Cubs top prospect, Brett Jackson

 The following piece is a guest contribution written by Matt Swain. You can follow Matt and all his musings on Twitter @wrigleybound

They’re just a bunch of guys with the same dreams you always had, dreams of sprinting out to a spot at Wrigley Field like Sammy. Only they still have a chance.

Tomorrow they’ll don yet another new uniform and continue their individual journeys through the minor leagues, potentially headed toward fast cars and expensive suits but much more likely weaving through stingy per diems and perpetual anonymity before eventually heading straight out of baseball and into the real world with nothing to show. But in spite of the long odds and near certain failure, wouldn’t you love to be lacing up your cleats in Daytona tomorrow, earning a paycheck playing shortstop?

The landscape of the Cubs system is dramatically different now than it was even a year ago, having undergone a lot of turnover amidst the partial-rebuild or whatever you want to call Jim Hendry’s current “strategy”. Graduated (for now anyway) are Tyler Colvin, Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, James Russell, and the currently bed-ridden Andrew Cashner.

There’s a new draft class in town and a handful of (mostly mediocre) additions from trades of Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, Derrek Lee and Cub legend Tom Gorzelanny. And of course there are the dearly departed Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Robinson Chirinos and Brandon Guyer (four of my personal favorites, that trade killed me), gone to the Rays in exchange for Matt Garza. The system as a whole is frankly pretty boring right now, seemingly devoid of potential stars and mostly composed of role-players-in-training. But if you’re a prospect geek or hardcore Cubs fan, or if like me you happen to find yourself stricken with the bad fortune of being both, well then there’s always something to get excited about.

In Iowa, maybe the most interesting player to watch will be Chris Carpenter, the newly converted relief pitcher with an electric arm. Here’s a guy who was throwing 96 mph darts as a starter now getting a chance to go max effort for an inning? Yes, please. Carpenter has taken some criticism for being ‘fragile’, but I think those concerns are seriously overstated. Since his Tommy John surgery as a sophomore in college (2006) he hasn’t had any major problems, and the Cubs have made sure to handle him carefully to ensure that remains the case. His numbers haven’t been dominating by any means to this point, but with his stuff and pedigree he should factor into the Cubs bullpen plans in both the short and long term.

Also of note here, Fernando Perez, the Colombia graduate who writes poetry and is immediately the best interview in the farm system. Not an MLB starter, but essentially your next Sam Fuld. Enjoy.

And of course there’s Marquez Smith, the player who would most benefit from a trade to Arizona in all of baseball. With his glove work at third and some real pop in his bat, he could be a low-division MLB starter right now. (Ryan Roberts? Really Diamondbacks?) I have to imagine we’ll see him in Chicago at some point this year, since he makes by far the most sense as a Ramirez or Baker injury replacement, and could even hit his way into some playing time at second base.

Tennessee is moderately more interesting, at least presenting some youth and upside (all three of the above guys are 25+).
This year is make or break time for Josh Vitters. He’ll be 22 now, appropriately aged for his level and about out of excuses for why he hasn’t hit like he should. You know how Starlin can hit pretty much every pitch ever thrown? Makes contact like he was swinging a 2×4 at a basketball? That was supposed to be Vitters. His wrists and natural hitting ability continue to make scouts drool, but now he’s in the upper levels and this is the fork in his road. One path leads to Michael Young, the other to Sean Burroughs. We’ll see which path he takes.

Chris Rusin is a fascinating guy to me, one of the few starters in the system with a legitimate chance to ever win a permanent spot in the Cubs rotation. He’s a lefty without a dominating arsenal, but he throws strikes, misses bats and generates grounders. That’s the trifecta, and you can’t ask a guy to do much more statistically. The one thing you can ask is that he does it outside the comfortable confines of the Florida State League, and that’s what he’ll attempt this season.

I still believe in Ryan Flaherty. Call it a hunch, but I still see a late developing career in the Mark DeRosa mold, where he catches on in his late 20’s as a nice offensive infielder with the ability to play a few different spots and some pop in his bat. His absolute flop in AA last year was more of a product of luck than anything else, and I would wager that his power will spike in a friendlier offensive environment in the Southern League.

Daytonashould be a fun team too; it’s essentially last year’s Peoria Chiefs moving up as a unit. It’s a weird landing place for a Michael Burgess, the newcomer from the Gorzelanny trade who has had several seasons of Hi-A experience, but when your AAA club’s outfield includes Luis Montanez, Tony Campana and Ty Wright, it tends to push guys down a bit. If I’m the Cubs, I’m moving Burgess along to AA in fairly short order. He can’t afford much more time in A ball and the parks certainly won’t do any favors to his power numbers. While I’m on this, why is Matt Spencer still in AA? Move the power hitters forward! Ty Wright is never going to do anything for the Cubs, give his spot to Spencer who has a fighting chance to get a cup of coffee as a lefty bat and backup corner outfielder and first baseman.

Logan Watkins and Matt Cerda at the top of that order will be interesting to watch, they’re both around 5’7” and are fun to watch. Scrappy as all get out. I’ve never been as high on Watkins as others, and I think backup infielder is probably his ceiling. Cerda is an infielder (forced to third base by the Cubs draft philosophy) with no power or speed but a very good batting eye. His ability to handle some other positions probably sets his ceiling, so that’ll be something to keep an eye on this year.

Hayden Simpson is Peoria’sclear headliner, and I imagine there are a lot of people keeping an eye on how he looks in his first few outings. He was a huge reach at a point where there were several very talented and highly touted players on the board, and a success story out of him would be a huge feather in Tim Wilken’s cap. His first start is today, so I’m sure you’ll hear reports trickling out from that. What would be disappointing? Low velocity, walks, home runs. If he can avoid all those, regardless of run totals it’s a success.

As clearly as Simpson is #1, Matt Szczur is #2. The latest wide receiver bought out of the NFL by the Cubs, Szczur (it’s pronounced Caesar, duh) had an electrifying debut last year as he hit .397 for Boise in 73 Abs before returning to school for his senior season of football. I’m skeptical of this one to say the least, given how raw he is for being a college grad already. We’ll see how it plays out, but I’m betting he ends up making the Cubs regret that big signing bonus.

All things considered, it should be another enjoyable minor league season, boosted by the impending enjoyment of a #9 pick in June’s draft. After last year’s Simpson fiasco, I’m not holding my breath, but with a troupe of small market teams picking 1-8, the potential is there for a major steal. Stay tuned.

In all this rambling, I didn’t even get to talk about Brett Jackson, or Brent Ebinger, or Junior Lake, or Rebel Ridling’s mustache, or a couple dozen other guys I find pretty fascinating, so you should also look for that coming later. I’ll hopefully be contributing here occasionally, maybe even semi-regularly throughout the year (assuming Joe will have me), so I’ll be back to gloat about how good my predictions were and pretend to not remember making the ones that turn out wrong.
See you then.

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Joe Aiello is the founder of View From the Bleachers and one of the lead writers as well as host of VFTB Radio. Growing up in Chicago, he fondly remembers attending games in the bleachers before that was the popular thing to do. Currently Joe resides in North Carolina with his wife and three kids. Connect with Joe via Twitter / Facebook / E-mail