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Vitters starred on the showcase circuit in the summer of 2006, and his strong performance as a high school senior the following spring ensured that he'd go near the top of the first round. Picking third overall, the Cubs went to bed the night before the draft thinking the Royals would take him at No. 2, which would have left Chicago with righthander Jarrod Parker. But when Kansas City decided slugger Mike Moustakas wouldn't be too expensive, that left Vitters for the Cubs. Signed for $3.2 million minutes before the Aug. 15 deadline, Vitters needed time to start raking again. He was rusty at the end of the 2007 season and developed tendinitis in his left hand during minor league camp last spring. He missed the first two weeks of the season, then reinjured his hand while hitting three doubles in his first game at low Class A Peoria. He tried to play through the pain and went 0-for-10 in three games before Chicago shut him down for two months. Vitters went to short-season Boise when he was healthy. The Northwest League's youngest regular, he ranked as its No. 1 prospect, led the circuit with 25 doubles and fashioned a 26-game hitting streak. Vitters' brother Christian is an infielder in the Athletics system. Though he has just 14 at-bats in full-season ball, Vitters is unquestionably the top position prospect in the system. With his exceptional bat speed, hand-eye coordination and ability to put the barrel on the ball, the only real question is whether he'll be more productive hitting for average than power. Using one of the smoothest righthanded strokes you'll ever see, he'll offer plenty of both. He made strides in terms of adding strength and using the whole field in 2008. The Cubs knew Vitters would hit, but they're also excited by the progress he has made at third base. He won't be a Gold Glover, but they're confident he can become an average defender. Infield instructor Bobby Dickerson improved Vitters' agility and footwork through drills, and he showed the ability to make throws from a variety of angles. He has the soft hands and strong arm for the position. His makeup is an asset, as he's extremely coachable and fits in well with teammates. Once he physically matures, Vitters' fringy speed will become below-average. He's not a finished product at third base, though he has plenty of time to develop and will put in the work needed to improve. He's so geared up to make hard contact that he hasn't drawn many walks, and it may border on heresy to ask him to tone down his approach. He's still growing into his home run power, but his 28 doubles in 65 games last year are a strong indicator that he will. Vitters got in additional work by attending the Cubs' Arizona and Dominican instructional league programs. He probably could handle an assignment to high Class A Daytona, but he may first spend a couple of months in Peoria. He could develop rapidly and push for a spot in the middle of the big league lineup by late 2010.
Samardzija had an NFL future after setting every significant receiving record at Notre Dame. The Cubs initially signed him for $250,000 as a fifth-round pick in 2006, then gave him a five-year, $10 million big league contract to keep him away from football. His development was painfully slow until he got to Triple-A Iowa in late June, but a month later he was pitching vital innings out of Chicago's bullpen. Samardzija took off after he absorbed changes to his delivery and started turning his stuff loose. He gets good run on a fastball that touches 96 mph when he starts and 98 when he relieves. His splitter can be a devastating swing-and-miss pitch, and his slider is a plus offering at times. He's an intense competitor who thrives on pressure and big crowds. Samardzija is still a work in progress, and hitters solved him more easily his second time around the National League. He lacks consistency with his control and secondary pitches, which include a changeup. His fastball gets more groundouts than strikeouts despite its velocity and life. Slowing down his delivery has enabled him to pitch more under control, but it also has cost him deception and one scout said it puts more stress on his shoulder. The Cubs would like to continue developing Samardzija as a starter and will do so in Triple-A if they have enough other bullpen arms this spring. They think he can become a frontline starter, though outside observers believe it's more likely that he'll be a top set-up man or closer.
Cashner could have signed with the Rockies as a draft-and-follow or the Cubs as a 29th-rounder in 2007, but opted to transfer to Texas Christian instead. The move paid off as he became a closer and pitched his way into the first round, signing for $1.54 million as the 19th overall pick. He struggled for much of his pro debut but came on in the high Class A Florida State League playoffs, hitting 99 mph and winning the championship clincher. Getting outstanding whip from his long, lean frame, Cashner pitched at 96-98 mph as a reliever at TCU. His mid-80s slider can be just as electric, breaking so much that it looks like a power curveball at times. Chicago believes in his changeup too and will try to develop him as a starter. To stay in the rotation, Cashner will have to improve his command. It deserted him for much of his debut, and his velocity also was down, problems the Cubs attribute to getting rusty during a long layoff and having to reacclimate to starting. He'll also have to refine his changeup and rely on it more often. Like Jeff Samardzija, Cashner has the raw ability to pitch in the front half of a big league rotation and can always fall back on being a late-inning reliever. He'll start for now, opening his first full season at one of Chicago's Class A affiliates.
The Cubs have had a significant presence in Korea for the last decade, starting with handing out seven-figure bonuses to Hee-Seop Choi and Jae-Kuk Ryu. Signed for $525,000 in July 2007, Rhee allowed just one run over his first three pro starts last April. Then he hurt his elbow in his fourth outing, leading to Tommy John surgery. He has a clean and balanced delivery, so overuse in Korea may have been the culprit. Rhee wowed scouts before he got hurt. Pitching in the April chill of the Midwest League, he showed precocious feel for three pitches. His changeup is the best in system, and it dives at the plate with splitter action. His fastball sat at 90-92 mph and touched 94, while his curveball was a solid-average pitch. He fearlessly threw all of his pitches for strikes, and they all could develop into plus pitches once he's healthy. He has put his downtime to use by improving his English and his conditioning. Rhee won't see game action until midseason at the earliest. The good news is that he's so young that he'll still be ahead of the development curve when he returns. Once he does and builds his arm back up, he won't need much beyond more experience. If he can stay healthy and regain his feel and stuff, Rhee may have a more realistic chance of becoming a quality starter than Jeff Samardzija or Andrew Cashner. Rhee won't be at full strength and effectiveness in 2009, so the Cubs will be patient.
After finally developing an all-star catcher in Geovany Soto, the Cubs have another possible regular on the way. Castillo was the Double-A Southern League's youngest catcher in 2008, when he also appeared in the Futures Game. He has drawn Yadier Molina comparisons since arriving in the United States in 2006. He has the ingredients to become Molina's equal behind the plate--and a more dangerous hitter. Castillo handles the bat well and has the strength to hit at least 10-15 homers annually in the majors. His plus arm is his standout tool, and he threw out 36 percent of basestealers last year. Castillo is still raw in many phases of the game. He doesn't control the strike zone yet and has yet to decipher breaking pitches, which is why righthanders manhandled him to the tune of .228/.283/.293 in 2008. His receiving skills are good but he loses focus too often, resulting in 23 errors and 34 passed balls over the last two years. He sits back too far from the plate and gets too flashy at times. He's a well-below-average runner. With Soto in Chicago, there's no need to rush Castillo. He'd benefit from a full season in Double-A to make several adjustments offensively and defensively.
Hart floundered in the Orioles system before joining the Cubs in a December 2006 trade for Freddie Bynum. Once Double-A Tennessee pitching coach Dennis Lewellyn taught Hart a cut fastball, he shot to the majors and finished 2007 on Chicago's playoff roster. He wasn't as effective in the big leagues last season. Though the Cubs used Hart in a variety of roles in Triple-A, he's just plain nasty as a reliever. Coming out of the bullpen, he can blow hitters away with 94-96 mph fastballs and chew up their bats with cutters. He's tough to hit when he has his confidence and goes after batters. His arm is resilient, allowing him to pitch multiple innings at a time or on consecutive days. When major leaguers got the better of Hart last April, he started nibbling instead of challenging them. His control deteriorated, as did manager Lou Piniella's trust in him. Hart's curveball and changeup can throw hitters off balance but grade as fringe average. The Cubs have determined that Hart's future is as a reliever. He can make the big league bullpen with a good spring, and doing so would make it easier for Chicago to develop Jeff Samardzija as a starter. The Padres asked for Hart during the Jake Peavy trade talks in December.
The Rookie-level Arizona League Cubs had three legitimate shortstop prospects last summer in Castro, fellow Dominican Junior Lake and $500,000 bonus baby Logan Watkins. Castro and Lake shared shortstop and moved around the infield, while Watkins played second base and left field. Castro flashes an interesting package of tools. He has a good approach at the plate and isn't overmatched by breaking balls. His hands and wrists work well, giving him some power. He has average speed with the potential for more. At shortstop, he has plus range, steady hands and a solid arm with good accuracy. He displays fine instincts at the plate and in the field. Carrying just 160 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, Castro needs to get stronger. Once he does, he could have close to average power and plus speed. He's still learning how to steal bases after getting caught five times in 11 tries last season. If everything comes together for Castro, the Cubs think he can become their first all-star shortstop since Shawon Dunston in 1990. Figuring out how to get time at shortstop for Castro, Lake, Watkins and 2008 supplemental first-rounder Ryan Flaherty poses a dilemma. Chicago will make sure Castro plays regularly there in 2009, most likely at Boise.
Flaherty batted cleanup behind No. 2 overall pick Pedro Alvarez (Pirates) at Vanderbilt, where he set a school record with a 38-game hitting streak. Drafted 39 picks after Alvarez in June, Flaherty signed for $1.5 million and earned Northwest League all-star honors in his debut. His father Ed has won two national championships as the head coach at NCAA Division III Southern Maine. Flaherty's sweet lefthanded swing and his hand-eye coordination make him a consistent hitter, and he should develop at least average power as he fills out his lanky frame. He's a solid athlete, featuring average speed and a strong arm. His makeup and instincts are top notch. Scouts don't believe Flaherty has the range to play shortstop in the majors, though the Cubs caution not to bet against his desire. Usually a dependable fielder, he made 16 errors in 52 pro games. He profiles well at third base, though Aramis Ramirez and Josh Vitters would loom as two huge obstacles should Flaherty move there. He can get pull-conscious and expand his strike zone when he's thinking of home runs, and he's better off just letting his power come naturally. Chicago has a glut of shortstop prospects at the lower levels of the system, but remains committed to playing Flaherty there for now. As the oldest and most advanced hitter of that group, he could jump to high Class A to help lessen the logjam.
The Cubs sought athletic pitchers in the 2008 draft, and Jackson, a two-way star at Furman, fit the bill. He already has blown away expectations for a ninth-round pick since signing for $90,000. He finished his first pro summer in high Class A, where he allowed three runs in five outings, including a victorious playoff start as Daytona won the Florida State League title. Jackson has the chance to have four average-or-better pitches. His two best weapons are a 90-93 mph fastball that reaches 95, and a mid-80s slider with hard bite. He also has an average 75-78 mph curveball and a feel for a changeup. He works quickly and confidently, challenging hitters by pounding the strike zone. Jackson's control is ahead of his command, and his next step will be to refine his ability to locate his pitches within the strike zone. He's not especially tall, so he has to stay on top of his pitches to work in the bottom of the zone. He may not have much projection remaining, but he's not lacking for stuff. In a system short on legitimate starting pitchers, Jackson already has moved near the top of the depth chart. He'll begin 2009 no lower than high Class A and could advance to Double-A before season's end.
Background: Lee was the prize among the Cubs' 2008 international signees, agreeing to a $725,000 bonus in June. Chicago landed two more Koreans late in the summer, righthander Su-Min Jung ($510,000) and catcher Jae-Hoon Ha ($225,000). Lee reported to MLB's Australian Baseball Academy to prepare for coming to the United States. He injured his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. With his array of tools, Lee has a chance to be a special shortstop. He's a lefthanded hitter who stays inside the ball well and uses the whole field. He may even have some power once he fills out his exceedingly skinny frame. He has the plus-plus speed to create havoc once he reaches base. He had a strong arm before he got hurt, and he exhibits fluid actions at shortstop. The Tommy John surgery actually isn't a major setback, because he's still just 18 and the Cubs expect him to be ready for spring training. Bigger concerns are his need to add strength and adapt to a new culture. He has a reputation for being a bit of a hot dog. One international scout who wasn't a huge fan thought he was a slap hitter whose hands and arm were questionable for a shortstop. Lee could be the first Korean middle infielder to reach the big leagues. Because he has no pro experience and the Cubs have several lower-level shortstop prospects, he'll head to the Arizona League in June.
Clevenger hoped to transfer to Texas after hitting .347 as a freshman at Southeastern Louisiana, but a problem with his credits landed him at Chipola (Fla.) JC instead--and made him draft-eligible a year earlier than planned. The Cubs liked his bat and signed him for $150,000 as a sixth-rounder in 2006. A shortstop in college, he lacked the speed for the middle infield, so Chicago exposed him to catching during instructional league in the fall of 2006. He got a little time behind the plate in 2007 before catcher became his primary position last season. Clevenger has the tools necessary to become a big league regular. He has a gift for making contact, spraying line drives to all fields. The Cubs believe his offense will pick up once his body gets accustomed to catching. Once he strengthens his legs so they can contribute more to his swing, some scouts think he could hit 30 doubles and 10- 15 homers annually as an everyday player. Clevenger made a lot of progress with his defense in 2008. He has an above-average arm and threw out 30 percent of basestealers last year. Technically, he's a better receiver right now than Welington Castillo, who has concentration lapses. Clevenger still needs to develop more defensively, but he's definitely on the right track. His speed, while below-average, isn't bad for a catcher. With all-star Geovany Soto in Chicago, the Cubs aren't in need of a regular backstop. Clevenger may be better suited than Castillo to complement Soto because he hits lefthanded and has the versatility to play first base and other positions in a pinch. He's ready to catch regularly in Double-A this year, but Castillo may be headed back to Tennessee as well.
After missing the last three weeks of 2006 with a left knee injury, Hoffpauir had been selected to play in the Triple-A all-star game and was on the verge of his first big league callup in 2007 when he tore cartilage in his right knee. He recovered from surgery to correct that problem, only to strain his left oblique in big league camp last spring. Once he got back on the diamond in May, Hoffpauir took out his frustration on pitchers. The Cubs 2008 minor league player of the year, he became the fifth player in modern PCL history to hit four homers in one game, finishing with 25 homers and 100 RBIs in just 71 Triple-A contests. He also hit well in four trips to Chicago, putting himself in the team's plans for 2009. Hoffpauir has power to all fields and looks to hit mistakes early in the count before toning his swing down if he gets two strikes. He did a better job of using the opposite field last season than he had in the past. He could put up Lyle Overbay-type numbers if he got the chance to play every day. Managers rated Hoffpauir the best defensive first baseman in the PCL, and he shows soft hands and a solid arm for the position. He also saw time on the outfield corners in 2008, and the consensus is that his speed, range and arm are below-average but he could fill in there for short stints. He's not going to displace Derrek Lee as the Cubs' first baseman, but he could fill Daryle Ward's role as a lefty bat off the bench while offering much more defensive ability than Ward. Chicago spent the offseason looking for a lefthanded-hitting right fielder, and Hoffpauir is a dark horse in that competition.
The best athlete in the system, Guyer needed some time before he was able to truly show off his tools in pro ball. He dislocated his left shoulder in a home-plate collision during an NCAA regional game shortly before the Cubs made him a fifth-round pick in 2007. Doctors recommended rehab rather than surgery, and he played in pain during his pro debut before having an operation in the offseason. While working his way back into shape during spring training, he came down with a stress fracture in his right elbow. Guyer finally joined Peoria in mid-May, and he showed what he can do once he was 100 percent in mid-June. Guyer has plus-plus speed and raw power. He homered and fell a double shy of hitting for the cycle when Peoria hosted a Midwest League game at Wrigley Field on July 29. Guyer will need to make some adjustments at the plate, such as improving his pitch recognition, plate discipline and ability to handle breaking balls. He brings a football mentality to the ballpark, a remnant of his days as an all-state running back and linebacker for his Virginia high school. That aggressiveness helps him on the basepaths, where he has the quickness to steal bases in the big leagues. Though Guyer played mostly left field last year to reduce the strain on his shoulder and elbow, he has the range to play center and an adequate arm for the position. If everything comes together for him, he could be a stronger version of Aaron Rowand. The Cubs won't be surprised if Guyer has a breakout year and pushes his way to Double-A in 2009, and it's possible that he could begin the season there.
Part of a shortstop timeshare with Starlin Castro in the Arizona League last summer, Lake lacks Castro's instincts and polish but owns the strongest infield arm in the system. While he spent more time at short than Castro did, the consensus is that Lake is the more likely of the two to switch positions in the future. That won't come for a while, however, because Lake has the ability to stay there. He eats up a lot of ground with his long legs and his arm rates a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale. The rest of Lake's game is intriguing, too. The ball comes off his bat well and he has a lot of room to add strength to his skinny 6-foot-3 frame, so he could develop plus power. Like many young hitters, he'll have to tighten his strike zone and learn to cope with offspeed pitches. Lake's speed is average out of the box but he's better underway, as evidenced by his six triples and 12 steals in 14 tries last year. The Cubs would like both Castro and Lake to play regularly at shortstop in 2009, though they've yet to figure out how they're going to pull
The Cubs not only have a logjam at shortstop at the lower levels of the system, but they also have a similar situation at third base. Josh Vitters, Rosa and Marquez Smith all were ready to start 2008 in low Class A, and the problem solved itself when Vitters went down with a hand injury and Rosa shifted over to first base until Smith got promoted in July. Signed for $180,000 as part of the final class of draft-and-follows in May 2007, Rosa showed improved bat speed and strength in his first full pro season. His Midwest League-leading 42 doubles hint at his power potential, with expectations that some of them will turn into homers down the road. Rosa's future will be brighter if he can stick at third base, though that remains to be seen. He has below-average speed and awkward footwork at the hot corner, where he committed 21 errors in just 71 games last year. His arm is strong, but his range and hands are a little shaky. Rosa does have some athleticism, so he has the potential to improve through hard work. He'll be the everyday third baseman at Daytona this year.
The first draft pick of scouting director Tim Wilken's tenure with the Cubs, Colvin signed for $1.475 million as the 13th overall choice in 2006. Chicago saw him as a budding Steve Finley or Shawn Green in his first two pro seasons, but Colvin hit the wall hard in Double-A last season. A bum elbow may have been partially to blame, as he played in pain but without complaint before having Tommy John surgery in the offseason. Scouts with others clubs think his problems go beyond his elbow, as he cuts himself off in his swing and employs a dead-pull approach that results in too many rolled-over grounders. Colvin does have the bat speed, loft and strength to hit 20 or more homers on an annual basis. He boosted his walk total from 15 in 2007 to 44 last year, though more discipline is needed. He showed average or better tools across the board in previous seasons, but they were more fringy in 2008. His speed was down a bit, and that can't be attributed to his elbow. The Cubs now concede that he'll play on an outfield corner rather than in center, and if his arm bounces back he should be able to handle right field. Colvin was bothered by shoulder problems at the end of 2007, and he'll probably miss the first month of the 2009 season before returning to Double-A. Chicago would love for him to stay healthy and start making more progress, because it's looking for a lefty-hitting right fielder.
The Cubs have done a fine job of acquiring promising arms in minor trades, grabbing Jose Ceda (for Todd Walker), Kevin Hart (for Freddie Bynum), Jose Ascanio (for Will Ohman and Omar Infante) and Justin Berg (for Matt Lawton) in recent years. When Chicago designated Buck Coats for assignment in August 2007, it spun him off to the Reds for Mateo, whose cousin Juan used to pitch for the Cubs. Chicago used Mateo mostly as a starter in his first full season in the organization to give him innings to develop. Pitching coordinator Mark Riggins and Daytona pitching coach David Rosario worked diligently to smooth out what had been a herky-jerky delivery. Mateo is destined for the bullpen and is far from consistent, but he does have one of the most electric arms in the system. When he's fresh, his fastball ranges from 92-97 mph yet isn't necessarily his best pitch. At the time of the trade, Mateo had just started to flash an average breaking ball, and now he can run his hard slider up to 91 mph with unhittable tilt at times. He only dabbles with a changeup and employs a full-speed-ahead approach, but that'll be less of an issue when he eventually becomes a full-time reliever. Added to the 40-man roster in November, Mateo will advance to Double-A and may continue to work as a starter to give him more time on the mound.
Carpenter was the highest-drafted high school pitcher in the 2004 draft to opt for college. He blew out his elbow throwing a 93-mph fastball as a freshman at Kent State, leading to Tommy John surgery in 2005 and a second operation to clean out scar tissue in 2006. As a draft-eligible sophomore in 2007, he made a run at the first round before fading late and dropping to the Yankees in the 18th round. When he left the Cape Cod League with a tired arm, New York lost interest in signing him. The Cubs got him with a third-round pick and a $385,000 bonus in 2008, and Carpenter could be a bargain if he can stay on the mound. He consistently works at 92-95 mph and touches 97 with his fastball, and he has tightened up his hard curveball over the last year. His changeup has shown improvement as well, though it's not reliable as his two main pitches. Carpenter struggled to harness his stuff at times in college, and he did so in his pro debut. He has a big, strong frame that enables him to throw downhill and should help in terms of durability. The Cubs may send him to Daytona to keep him in warm weather at the start of the 2009 season. If he can stay healthy, Carpenter will shoot up this list and through the minor leagues.
Winning follows Barney, who was a catalyst for back-to-back College World Series titles at Oregon State in 2006-07 and a key part of a Florida State League championship in his first full pro season. His constant energy and his knack for making things happen are more impressive than any of his individual tools. Though his arm and range are just average, he's the best defensive infielder in the system, thanks to his instincts, ability to read balls off the bat, fast hands and quick release. When they signed him, the Cubs thought Barney undercut too many pitches at the plate. They solved that problem when Daytona hitting coach Richie Zisk handed him a 35- ounce bat last June. The change didn't transform him into Derek Jeter, but Barney did start hitting more liners and hard grounders and using the opposite field more. He batted .287 over the final two months, .407 in the FSL playoffs and .302 in the Arizona Fall League. He still offers only modest power, and while he handles the bat well, he's going to bat in the bottom of a big league order unless he starts drawing more walks. Barney is somewhat reminiscent of Ryan Theriot, another former CWS champion made good, but he doesn't have Theriot's speed. Barney will advance to Double-A this season.
A teammate of Tyler Colvin's at Clemson, Smith turned down the Cubs as a 35th-round pick in 2006. He signed for $30,000 when Chicago drafted him in the eighth round the following year. Smith turned in a solid first full pro season in 2008 despite being nagged by hamstring and finger injuries much of the time. He has quick wrists and a reasonably disciplined approach, allowing him to hit for a decent average with some power. There's more life and athleticism in his squatty frame than might be apparent at first glance. Though Smith is a slightly below-average runner, he's a surprisingly versatile defender with a strong arm. Hawaii Winter Baseball named him its defensive player of the year for his work at third base for the league champion Waikiki BeachBoys, and he also gets the job done at second base. Shortstop would be a stretch because Smith wouldn't haven enough range, but there's no reason he couldn't play the outfield corners. With his build, bat and arm, he'd be an intriguing candidate for a catching conversion. Smith will move up to Double-A in 2009. There may not be a big league starting job in his future, but he could provide value as a utilityman with pop.
Atkins' makeup is more impressive than his arsenal, but that didn't stop him from winning 17 games--one off the minor league lead--and the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year award in 2008. His best pitch is an 89-92 mph fastball with average sink; the fastball is most notable for Atkins' ability to locate it. Atkins commands his entire repertoire, which also consists of a cutter, curveball and changeup. His curve has a chance to develop into a solid-average pitch. Atkins has an innate feel for pitching and isn't afraid to let hitters put the ball in play. He has little margin for error and gave up 25 homers last season, but he doesn't let anything faze him. A case in point came Aug. 3 start against Salt Lake. Three of the first four batters hit rockets off Atkins, who then adjusted so well that he retired the final 16 batters he faced, 11 via strikeouts. Strong and durable, he has yet to miss a minor league start. Chicago added him to its 40-man roster over the winter and Atkins will audition for a middle-relief job in big league camp. It wouldn't surprise the Cubs if he eventually carved out a larger role for himself.
Caridad originally turned pro with Japan's Hiroshima Carp. He made two brief appearances in the Japanese majors in 2007 and spent most of that year at the Carp's academy in the Dominican, where Cubs scout Jose Serra spotted him. A technicality made Caridad a free agent, and Chicago won him over with a $175,000 bonus, an invitation to big league camp and a visit from Jim Hendry during the general manager's trip to the Cubs' Dominican base. Caridad has a quick arm and one of the better fastballs in the system, a low-90s heater that tops out at 96 mph. It induces more groundouts than strikeouts because it flattens out at times and he lacks deception in his delivery. On the other hand, his smooth mechanics give him terrific control. The rest of Caridad's arsenal is ordinary: an average three-quarters breaking ball and a fringy changeup with some splitter action. Some clubs officials project Caridad as a starter, but it's more likely that his ultimate role will be as a reliever or swingman. After a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, he's ready for Triple-A and could get his first taste of the big leagues in 2009.
The Cubs made Thomas a third-round pick in 2007 after he batted .430 at Florida State and led NCAA Division I in runs (91), doubles (33) and total bases (189). He entered pro ball with a good-hit, no-field reputation and lived up to it in his debut. Some club officials considered him a better pure hitter than No. 3 overall pick Josh Vitters. But after skipping a level and jumping to high Class A in 2008, Thomas did an about-face. He got off to a good start when pitchers busted him inside and he started to turn on balls, but he didn't adjust well when they started pitching him on the outer half. On the other hand, he worked hard on his defense, showed improved range and arm strength and led Florida State League second basemen with a .989 fielding percentage. The Cubs wonder whether he focused so much on his glove that it took away from his bat. Thomas righted himself in the postseason, batting a league-best .483 to win MVP honors as Daytona won the FSL title. He has quick hands, good strength for his size and an aggressive swing. If he can tighten his strike zone and use the opposite field more, he can get back to hitting for a high average with a healthy amount of doubles. He's an average runner who can steal bases thanks to his savvy. His hands and footwork still leave something to be desired at second base, and he doesn't have natural defensive instincts. Chicago wants to promote Thomas and double-play partner Darwin Barney as a tandem, so they'll move up to Double-A together this year.
There are scouts who swear that Fox's plus power would produce 25 homers if he got the chance to play every day in the majors. The problem is that those longballs would come with a low batting average, plenty of strikeouts and absolutely no defensive ability. Fox has accumulated 14 big league at-bats in his six seasons in the organization, and he hurt his cause by not performing in Triple-A to start 2008. That led to a demotion in early May, after which he led the Southern League in slugging (.580). Fox can crush any fastball out of any park, in part because he sits on fastballs and sells out for power every time. He can't handle breaking balls, won't work counts and rarely listens to batting coaches. Power is Fox's only tool, and one scout described his defense as "a notch above horrific." Drafted as a catcher, he's now a first baseman/corner outfielder with substandard speed, range, hands and arm strength. The best-case scenario is for Fox to have a career similar to that of Ryan Garko, another former college catcher who's dangerous with both a bat and a glove. Coming off a big winter in the Dominican League, Fox will take another crack at Triple-A in 2009. The Cubs already have a righthanded-hitting first baseman in Derrek Lee, so Fox really needs a trade to an American League club.
A four-year starter at Oklahoma State, Wright led the Big 12 Conference in hitting (.405) and set a league record with a 35-game hitting streak as a senior in 2007. Signed for $42,000 as a seventh-round pick, he draws comparisons to Reed Johnson, a fellow gamer who solidified the Cubs' outfield last year. Wright showed his grit by playing through a sports hernia for the final two months of the 2008 season. He has a gift for putting the barrel on the ball, making steady line-drive contact. He has gap power and slightly above-average speed, a package that could delivery 25-30 doubles, 12-15 homers and 20 steals per year. Wright has good instincts on the bases and in the outfield, and he's capable of playing all three spots. He stuck mostly to left field last year while slowed by the hernia. Wright's arm strength merits only a 35 on the 20-80 scouting scale, but he gets rid of the ball quickly and runners challenge him at their own risk. He racked up 13 assists in just 90 games last season. One of the most mentally tough players in the system, Wright refuses to let himself fail. He'll continue to get chances to prove himself, and the next step will be Double-A.
Parker played several positions and never hit much as a three-year starter at Arkansas, but the one tool he showed constantly was a strong arm. The Cubs signed him for $30,000 as a 16th-round pick in 2006, and after he hit .224/.325/.367 in his first pro summer, they took his bat away. In two years on the mound, Parker has posted a 2.20 ERA, conquered high Class A and put together a nice three-pitch mix. He has a low-90s sinker that touches 95 mph and often seems to disappear at the plate. He picked up a changeup from Dae-Eun Rhee, who owns the best in the system, when they were Peoria teammates at the beginning of 2008. Parker's changeup shows the makings of becoming a reliable pitch, and his slider is improving as well. Chicago has deployed Parker from the bullpen, where his confidence and mound presence fit nicely. His main needs are to improve his control, command and consistency, and he got extra work in with an assignment to Hawaii Winter Baseball. Parker has developed rapidly and might get a big league look at the end of 2009, which he'll begin in Double-A.
Cerda's hitting ability has been evident since he starred at the 2001 Little League World Series as an 11-yearold. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn watched him in action on television and said, "That's the sweetest swing I've ever seen from a kid that age." Though Cerda continued to produce at the plate in high school and at showcases, his future defensive home was less obvious because of his below-average size and speed. The Cubs found a solution after signing him for $500,000 as a fourth-rounder last summer--they made him a catcher. Cerda gave up seven passed balls and 16 steals allowed in 13 pro games, but Chicago was pleased with the progress he made in a short time behind the plate. He has the arm, hands and agililty to develop good catch-and-throw skills, though that will take some time. Focusing on his catching responsibilities took away from his hitting in his pro debut, though he did rip a double off Giants prospect Tim Alderson during instructional league. Cerda has quick hands, a discerning eye and a short swing geared for line drives, though he probably won't hit for much power. There are a lot of similarities between him and Steve Clevenger, another pure hitter who made the infielder-to-catcher move. The Cubs believe Cerda is strong enough mentally and as a hitter to possibly handle a jump to low Class A for his first full season. They may also give him some time at second base when he's not behind the plate.
The biggest surprise the Cubs pulled in the 2008 draft came when they gave Watkins, a 21st-rounder, a $500,000 bonus. He received some predraft buzz, but not nearly enough to indicate that a team would spend third-round money to lure him away from a Wichita State scholarship. A gifted athlete, he was an all-state quarterback and defensive back for his Kansas high school football team. He swings the bat well and has a disciplined, contact-oriented approach, though he'll need to get much stronger to hit with any authority. Speed is Watkins' most obvious tool, and he might cover more ground at shortstop than Arizona League teammates Starlin Castro and Junior Lake. He played second base and left field, however, while they shared shortstop. Watkins has the range for center field and has a solid arm. The Cubs still haven't figured out what to do with all their young shortstops and where to play Watkins. They may use him at several different positions in Boise this season.
The Cubs spotted Maestri at MLB's inaugural European Baseball Academy in Tirrenia, Italy, in the summer of 2005 and made him the first Italian pitcher ever signed by a major league club. He's a legitimate prospect, not just a curiousity, with surprising stuff and pitchability given his background. Maestri showed a lot of promise as a reliever in 2007, but didn't fare as well when he moved to the rotation in 2008. The Cubs made the move because he has a deep enough repertoire, but the result was diminished stuff, not to mention a tender shoulder that caused him to be shut down in July. His fastball went from 87-90 mph when he signed to 90-94 when he came out of the bullpen in 2007, but it dropped back down to the upper-80s last year. His slider, which is one of the best in the system and devastates righthanders, also wasn't as sharp. Maestri has the potential for an average changeup, and he needs an offspeed pitch to keep hitters honest. He's athletic and repeats his delivery well, allowing him to throw strikes. Chicago will return Maestri to the bullpen in 2009, and it's not inconceivable that he could climb from Double-A to the majors this year.
Remaining active in Korea, the Cubs signed two more players late last summer, Jung for $510,000 and catcher Jae-Hoon Ha for $225,000. Jung is a product of Busan High, which also spawned big leaguers Shin-Soo Choo and Cha Seung Baek. Jung opened 2008 as Busan's No. 3 pitcher, with Tae Kyeong Ahn (who signed with the Rangers) the ace. While Ahn outperformed him, Jung surpassed him as a prospect. He was pitching at 82-84 mph in March but boosted his fastball to the upper-80s and touched the low-90s by the end of the summer. He has a clean arm action and the room to add strength, so he may have more velocity in him. Jung spins the ball better than most international pitchers and has the makings of a power curveball. He also started to make some progress with a changeup during instructional league. Other clubs considered Jung the equivalent of a late second-rounder or early third-rounder, and the Cubs paid him like one. They'll unveil him in the Arizona League in June.