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There must be something in the water at Dunedin (Fla.) High, because two of the minors' most dangerous power hitters came out of that program just a year apart. The Cubs drafted Dopirak in the second round in 2002, then took former teammate Ryan Harvey with the sixth overall pick in 2003. Dopirak, who had committed to St. Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College, turned pro for a $740,000 bonus. Though he was considered to have the most raw power in the 2002 draft--even more than Prince Fielder--the consensus among scouts was that Dopirak was a hit-or-miss player who could just as easily flame out in Double-A as succeed in the majors. The latter looks like the more realistic possibility now. He earned short-season Northwest League all-star honors in 2003, setting the stage for last season, when he destroyed the low Class A Midwest League. Dopirak tied for third in the minors in homers, finishing three shy of the MWL record, and led the league in hits, doubles, total bases and extra-base hits. He was named Midwest League MVP and Cubs minor league player of the year. With quick hands, Dopirak generates tremendous bat speed and can hit the ball out to any part of any ballpark. If pitchers let him get his hands extended, they're dead. "When the ball comes off his bat," Kane County manager Dave Joppie said, "it's like hitting a golf ball with an aluminum bat." For a big guy, Dopirak has a short swing, and while he's not the most disciplined of hitters, he already has a sound approach and has shown improvement at working counts. He showed he could adjust against better pitching when Chicago decided to push him after the regular season with an assignment to the Arizona Fall League, where at 20 he was one of the youngest players. He responded to that challenge by hitting .274 with seven homers (one off the AFL lead) in 95 at-bats. In addition to hitting 35-plus homers on an annual basis, Dopirak may be able to hit for average as well. Unlike some young sluggers, he also appreciates the value of defense and has worked hard on that aspect of his game. For all his effort, Dopirak never will be more than an adequate first baseman. He doesn't cover much ground and his hands are somewhat shaky, which is why he led MWL first basemen with 15 errors in 2004. He's also limited as a baserunner. Dopirak is going to produce a lot of strikeouts to go with his homers, a tradeoff the Cubs will accept. He'll be more valuable, however, if he can continue to increase his walk rate. Already a big man, he'll have to watch his weight as he gets older. If Dopirak moves up one level to high Class A Daytona, he should make a run at the Florida State League home run record of 33. But given how he handled the AFL, he could make a push for Double-A West Tenn in spring training. With Derrek Lee signed through 2006, there's no immediate need to rush Dopirak. When his bat is ready, the Cubs will gladly find a spot for him.
Pie has won championships with each of the four teams he has played for as a pro. He also played in his second straight Futures Game in 2004. Florida State League managers recognized Pie's varied tools, voting him the circuit's best batting prospect, fastest baserunner, best defensive outfielder and most exciting player. From the Cubs' perspective, he's their best athlete, top defensive outfielder and strongest outfield arm. His speed stands out the most, and he consistently has hit for average despite being young for his leagues. While Pie has more than held his own, his skills remain raw. His plate discipline slipped in 2004, and he won't show much power until he adds strength and lift to his swing. He's still honing his basestealing, getting caught 16 times in 47 tries last year. He plays a shallow center field because he's not smooth coming in on balls, and needs to improve his routes. Pie has a lot of work to do, but he's just 20 and has plenty of time to do it. He'll move up to Double-A and is on course to arrive in Chicago in 2007.
Because he was recovering from blowing out his right knee at a high school showcase, Harvey barely played after signing for $2.4 million in 2003. His first real exposure to pro ball came last season, which he capped by homering four times in three games to lead short-season Boise to a Northwest League playoff sweep. Harvey's power is comparable to Brian Dopirak's, and Harvey is unquestionably a more well-rounded player. He has solid-average speed, and his strong arm delivered 90-93 mph fastballs when he pitched in high school. His size and physical gifts have prompted comparisons to Dale Murphy. As with Dopirak, the Cubs realize strikeouts will accompany Harvey's homers. But he needs to do a better job working counts, and his naturally long swing can get exploited by quality pitching. After getting injured in a collision, he's still tentative in right field. Harvey could be on the verge of a low Class A breakout like Dopirak had last year. At least three years away from the majors, he'll be Sammy Sosa's long-term successor in right field.
Guzman was pushing for his first big league promotion in June 2003 before his shoulder acted up. Following his arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight labrum tear, the Cubs handled him cautiously in 2004, shutting him down in July because he was tired after working nonstop on his rehab. Before he got hurt, Guzman had an explosive 91-96 mph sinker, a sharp curveball and a deceptive changeup. All were plus-plus pitches at times. His velocity came back last summer, as did his above-average control. He throws strikes and keeps the ball down in the zone. Guzman's secondary pitches and location haven't gotten back to where they were, though that was expected. They should return in 2005. He still has to prove his health and durability, as he has worked more than 90 innings just once in five pro seasons. Assuming Guzman recaptures his previous stuff, he would give Chicago a fourth homegrown frontline starter alongside Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs will continue to bring him back slowly, probably starting him in Double-A this year.
Petrick was one of the nation's top long snapper recruits and was headed to Washington State to play football before the Cubs made him a third-round pick and signed him for $459,500. Moved one level at a time, he has made significant progress in three pro seasons. Petrick has a tall, thick frame with a lower half that resembles Mark Prior's, and he uses it to launch heavy 90-93 mph sinkers deep in the strike zone. He led the Midwest League in fewest homers per nine innings (0.2) last year and has allowed just seven longballs in three years. He has shown more aptitude for a slider than the loopy curveball he used to throw, and has improved his changeup. Chicago loves his makeup and his willingness to attack hitters inside. While Petrick throws strikes, he needs to improve the command of all three of his pitches so he won't be so hittable. He tends to telegraph his changeup by slowing his arm speed, one reason lefthanders batted .297 against him in 2004. With Petrick's strong build and stuff, he could grow into a dominant pitcher. He's ready for high Class A in 2005.
Pinto went 21-31, 4.22 over his first five pro seasons and spent 2001- 03 in Class A before he broke out last season. He led the Double-A Southern League in ERA and strikeouts, and was the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year. Pinto's best pitch is a plus changeup with good deception, sink and fade. His lively 92-94 mph fastball darts in and out of the strike zone. He may throw harder as he fills out his lanky frame, and even if he doesn't, hitters have trouble picking up his pitches from his low three-quarters delivery. His slider shows flashes of becoming a third above-average pitch. Pinto's biggest need is to keep his fastball in the zone, because when hitters don't chase it he gives up too many walks. He needs added consistency with his slider. Some scouts think his stuff grades better than he pitches and question whether he can win in the majors without better command. Pinto will return to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League after pitching well there in the playoffs. Chicago has several lefty relief options, so he'll probably stay in the Iowa rotation all year.
Marshall and his twin brother Brian helped Virginia Commonwealth top NCAA Division I with a 2.54 ERA in 2003, when Boston drafted Brian in the fifth round and Chicago grabbed Sean in the sixth. He excelled in his first two pro stops before partially rupturing a tendon in his left middle finger while throwing a breaking pitch in mid June, and the problem recurred in the Arizona Fall League. Marshall's 88-92 mph sinker tops out at 95 and generates a lot of groundballs and strikeouts. His No. 2 pitch is a sharp downer curveball that he can change speeds with. His command and stuff allowed him to reach Double-A after 22 pro starts. Marshall also throws a slider and changeup, and improving the latter pitch is the key to him remaining a starter. His finger injury has perplexed the Cubs, but he saw a specialist in January and is expected to be ready for spring training. He got knocked around in Double-A before he got hurt, so Marshall will return there in 2005. He and Renyel Pinto are close to giving the Cubs a much-needed quality lefthanded starter.
Area scout Mark Adair did a tremendous job seeing the potential in Leicester, who was better as a shortstop in college and went 0-11, 6.72 during his draft year. He never posted a winning record until 2004, when he made the transition from the Triple-A rotation to the big league bullpen and was one of the Cubs' most effective relievers in the second half. When Leicester pitches in short stints, his fastball sits at 95-96 mph and reaches 98. He can overmatch righthanders with his slider, and lefties with a splitter that serves as his changeup. He finally has gained the confidence he needs to win. Strong and durable, he can handle any role. Leicester's control wavers and he's hittable when he leaves his pitches up in the zone. His secondary pitches aren't always reliable, sometimes leaving him with nothing but his fastball. Surprisingly, those problems occurred less in the majors. Though he has earned manager Dusty Baker's trust, Leicester isn't guaranteed a bullpen spot in 2005. He could get a chance to start in the majors down the road.
The Cubs scouted Johnson heavily as an Illinois high schooler, but backed off because of his commitment to Notre Dame. He established himself as a potential first-rounder with the Irish before tearing his labrum and missing all of 2003. After he returned to lead the Big East Conference with a 1.87 ERA in 2004, Chicago made him its top pick and signed him for $1.26 million, easily the highest bonus in the second round. Johnson consistently threw 92-94 mph last spring, showing he's fully healthy. His slider was better than his fastball before he got hurt. The Cubs rave about his mound presence as much as his stuff. Johnson pitched just 58 innings in college the last two years, then signed late and skipped instructional league to work toward his marketing degree. He needs mound time to get his old slider back and improve his changeup. Chicago won't take any chances with Johnson, so he may avoid the cold April climate in the Midwest League and start his pro career in the Florida State League. He has the makeup to handle high Class A.
The Cubs didn't protect Dubois after he led the Florida State League with a .562 slugging percentage in 2002, and they temporarily lost him to the Blue Jays in the major league Rule 5 draft. After returning to Chicago, he won the Arizona Fall League MVP award in 2003 and led the system in slugging last year. Managers rated Dubois the best power hitter in the Pacific Coast League. Though some scouts think he doesn't pull enough pitches, he's strong enough to drive the ball out to the opposite field with ease. He has a strong arm, no surprise considering he won 19 games as a pitcher at Virginia Commonwealth, and decent defensive instincts. Though Dubois draws a fair amount of walks, he can get impatient and needs to do a better job of waiting for pitches he can punish. He has below-average speed and range, making him just adequate at an outfield corner or first base. After the Cubs declined to pick up Moises Alou's $11.5 million option, Dubois figured to get a chance at playing time in left field. Then the Sammy Sosa trade with the Orioles included Jerry Hairston, who could get a long look in left field, as will Todd Hollandsworth. Dubois offers more offensive upside than either.
Not only did general manager Jim Hendry pull off a four-team deal trade at the deadline last July that netted Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Gonzalez, but he also picked up Murton as well. Murton has the best pure hitting skills and strike-zone judgment in the system. The Expos weren't interested in getting Murton from the Red Sox in the trade, so Hendry offered to give up Harris and take Murton at the last moment. He always hit well with wood bats in the Cape Cod League as an amateur, and Murton has had little trouble adapting to pro ball. Scouts don't project him to have quite as much power as they did when he was at Georgia Tech, but he should be at least a 20-homer guy. He needs to add loft to his swing to become more of longball threat. He can put on a show in batting practice, having won home run derbies at the Connie Mack World Series (1998), Cape Cod League all-star game (2002) and Florida State League all-star game (2004). Murton is a good athlete for his size and has average speed. His biggest drawback is a weak arm that limits him to left field. He'll head to Double-A this year and could be ready for Wrigley Field at some point in 2006.
Another supplemental first-round pick out of Georgia Tech, Lewis hit just .255 in his first three seasons in the Atlanta system. He gave reason for optimism when he won the Arizona Fall League batting title with a .404 average in 2003, but when the Braves had a chance to acquire Juan Cruz from the Cubs last spring, they included Lewis in the trade. Chicago also received lefthander Andy Pratt, considered a better prospect at the time, but Pratt experienced control problems in 2004 while Lewis won the Southern League MVP. The only negative came when he was promoted to Triple-A and broke his right leg sliding into second base. Lewis doesn't have a standout tool, but he's a baseball rat with solid all-around skills. Though he still strikes out too much, he matured at the plate last season, hitting for average with more gap power than expected. With his plus speed, he can steal more than the 11 bases he swiped in 2004. Lewis has sure hands, committing just four errors in 129 games last year, and hangs in well on the double play. He was so aggressive rehabbing his leg this offseason that Chicago had to tell him to slow down. The initial expectation was that he'd miss the first month of the season, but he might be ready for Opening Day. If he can carry his success to Triple-A , Lewis will challenge Todd Walker for the Cubs' second-base job in 2006.
After his first two years at Rutgers and strong summers in the Cape Cod League and with Team USA, Brownlie was the frontrunner to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft. Biceps tendinitis as a junior and his selection of Scott Boras as an adviser caused him to slide, however. Following the third-longest holdout in draft history, Brownlie signed the following March for $2.5 million. Though he has had consistent success and reached Double-A, Chicago still hasn't seen the overpowering stuff he showed as a college sophomore. He had a 92-94 mph fastball that touched 97 then, but now he works at 88-90 mph. His curveball still is his signature pitch, but it's not the knee-buckler it once was. He has recovered from the tendinitis and shoulder soreness he had in 2003, so his health isn't the reason. Brownlie has compensated by becoming a more polished pitcher. He has developed an effective changeup, learned to locate his fastball to both sides of the plate and possesses the best overall command in the system. After some time in Triple-A, Brownlie will be able to help the Cubs in the back half of their rotation. If he regains the outstanding stuff he once had to go with his increased pitchability, he could be a frontline starter.
The Cubs have tried in vain to develop a catcher for more than decade, as prospects such as Pat Cline, Mike Hubbard, Brad Ramsey and Matt Walbeck teased them before dashing their hopes. Soto became the leading candidate to end that drought in Double-A at age 21. A cousin of former Cubs infielder Ramon Martinez, Soto was a corner infielder in high school and spent his first two years as a pro between catcher and first base. His body was soft when he first turned pro, but he lost 30 pounds to better deal with the rigors of catching. Soto offers potential both offensively and defensively. He shows bat-handling ability and has a little loft in his swing, and he could hit for a decent average with 10-15 homers annually. The best defensive catcher in the system, Soto has good receiving skills and handles pitchers well. At times he shows an above-average arm, though it's inconsistent. He doesn't run well but moves fine behind the plate. Soto has responded to being pushed aggressively, and Chicago will challenge him by sending him to Triple-A at age 22.
Sing's third stint in high Class A proved to be the charm. After washing out in a 2003 season marred by mononucleosis and hamstring problems, he destroyed the Florida State League last year. He made a run at the league's home run record, topped the FSL in hits, doubles, extra-base hits and homers, and won the MVP award. Sing worked hard during the offseason to get into the best shape of his career and retooled his swing under the tutelage of Daytona hitting coach Richie Zisk. Sing uses his patience to draw walks and get pitches he can hammer. His swing is a bit long and at 23 he was old for high Class A, so he still has much to prove at higher levels. Sing's position is a problem, and not because he's a below-average runner who's merely adequate at first base. With Derrek Lee ahead of him and top prospect Brian Dopirak behind him, his chances of playing regularly at first base for the Cubs are slim. He broke into pro ball as a third baseman and saw time in instructional league at second base, but his only other option is left field. Sing has a strong arm but not a lot of range. He should open the year as a first baseman in Double-A, moving to left if Dopirak receives a promotion.
After Cedeno won the Rookie-level Arizona League batting title with a .350 average in 2001, Chicago skipped him two levels and sent him to low Class A. His bat took a while to recover, as he hit a combined .212 the next two years. He finally caught his breath last season, when he started to spray line drives all over the field again. Cedeno still needs to improve his ability to make contact, work counts and get on base, but he's no longer an automatic out. He matured and stopped trying to break out of slumps by getting three hits in one trip to the plate. A plus runner, he's still feeling his way as a basestealer. The Cubs say anything Cedeno does with the bat is a bonus, and they proved it by protecting him on the 40-man roster after a 2003 season in which he batted .211. He has a cannon arm--the best among the system's infielders--good range and soft hands. He led Southern League infielders with a .963 fielding percentage last year. The only comparable glove man among Cubs farmhands is Carlos Rojas, whose offensive skills lag far behind Cedeno's. Assuming Cedeno continues to hold his own at the plate in Triple-A, he'd be an alternative for the Cubs in 2006 if they decide not to re-sign Nomar Garciaparra.
Ohman broke into the majors in September 2000, but he blew out his elbow pitching winter ball in Mexico after the 2001 season, and missed the next two seasons following Tommy John surgery. He was released in October 2003, re-signed last February and, outside of a month on the disabled list with elbow soreness, blew away hitters all year. He finished second among Pacific Coast League relievers with 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings and was even tougher during the Mexican winter season, posting a 0.90 ERA with 30 whiffs in 20 innings. Like many Tommy John survivors, Ohman throws harder than he did before the operation, pitching at 91-95 mph after maxing out at 92 in the past. He also has a nasty slider with downward tilt. His biggest weakness is a propensity for pitching up in the zone, and he also could throw a few more strikes. Chicago is looking for a second bullpen lefty, and Ohman is an early favorite to win the job out of spring training.
Will Ohman wasn't the only bullpen revelation for the Cubs last year. Wuertz had trouble coming up with a changeup to get lefthanders out as a starter, and he was quickly becoming an afterthought when he stalled in Triple-A. When he moved to relief in the middle of the 2003 season, his stuff surged; his fastball went from 87-88 mph to 91-93 with a peak of 95. His slider went from fringy to a plus pitch at times, though it's still inconsistent. He made such an impression in spring training that he won a spot on Chicago's Opening Day roster. Wuertz still has to spot his pitches well to succeed, but he has better command than Jon Leicester and Todd Wellemeyer, who also are trying to establish themselves in the big league bullpen. They'll be Wuertz' chief competition.
If Rafael Palmeiro hadn't vetoed a 2003 deal, Chicago would have sent Nolasco and lefty Felix Sanchez (since traded to the Tigers) to Texas for Palmeiro. Instead, Nolasco reached Triple-A and passed his older brother David, a Brewers minor league righthander. Nolasco was too tentative in Triple-A but got back on track after returning to Double-A. He challenged hitters with his low-90s sinker and curveball. His curve is his best offering, but he relies on it too much. Conversely, he doesn't throw his changeup enough--and that's the pitch that can make the difference for him in Triple-A. Nolasco is a tough competitor, so Chicago doesn't expect him to be shellshocked when he gets his second chance in Iowa this year.
After signing him as a catcher/outfielder, the Cubs eventually decided to use Marmol's strong arm on the mound. He took to the conversion quickly, leading the Arizona League in strikeouts during his first summer as a pitcher. At times, Marmol flashed a plus-plus fastball and an above-average curveball, though he's still far from consistent. He usually pitched at 90-92 mph with nice life on his heater when he kept it down in the zone. Marmol is picking up a changeup quickly for a converted position player, and he throws a cut fastball that's too slurvy right now. There's a fair amount of effort in his delivery, so he struggles to command his pitches at times. If Marmol rounds out his repertoire, he could be a No. 3 starter. If not, he could be an effective set-up man. He'll continue to pitch out of the rotation this year in high Class A.
The Cubs vowed they wouldn't trade Sammy Sosa for the sake of trading him, but that's what they did when they sent him to the Orioles in February. With Chicago, Fontenot already takes a back seat to big leaguers Todd Walker and Jerry Hairston and prospect Richard Lewis, and 2004 draftee Eric Patterson soon could pass him as well. Fontenot has some useful offensive tools in his plus speed and surprising pop for his size. He sometimes gets caught up in trying to hit for power, leading to subpar plate discipline. He's limited defensively, as he's no more than adequate at second base. He doesn't cover as much ground as his speed might indicate, and his below-average arm makes it a stretch to try him at shortstop, reducing his value as a utilityman. Fontenot may serve the Cubs as trade bait because there's no spot for him on the big league roster, and Lewis needs to play every day in Triple-A.
Hitting apparently runs in the Reed family. Mark's older brother Jeremy won the minor league batting title with a .373 average in 2003 and hit .397 after the Mariners called him up last September. Mark hit .351 in his brief pro debut before he broke his thumb in a sliding mishap. The Cubs believe Mark will hit, as he has an advanced approach and a loose swing. He should have more power than his brother, who's more of a gap hitter. Reed lives for baseball and loves to hone his stroke in the batting cage. As a bonus, he swings from the left side. He'll have to prove he can handle the responsibilities of catching. Reed is athletic for a backstop, and he has the receiving skills and makeup to succeed, but his arm strength may be a little short. If he can't stay behind the plate, he profiles as a possible corner infielder or outfielder. Because the Cubs have signed a lot of catchers and have a backlog at the lower levels, Reed will probably open 2005 in extended spring before playing at Boise.
Reed wasn't the only Cubs 2004 draft pick with good bloodlines. If all goes well, Chicago one day could have two Patterson brothers batting atop its order. Eric earned all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in each of his three years at Georgia Tech, where his older brother Corey committed before the Cubs took him third overall in the 1998 draft. Their father Don played defensive back for the Yellow Jackets and in the NFL. As with his brother, speed is Eric's best tool, though Eric's grades as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale, compared to Corey's 80. Eric, who has good instincts on the bases, led the ACC with 48 steals in 55 attempts last spring. The key to his game is his approach at the plate. He's not as strong as Corey but at times he gets too concerned with trying to match his power. Though Patterson made adjustments last spring to tone down his aggression, at times he'll get too patient and let hittable pitches go by. He just needs to focus on getting on base. His athleticism makes him a potential plus defender at second base. Patterson likely will make his pro debut in low Class A, with high Class A an outside possibility.
As good as Renyel Pinto and Sean Marshall are, they can't match Hill's stuff. In fact, one Cubs official says Hill may have the best stuff in the organization. The problem is that he has little command of it. He has averaged 12.1 strikeouts but also 6.3 walks per nine innings as pro. The Cubs tried lowering his arm angle in 2004, from a high three-quarters to a true three-quarters, and put him in the bullpen for a while, with only minimal results. He led the Florida State League in walks, hit batters (19) and balks (five). With his 88-93 mph fastball and power 12-to-6 curveball, Hill can be untouchable when he finds the plate. Chicago thinks his control issues are more mental than physical, and the only solution is to keep putting him on the mound. He also has a promising changeup, but the Cubs have to force him to throw it. Hill will be 25 this season, and perhaps it's too much to expect him to command three pitches well enough to be a starter in the majors. His fastball/curveball combo would allow him to be a dynamic reliever if he could be trusted to throw strikes.
A Rockies second-round pick in 1998, Van Buren led the Arizona League in ERA and strikeouts during his pro debut. But he couldn't get past low Class A, earning him his release in March 2003. He spent a year in the independent Central League, after which Cubs special assistant Gary Hughes (who worked for Colorado in 1999) recommended signing him. He rewarded the Cubs with a system-best 22 saves last year--his first full season in the bullpen--and finished second among minor league relievers in opponent average (.154). Before he got tired late in the season, Van Buren showed explosive stuff at times. Both his 91-93 mph fastball and his slider can be plus pitches, though he needs to improve his consistency when working on back-to-back nights. He also has to throw more strikes, and the effort in his delivery sometimes affects his control. Though he was running on fumes at the end of the year, Van Buren continued to compete well in Triple-A. He'll return there this year and could make his major league debut in the second half.
The emergence of Richard Lewis at second base and Craig at third base allowed the Cubs to close the Nomar Garciaparra trade last July by including Brendan Harris, who played both positions and had been the best pure hitter in the system. Area scout Billy Swoope signed both Craig and Harris out of Virginia colleges, and they're similar at the plate. A switch-hitter, Craig doesn't always look pretty but has a gift for hitting. Even when he gets jammed, he usually seems to find a way to fist the ball into the outfield for a single. With natural loft in his swing, he has more pop than Harris. Craig's strikeout rate spiked in 2004, though he continued to draw his share of walks. His defensive liabilities may preclude him from playing regularly in the majors. Craig has worked hard at third base, but his hands, arm and agility are below-average. He doesn't run well enough to play the outfield, so first base may be his only option. Craig may have to settle for being a potent bat off the major league bench. Next on his agenda is proving himself in Triple-A.
If you like statistics, you love Valdez. He led the DSL in ERA and strikeouts, fanning 20 in one seven-inning stint. However, as a 26-year-old, Valdez should have been in Double-A. Visa restrictions didn't afford the Cuban defector that opportunity. To his credit, he has proven himself against much stiffer competition in the Dominican League. He led the league in strikeouts (46 in 51 innings) in 2003 and in ERA (0.79) in 2004, when he was the league's pitcher of the year. Looking for lefthanded relievers, the Cubs have invited Valdez to big league camp as a nonroster player. There's no consensus on his best pitch. His fastball has fringy velocity at 83-88 mph, but it also has a lot of movement. Both his curveball and changeup grade out as plus pitches on the right day. His ability to locate all three offerings makes them even better. If Valdez doesn't make the major league team, Chicago will try to find a rotation spot for him in the upper minors.
Ryu may be the most frustrating player in the system, especially considering he signed for $1.6 million. He has made his biggest headlines for killing an osprey in April 2003, throwing a baseball that knocked it from its perch at Daytona's Jackie Robinson Ballpark. He also has had run-ins with teammates, leading to questions about his makeup. Ryu opened 2004 on the disabled list with elbow tendinitis and worked just 26 innings. Also plagued by weakness in his lower back, he got hammered in an Arizona Fall League assignment. Ryu has shown the ability to throw three good pitches for strikes. He has a 92-93 mph fastball, a curveball and a changeup that has some run to it. But he needs to get healthy and grow up. Though he'll probably pitch out of the rotation this year in high Class A or Double-A, he may not be more than a reliever in the majors.
The Cubs had high hopes for the three pitchers they took in 2002's supplemental first round (Blasko, Matt Clanton and Luke Hagerty), but injuries have struck them all. Blasko's rapid emergence was one of the system's most pleasant developments in 2003. His torn labrum was one of its most bitter disappointments last season. He led the Florida State League in ERA during his first full year and seemed poised to push for a big league spot in 2005, but after shoulder surgery he won't be ready for the start of the season. Before he got hurt, Blasko had a lot to offer. He's 6-foot-7 and has a deceptive delivery, which made his low- to mid-90s fastball that much tougher to hit. He used a big curveball as his second pitch and also employed a changeup and slider. Chicago will handle Blasko carefully this year and won't get a true indication as to whether he can regain his stuff until 2006.
Signed as a third baseman, Kelton had mental and physical problems making throws from the hot corner, prompting his move to first base in 2002 and the outfield in 2003. Chicago thought fewer defensive responsibilities would help him develop an already promising bat, but Kelton has regressed. He has good bat speed and raw power, but he undermined himself last year by trying to hit homers. He developed an uppercut and got under too many pitches. Controlling the strike zone never has been Kelton's strong suit and he regressed last year. He has average speed and has made progress in the outfield, where he can handle either corner and serve as a fill-in in center field. Kelton is coming off a productive winter in Venezuela, where he finished fourth in homers (12) and RBIs (44), but he's still a long-shot in the Cubs' left-field derby. He's also out of options, so if he can't stick on the major league roster he may find himself with a different organization.