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By Jim Callis
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
The Cubs were five outs away from making their first trip to the World Series in 58 years. They couldnít close the deal, but that shouldnít tarnish the clubís unexpected National League Central title or bright future.
Chicago hasnít had consecutive winning seasons since a six-year run from 1967-72 under Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher. Under Dusty Baker, their best skipper since Durocher, the Cubs improved by 21 games in 2003. They should eclipse the one-hit wonders of 1984, í89 and í98, playoff teams that declined by an average of 19 wins the following year.
A big reason is that no team can match Chicagoís collection of young pitching, which is primarily homegrown. Co-aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were first-round picks, while Carlos Zambrano is the biggest jewel the Cubs have mined out of their recently successful Latin American program.
Thereís plenty more pitching on the way. Venezuelan righthander Angel Guzman was on the verge of a big league callup before tearing his labrum in July. The Cubs stocked up on arms in the 2001 draft, getting Prior second overall and towering lefthander Andy Sisco one round later, and again in 2002, when they grabbed lefties Justin Jones and Luke Hagerty and righties Bobby Brownlie, Chadd Blasko and Billy Petrick in the first three rounds.
Chicago has so many pitching prospects that it doesnít have enough minor league rotation spots to accommodate them all. There also arenít many vacancies on the big league staff, so many of the up-and-coming pitchers could become trade bait. They can address the systemís main shortcoming as of late: producing big league hitters.
The Cubs didnít develop any of the 10 position players who started a postseason game for them. Center fielder Corey Patterson showed significant improvement in 2003, but tore up his knee in July. First baseman Hee Seop Choi showed off slugging prowess before sustaining a concussion in June, and didnít hit afterward.
The Cubs envision Ryan Harvey and Felix Pie eventually joining Patterson in their outfield and the core of their lineup, but both are teenagers and a few years away from Wrigley Field. Infielder Brendan Harris and outfielders David Kelton and Jason Dubois are the hitters closest to the majors, but theyíre not ready for starting jobs.
With pitching prospects and payroll to spare, Chicago is in a position to add talent this offseason and emerge as a perennial contender in the NL. Every other club in the division is either aging and pushing the envelope on its budget (Houston, St. Louis) or in the midst of a long-term rebuilding project (Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh).
The Cubs also are in the good hands of general manager Jim Hendry, who demonstrated a keen eye for talent when he was the teamís farm and scouting director. In his first full season as GM, he hired the right manager and made the right trades to bring his team to the postseason. Now the challenge is to return, and Hendry and his team appear up to it.
Top Prospect: Angel Guzman, RHP
Age: 22 Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 190 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: The Cubs thought Guzman was ready to make a Mark Prior-like ascent in 2003, beginning the season in Double-A West Tenn and getting to the majors by midseason. If Chicago didnít have so much pitching, he could have pressed for a big league job. Guzman led the Cubs with a 1.13 ERA in the Cactus League, and his teammates voted him the most impressive rookie in big league camp. He caught fire in late May, going 3-1, 1.01 over his next five starts. After shutting out eventual Southern League champion Carolina for seven innings on June 20, Guzman was picked to pitch in the Futures Game and would have been the logical callup when Prior hurt his shoulder in mid-July. But Guzman never threw another pitch in 2003, as his shoulder was bothering him. Doctors diagnosed a slight tear in his labrum, and he had it corrected with arthroscopic surgery. The Cubs added him to the 40-man roster for the first time in October. His brother Daniel pitches in the Indians system.
Strengths: Guzman has enjoyed nothing but success since the Cubs gave him a second chance. The Royals originally signed him for $5,500 but voided his contact after he failed his physical. After landing with Chicago for $30,000, he has gone 24-9, 2.33. Guzmanís fastball and changeup are the best in the Cubs system, and his curveball ranks near the top. When theyíre on, theyíre each 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale. Notable for both its velocity (91-96 mph) and explosive sink, his fastball may be the best of his offerings. His development accelerated in 2002 when he regained the curve he flashed when he signed. Managers rated Guzmanís command the best in the Southern League, and he not only throws strikes but also keeps the ball down in the zone. He has permitted just one homer per 23.7 innings as a pro. He shows a lot of athleticism and poise on the mound.
Weaknesses: Guzmanís mechanics and easy delivery augured well for his healthóbefore his shoulder injury. Now the Cubs are holding their breath and hoping he comes back with the stuff he had before he was sidelined. His rehabilitation was going well at the Cubsí spring-training base in Mesa, Ariz., but they wonít know for sure until he takes the mound in a game situation. He also had a stress fracture in his elbow during his first pro season in 2000. Guzmanís physical condition is the only concern at this point. He was ready for the major leagues when he got hurt.
The Future: The Cubs are going to take things slowly with Guzmanís valuable right arm. Heíll be back in big league camp next spring, but he may not make his 2004 debut until May. He likely will return to Double-A to begin his comeback. Guzman has the stuff of a No. 1 starter, though he may never rise above No. 3 if Prior and Kerry Wood stay in Chicago.