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March 23, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

What Could Go Right for the Chicago Cubs in 2011

by Jason Parks

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According to baseball mythology, the Cubs are a tortured team, hexed by goats and cats, by the selfish hands of fans, and by Mark Prior’s flawless mechanics. For all the “torture”—and trust me, Cubs fans will always remind you of the torture—Chicago can still boast about playing in the third-greatest city in the United States (behind NYC and San Fran; deal with it, Chicago), plus-plus uniform aesthetics, Bill Murray, and Starlin Castro’s hit tool. See? That’s a lot to live for.

Nietzsche said, “The miserable have no other medicine but hope,” and because I took a shot at the city of Chicago right out of the gate, and because I’m basically suggesting that fans of the team are miserable (which they are), I want to bottle some of that hope and deliver it you, the aforementioned tortured fan.

Instead of feeding you reasons to remain miserable, I’m going to move away from the norm and break down the top five prospects in the Cubs’ system, giving you reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2011 season. While not exactly a ritualistic sacrifice of a goat on the pitcher’s mound, or a public humiliation of Steve Bartman, this exercise will offer a brief respite from the pain you must feel every season. But before I provide the dreams that will soothe your aching wounds, I want to satisfy my own bloodlust and hurt you one last time: Hee Seop Choi.

Prospect #1: RHP Trey McNutt
Who: McNutt was a 32nd-round (yes, you read that correctly) selection in the 2009 draft from Shelton State Community College. The power righty has a potent combination of stuff, polish, and size, and has pitched at five different levels in only 144 career minor-league innings. If he can maintain that pace, he will reach Triple-A by May, the majors by July, and retire from travel stagnation by September.
What Could Go Right in ’11: McNutt could continue to improve on the mound. That’s a little scary, actually. With two pitches that already hover in the 65/70 range on the 20-80 scale, McNutt just needs to continue refining the feel and execution of a changeup to catapult himself into the top tier of pitching prospects in the minors. His mid-90s fastball, which can touch even higher in bursts, and his power curve are bat-missing, major-league quality out pitches at the present, and they aren’t done growing. At the very least he is going to be a very good late-inning reliever, but if the control continues to refine into command, and the touch on the changeup allows him to back lefties off the fastball, McNutt isn’t going to be long for the minors. When I look at the body, the fluidity of the delivery, the way the ball explodes from the hand, and the snap of the curve, I see a pitcher that could be special, and if the changeup develops the way some scouts think it might, Cubs fans will be wearing McNutt jersey’s at Wrigley in short order.

Prospect #2: Brett Jackson   
Who: A first-round pick in the 2009 draft, Jackson has one of the more well-rounded skill sets in the minors, with present tools across the board. After the Florida State League failed to present him with a challenge, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound outfielder performed adequately after a promotion to Double-A, where he hit .276/.366/.465 in 61 games.
What Could Go Right in ’11: More of the same. Because Jackson is the owner of all five tools (although, not exactly the owner of a “toolshed”), his game is built on a solid-average foundation, free from the boom-or-bust concerns that are associated with high-end prospects. This will prevent Jackson from being a star, but the well-roundedness of his overall skill set will keep his game consistent and allow him to become a regular at the major-league level.

In 2011, Jackson will advance to Triple-A, with a good chance of reaching Chicago by the end of the season. Because his tools are all 50-grade (or slightly above), Jackson shouldn’t encounter major setbacks on his way to the 25-man roster, and even if he does stumble, the maturity of his game will allow him to make the necessary adjustments to the level. Jackson is a prospect without major holes and without major red flags, and if you are looking for a high-floor/average-ceiling type, he is basically the poster boy for what a solid-average major leaguer will look like.

Prospect #3: Matt Szczur
Who: Szczur was a fifth-round draftee in 2010 and played in 25 games over three levels before returning to Villanova to play football. After concerns that Szczur would leave the Cubs for the gridiron, the team bellied up to the bar and secured the ultra-athletic outfielder for a reported $1.4 million.
What Could Go Right in ’11: Convincing Szczur to forgo his NFL plans to focus on baseball might end up being the club’s most important move of the year. Szczur has off-the-charts athleticism, routinely showing 80-grade speed in game action. His hit tool was present during his brief 101 at-bats in ’10, hitting .347 with enough patience and pop to give him multiple dimensions at the plate. He projects to hit for average and power, with the latter holding a plus projection thanks to his raw strength and easy swing. Szczur profiles as an everyday center fielder that will eventually convert his 80 straight-line speed into 70 range, and his arm and glove both look to be solid-average tools. With people already lining up to champion his makeup and work ethic, and a collection of tools that could make him a top-tier prospect in the minors, it’s now clear that the Cubs might have stolen one of the best talents in the 2010 draft.

Could it get bumpy? Yes; I assume it will ebb and flow over the next few seasons. But now that Szczur is devoted to baseball and baseball alone, the league (and Cubs fans specifically) gets to sit back and watch an interesting prospect develop into an exceptional one. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes a household name, albeit one that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Prospect #4: Chris Carpenter
Who: A third-round pick in the 2008 draft, Carpenter finds success with his big fastball/slider combination, but he will also flash a decent changeup, which makes some dream about his future ability to start at the major-league level.
What Could Go Right in ’11: The acquiescence of the inevitable. I like Carpenter, and I can certainly see the value in giving him the chance to develop as a starter, but I think its time to maximize his skills and get his arm in the major-league pen. Carpenter has plus-plus fastball velocity in bursts, with both a good angle and late life in the zone. His command isn’t sharp, and I don’t think it ever will be, but the control should be good enough to allow the fastball to set up the slider, which isn’t crazy good, but its good enough to miss some bats and force weak contact. His changeup will flash average, and he might have a chance to find enough consistency to make it play, but the arsenal looks better in a power capacity.

In 2011, Carpenter could have an impact in the major-league pen, first throwing heavy doses of smoke and then getting players to chase with darting sliders. He isn’t going to be as effective in longer spots, throwing in the low 90s with average-at-best control. His secondaries also don’t look so hot when you get multiple looks at the arm. Carpenter will play much better in short stints, and even though his ceiling in the pen isn’t elite, he has impact potential in the late innings.

Prospect #5: Josh Vitters
Who: The third overall pick in the 2007 draft, Vitters is drifting dangerously close to “bust” status in the prospect world. Despite the fact that he has one of the fastest bats in the minors, tool actualization has eluded the high-ceiling talent, and 2011 might be his make-or-break year.
What Could Go Right in ’11: As the great Lou Brown once said, “It’s starting to come together, Pepper. It’s starting to come together.” Now I have no idea who Pepper is, but Lou Brown quotes, regardless of the context, have a place in my world. As it happens to pertain to Vitters, I think he has a chance to put it all together in 2011, which might cause Cubs fans to 1) Question my sanity, 2) Start rioting in the streets, or 3) Both.

When I look at Vitters, I see crazy bat speed and excellent strength, but I also see an impatient hitter, closer to a young Dominican than a 21-year-old former top-three pick. I get the fact that he loves to get his bat in the zone and test his ability to touch anything thrown. That’s an awesome party trick. But making contact on bad balls is a quick ticket out of advanced baseball, and without a better all-around approach, Vitters might just find himself at the peak of his developmental arc.

 What could go right in 2011 is really about putting the tools together with a more mature approach. Vitters is a gifted hitter, perhaps owner of one of the best raw hit tools in the minors. But his offensive attributes have been suppressed by his approach, and unless that takes a turn in ’11, it could be all she wrote, at least as far as his prospect status is concerned. Now, if Vitters can learn to lay off bad balls (remember: It’s not that he swings and misses, it's that he swings and connects, which leads to poor contact and poor strength utilization), he can work himself into more favorable counts and situations. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for an ultra-aggressive hitter to find a more moderate approach to hitting, but it's certainly not a given that these intrinsic habits can be refined. Personally, I think Vitters will show more maturity at the plate in 2011 and work himself back into Chicago’s plans for the future. While I don’t think he will become the star his draft status suggests is possible, I do think his offensive attributes can eventually find a home at the highest level. Dream on that.  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  The Who,  Josh Vitters

28 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Matt-Chicago

3rd best city? Jason, do you realize that non-ironic mustaches never went out of style here? You need to do a comprehensive dive-bar tour here. On a baseball note, I'm most intrigued by Sczur's upside and definitely most worried about Vitters' issues. I wholeheartedly agree with your high-floor assessment of Jackson- which will fit in with their existing young talent base and some wise FA signings as money frees up.

Mar 23, 2011 05:44 AM
rating: 6
 
Brian Kopec

"non-ironic mustaches never went out of style"

Trying to figure out if that is a plus or a minus...

Mar 23, 2011 06:15 AM
rating: 1
 
Matt-Chicago

It's unequivocally a plus! People in CHI know how to eat, drink , and don't take themselves too seriously. That being said, it isn't a cultural backwater, like a lot of other "blue-collar" cities.
Jason, I'm due for a trip to visit my brother & some buddies in NYC. I haven't been since '04. Is Williamsburg still home base for hipsters or has it gone "commercial"?

Mar 23, 2011 08:39 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Williamsburg has become a little hard to handle; too much effort. I find myself enjoying Bushwick a lot more, although the food/drink status of the area is underdeveloped.

Mar 23, 2011 08:49 AM
 
dianagram

I've lived in NYC my entire life, but have visited SF and CHI each twice.

If I had my druthers, I'd live in SF. Its a 65 grade city.

Mar 23, 2011 10:47 AM
rating: 1
 
SaberTJ

It's not Patrick in the quote, it's Pepper - their Pitching coach.

Mar 23, 2011 07:50 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

That's right. I had it written out as "Pepper [Leach]" in my notes but then I typed it up as "Patrick" for some reason. I even verified it on IMDB during the process. My mistake.

Mar 23, 2011 08:14 AM
 
jaslhill

McNutt will be a star. I also agree that Carpenter would be better off in the 'pen.

I have never been to SF, so I cannot comment, but I have been to NY and I assume you have, as well. It doesn't hold a candle to Chicago.

Also, I heard the Cubs hired Hee Seop Choi as a special assistant to the manager this morning ...

Mar 23, 2011 08:14 AM
rating: 1
 
Ian Miller

If NY held a candle to CHGO, it would just burn to the ground (again).

Seriously, New York is easily the greatest city in the U.S. and possibly the best city in the world. Anyone who says otherwise is just wrong.

Mar 23, 2011 13:02 PM
rating: -3
 
Shankweather

Why is Szczur not in Goldstein's top 20?

Mar 23, 2011 08:53 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt-Chicago

KG seems to be taking a wait-see approach with him. Callis of BA is very high on him. I'll add that Keith Law seems to be holding back judgement , like KG.

Mar 23, 2011 08:55 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

I'm not holding back judgement, I simply have plenty of questions about the hit tool. Some scouts thought it would need a complete reworking.

Mar 23, 2011 09:04 AM
 
Shankweather

#3 vs. #?

That's a pretty big gap between Kevin and Jason. I like it!

Mar 23, 2011 09:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Like Kevin, I'm a tools whore, but I'm certainly putting it on the table with this ranking. It's more than a little optimistic, but the upside justifies it for me.

Mar 23, 2011 09:14 AM
 
Dan

I'd love to see an article series where Kevin and Jason argue over prospects like Szczur. It would be great to see a more in depth breakdown of "He projects to hit for average and power" and "I simply have plenty of questions about the hit tool. Some scouts thought it would need a complete reworking".

Mar 25, 2011 06:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Al Skorupa

Also, KG's Cubs list came out in December while Szczur didn't actually commit to the Cubs until the end of January. He had signed a two sport deal previously, which certainly was a concern for me with regards to his prospect status.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=12522

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110118&content_id=16458346&vkey=news_chc&c_id=chc

Also, from that second article, Cubs fans should become aware that Szczur is actually pronounced "Caesar" - as in Julius or Augustus. Or Salad.

Mar 23, 2011 12:30 PM
rating: 0
 
MikeMcD

Where will Szczur play this year?

Mar 23, 2011 09:12 AM
rating: 0
 
Jivas
(649)

I know you guys hate comps, but the description of Brett Jackson reminded me an awful lot of Marlon Byrd (current version), maybe with a little more power. Is that fair?

Mar 23, 2011 10:49 AM
rating: 0
 
NYYanks826

Another name to bring up some past heartache for the Cubs: Bobby Hill.

Gotta disagree with your assessment of Chicago's placement. I lived in New York for 20+ years of my life. I moved to Chicago less than a year ago, and I already love this city more than I will ever love NYC. NYC is too crowded and too expensive. Chicago is what NYC would be like with less pollution, calmer people, and half the population.

Mar 23, 2011 11:17 AM
rating: 1
 
ZeusIsLoose

Hee Seop Choi got the Cubs Derrek Lee. Bobby Hill got the cubs Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton in 2003. If that's the worst things you can bring up, well, I can live with that.

Now Corey Patterson, well, that one hurts.

Mar 23, 2011 11:57 AM
rating: 1
 
Lloyd Cole

I love this series, and I love that you're writing for BP now. After listening to the podcasts, I definitely was hoping this would happen! Please keep it coming.....

And thanks for the rays of hope for the Cubs. Having just moved to Evanston, IL, I feel that I must now become a Cubs fan, and it already seems like a gut-wrenching experience. I hope that their (slighlty?) greater emphasis on player development signals some real changes, rather than just hopping aboard a fad to placate some fans (and Ricketts?)

Mar 23, 2011 11:59 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

If Brett Jackson develops into a solid-average major league outfielder, he will be the first one the Cubs have developed in the last half-century, unless Tyler Colvin beats him to it. Last year Colvin hit 20 HRs and posted a .279 TAv. If he manages to again hit 15+ HRs, or posts a .270+ Tav, he'll become only the second home-grown Cub outfielder to surpass one of those rather mundane thresholds in successive seasons since 1954. The only other one? Billy Williams.

Mar 23, 2011 13:25 PM
 
Matt-Chicago

Ken , who has a better chance between Colvin & Jackson of developing into a useful, everyday OF? I know Colvin has his detractors but his power is for real. Jackson , on the other hand, seems more well-rounded with much better plate discipline.

Mar 23, 2011 15:53 PM
rating: 0
 
davinhbrown

Pretty bold talk of McNutt.

What is his prospects for major league performance over the next 2+ years?

ie- in a league where you can keep players up to 3 years, is this someone to draft this year?

Mar 23, 2011 17:11 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Sorry, my idea of fantasy baseball is dreaming of Eric Hosmer's swing or Jorge Alfaro's power potential.

I think McNutt could position himself for a call-up in 2011, but 2012 makes more sense. Probably won't have impact potential until 2013, assuming he develops as planned.

Mar 23, 2011 17:17 PM
 
Nate W.

“The miserable have no other medicine but hope.”
I think that was Shakespeare. Or Nietzsche paraphrasing Shakespeare. Either way, I love it's use to set up this article.

Mar 23, 2011 20:20 PM
rating: -1
 
Peter7899

I like the cut of your jib sir. I like your writing style, keep it up.

Mar 24, 2011 09:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Chad Supp

Can anyone blame Cubs fans for being miserable when there hasn't been an article written, or video segment produced, about the team in nearly a decade that didn't mention Steve Bartman or goats?

Instead of blowing up the Bartman ball, the Cubs should blow up Wrigley and all the mythology, put up a modern stadium in Schaumburg, and turn the team over to some "Extra 2%" gurus who know how to build a baseball club.

My only reason for optimism? Mike Quade.

Mar 28, 2011 07:17 AM
rating: 0
 
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