.
Nineteen-year old Hak-Ju Lee is the Cubs #6 prospect. The shortstop from South Korea spent 2009 in the Northwest League (Rookie League) where he hit .330/.399/.420 with 2 homeruns and 33 RBI in 68 games. He’s raw, but has great potential. Because the Cubs are pretty well stocked at shortstop at the moment (Castro, Darwin Barney, D.J. LeMehieu), there has been some talk of getting Lee some experience at second or in center field. He has tremendous speed and would probably do well as a center fielder. However, any position change will probably wait a while. Lee is expected to start the year as the shortstop for Peoria.
Right behind Lee as the #7 prospect is second baseman Logan Watkins. The 20-year old was Lee’s double play partner at Boise last year and is expected to move up to Peoria with Lee this year. Watkins is a terrific athlete. He was a well-respected quarterback in high school who gave up a baseball scholarship at Wichita State to sign with the Cubs in the 21st round of the 2008 draft. The Cubs are hoping for big things from Watkins.
The #8 top prospect is Chris Carpenter. Just like his namesake with St. Louis, the Cubs Carpenter is a right handed pitcher. He had an unimpressive 2008 in Rookie League Boise, but 2009 was much better. He started the year at Lo-A Peoria, moved up to Hi-A Daytona, and eventually ended the season at Double A Tennesssee. 2010 should find him starting the year in Tennessee again with a good possibility of spending part of the year in Triple A.
Ryan Flaherty, the Cubs #9 prospect, is an incredibly versatile player. He played shortstop in college (Vanderbilt) and has also played second and third base since joining the Cubs minor league system. His future may be as a super-sub (he can play the outfield too) or as a platoon player who thumps righties, but struggles against lefties. That’s not to say that he will never be a successful every day MLB player. However, from what I’ve seen, he appears to be underperforming for a former suuplemental first round draft pick. I know he’s only been in the minors for two years, but I guess I expected bigger things from him. He will most likely start 2010 at Daytona.
Former LSU shortstop D.J. LeMehieu is the #10 prospect. Personally, I would have ranked him higher. I really like this kid. Although he’s a shortstop now, I predict the Cubs depth at SS will force him to move to a different position as he progresses through the minor leagues. I think he’ll get the nod as the starting SS in Daytona this year, but may be moved to second base in the near future. I would love to see LeMehieu at second and Castro at short for the Cubs in a few years.
* The Top Ten Prospects are based on the list compiled by Baseball America.
Other Cubs minor leaguers to watch are catcher Wellington Castillo (will start the year in Double A Tennessee most likely), Darwin Barney (another SS who will likely start the year in Tennessee), 21-year old outfielder Kyler Burke (will likely play in either Peoria or Daytona in 2010), Tyler Colvin (AAA outfielder who could make the big team out of Spring Training), Rebel Ridling (1B who will start the year in either Peoria or Daytona), Brandon Guyer (versatile OF who could start 2010 in either Daytona or Tennessee), and Marquez Smith (3B who will spend 2010 in either AA or AAA).
Although the 2010 version of the Cubs is not overly exciting, the same can not be said about the Cubs minor league teams. They have some terrific players in the pipeline and whoever is the GM in coming years will have some good young talent to work with.