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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 didn't 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. 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. Guzman's fastball and changeup are the best in the Cubs system, and his curveball ranks near the top. When they're on, they're 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 Guzman's 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. Guzman's mechanics and easy delivery augured well for his health--before 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 Cubs' spring-training base in Mesa, Ariz., but they won't 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. Guzman's physical condition is the only concern at this point. He was ready for the major leagues when he got hurt. The Cubs are going to take things slowly with Guzman's valuable right arm. He'll be back in big league camp this 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.
Jones looked like a possible first-round pick early in 2002 but didn't pitch well in front of crosscheckers, so the Cubs were able to grab him in the second. They planned on pitching him at short-season Boise in 2003 before injuries created an opening at low Class A Lansing. Jones excelled as one of the youngest pitchers in the Midwest League. His 89-94 mph fastball and his curveball are both plus pitches. With his age and frame, he projects to add velocity. His changeup is advanced for his age, as is most of his package. He also throws an occasional splitter. Lefties went 5-for-58 (.086) with no extra-base hits against him in 2003. Like several of Chicago's top pitching prospects, Jones didn't make it through the full season. He was shut down twice with a tired arm and didn't pitch after Aug. 5. He didn't need surgery but needs to get stronger. His command can get better. The Cubs have sought a good lefty starter for years, and Jones will race Andy Sisco and Luke Hagerty to Wrigley Field. Jones should be 100 percent for spring training and will spend 2004 at high Class A Daytona.
Seven months after blowing out his right knee in an outfield collision at a high school showcase, Harvey was a candidate to go No. 1 overall in the 2003 draft. The Cubs ranked him third on their draft board and were elated to get him with the sixth pick. Though he signed quickly for $2.4 million, the team had him focus on rehabbing his knee until the final two weeks of the season. Scouts compare Harvey to Dale Murphy. Harvey has huge power, as well as the strongest outfield arm and the best power/speed combination in the system. He threw 90-93 mph off the mound before giving up pitching in the wake of his injury. Harvey hasn't quite regained his 6.7-second speed in the 60-yard dash. His rust also showed at the plate in the Rookie-level Arizona League. His swing can get long at times and he'll have to keep it shorter with wood bats. The last Cubs outfield prospect with this much promise was Corey Patterson. They rushed Patterson and vow not to do the same with Harvey. Sammy Sosa's eventual successor may begin 2004 in extended spring training before heading to Boise.
After snaring Mark Prior with the No. 2 overall pick in 2001, the Cubs followed up with another potential ace in Sisco in the second round. As a senior he pitched in the same rotation as Cardinals No. 1 prospect Blake Hawksworth. Recruited as a defensive end by Pacific-10 Conference football programs, he signed for $1 million. He missed two months with a broken pitching hand in 2003, but finished strong by not allowing an earned run in two starts as Lansing won the Midwest League playoffs. Sisco is a huge lefthander who already throws 92-94 mph and projects to add more heat, so he draws obvious comparisons to Randy Johnson. And while he has to polish the rest of his game, he has better mechanics and command than the Big Unit had at the same age. Sisco already has an effective changeup and at times shows a plus curveball. Sisco's curve is far from a finished product, as one in four he throws is above-average. He'd be better off throwing fewer splitters and focusing on his other pitches. The Cubs like his competitive makeup, but he also can be immature. Once he masters his curveball, Sisco will take off. The Cubs will keep him and Jones together again in 2004 in high Class A.
Pie appeared in the 2003 Futures Game at 18 years and five months, just two months older than Florida's Miguel Cabrera was in 2001 when he became the youngest ever to appear in the prospect showcase. Pie, who hit .429 and drove in the winning run in the Midwest League playoffs, also won championships in the Arizona and Northwest leagues in 2002. Pie shows four intriguing tools, most noticeably 70 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale. He had no trouble hitting for average as a teenager in the MWL, where managers rated him the league's best defensive outfielder. He plays a shallow center field and has a solid arm. Though Pie will add strength, he won't hit for much power because his swing and approach are designed more to make contact. Though he runs well, he lacks basestealing instincts and was nabbed 13 times in 32 tries in 2003. He has a good concept of the strike zone for such a young player, but he still needs more discipline. The Cubs envision Pie as their leadoff hitter of the future, and he could push Corey Patterson to an outfield corner. He'll spend 2004 in high Class A.
Once considered the top prospect in the 2002 draft, Brownlie came down with biceps tendinitis in his junior season and fell to the 21st pick. He didn't sign until March 2003, receiving $2.5 million. Because he worked hard to get into pitching shape during the offseason so he could pitch for the Cubs in January, he ran out of gas in early July, when he was shut down with a sore shoulder and tired arm. Brownlie has always dazzled scouts with his 12-to-6 curveball, and it's the best breaking pitch in the system. He also has a low-90s fastball that touched 97 mph when he was in college. He augments his stuff with good command and feel for pitching. Brownlie's changeup lags behind his fastball and curve but should be an effective pitch in time. The Cubs aren't too concerned about his health. An MRI showed no structural damage in his shoulder and he was back to 100 percent in instructional league. Chicago officials say he'll be fine now that he's on a baseball schedule. Brownlie was pushing for a promotion to Double-A when he wore down, and he'll get one to start 2004. If all goes well, he could reach Wrigley Field in September.
One of three college pitchers taken by the Cubs in 2002's supplemental first round, Blasko broke out in his 2003 pro debut while Luke Hagerty and Matt Clanton were hurt. Many scouts had projected him as a reliever because of his long arm action, but Blasko was unhittable as a starter. He needed just two outings before earning a promotion to high Class A, where he led the Florida State League in ERA. The Cubs drafted Blasko for his size and his fastball. He throws in the low to mid-90s and commands his fastball with precision. The key for him in 2003 was coming up with a consistent breaking ball, a big curveball that looks like a hanger before suddenly dropping through the strike zone. While Blasko also improved his changeup and slider, those pitches still need further refinement. He may not have a picture-perfect delivery, but it's deceptive and he throws strikes, so the Cubs aren't going to touch it. Blasko will head to Double-A, and he and Brownlie could compete for a big league rotation spot in 2005.
Harris couldn't match the .328 average and 15 homers he put up in his first full pro season in 2002, but the Cubs were still pleased with his development. They gave him a look at catcher during spring training, but ended that experiment when the physical toll proved to be too much. Harris missed the final two weeks of the season with broken ribs, then returned to hit .302 in the Arizona Fall League. Harris is a consistent line-drive hitter with gap power. He hasn't shown typical home run pop for a third baseman, but the Cubs believe it will come. He has one of the strongest infield arms in the system, and he displays good athleticism at both second and third base. Harris has played more at the hot corner than at second base, and it shows. He's not as smooth at second and needs to improve his double-play pivots. His intense makeup is an overall plus, yet it sometimes works against him. Harris will continue to see playing time at both second and third base in 2004 at Triple-A Iowa. He'll challenge for a big league job at one of those spots in 2005.
The Cubs finally gave up on Kelton filling their perennial void at third base. Since having shoulder surgery in high school, he repeatedly had mental and physical struggles making throws from the hot corner. After committing 11 errors in 33 games there to start 2003, he asked to move to the outfield and got his wish. Kelton has the tools to handle his new position. His bat speed and plate coverage should make him a .275 hitter with 20-25 homers annually. He has the athleticism and arm strength to play on either corner and could fill in as a center fielder in a pinch. Kelton has been steady but rarely spectacular in the minors, and he'll have to step up his production to gain playing time in the outfield or at first base, where he played extensively in 2002. Doing a better job of controlling the strike zone would help. He would have been a natural fit as a platoon partner had the Cubs chosen to stick with Hee Seop Choi or Randall Simon at first base, but the Derrek Lee trade leaves Kelton vying for a backup role at best this year. To do that he'll have to prove himself to manager Dusty Baker in spring training.
Ryu has pitched well since the Cubs signed him out of Korea for $1.6 million, but his performance and potential were overshadowed by an incident in April 2003. Ryu killed an osprey by throwing a baseball and knocking it from its perch atop a light pole at Daytona's Jackie Robinson Ballpark. He dominated low Class A after a punitive demotion, then was inconsistent in his first try at Double-A. Ryu can toy with hitters when he's on. His 92-93 mph fastball and his curveball are his primary pitches, and he commands them well. He gets good run on his changeup. Ryu could use better control of his changeup, and his overall command deteriorated in Double-A. Some Cubs officials aren't enamored with his splitter. But his biggest need is to mature and acclimate himself to the United States. In addition to the osprey attack, Ryu also has had multiple run-ins with teammates. Ryu wasn't ready for Double-A last year, but the Cubs couldn't send him back to Daytona. He'll get another shot in 2004.
Hagerty looked so good in spring training last year that scouts wondered how he could have lasted 32 picks in the 2003 draft, or gone 31 picks after his former Ball State teammate, Bryan Bullington. Hagerty's lively fastball was crackling in the mid-90s, and his slider was much improved, giving him a second nasty pitch. But while warming up for his final spring training start, Hagerty felt a pop in his elbow. Then he received an unwanted 22nd birthday present: An MRI that revealed he needed Tommy John surgery. The operation and rehabilitation have gone well, and Hagerty should return to the mound in mid-2004. The track record of Tommy John patients is good, and Kerry Wood on the parent Cubs provides a local source of inspiration. Hagerty will have to regain his plus stuff, which he should be able to do given his work ethic, and develop a reliable changeup. The elbow injury was a total shock because he hadn't experienced any physical problems and he has stress-free mechanics, especially for a pitcher as large as he is. Like most Tommy John survivors, it probably will take him two years to get back to 100 percent, which would be 2005 in his case. Loaded with quality pitchers, the Cubs are more than willing to wait for another.
The Cubs nearly lost Dubois a year ago. He had a solid track record of hitting, setting the career home run record and winning the 2000 Colonial Athletic Association triple crown at Virginia Commonwealth, then leading the Florida State League in slugging and ranking second in on-base percentage in 2002. Nevertheless, Chicago didn't protect him on its 40- man roster and watched Toronto select him in the major league Rule 5 draft. When Dubois went 3-for-18 in big league camp, the Jays decided they couldn't keep him on their big league roster and the Cubs gladly took him back. Dubois responded with another solid season and was named Arizona Fall League MVP after hitting .358 with a league-best nine homers. Chicago likely will buy out Moises Alou's $11.5 million option for 2005, and David Kelton and Dubois are the best in-house candidates to take over in left field. Dubois has more raw power than Kelton, which could be his ticket to winning the job. His size and his opposite-field pop are signs that he annually can double the 15 homers he hit last season. Kelton is more of a pure hitter, but Dubois has better patience and on-base skills. He's somewhat of a dead high ball hitter, but he's doing a good job of closing some of his holes. He has below-average speed and isn't the athlete Kelton is, but Dubois can play either outfield corner or first base adequately. He won 19 games as a pitcher at VCU and his arm strength helps him in the outfield. He'll spend most of this season in Triple-A, preparing for the challenge of 2005.
On most teams, Wellemeyer would be going to big league camp as a frontrunner to win a rotation spot. On the pitching-rich Cubs, he's not even guaranteed of finding a role as the last man in the bullpen. Wellemeyer has legitimate starter stuff. He can hit 96 mph with his four-seam fastball and achieve plenty of sink with his two-seamer. Iowa pitching coach Jerry Reuss helped him add more tilt to his slider and he gets good movement on his changeup. Wellemeyer needs to remember that location matters as much as power. He sometimes overthrows, leaving his fastball up in the strike zone and losing command. His slider and changeup also need more consistency, as big league hitters learned to sit on his fastball. If Chicago decides to keep him in relief, he could become a set-up man in time. Wellemeyer will try to crack the Cubs staff in spring training, and he'll return to Triple-A if he can't.
Jackson could push himself into the mix to replace Moises Alou in 2005 if he can remain healthy--something he has done in just one of his four pro seasons. He had a ligament injury in his right middle finger in 2000 and a fractured right shin in 2002. Jackson stayed in one piece until mid-August last year, when he hurt his shoulder diving for a fly ball. He has one of the best packages of tools in the system but his development has been stalled since managers named him the Florida State League's most exciting player in 2001. He has a quick bat, strength and speed, and he often gets compared to fellow University of Richmond product Brian Jordan. While Jackson started poorly in Triple-A, his production increased each month until he got injured. He needs more at-bats to make further adjustments. He still has problems with pitches on the outer half of the plate and with breaking balls, and he doesn't use the opposite field as much as he should. Jackson has enough range for center field but his arm is his weakest tool and may not be strong enough for right. He'll head back to Triple-A in 2005, where he could be flanked by David Kelton and Jason Dubois in the Iowa outfield.
Mitre doesn't have the front-of-the-rotation profile of the pitchers ahead of him on this list, but he has enjoyed consistent success throughout the minors and reached Chicago for a pair of emergency starts barely two years after he signed out of San Diego City College. His stuff has gotten a little better each year to the point where it's average across the board. His velocity fluctuates from 86-94 mph, and his fastball is more notable for its sink. He's a strike-throwing, ground-ball machine who also works with a curveball or changeup. Mitre isn't overpowering and doesn't have much margin for error, which big league hitters showed by letting him fall behind in the count before pounding him. He has a ceiling as a No. 4 or 5 starter, and he'd also be effective as a middle reliever with a knack for getting double plays. There's no opening for him on the current big league staff, so he'll spend this year in Triple-A. The Cubs fielded several trade inquiries about Mitre last summer and could be tempted to deal him in 2004.
After pitching in the Futures Game, showing the best fastball in the Southern League and making his big league debut in 2002, Beltran had a forgettable 2003. His numbers were good but he wasn't his usual dominant self in Triple-A, and he pitched just twice after June 22 because of triceps tendinitis. He reportedly was on the list of prospects the Pirates could choose from in the Aramis Ramirez/Kenny Lofton trade, and Beltran's physical condition probably contributed to Pittsburgh's decision to take Bobby Hill. When he's right, Beltran can chew hitters up with a 95-98 mph fastball and a mid-80s slider. He'll throw a splitter to keep hitters off balance. It's the closest thing he has to a changeup, the pitch that prevented him from progressing as a starter. Beltran pitched well in his native Dominican Republic this winter, so his health is no longer a concern. Command remains his weakness, and once he improves in that regard he'll be ready to help the Cubs. He'll get a look in spring training but almost certainly will begin 2004 in Triple-A.
There must be something about Dunedin (Fla.) High and power hitters. Some scouts considered Dopirak to have the most raw power in the 2002 draft, even more than Brewers first-rounder Prince Fielder. Now Dopirak has been surpassed in his own organization by 2003 first-rounder Ryan Harvey, his former Dunedin teammate. Harvey is more of a well-rounded athlete while Dopirak is more of a grip-it-and-rip-it slugger, but when Dopirak makes contact he can drive a ball out of sight. He earned Northwest League all-star honors last year and after starting 2-for-22 following a promotion to low Class A, he hit .337 the rest of the way (including the playoffs). His plate discipline still leaves a lot to be desired and Midwest League pitchers got him to chase most anything. He'll have to make more adjustments to climb through the minors. Dopirak's power will have to carry him, because he won't hit for a high average, he doesn't run well and he's just adequate at first base. That said, few players in the minors have his Dopirak's 40- or 50-homer ceiling. The Cubs do like his attitude and he has put in time trying to get better defensively. He'll advance one step at the time, meaning he should spend 2004 back in the MWL.
The Cubs weren't able to keep former draft picks Quincy Carter and Antwaan Randle El away from college football, and ultimately the NFL. But they lured Petrick, one of the nation's top long snapper recruits, from a Washington State football scholarship by giving him $459,500 as a 2002 third-round pick. He's strong and athletic for a pitcher, and his lower half reminds the Cubs of Mark Prior's. Petrick is still raw and has much to learn, but he also has the makings of a power pitcher. He throws a low-90s fastball that can reach 96 mph, and he's tough to homer against because he throws on a steep downward plane and has good sink. He's still putting together the rest of his repertoire. His curveball was too big and loopy, so he replaced it with a slider that's in its formative stages. His changeup can become a solid-average pitch in time. His command also needs improvement. Chicago can afford to show lots of patience with Petrick, who will move up to low Class A this year.
Wylie is another victim of Chicago's tremendous pitching depth. His scintillating 2002 pro debut showed that he was a steal as a 12th-rounder, and the Cubs realized that he had the stuff to do more than close games. But they didn't have a rotation opening in Class A last year, so he stayed in relief and continued to excel. He led the Midwest League in appearances and for the second time in as many years, he made a major postseason contribution to a championship club. Lansing ran the table with seven straight playoff wins, with Wylie saving four of them. Hitters just don't make good contact against Wylie, who has permitted a .178 opponent average and one homer as a pro. He gets great sink and bore on a low- to mid-90s fastball, and hitters can't think about sitting on it because he can beat them with his curveball and slider. He also throws a changeup. Wylie needs more consistency with his command, but he's on the verge of moving quickly. He'll probably start 2004 in high Class A with a chance for a midseason promotion.
Nolasco is the stealth pitching prospect in the Cubs system. Drafted in the fourth round in 2001, when Chicago started its draft by taking Mark Prior and Andy Sisco, Nolasco never has received much attention. Yet he has a 19-7, 2.69 career record and skipped a level en route to a successful year in high Class A at age 20. He and Felix Sanchez were headed to Texas last summer in a trade for Rafael Palmeiro before Palmeiro nixed returning to the Cubs. The younger brother of Brewers minor league righthander Dave Nolasco, Ricky has a feel for pitching and a competitive makeup. When he got shelled for a 11.57 ERA through his first three Florida State League starts, he didn't panic and went 11-3, 2.23 the rest of the way. Nolasco's stuff is pretty nice, too. He throws a fastball in the low 90s, and it sinks and bores in on righthanders. His curveball is a solid second pitch, and he can change speeds on it. His changeup is on the road to becoming an average pitch. Nolasco puts his pitches where he wants to and gets lots of groundouts. He's ready for Double-A and could be pitching in Chicago by the end of 2005.
In Dusty Baker's first big league camp as Chicago's manager, few players opened his eyes as much as Sanchez, who posted a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings. Not many lefties can light up a radar gun like Sanchez, who can pitch in the mid-90s and touch 97 when working out of the bullpen. The Cubs hoped to make him a starter, but his inability to develop his secondary pitches will have them settle for a power lefty reliever instead. He went to the bullpen full-time in 2003, though he pitched out of the rotation at the end of the year to make up for innings lost when a torn pectoral muscle sidelined him for five weeks. Sanchez' slider is an average pitch at times but not frequently enough. He also has a decent changeup he doesn't throw as much out of the bullpen. He needs to do a better job of repeating his delivery, which would help his slider and his command. Chicago signed Kent Mercker as a free agent, buying a year of development time for Sanchez in Triple-A.
The Cubs did a masterful job of finding pitching in the late rounds of the 2000 draft. They signed 2003 National League rookie of the year Dontrelle Willis in the eighth round, Leicester in the 11th, Carmen Pignatiello in the 20th and Jason Szuminski (lost to the Padres in December's major league Rule 5 draft) in the 27th. Area scout Mark Adair had to do a lot of projection on Leicester, who went 0-11, 6.72 and performed better as a shortstop that year at the University of Memphis. While he never has had a winning record or posted an ERA lower than 3.89 as pro, Leicester has made good progress and has been protected on the 40-man roster for the last two years. The Cubs still aren't sure if he'll wind up being a starter, set-up man or closer. Though he had a lower ERA in relief (3.35) than in the rotation (4.44) in Double-A, he actually pitched better as a starter. Leicester has one of the best pure arms in the system, throwing 95-96 mph and topping out at 98 last year. Leicester also can overmatch hitters with his slider and splitter at times. The key for him is command, in terms of both throwing all his pitches for strikes and locating them in the zone. He pitches high in the strike zone too often, which won't be as easy to get away with in the majors. He'll spend 2004 in Triple-A.
Marshall and his twin brother Brian helped Virginia Commonwealth lead NCAA Division I with a 2.54 team ERA in 2003. Afterward, Brian signed with the Red Sox as a fifth-rounder and Sean went to the Cubs in the sixth round. Though he has a ways to go to reach his ceiling, Marshall has similar upside to Andy Sisco. He has a projectable body at 6-foot-6 and 195 pounds. While he currently pitches in the high 80s, he has touched 93 mph and could get there regularly. And while it's not overpowering at this point, his heater is tough to hit because of its movement and his command of it. He varies the speeds on a curveball that can be a plus pitch, and he's not afraid to throw his changeup in any count. Marshall throws strikes and keeps the ball down in the zone. He just needs to work on adding strength and establishing his fastball more often. He has an advanced feel for pitching and could move quickly. Marshall could handle a promotion to high Class A but the Cubs' logjam of pitching may send him to low Class A to begin 2004.
Pinto's 2003 season started on the wrong foot. He missed the first four weeks with a sprained ankle, then gave up a total of three earned runs in his first four starts--and had a 0-2 record to show with it. Though his run support never came around, he finished the year on a positive note when the Cubs added him to the 40-man roster for the first time. Pinto throws his fastball in the low 90s and misses bats because hitters have a hard time picking up his pitches from his low three-quarters arm angle. He's still turning his curveball and changeup into consistently effective pitches, but he shows pretty good command. If his secondary pitches don't come around, he'd make a good lefty reliever. Pinto will pitch in the Double-A rotation this year.
Webb had Tommy John surgery in 2001, and he started to regain his previous stuff in the Arizona Fall League after the 2003 season. After throwing 88-91 mph during the summer, he bumped his fastball up to 91-94 mph in the AFL. Webb's heater has late sinking life, but he needs to work it inside more often. A full-time shortstop and part-time reliever at Manatee (Fla.) Community College, he brings good athleticism to the mound. That should help him repeat his delivery better, the key to improved command and secondary pitches. Webb will show a slider with some power and depth, but not on a consistent basis. His curveball and changeup are just ordinary at best. If he can continue to pitch like he did in the AFL, he could help the Cubs after a season in Triple-A.
Though his fastball resides in the 83-85 mph range, Pignatiello led the Florida State League in strikeouts last year. With that lack of velocity, he'll have to keep proving himself, but he also has an impressive résumé dating back to when he won a gold medal with Team USA at the 1999 World Junior Championship. He was a high school teammate of righthander Kris Honel, who was drafted in the first round in 2001 by Chicago's other big league team. Pignatiello survives with below-average velocity because he has a plus curveball and command, along with a good changeup. He draws the standard comparisons to Jamie Moyer and Kirk Rueter, though he'll probably have to develop more fastball to move all the way up the ladder. Pignatiello is vulnerable when he doesn't locate his pitches, as evidenced by him topping the FSL in runs, earned runs and homers allowed. He has earned a promotion to Double-A in 2004.
Drafted in the seventh round by the Angels in 2001 when he was sophomore-eligible, Hill turned them down to return to Michigan. Had Hill pitched enough innings to qualify, his 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings easily would have topped the minors in 2003. While he has no trouble missing bats, he has problems missing the strike zone. He has given up nearly as many walks as hits since turning pro, and his control was off so much last year that he had to be demoted from low Class A at age 23. Hill led the short-season Northwest League in strikeouts, thanks to his lively 91-93 mph fastball and knee-buckling curveball. But he's going to have to throw a lot more strikes to have a chance at being even a big league reliever. The Cubs think his control is more a mental than physical issue. Hill's pitches move so much that he gets himself in trouble by trying to paint the corners rather than challenging hitters. His changeup also needs improvement, but his command obviously is the key. He'll try to figure it out in low Class A this year.
Downs got rocked in the Rookie-level Arizona League in his professional debut, but that wasn't a true indication of his potential. He missed a month of his high school senior season with shoulder tendinitis and was never 100 percent after signing for $225,000 as a fifth-round pick. When Downs was sound last spring, one scout said he had the best command he had seen in 20 years and could handle Double-A. His curveball rated a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and some observers thought his changeup was just as good. With those two offerings and an advanced feel for pitching, he compensates for an 85-89 mph fastball that lacks plus velocity or life. Downs' shoulder is fine now and shouldn't be a long-term problem. The Cubs took things slowly with him last summer and probably will do so again in 2004, which could mean some time in extended spring and a June assignment to short-season Boise.
The Cubs unveiled another wave of pitching in the Arizona League last year. Besides Darin Downs, they also featured the league's wins leader in Bay and strikeout king in hard-throwing Carlos Marmol. Bay signed as a draft-and-follow out of Angelina (Texas) Junior College in May, then drew the support of managers as the AZL's top pitching prospect. He throws four pitches for strikes and delivers them all from the same arm slot. He can get up to 94 mph with his four-seam fastball, and he also uses a two-seamer, curveball and changeup. The Cubs made minor mechanical adjustments, getting Bay to stay back longer and shorten his stride, and he had no problem filling the strike zone afterward. He tired late in the summer, so he'll need to get stronger, which could add more juice to his fastball. He could open 2004 in the low Class A rotation.
Virginia isn't considered the most fertile breeding ground for prospects, but area scout Billy Swoope found six of the Cubs' top 30 prospects there: Justin Jones (No. 2), Brendan Harris (No. 8), Jason Dubois (No. 12), Nic Jackson (No. 14), Sean Marshall (No. 23) and Craig. Though Craig struggled mightily in his 2002 pro debut, the Cubs jumped him to high Class A last year and he passed the test. He's an offense-first player with a nice swing from both sides of the plate. He's similar offensively to Harris, hitting for average with gap power and a decent amount of walks. Craig should hit more homers as he fills out. The biggest difference between the two is that Harris is more athletic and capable of playing second or third base. Craig's speed, hands and arm are below average, and he may not be able to stick at the hot corner. Left field is his fallback position, and moving there would require him to provide more offense. He'll play regularly at third in Double-A this year.