This is just my opinion based mostly on my own observations of the players, and I'm sure many of you have your own idea of who should be where. I probably tend to place greater weight on players at the higher levels because I believe it means something to actually prove yourself by performance on the field against better and/or more-advanced competition, and I also sometimes consider a player to still be a prospect after others have written him off. However, I do consider talented players from further down the pipeline as well.
I use the same criteria Baseball America uses to rate their Top Ten prospects (maximum 50 MLB IP or 130 MLB AB, but not concerned with MLB service time), so Jeff Samardzija and Jake Fox are no longer eligible for consideration. If they were eligible for inclusion, I would place Samardzija between Josh Vitters and Welington Castillo, and J. Fox between Tyler Colvin and Darwin Barney.
For the first time in many seasons, the Cubs best prospects are predominately position-players. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any Top 15-quality pitching prospects in the organization, just that Scouting Director Tim Wilken has put a greater emphasis on drafting & signing position players over the past couple of years than was the case under the previous scouting regime.
Note that the Cubs also have about dozen or more MLB middle-relief prospects (Caridad, Berg, Stevens, Gaub, Parker, Patton, Russell, Dolis, Cales, McDaniel, Williamson, Huseby, Mateo, Papelbon, Schlitter, and Maestri), and although I wouldn’t put any of them in this year’s “Top 15” (because as things stand right now, I doubt that any of them will be closers at the big league level), several of them should surface in big league bullpens over the next few years.
2010 CUBS TOP 15 PROSPECTS:
1. Andrew Cashner, RHP (2008 1st Round - TCU) - age 23
COMMENT: Cashner was drafted by the Cubs in the 29th round of the 2007 out of a Texas JC but didn't sign, instead transferring to TCU where he developed into the nation's #1 college closer. Then the Cubs drafted him again in 2008 (this time as their 1st round pick), and this time the Cubs did sign him. Cashner was rusty (he hadn't pitched for about three months) when he reported to Fitch Park in 2008, and then he had a lot of difficulty throwing strikes at Daytona through the month of August, before (finally!) throwing "lights out" in the FSL playoffs in September. He received an NRI to Spring Training, and then was assigned to Daytona to start the 2009 regular season, where the Cubs converted him to a starting pitcher to get him more innings and to force him to use his secondary stuff. He later was promoted to Tennessee, and went a combined 3-4 with a 2.60 ERA, and a 1.18 WHIP, allowing only 76 hits (just one HR) and a 42 BB/75 K over 100.1 IP combined at Daytona and Tennessee, The lanky 6’6 Texan is presently pitching in the Arizona Fall League (AFL) for the Mesa Solar Sox, and is one of the top pitchers in the AFL, having thrown eight consecutive scoreless innings over his last two games. Cashner has been throwing a 94-96 MPH fastball in the AFL, and he also throws a power slider and a change-up. His fastball topped out as high as 98 MPH and his slider ran into the high-80’s when he was used as a closer, so I suspect the bullpen (8th inning set-up man or closer) might be his ultimate destination, although he could remain a starter indefinitely if his change-up continues to improve. While whether he is moved back to bullpen or remains a starter is yet to be determined, he almost certainly will get another NRI to Spring Training 2010, and then will likely begin the season at AAA Iowa, with a mid-season promotion to Chicago a possibility. The only reason the Cubs might hesitate to bring Cashner up to the big leagues next season is to keep his MLB service time and option clock from starting earlier than necessary (Cashner won’t be eligible for selection in the Rule 5 Draft until post-2011), but if he is pitching well at Iowa and he’s needed in Chicago, service time and minor league options won’t keep the youngster out of Wrigley Field.
2. Jay Jackson, RHP (2008 9th Round - Furman) - age 22
COMMENT: Jackson is an advanced pitcher who throws four or five different pitches for strikes, with a 94 MPH fastball and a curve being his two main "out" pitches (he also throws a slider and a change-up). He was drafted in 2008, and was promoted all the way up to Daytona in August and started a game in the ’08 FSL playoffs. He has a lot of confidence and doesn’t get rattled. He began the 2009 season at AA Tennessee, before getting a disciplinary demotion back to Daytona in July. He didn’t pout or sulk, though, and got a September bump up to AAA Iowa. Combined at three stops, the 6’1 195 Jackson went 8-7 with a 2.98 ERA, and a 1.22 WHIP, allowing 109 hits (11 HR) in 127 IP, with a 46/127 BB/K (he was second among Cubs minor leaguers in strikeouts). Jackson was a rotation starter in college at Furman, but he also played CF when he wasn't pitching. He is an excellent all-around athlete (he was also an outstanding basketball player in HS), and being able to hit and field should help him win a few more games than the average pitcher. With his basketball background, cool self-confidence, and the ability to hit (with power), he almost seems a bit like Bob Gibson. Jackson should get an NRI to Spring Training in 2010, and then begin the season in the starting rotation at AAA Iowa. A mid-season call-up to Chicago wouldn’t be a big surprise, although (as with Cashner) the Cubs won’t bring Jackson up unless and until they feel confident he is ready for The Show.
3. Starlin Castro, SS (2006 NDFA – Dominican Republic) - age 19
COMMENT: Castro has been everything the Cubs hoped Ronny Cedeno would be, but never was. I can’t recall any Cubs minor leaguer who has developed faster than Starlin Castro. Signed by the Cubs as a 16-year old out of the Dominican Republic in 2006, Castro made his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2007, where he hit .299 with 13 SB in 60 games. Then in 2008, Castro came to the U. S. and was a part-time SS-2B-3B at Fitch Park (AZL Cubs), where he hit 311/364/464 and played good defense at all three INF positions. While he showed some promise both in the DSL in 2007 and in the AZL in 2008, Castro really responded to coaching in the AZ Instructional League post-2008 (where he was easily the most-improved player from beginning to end) and at Minor League Camp this past March, earning him a “challenge” promotion all the way up to Advanced-“A” Daytona (Florida State League) on Opening Day 2009 (skipping both Boise and Peoria). And he accepted the challenge, too, hitting 302/340/391 in 96 games for the D-Cubs while earning a spot in the FSL All-Star Game and a mid-season promotion to AA Tennessee. Castro continued to hit at Tennessee (288/347/396), and helped lead the Smokies into the Southern League playoffs. Then he was assigned to the Arizona Fall League post-2009, where he presently leads the AFL in hitting while playing stellar defense at SS. Castro is still somewhat impatient at the plate (only 66/110 BB/K in 977 career PA), and seems to prefer to hit “first-ball fastball.” Although he also played 2B and 3B prior to the 2009 season, Castro played only SS at Daytona and Tennessee in 2009. He has plus-range and a strong arm, and while he made 39 errors (combined) at Daytona & Tennessee this past season, he has made only one error so far in the AFL while making several spectacular stops & throws, and he played in the AFL “Rising Stars” this past weekend. He has put on about 15 pounds over the past couple of years (and he still has room to grow) and could develop HR power as he matures (he’s still only 19). Castro is his own player, but he reminds me a little bit of a young Edgar Renteria
4. Josh Vitters, 3B (2007 1st Round - Cypress, HS - Cypress, CA) - age 20
COMMENT: Vitters was the Cubs #1 draft pick in 2007, and the Cubs signed him just prior to the 8/15 deadline (Vitters had signed an NCAA NLI to attend Arizona State). He was sick the latter part of his senior year in high school, and reported to Fitch Park in August 2007 weak and out of shape. He didn't look much better in the 2007 AZ Instructional League, and then he had a sore hand in Spring Training 2008 that delayed the start of his season. But once he got healthy, Vitters showed what he could do as a hitter. He hit 328/365/498 in 61 games at Boise, and was named the Northwest League's #1 prospect by Baseball America. He began the 2009 season at Peoria, where he hit 316/351/535 while going on a mid-May HR binge (he hit 15 HR in 70 games at Peoria). That got him a promotion to Daytona, where he struggled (hitting 238/260/344 in 50 games). He has walked only 28 times in 830 career-PA, although he hasn’t struck out all that much for a power-hitting prospect, either (129 K). Only 20 years old, Vitters was assigned to the Arizona Fall League post-2009, where he is presently hitting 360/385/460. He is just an average runner, but has outstanding bat speed and plus-power and should develop into a 25+ HR guy. He has the actions of a third-baseman and he looks like a third-baseman, but he needs to spend as much time working on his defensive play at 3B as he does working on his hitting. (He really seems to enjoy BP, never gets tired of it). He says he cares about defense, but I would describe his play at 3B (so far) as somewhat lackadaisical (“defensive indifference”). Now, he is the stereotypical laid-back Southern California dude, so that might be part of his seemingly casual approach to dealing with his deficiencies. Hopefully Vitters won’t turn out to be another David Kelton, but he is the Cubs top prospect most likely to turn out be a bust. It's possible that Vitters could eventually end up at 1B, and if it wasn’t that Alfonso Soriano is signed through 2014, I would think that the Cubs might seriously consider moving Vitters to LF at some point, but the Cubs REALLY want Vitters to make it to the big leagues as a third-baseman, if at all possible. Vitters will probably get an NRI to Spring Training next February and a promotion to AA Tennessee in 2010.
5. Welington Castillo, C (2004 NDFA - Dominican Republic) - age 22
COMMENT: Castillo’s defense has mostly been more projection than performance so far. He has a strong arm and is fairly athletic behind the plate, but too often he is careless and foolish with his throws and inconsistent with his receiving, resulting in a ton of errors and passed balls in 2008. However, he cut his passed balls in half and improved his fielding % this past season (both still need further upgrade, however), while leading all catchers in the Cubs organization with a 44% CS rate (he threw out 36% opposing base-stealers in ’08). Concentrating on improving his defense apparently affected his hitting in 2009, as he struggled at the plate pre-All-Star Break after hitting 287/337/383 at Daytona and Tennessee (combined) in 2008. But he caught-fire post-ASB at Tennessee, hitting 319/357/519 while clubbing 11 HR. He was assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox (AFL) post-2009 (he’s currently hitting 357/438/571 in the AFL), and will almost certainly get added to the Cubs 40-man roster later this month. Since he is only 22 years old and still somewhat raw, he could start the 2010 season back at AA Tennessee, especially if that’s where he would get the most playing-time. If Geovany Soto has another year in 2010 like he did in 2009, and if Castillo can build on his 2009 second-half at the plate and continue to improve his defense, he could be the Cubs #1 catcher by 2011.
6. D. J. LeMahieu, SS (2008 2nd Round – LSU) - age 21
COMMENT: LeMahieu spent two seasons as the starting shortstop at LSU, including the 2009 season when the Tigers won the CWS. He was selected by the Cubs as a draft-eligible sophomore in this past June’s MLB Rule 4 Draft, hit 323/376/384 in 41 games (combined) at AZL Cubs and Peoria after signing with the Cubs, and was the best hitter at AZ Instructs last month. Even though he has an opposite-field stroke, LeMahieu is a strong kid and can really put the hammer on the ball, ripping line drives back through the middle and into the right-centerfield alley. He hits right-handed pitchers OK, but he really crushes lefties. He’s also a good base-runner with above-average speed for a big guy (6’4 185). While he didn’t hit any HR after signing with the Cubs, he did turn on the ball and clubbed a homer over the LF fence at Papago Park (vs A’s) the last week of Instructs. More than any other player in the Cubs system, LeMahieu reminds me of Ryne Sandberg. Like Sandberg, LeMahieu is a natural shortstop who will likely eventually get moved to either 3B or 2B, and he has the type of line-drive stroke that (as happened with Sandberg in 1984) could possibly be tweaked into a pull-power HR stroke, if LeMahieu can just learn to turn on pitches more-often. While he may not remain at SS, LeMahieu looks most-comfortable there, and while he may not have the best range, he has a fairly strong arm and finds a way to make most-all the plays. His body-type projects more as that of a 2B or 3B, but so far Lemahieu has not taken to 2B (he looks awkward turning the DP from the 2B side), and he hasn’t even been tried yet at 3B. If it wasn’t for the presence of so many other shortstop prospects in the organization, LeMahieu would probably remain a shortstop indefinitely. As it is, I suspect he will play SS for at least one more year, and then will get re-evaluated. He will likely begin the 2010 season at Daytona, with a mid-season promotion to AA Tennessee a distinct possibility. I would love to see LeMahieu play for Ryne Sandberg this year, just to see if Ryno can help LeMahieu discover some pull-power.
7. Brett Jackson, OF (2009 1st Round – Cal) – age 21
COMMENT: Jackson hit the ground running after signing with the Cubs in July, going 318/418/488 with 8 HR in just 53 games and 249 PA and 13 SB (2 CS) at three stops (Mesa, Boise, and Peoria). Jackson was on fire at Peoria (7 HR in 26 games) when he developed tendonitis in his wrist that shut him down for a month, causing him to miss the Midwest League playoffs, and when he returned to action in October midway through the AZ Instructional League, he looked rusty and struggled at the plate. He has a funky swing that involves a big leg kick, but he makes up for it with plus-bat speed. He is a hyper-aggressive defender and an outstanding ball-hawk--a “natural” CF, but with a slightly below-average arm that would probably preclude him from playing RF. He has well above-average speed and is an aggressive base-runner who likes to take chances. He has HR power, hits LHP and RHP about equally-well, and is fairly patient at the plate (31 BB in 249 PA in 2009), although he does strike out a lot (56 K in ’09). Presuming his wrist is OK, Jackson should begin the 2009 season at Daytona, where he will play CF and hit somewhere in the top third of the batting order.
8. Hak-Ju Lee, SS (2007 NDFA – South Korea) - age 19
COMMENT: Lee got a $700K+ bonus (equivalent to “2nd round money”) from the Cubs in 2007, when he was considered the best HS player in South Korea. Named the #1 prospect in the Northwest League (NWL) by Baseball America, Lee hit 330/399/420 at Boise in 2009. He is one of the fastest players in the Cubs organization and can out-run a throw to 1st base if an infielder doesn’t play a ground ball aggressively. He also is a big-time base-stealer who led the NWL in stolen bases (25 SB in just 61 games) in ’09. A “natural” shortstop with plus-range and a decent arm (he had TJS post-2008), Lee is still VERY raw defensively (27 errors in 61 games this past season) and might have to be moved to another position (possibly CF) at some point in the future. He was a scrawny 17-year old at AZ Instructs in 2008, but he put on some muscle last off-season and he hits the ball with more authority now. A left-handed hitter, Lee’s stroke is somewhat similar to Ichiro’s. He waits until the last second and then sprays the ball all over the field while cheating out of the box toward 1st base with most every swing. He had an impressive AZ Instructs last month and showed some improvement in the field, and as he continues to mature physically he could develop some incidental HR power. He will likely spend the 2009 season at Peoria, teaming with Boise buddy 2B Logan Watkins to form a talented DP tandem.
9. Chris Carpenter, RHP (2008 3rd Round – Kent State) - age 23
COMMENT: A 6’4 220 RHP, Carpenter had TJS in college, and began his pro career somewhat unimpressively in 2008, going 4-2 with a 4.64 ERA while allowing 34 hits (although only two HR) and 23/25 BB/K in 33 IP (combined) at Mesa (AZL Cubs) and Boise. However, he had a solid AZ Instructional League post-2008 and opened the 2009 season at Peoria, where he went 4-3 with a 2.44 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, with only 55 hits allowed and a 33/60 BB/Kin 73.2 IP. He then got a mid-season promotion to Daytona, going 2-1 with a 1.44 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP in five starts. That got him another promotion, this time to AA Tennessee, where he was 0-3 with a 4.78 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in seven starts. Overall, he fanned 118 hitters, putting him 4th among Cubs minor league pitchers in strikeouts in ’09. Carpenter features a 92-94 MPH fastball, a curve, and a change-up, and (unlike Cashner) has been a starting pitcher throughout his career. Carpenter should begin the 2009 season back in the AA Tennessee starting rotation.
10. Kyler Burke, OF (Selected by San Diego Padres in 2006 Supplemental 1st Round – Ooltewah HS – Ooltewah, TN) - age 21
COMMENT: Acquired from the Padres for catcher Michael Barrett in June 2007, Burke has spent all or parts of the past three seasons playing in the Midwest League (MWL). He was projected as a power hitter deluxe when the Cubs got him from San Diego, but he had major problems making contact, striking out about once in every four PA 2006-08, with a career .233 BA through the 2008 season. It appeared that he might have to seriously consider a move to LHP, but then he altered his batting style, becoming more a of a line-drive hitter. And it worked, too, as he hit 303/405/505 with 15 HR and a MWL-leading 43 doubles in 555 PA at Peoria this past season, while being named the “Cubs Minor League Player of the Year.” While he can make contact versus LHPs, he only displays power and drives the ball versus RHPs. Defensively, Burke has the best OF arm in the organization, and is a prototypical RF, although he has played CF, too. He also went 14/2 in SB/CS in 2009. Burke should be the starting RF at Daytona in 2009.
11. Ryan Flaherty, INF (2008 Supplemental 1st Round - Vanderbilt) - age 23
COMMENT: Selected with the compensation draft pick the Cubs got for losing FA catcher Jason Kendall to MIL after the 2007 season, Flaherty played SS at Vanderbilt, 2B with Team USA, SS at Boise in 2008, SS, 2B, and 3B at Peoria in 2009, and then mostly 3B in the AZ Instructional League post-2009. His future is probably as an offensive-first multi-positional IF-OF. He hit 276/344/470 with 20 HR in 131 games at Peoria in 2009 (309/372/498 post-ASB), and then he had an impressive month at the plate in the AZ Instructional League. He has plus-power, and if he can learn to play a passable corner-OF, he could morph into a left-handed hitting version of Mark DeRosa. While he mashes right-handed pitching, he struggles against lefties (hitting just .219 vs LHP in 2009), and so he could end-up as a LH platoon guy at the higher levels. Son of a college baseball coach, Flaherty is a savvy and mature player who understands how to play the game the right way. I would expect Flaherty to begin the 2010 season at Daytona and play all over the place, although a jump over Daytona to AA Tennessee wouldn’t be a big surprise.
12. Sam Fuld, OF (2004 10th Round – Stanford) - age 27
COMMENT: Fuld gives the impression of being a brittle and fragile player, spending much of his career battling and rehabbing from injuries (torn labrum, broken hand, strained oblique, sprained wrist) that resulted from hyper-aggressive play in the field and on the bases, not to mention dealing with diabetes and insulin shots every day of his life since he was a teenager. But when he’s healthy, Fuld has managed to hit 287/370/407 in 507 minor league games (2211 PA), not to mention winning the 2007 AFL MVP Award (and the “Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award”) when he hit .402 for the Mesa Solar Sox while leading the league in OBP, SLG, OPS, and doubles. Besides being a Gold-Glove caliber defender with a plus-arm, Fuld is an outstanding base-runner with above-average speed (23 SB/5 CS at Iowa in 2009). He is a patient hitter who rarely strikes out (38/24 BB/K in 370 PA at Iowa in 2009), and he hits LHP as well as he does RHP. He could probably hit lead-off for some clubs in the big leagues right now. He is a “character” guy (and a schmart guy, too), having earned a degree in economics from Stanford. He is now pursuing a Masters degree in statistics, and has interned with Stats Inc. He has all the earmarks of a future MLB General Manager, once his playing career is over.
13. Tyler Colvin, OF (2006 1st Round - Clemson) - age 24
COMMENT: Colvin played most of the 2008 season with a left-elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery. He then spent the first part of the 2009 season as the DH at Daytona while rehabbing from the TJS before getting a mid-season promotion back up to AA Tennessee, where he hit 300/334/524 with 14 HR and 50 RBI in 84 games. He got a call-up to Chicago in September after the conclusion of the Southern League playoffs, and made a couple of really nice catches in CF. He has plus-speed and plus-power with the potential to hit 20+ HR, 30+ doubles, and 10+ triples. He has been working on being more patient at the plate over the past couple of seasons, and he actually takes a fairly normal number of walks and doesn’t strike out much versus RHP, but against lefties, he never walks, and he strikes out with much greater frequency. However, if he can get a pitch to hit from a LHP before he gets behind in the count, he can put the ball in play with authority. So he might project as a platoon player in the big leagues. Although he is still a bit raw as an outfielder, he is also an athletic defender capable of making big-play defensive stops in the outfield. He probably doesn’t have enough arm to play RF, but he can handle either CF or LF. He was moved to LF at Clemson to take advantage of his speed and athleticism, but his "natural" position is 1B, and so he could play some 1st base again someday. Colvin will probably be the starting CF at Iowa in 2010, and will board the Des Moines-Chicago shuttle when needed.
14. Darwin Barney, SS (2007 3rd Round – Oregon State) - age 23
COMMENT: Although other shortstops in the Cubs organization may be more highly-regarded, Darwin Barney is no slouch. Playing college ball at two-time CWS champion Oregon State, Barney rocketed through the Cubs system after getting drafted out of OSU in 2007, jumping up to Daytona in 2008 where he hit 262/325/357 with 22 doubles in 123 games, and then playing in the Arizona Fall League (and holding his own) post-2008. Barney got an NRI to big league camp this past Spring Training, and then began the 2009 regular season at AA Tennessee, where he hit 317/368/401 before getting a mid-season promotion to AAA Iowa, where he hit 264/304/330. While he may not have the “ceiling” of Castro, LeMahieu, or Lee, Barney is nevertheless a legitimate MLB prospect, and (at this point, anyway) is closer to the big leagues than the other three Cubs SS prospects. Barney is a polished player, a solid hitter with above-average speed (22/7 SB/CS in 309 career games), and while his errors were up in 2009, he can make all the plays at shortstop. Barney will likely get another NRI to Spring Training with the big club in 2010, and will probably be the starting shortstop at AAA Iowa again next season. Barney looks a bit like Derek Jeter and has some of Jeter’s mannerisms in the field, although (obviously) he certainly isn’t as talented as the Yankee shortstop.
15. Brandon Guyer, OF (2007 5th Round – Virginia) – age 23
COMMENT: After spending the first two months of the 2008 season rehabbing from elbow surgery at Fitch Park, Guyer was assigned to Peoria where he hit 269/331/498 with 14 HR and 19/63 BB/K in 88 games. A strong AZ Instructional League season post-2008 earned him a “challenge” promotion to AA Tennessee to start the 2009 season, but he struggled there (190/236/291 in 57 games and 205 PA) and was demoted to Daytona, where caught-fire and hit 347/407/453, with 34/67 BB/K in 73 games and 305 PA. He was the best all-around player at Instructs last month (he was there mainly to work on his strength & conditioning, and to try and rediscover his power-stroke), getting several big hits and home runs, while also making a couple of spectacular diving catches in CF. Guyer has above-average speed, and is an aggressive base-runner and a good base-stealer (he had 30 SB and only 7 CS combined at Daytona and Tennessee in 2009). He played 3B in HS, but was moved to LF when he arrived at the University of Virginia, mainly because Ryan Zimmerman was already firmly ensconced at 3B for the Cavaliers, but also to take greater advantage of his speed & athleticism. Although he looks most-comfortable in LF, Guyer has seen action at all three OF positions for the Cubs over the last couple of seasons. He plays an all-out “crash & burn” style of OF defense in the mold of a Reed Johnson or an Eric Byrnes, laying his body on the line without fear. It would not surprise me if the Cubs begin to move Guyer around the field a bit more next season at AA Tennessee, maybe getting him some PT at 3B and 1B, or possibly even at 2B. His future is probably as an MLB IF-OF-RHPH-PR.
LAST YEAR’S TOP 15 PROSPECTS:
1. Jeff Samardzija, RHP (no longer qualifies)
2. Josh Vitters, 3B
3. Andrew Cashner, RHP
4. Welington Castillo, C
5. Ryan Flaherty, INF
6. Kevin Hart, RHP (traded to PIT 7/09)
7. Tyler Colvin, OF
8. Jay Jackson, RHP
9. Micah Hoffpauir, 1B (no longer qualifies)
10. Esmailin Caridad, RHP
11. Mitch Atkins, RHP
12. Donald Veal, LHP (selected by PIT in the 2008 Rule 5 Draft)
13. Jovan Rosa, 3B
14. Brandon Guyer, OF
15. Dan McDaniel, RHP