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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

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