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March 25, 2008

Future Shock

State of the Systems, NL Central

by Kevin Goldstein

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Chicago Cubs

2008 Rookies: While he's had a tough spring, Geovany Soto has no competition at catcher, and assumes the everyday duties there, and should instantly be at least average offensively for the position, and likely more than that. Kevin Hart has earned a bullpen job and should be a solid contributor, but he's also at his ceiling of a middle innings guy. Kosuke Fukudome is not a prospect, but technically a rookie, and should provide above-average on-base skills and average power for the position.

Minor League Road Trip: The Cubs' Double-A squad will have most of the organization's top pitching prospects, with Donald Veal and Jeff Samardzija in the rotation; if he doesn't start the season with them, fast-rising closer Jose Ceda will get there quickly.

Pivotal Season: After nearly putting up a 5.00 ERA last year at Double-A, Donald Veal needs to throw more strikes and further refine his secondary pitches to avoid a move to the bullpen.

I Like Him Better Than Most: Despite Veal's uninspiring performance last year, left-handers with his kind of size and stuff are hard to find, and players with that profile often take longer to develop than other pitchers.

Don't Believe The Hype: Outfielder Tyler Colvin is a wonderful athlete with very good hitting skills, but he's also fringy in center, doesn't have much power for a corner, and has yet to show any understanding of the strike zone.

Get Your Bags Ready? This is the Cubs, and this team is one of the favorites in the Central, and as they close in on a century without a title, anyone could be fair game.

Next Year's No. 1 Prospect Odds: Soto loses eligibility, and the system offers little in the way of players who could make a step forward into elite status. Despite a very brief but disappointing pro debut, third baseman Josh Vitters might have been the best pure hitter in last year's draft.

Josh Vitters: 3-2
Donald Veal: 10-1
Tyler Colvin: 15-1
2008 first-round pick: 18-1
Jeff Samardzija: 25-1

Cincinnati Reds

2008 Rookies: While it hasn't been officially decided, disappointing spring showings by Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto have the whole trio looking like they'll start the season at Triple-A, but all three should be up at various points in the season. Johnny Cueto has been one of the talks of camp however, and has earned a rotation slot. Lefty Matt Maloney is also close to getting a look in what is suddenly a surprisingly deep pool of starting pitchers in Cincy.

Minor League Road Trip: For now, it's Triple-A Louisville with the big three, but the squad at High-A Sarasota has a number of intriguing bats with Juan Francisco and Todd Frazier on the left side of the infield and Drew Stubbs in center field.

Pivotal Season: After insisting that last year's performance was just a bump in the road caused in part by a nagging groin injury, Homer Bailey was hit hard all spring and needs a good showing to regain his prospect luster for some.

I Like Him Better Than Most: Frazier might not be a shortstop in the end, but his bat should be plenty enough for third base, or even a corner outfield move if that becomes necessary.

Don't Believe The Hype: While his late-season surge offered some hope, the ultra-toolsy Stubbs still had only a decent season in Low-A last year, and turned 23 at the end of the season.

Get Your Bags Ready? The Reds are a team on the rise, but expecting a playoff-contending team this year might be a little much. They might add some minor talent if they can find a taker for Scott Hatteburg in order to open up the first base job for Votto.

Next Year's No. 1 Prospect Odds: With the top four prospects in the organization all likely to lose eligibility this year, this becomes an open race, with the seventh overall pick in the draft and recent $2 million Latin bonus baby Juan Duran only confusing matters.

2008 first-round pick: 3-1
Juan Duran: 5-1
Todd Frazier: 8-1
Drew Stubbs: 10-1
Kyle Lotzkar: 15-1
Juan Francisco: 25-1
Neftali Soto: 50-1

Houston Astros

2008 Rookies: J.R. Towles becomes the everyday catcher and finally gives the team an offensive threat behind the plate after years of Brad Ausmus. Righty Felipe Paulino was competing for a roster spot, but he'll miss a month after pinching a nerve in his arm. He's out until late April, but assuming no further problems, he'll likely be on the big league staff by midseason. After that, there's nobody of note at the upper levels.

Minor League Road Trip: Houston's Double-A squad might open with an outfield of Josh Flores, Eli Iorg, and Mitch Einertson--all of whom have solid tools--while the rotation should have Brad James and Sergio Perez, with Bud Norris joining by the end of the year.

Pivotal Season: A Mormon mission and a series of injuries leave Iorg as an outfielder with lots of natural ability who nonetheless is 25 years old and has yet to play at Double-A.

I Like Him Better Than Most: With a plus fastball/curve combination, righty Bud Norris struck out 119 in 102 2/3 innings last year and is one of the few prospects in the system who profiles easily as a major league starter.

Don't Believe The Hype: While Paulino's arm strength makes him the club's top pitching prospect almost by default, he's rarely dominated despite an upper-90s heater, as a lack of command and movement has led to struggles against more advanced hitters.

Get Your Bags Ready? After only a few months of the Ed Wade era in Houston, the only predictable thing here is that they will be unpredictable. Even still, this team has almost no shot at contention, and even if they did, the team has few trading chips in the first place.

Next Year's No. 1 Prospect Odds: With few impressive prospects and the 10th overall pick in the draft, Houston will almost assuredly have a new face at the top.

2008 first-round pick: 3-2
Bud Norris: 12-1
Felipe Paulino: 15-1
Josh Flores: 25-1
Mitch Einertson: 50-1
Eli Iorg: 50-1
Jordan Parraz: 50-1

Milwaukee Brewers

2008 Rookies: Yovani Gallardo's knee troubles have opened up a rotation job, and lefty Manny Parra is making an impressive run at it with an excellent spring, although the team still might go with Carlos Villanueva. Righty Luis Pena begins the year as the closer at Triple-A, but could help soon, while 2007 first-round pick Matt LaPorta could earn a September look if his bat continues to come along quickly.

Minor League Road Trip: The High-A affiliate will have two of the highest upside players in the system with righty Jeremy Jeffress and shortstop Brent Brewer, but the Double-A squad at Hunstville will have the deepest collection of talent, including an outfield that might include Lorenzo Cain, Cole Gillespie and Matt LaPorta--as well as Mat Gamel at third base.

Pivotal Season: Jeffress' ceiling is absolutely through the roof, and he's saying all the right things this spring after going through a drug treatment program over the winter. If he can keep his nose clean (or, in this case, his lungs), he could easily be a top 25 prospect by season's end if it all comes together.

I Like Him Better Than Most: One of the last big-budget draft-and-follows, right-hander Robert Bryson's full-season debut is highly anticipated after he touched the mid-90s last year to go along with a power slider.

Don't Believe The Hype: While he's got Gold Glove potential at shortstop and hit .283 in Double-A as a 20-year-old, shortstop Alcides Escobar has no power, no patience, and little chance to bat anywhere but seventh or eighth in a big league lineup.

Get Your Bags Ready? The Brewers should contend in the Central, and with so much young talent already in the big leagues, blocked middle infielders like Escobar and second baseman Hernan Irribarren could be attractive targets.

Next Year's No. 1 Prospect Odds: The Brewers will add a good talent in June with the No. 16 overall pick in the draft, but with LaPorta unlikely to get more than a September callup, don't expect many changes at the top.

Matt LaPorta: 2-1
Jeremy Jeffress: 3-1
2008 first-round pick: 20-1
Robert Bryson: 25-1
Brent Brewer: 30-1
Cole Gillespie: 40-1

Pittsburgh Pirates

2008 Rookies: No one for now, as top prospects Andrew McCutchen, Steven Pearce, and Neil Walker have all been sent to Triple-A for consistent playing time. They'll all be up at some point in 2008, and the long-term plan has them lined up for starting jobs next year. Once again, there's a slew of ex-prospects in the Triple-A rotation who could get called upon should the need arise.

Minor League Road Trip: The talented trio at Triple-A is the obvious choice here, and there's no other squad with a strong concentration of talent. Keep an eye on the High-A squad, as the new administration has decided to develop 2007 top pick Daniel Moskos as a starter.

Pivotal Season: After missing all of 2007 recovering from Tommy John surgery, all eyes will be one 2006 first-round pick Brad Lincoln as he returns to the mound. He turns 23 in May, and has just 24 pro innings under his belt.

I Like Him Better Than Most: With above-average defensive skills, solid hitting skills, and off-the-charts makeup, shortstop Brian Friday could be looking like a third-round steal by season's end.

Don't Believe The Hype: Seen as a breakout player last year, second baseman Shelby Ford doesn't have much in the way of secondary skills, and he's already 23 while having not reached Double-A.

Get Your Bags Ready? If anything, the Pirates will be adding to their system as the new group in charge comes to more concrete decisions concerning their future rosters.

Next Year's No. 1 Prospect Odds: Provided that they do the right thing with the second overall pick in June, the Pirates will add a truly upper-echelon talent to the system. Pearce will likely lose eligibility, but McCutchen and Walker should be good to go.

2008 first-round pick: 2-1
Andrew McCutchen: 3-1
Neil Walker: 10-1
Daniel Moskos: 40-1
Bran Lincoln: 50-1

St. Louis Cardinals

2008 Rookies: Future closer Chris Perez likely begins the year in the minors, although in late March the team is still considering allowing him to do his apprenticeship in the big leagues. Colby Rasmus and Joe Mather begin the year in Triple-A, and while Mather still has something to prove, Rasmus is just cooling his jets for a 2009 job.

Minor League Road Trip: With Rasmus and Perez, Triple-A Memphis is the place to see the Cards' immediate future. The future rotation pieces are a level below that at Springfield, with Adam Ottovino and Jamie Garcia; some in the organization believe that 2007 draftee Clayton Mortensen could also be ready for the level by the end of the year. All of them will be pitching to Bryan Anderson, as his youth, second-half slide, and the numbers game have him repeating Double-A.

Pivotal Season: While Joe Mather had a breakout season with 31 home runs last year, his struggles at Triple-A and the fact that he turns 26 in June combine to mean that he'll need to make adjustments quickly.

I Like Him Better Than Most: While the Cardinals have a number of solid pitching prospects, few have the projectability of right-hander Tyler Herron, who already shows plus velocity, command, and an above-average changeup.

Don't Believe The Hype: Their 2007 first-round pick, shortstop Peter Kozma, seems to be a selection based on positional scarcity, as few saw his tools set as worth of a mid first-round pick, nor a nearly $1.4 million bonus.

Get Your Bags Ready? Rasmus and Perez are likely seen as untouchable, but if the Cardinals get hot and find themselves competing for a playoff role, players like Mather and second baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir could bring back modest returns.

Next Year's No. 1 Prospect Odds: This one is somewhat difficult to predict, because while Rasmus begins the year in the minors, any injury--along with the significant chance of a bubble bursting for either corner outfielder, Chris Duncan and/or Ryan Ludwick--could get him summoned to the majors quickly, and to stay. Chris Perez could also get plenty of big league time, but he's unlikely to cross the 50 inning prospect threshold. In addition, the Cardinals pick 13th in June.

Colby Rasmus: 3-1
Chris Perez: 5-1
Adam Ottovino: 10-1
Bryan Anderson: 12-1
Jamie Garcia: 15-1
2008 first-round pick: 20-1
Peter Kozma: 25-1
Clayton Mortensen: 30-1

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

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