Monday, January 31, 2011

TEAM #20 – Chicago Cubs

McNutt sits atop an organization without a clear #1 prospect

While at first glance, it would appear that the Cubs organization is down considerably from last year’s ranking (TEAM #6 – Chicago Cubs), the reality is that, prior to the Matt Garza deal, the Cubs were positioned to rate at least ten spots higher. This in some ways makes the deal that much more puzzling, as it clearly was a deal made from a ‘win now’ mentality. While the Cubs have lost little from a team that finished twelve games below .500 and sixteen games behind the Reds—who return virtually the same team that they put on the field last year—the addition of Garza and the minor upgrade of Pena at first base, looks to at best cut the gap between the two teams in half—not to mention they remain behind the much improved Brewers. With a payroll likely to approach $130 million in 2010, and locked into the Alfonso Soriano contract through 2014--one that remains one of the games worst, it isn’t like the Cubs possess the payroll flexibility to make additional moves to improve the team and truly make a run at the NL Central. So why mortgage the future? I could provide you with a cynical response that discusses Jim Hendry’s desire to be employed with the team beyond his current 2012 contract—necessitating the ‘all-in’ mind set. Or I could point out the Cubs’ record of draft futility under Hendry, whereby in the seven drafts prior to 2010 the yield amounts to Jake Fox, Sean Marshall, Tyler Colvin, Jeff Samardzija, Andrew Cashner, Chris Carpenter, Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson—seriously that is the best of it; giving the Ricketts’ family every reason to have someone else in place before another June comes and goes, therefore requiring a hot start in 2011 just to save Hendry’s job. But there is a better explanation for giving up what were arguably your two best prospects for one above-average Matt Garza.

The Cubs were locked into at least $110 of that $130 million payroll prior to acquiring Pena and Garza, with the contracts of Soriano ($19.0), Zambrano ($18.9), Ramirez ($14.6), Fukodome ($14.5) and Silva ($12.8) being virtually unmovable right now. An all out rebuilding effort, and the accompanying ticket sale hit, isn’t an option with that kind of number. So the plan appears to be to at least create the appearance of competitiveness for the first half of the season, sell the tickets and reassess at the all-star break. If they truly are in it, they stand pat. If, however, the more likely scenario occurs and they fall out of contention, the contracts of Ramirez, Fukodome, Silva and Pena (a total $52 million) all expire at season’s end, making them far more attractive to a contender for half of a season and you may even get back more than you gave up for Garza, while still having Garza under control through 2013. While you’ll still have to live with the Soriano debacle, 2012 and 2013 look to be the Cubs rebuilding years, with virtually no additional payroll commitments.

It is a perhaps a good thing that the Cubs won’t likely enter complete rebuilding until 2012, because there is little in the way of elite prospects or immediate prospect help—outside of the bullpen—presently in the system. While the Cubs’ currently lack elite level prospects, there is considerable organizational depth—only five teams have more prospects that we have graded ‘C’ or better; mostly provided by one of baseball’s more successful international programs. Between 2003 and 2009, the Cubs spent nearly $32 million on the draft; yet, the same time-frame saw them spend less than one-third of that amount on international bonuses. Those international bonuses, however, produced Starlin Castro, Hak-Ju Lee and twelve of their current top twenty-five prospects.

The Cubs are likely to see a steady influx of talent, from the Minors, during the second half of 2011. Our best guess is that this is a system that will not only experience new leadership over the next few seasons, but will have a vastly different makeup by 2013. This likely means a few more years of continued futility at the Major League level, but that was inevitable with the weight of those horrific contracts.

Best Pick from 2010 – While we still have questions about Chris Archer’s ability to be more than a two-pitch back of the bullpen reliever, we had him at #11 heading into the season, higher than everyone and considerably higher than some. This year, no one had him lower than #4 prior to the Matt Garza trade.

Worst Pick from 2010 – The off-again on-again Kyler Burke was a horrible choice at #6, as his progression of two years per level looks to get him to the Major Leagues around 2015—at the age of 27yo.

Grade A-

1) Trey McNutt, RHP (2010 Performance Scores– Dominance 75; Control 59; HRrate 60; Stamina 65)
We predicted in last year’s edition that McNutt wouldn’t spend more than a half-season in the Midwest League (MWL) after destroying Northwest League (NWL) hitters in his 2009 debut. What we didn’t predict was that the Florida State League (FSL) wouldn’t hold him for long and the 21yo would finish out the season in the Southern League (SOL). Along the way, McNutt posted the #11 Performance Score in the MWL and the #5 Performance Score in the FSL. 2010 saw his fastball improve to a mid-90s offering and his curve begin to look, potentially, like a plus pitch. McNutt battles with control from time to time, but that too seemed to improve as the season wore on—despite the advanced levels. Through three stops, opposing hitters managed only a .217 average against. At 6’4”, 205lbs, McNutt has all the makings of a quality Big League #2. The Cubs are likely to return McNutt to the SOL to begin 2011, as he won’t turn 22yo until the Minor League season is nearly complete. A September call-up is not out of the question.

2) Brett Jackson, CF (2010– Power 68; Discipline 39; First Base Rate 66; Speed 71)

Through the two seasons since the Cubs made Jackson a first round selection in 2009, he has showed a bit more patience than perhaps we expected, enabling him to post slight better on-base rates, but still doesn’t make contact as often as we would like to see to ensure confidence of future success. Nonetheless, Jackson split his time in 2010 between the FSL—where he posted the #5 Performance Score—and the SOL—where he rated #10. Capable of playing any of the outfield positions, Jackson’s greatest value will come of he remains in center, where his power would make him an above average offensive threat. At worst, he becomes a quality fourth outfielder, getting 400+ ABs annually. While Jackson is headed to AAA to open the year, he will likely make his way to Chicago at some point during 2011—perhaps when the Cubs find a take for Fukodome.

3) Josh Vitters, 3B (2010– Power 70; Discipline 56; First Base Rate 29; Speed 45)

We’ll get the negatives out of the way by telling you that Vitters is never going to be a gold glove third baseman and still has miles to go to become a patient hitter at the plate. There you have it, and when you read criticism that goes beyond that…take it with a grain of salt. Vitter played nearly the entire 2010 season as a 20yo. He has shown a consistent pattern of initially struggling at each new level before putting it all together around 250-300 PAs. Last season was no different, and Vitters still managed the #3 Performance Score in the FSL and the #11 Performance Score in the SOL—despite what his detractors may lead you to believe. With the upside of an everyday, power hitting, Major League third baseman, there is a ton of potential here—it just may take a couple of additional seasons to be fully realized. With a less than 18% strikeout rate, we see no obstacles to keep him from making the necessary adjustments. Look for Vitters to return to the SOL to begin 2011. Given his youth, the Cubs aren’t likely to push him hard this season. That said, he could be ready to take on the everyday job in Chicago by mid-2012.

Grade B+

4) Jay Jackson, RHP (2010– Dominance 47; Control 64; HRrate 41; Stamina 67)

After a roller coaster-like 2009 in which Jackson experienced both extreme highs and extreme lows, 2010 was a far more steady experience as the then 22yo Jackson spent the entire season in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), posting the circuit’s #12 Performance Score with solid, if unspectacular, numbers. With a low 90’s fastball and three at least average Major League offerings, Jackson looks primed to step into the role of a mid-rotation innings eater. But there were signs of concern in 2010 that will have to be addressed first, as Jackson’s strikeout rate dipped to 6.8 batters per 9 innings and he walked half of his season’s total in his last 11 appearances. We believe Jackson’s real area of concern lies between his ears and not in his arm. He is still relatively young and must learn to better handle adversity. If he is able to make the emotional/mental adjustments the upside is solid. Look for the Cubs to return Jackson to AAA to begin 2011. He should find his way to Chicago at some point during the season.

Grade B

5) Hayden Simpson, RHP -

The baseball world sounded a collective ‘Who?’ when the Cubs announced their first round selection, 16th overall, last June. We had Simpson as a 4th/5th round selection on our board, but Tim Wilken stands by what has been an oft-criticized pick. Coming from tiny Division II Southern Arkansas, where he amassed a record career, the book on Simpson was that he threw a low-90s fastball, already possessed a plus curve, and had two other potential average Big League offerings—the type of repertoire that has #3/#4 starter written all over it. But Cubs’ scouts caught Simpson in the Division II playoffs and believe his fastball is potentially a mid-90s offering, and were blown away by his curve. They believe that they got a potential #2 and believe other teams were in on him and would have nabbed him before their next pick at #65…we remain skeptical. With players that have no available performance data (no we don’t analyze Division II data), our projection model uses phenotypical data elements to develop comps, the #16 slot and $1 million bonus, may be making Simpson look better than he really is. In either case, Simpson will not make his debut until this spring in either the MWL or FSL, and we will have to wait until then to draw better conclusions.

6) Matt Szczur, OF (2010– Power 58; Discipline 73; First Base Rate 75; Speed 56)

The Cubs have convinced him to give up his career as a running back after a solid professional debut followed his 5th round selection this past June. Many see Szczur as being short on the power tool, and question whether he can become more than a fourth outfielder type. Others see Szczur as being athletically gifted, with a chance to flourish now that his full time focus will be on baseball. We likely fall some place in between, as we believe in his plus speed and excellent plate discipline skills and question his power—if he eventually moves out of center to an outfield corner. While impressive, his 101 AB debut—spread over three stops—provided little insight into his true performance level and we eagerly await the 2011 season. We see no reason to believe that Szczur will be moving to a corner any time soon. His makeup and work ethic are off the charts. Given his football background, a right-handed Darin Erstad is an obvious and applicable upside comp. Look for Szczur to make his 2011 debut in the FSL.

7) Michael Burgess, RF (2010– Power 77; Discipline 28; First Base Rate 45; Speed 42)

If you haven’t picked up on the trend quite yet, the Cubs list is littered with prospects that draw little in the way of consensus opinion. Burgess, acquired from the Nationals in the Tom Gorzelanny deal this winter is no exception. Since, the Nationals drafted him in the sandwich round in 2007, Burgess’ reputation has been one of huge power and a propensity to swing and miss way too often. 2010 was of little exception. We remain higher on Burgess than most, mainly because we believe that at some point in his development he will relax his swing and make more consistent contact. We thought we were beginning to see signs of that in a repeat performance in the CAR this year where Burgess, cut his strikeout rate to just over 20%, while posting the circuit’s #18 Performance Score. But alas, a promotion to the ESL had Burgess swinging for the fences and whiffing at an alarming rate. With a plus arm, Burgess has the requisite tools to become a power hitting, everyday, Major League right fielder. When he does make contact, he punishes the ball and the trade to Chicago automatically tabs him as the prospect with the most power potential in the system. Burgess didn’t turn 22yo until after the season ended, so he is plenty young enough to realize his potential and 2011 will be a critical year to show some evolution. Look for Burgess to begin the season in the SOL.

8) Jae-Hoon Ha, RF (2010– Power 60; Discipline 73; First Base Rate 51; Speed 56)

Another prospect with divided opinion, Ha has those that believe that while his gap power would have been adequate as a backstop—where the Cubs envisioned him when signing him in 2008—it is never going to be enough as a Major League corner. Then there are others, us included, that believe Ha is the best kept secret in the system—possessing potentially special baseball skills. What we can tell you, with certainty, is that the MWL is no hitters paradise and the 6’1”, 185 lb, Ha slugged .468 there in 2010—as a 19yo—on his way to posting the League’s #9 Performance Score. Our models project potentially 15-20 home run power—with the upside even higher, above average contact and average speed. With clearly advanced baseball fundamentals, Ha transitioned easily to the outfield and appears to be a natural right fielder with a strong arm. Ha’s profile comps more than justify this ranking, and leave us wondering how he remains relatively unknown. While we realize we are going out on a bit of a limb with this one, we expect Ha to live up to our hype in the FSL in 2011.

9) Chris Carpenter, RHP (2010– Dominance 48; Control 50; HRrate 66; Stamina 69)

A breakout 2009 put Carpenter on the prospect map, and he followed it up with a solid, albeit unspectacular 2010. Given his age, already 25yo, Carpenter would have ranked lower on this list, if it wasn’t for his intriguing AZFL campaign this fall, where pitching strictly out of the pen, we saw his fastball tick up to a mid- to high- 90s offering. Once viewed purely through the lens as of a mid-rotation starter, it may be a bullpen role for which he is best suited. With only a heavy fastball and biting slider as developed offerings, we see the grains of sand trickling through Carpenter’s hour glass, as he continues to lack a quality change and still fights control issues far too often. As a starter, he would likely require another full season in AAA, thereby making him 26yo before making his Major League debut. As a reliever, he could compete for a job this spring, and would be almost certain to see an opportunity for him in Chicago at some point in 2011.

10) Alberto Cabrera, RHP (2010– Dominance 51; Control 46; HRrate 57; Stamina 66)

With a mid-90s fastball and two potentially average secondary offerings, the 22yo Cabrera has the makings of a solid mid-rotation starter. His 2010 FSL performance earned him the League’s #15 Performance Score. On the downside, Cabrera is in his sixth professional season and has still not shown the requisite control of a Major League starter. He is young enough to have established a solid floor as an adequate bull pen arm. The question is whether or not it will be with the Cubs, because if they make a series of unbalanced mid-season deals, as we expect, Cabrera’s roster spot will be coveted. This makes it essential for Cabrera to show development when he returns to the SOL to begin 2011, or he becomes trade bait.

11) Reggie Golden, OF

We had Golden as solid second round selection, so the Cubs received good value when they tabbed him with the 65th pick. More potential than production at this stage, Golden has plus raw power and plus speed. Defensively he currently has the range for center, but will likely end up in right where his strong arm will be an asset. The downside is that Burgess…I mean Golden… is an over aggressive hitter with limited patience at the plate and the propensity to swing and miss quite often. Golden is likely to begin 2011 in extended spring training before making his debut in the NWL this summer.

12) Matt Cerda, 3B (2010– Power 40; Discipline 74; First Base Rate 74; Speed 46)

Another player who we appear to be higher on than most, Cerda was originally drafted as a catcher when the Cubs selected him in the fourth round in 2008. Coming into 2010, a string of injuries had limited him to 177 ABs over his first two seasons. Out from behind the plate, the Cubs still haven’t decided on a position for him, as at 5’9”, 165lbs, he lacks the requisite power for third base and doesn’t display the fundamental quickness for the middle of the diamond. We expect that second base will be his ultimate destination, where his below average power and speed will be made up for by one of the Minor League’s best approaches to plate discipline. Only 20yo, we expect additional upside offensive projection with Cerda. At best, he becomes an adequate, everyday, Major League second baseman. With his strike zone management skills, the floor seems to be at a quality utility player. Look for Cerda in the FSL in 2011, where the Cubs will hopefully settle on a position for him.

Other Potential Top 300 Prospects – 13) Wellington Castillo, C; 14) Junior Lake, IF.

Feel free to post any questions and or comments. We will try to answer them in our weekly Mailbag segment.

You can find an explanation of our grades here Diamond Futures Annual Prospect Rankings Series and an explanation of our 2009 Performance Scores here Do-It-Yourself - Understanding Performance Evaluation and here This Week's Mailbag - Prospect Rankings Questions. The Performance scores represent the player’s performance relative to the leagues that they played in during the 2009 season.

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