1. Geovany Soto, C
2. Josh Vitters, 3B
3. Donald Veal, LHP
4. Jose Ceda, RHP
5. Josh Donaldson, C
6. Sean Gallagher, RHP
7. Tyler Colvin, OF
8. Eric Patterson, 2B/OF
9. Welington Castillo, C
10. Tony Thomas, 2B
11. Jeff Samardzija, RHP
Just Missing: Kevin Hart, RHP; Chris Huseby, RHP; Larry Suarez, RHP
1. Geovany Soto, C
Drafted: 11th round, 2007, American Military Academy (PR)
2007 Stats: .353/.424/.652 at Triple-A (110 G); .389/.433/.667 at MLB (10 G)
Year In Review: Always seen as a player who projected as an everyday big-league catcher, Soto exploded in 2007, first leading the minor leagues in slugging, and then taking over for Jason Kendall by the end of the year.
The Good: The Cubs credit Soto’s breaking out to improved conditioning, but even they were surprised by the breakout campaign. More than just a hulking slugger with plus power, he’s also a solid hitter who uses all fields and has a patient approach, and an above-average defender who is effective in cutting down the running game.
The Bad: Soto falls in love with his power a little too often, and could use more of a tempered approach when behind in the count to cut down on his strikeouts. His arm would be even more effective with improved accuracy. He runs like a big catcher.
Fun Fact: While playing at Iowa, Soto hit .455 (40-for-88) with runners on and two outs, including eight doubles and 11 home runs.
Perfect World Projection: An All-Star catcher with 20-plus home runs annually–think Jason Varitek in his prime.
Timetable: Soto will be the Cubs Opening Day catcher, and will immediately be one of the better backstops in the National League.
2. Josh Vitters, 3B
Drafted: 1st round, 2007, Cypress HS (CA)
2007 Stats: .067/.094/.067 at Rookie-level (7 G); .190/.261/.190 at Short-season A-ball (7 G)
Year In Review: Vitters was thought by some (including the Cubs) to be the top hitter in the draft. Chicago got their man with the third pick overall when the Royals made a last-minute decision to select Mike Moustakas second instead of Vitters.
The Good: Vitters is a highly advanced hitter who combines tremendous bat speed with an excellent knack for contact and plus power potential. While it’s a bit of a scouting cliché, the ball really does make a different sound coming off his bat. Scouts rave about his work ethic and commitment to improvement, as even in high school he never coasted on his natural talent.
The Bad: Most of Vitters’ value lies in his bat. He’s only an average runner now, and he’s well below-average defensively, although most think he can improve enough to be at least adequate at third base. Even if that doesn’t happen, the bat will play anywhere.
Fun Fact: While Orioles infielder Scott Moore is the only other Cypress graduate to be drafted in the first round, the most successful alum is former 11-year veteran Troy O’Leary.
Perfect World Projection: A run producer in the middle of the order whose position will be determined.
Timetable: While Vitters looked rusty in his pro debut, the Cubs have no doubt in his ability to hit, and he’ll begin 2008 with a full-season assignment at Low-A Peoria.
Year In Review: The top prospect going into the year had an inconsistent and highly disappointing season at Double-A.
The Good: Veal’s combination of size, velocity, and left-handedness remains a rarity. His fastball sits in the low 90s and can touch 96, while his delivery, which features a twist and a high leg kick, makes the ball hard to pick up out of his hand. His curveball features strong, heavy break, and he has an average changeup.
The Bad: All of Veal’s problems revolve around his problems with command and control. His mechanics can get completely out of whack at times, and Veal often showed his frustration on the mound. A small minority believes that Veal would be better off in shorter stints as a reliever.
Fun Fact: Veal almost ended up on the other side of Chicago, as the White Sox made him a 12th-round pick in 2003 out of Buena High in Arizona.
Perfect World Projection: Veal still has a star-level ceiling as a power left-hander.
Timetable: Veal was much better pitching in the second half of 2007, putting up a 3.88 ERA in his last 10 starts while demonstrating much better control. He’ll likely return to Double-A, but will move up quickly to Triple-A if he can build on that success.
4. Jose Ceda, RHP
Acquired: NDFA, 2004, Dominican Republic (Padres)
2007 Stats: 2.45 ERA at Rookie-level (3.2-2-3-3); 3.11 ERA at Low-A (46.1-14-31-66)
Year In Review: A little-known reliever received from the Padres in the Todd Walker deal limited Midwest League hitters to a .093 batting average.
The Good: Ceda is a massive, intimidating presence on the mound, nowhere close to his listed weight–he’s around 260 pounds. His grip-it-and-rip-it style of pitching allows him to unleash fastballs that sit in the 94-97 mph range, and he has hit triple-digits on occasion. His slider is also a plus offering that features heavy two-plane break.
The Bad: Ceda’s delivery is quite messy, with a hard, off-center landing, inconsistent arm angles, and a violent head jerk. He walks far too many batters right now, and some wonder if his problems are even correctable to the point of giving him average control.
Fun Fact: After missing two months due to shoulder issues, Ceda was the minors’ most dominating pitcher, firing 23 1/3 consecutive hitless innings while walking 16 and striking out 42.
Perfect World Projection: A dominating shut-down closer who gives fans heart palpitations because of all the walks.
Timetable: Scouts who saw Ceda during the second half of the 2007 season felt that he could consistently retire big-league hitters right now. The number of strikes he throws in spring training will dictate his assignment, as well as how quickly he reaches the majors.
Year In Review: The offense-oriented catcher had a monster debut, and would have led the Northwest League in both slugging and on-base percentage if he’d gotten enough plate appearances to qualify.
The Good: Donaldson is an on-base machine who had more walks than strikeouts in 2007 while also showcasing solid hitting skills and average to slightly-above power. He’s a good athlete for a catcher, and his arm rates as above average.
The Bad: Much of Donaldson’s future projection relies on his ability to stay behind the plate. While Donaldson has the potential to become an average defender, he’s only been catching for two years and is a well below-average backstop beyond that throwing arm.
Fun Fact: While batting third, fourth, or fifth in the Boise lineup, Donaldson hit .457 (32-for-70).
Perfect World Projection: An offense-oriented catcher.
Timetable: While Donaldson’s bat is advanced, his defense will determine his timetable, and he’ll likely start the year in Low-A.
6. Sean Gallagher, RHP
Drafted: 12th round, 2004, St. Thomas Aquinas HS (FL)
2007 Stats: 3.39 ERA at Double-A (61-54-24-54); 2.66 ERA at Triple-A (40.2-33-13-37); 8.59 ERA at MLB (14.2-19-12-5)
Year In Review: The polished right-hander continued to succeed at the upper levels of the minors, but struggled mightily in his big-league debut.
The Good: Gallagher is solid across the board, with a low-90s fastball, looping curve, and deceptive changeup all rating as average to slightly above, as does his command and control. He’s aggressive on the mound, goes after hitters, and shows confidence in all his offerings.
The Bad: Gallagher is a bit short and thickly built, offering little in terms of remaining projection. Nerves got the better of him in his pro debut, as he often found himself behind in the count and lacking that one dominant offering to fight back.
Fun Fact: Located in Fort Lauderdale, St. Thomas Aquinas is more known for its football program, which graduated Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin and Bears legend Brian Piccolo.
Perfect World Projection: A mid-rotation innings-eater.
Timetable: Gallagher’s excellent showing in the Arizona Fall League gives him a leg up in spring training as he competes for an Opening Day big-league job.
Year In Review: The surprise 2006 first-round pick reached Double-A in his full-season debut while displaying both impressive athleticism and massive holes in his game.
The Good: On a pure tools level, Colvin is no worse than average across the board. He’s a solid hitter who consistently rifles balls into the gap, and projects to hit 15-25 home runs annually once he gets a better feel for his power. He has a good arm in the outfield and his speed ranks as a tick above average.
The Bad: Colvin is a below-average center fielder range-wise, and many feel he’ll need to move to a corner in short order. That leaves him as a bit of a tweener–his swing-at-anything approach led to just five walks in 62 Double-A games, which is not enough of an offensive force to play in a corner everyday. Lefties give him significant troubles, and he adjusts by shortening his swing, which costs him any chance at power against them.
Fun Fact: In the five Double-A games that Colvin actually drew a walk in, he was also 10-for-16 when he swung the bat.
Perfect World Projection: If he can stay in center field, his projection is far better than it is as a corner man.
Timetable: Colvin could return to Double-A in order to work on his approach, with the goal of being ready for a 2009 big-league look.
Year In Review: The athletic Patterson continued his slow but steady climb through the system with a solid showing at Triple-A, during which he also learned some outfield skills.
The Good: Patterson can beat you in many ways offensively. He can hit for average, draw a decent amount of walks, steal a base at the right opportunity, and he surprises many with the amount of juice in his bat. His best tool is his speed, but he has no major weaknesses at the plate or on the basepaths.
The Bad: Patterson’s defense has always been a concern, and he was moved to the outfield because of his defensive shortcomings as much as he was moved there in order to increase his versatility. He still struggles against good left-handers.
Fun Fact: Eric and brother Corey’s father Dan was a captain of the 1978 Georgia Tech football squad, and had a brief NFL career with the Lions and Giants.
Perfect World Projection: 85 percent of Ray Durham?
Timetable: Patterson has been at the center of many trade rumors in the offseason, and there’s no obvious opening for him on the current Cubs roster. If the Cubs don’t decide to break him in as a utility player or trade him, he’ll head back to Triple-A.
Year In Review: This young Dominican catcher made significant improvement throughout the season, hitting .279/.340/.490 after the break while also showing excellent defensive skills.
The Good: Castillo is a well-built catcher with good hitting skills and a decent amount of power. Where he really shines is behind the plate, where he blocks balls extremely well, calls a good game, and has a very strong arm. He also gets praise for his leadership skills at such a young age.
The Bad: Castillo’s newfound power also led to some bad habits at the plate, and he can sell himself out when attempting to pull the ball. He has a significant platoon split, with a 911 OPS against lefties versus just a 690 mark against right-handers. While his arm is strong, it is also erratic at times, and he needs to work on his accuracy.
Fun Fact: Castillo possibly hates the number nine–in six games when he hit ninth in the lineup, he went 1-for-20 with eight strikeouts, while in the ninth inning of games, he was just 3-for-23.
Perfect World Projection: An average everyday big-league catcher.
Timetable: The Cubs have no need to rush Castillo, nor does his talent deserve to be, so he’ll continue progressing one level at a time, with High-A next on the itinerary.
10. Tony Thomas, 2B
Drafted: 3rd round, 2007, Florida State
2007 Stats: .176/.286/.412 at Rookie-level (5 G); .308/.404/.544 at Short-season (46 G)
Year In Review: A relative unknown entering the season, Thomas was among college baseball’s best hitters in 2007 (.430/.522/.733) and didn’t miss a step after signing as a pro.
The Good: Thomas has few non-believers when it comes to his bat. His quick, smooth, and balanced swing projects for a good batting average with gap power. He has a good approach at the plate and waits for pitches he can hit, and he’s a good base runner with a tick above average speed.
The Bad: Thomas is not a very good defender, as he doesn’t move well laterally and rarely fields balls cleanly. He’ll become a better pro hitter by focusing more on contact and realizing that his power isn’t going to completely translate to wooden bats.
Fun Fact: Competition for Will Carroll one day? Thomas was a member of the National Honor Society in high school and majored in athletic training and sports medicine at Florida State.
Perfect World Projection: Thomas projects as an offense-oriented second baseman in the end, and thus is very much from the same mold as Eric Patterson.
Timetable: Thomas will be pushed a bit in 2008, with a likely assignment to the High-A Florida State League.
11. Jeff Samardzija, RHP
Drafted: 5th round, 2006, Notre Dame
2007 Stats: 4.95 ERA at High-A (107.1-142-35-45); 3.41 ERA at Double-A (34.1-33-9-20)
Year In Review: The controversial big-bonus signee showed some signs of life at the end of the season in Double-A, but spent most of the year getting hit way too hard and striking out far too few.
The Good: Samardzija has all of the raw tools to become a top-flight pitcher. He’s big, athletic, and can touch 97-98 mph with his fastball, while also flashing a plus slider and above-average command.
The Bad: Samardzija was downright awful at times last year, and nobody has a great explanation as to why. His fastball is a bit straight, and his mechanics offer very little deception. His slider is inconsistent, while his changeup needs work. Scouts would like to see Samardzija use his body more in his delivery, as right now he’s much more of a thrower than a pitcher.
Fun Fact: Samardzija had 13 starts in 2007 in which he went five or more innings while striking out two or fewer batters.
Perfect World Projection: One can find scouts to project Samardzija as a future ace or All-Star closer, and one can find scouts who don’t think he’ll ever get out of the minors. One cannot find a good precedent for a player with Samardzija’s numbers turning into a quality big-league contributor.
Timetable: Much of Samardzija’s decent Double-A showing comes from his one best start of the year, and he’s hardly proven himself yet. He’ll return there this year, and that’s all anyone can project at this point.
The Sleeper: A toolsy outfielder who was hitting just .211/.305/.268 in the Midwest League before coming over from San Diego in the Michael Barrett deal, Kyler Burke showed some signs of “getting it” in the Northwest League, and continued to impress in the Hawaiian Winter League. Some feel he could break out when he gets his second shot at Low-A this year.
The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies Under 25 (As Of Opening Day 2008)
1. Geovany Soto, C
2. Josh Vitters, 3B
3. Felix Pie, CF
4. Donald Veal, LHP
5. Jose Ceda, RHP
6. Josh Donaldson, C
7. Sean Gallagher, RHP
8. Tyler Colvin, OF
9. Eric Patterson, 2B/OF
10. Welington Castillo, C
Pie is a difficult player to figure out at this point, as his big-league production is so far below what he’s shown in the minors. Hopefully going into spring training with a fairly firm lock on the center field job should help his confidence. That said, at this point Soto and Vitters have more impact potential. Unfortunately, the Cubs’ scouting and player development staff has produced little in the last decade, and in the broad view, the system as it currently stands is not poised to change that any time soon.
Next: The Cincinnati Reds.