Tuesday, July 19, 2005

who the cubs should be looking at

now that 2006 is edging its way toward the stage as 2005 is slowly skulking off of it, the question that the cubs have to begin to answer is this: what holes do we need to fill to avoid a repeat nonperformance and lift this team to playoff-caliber baseball?

besides the ones in dusty baker's ekg, i mean.

i'm often a pessimist when it comes to the cubs minor league system -- for every mark prior, it seems that there are a dozen gary scotts and korey pattersons, so i've learned to politely tune out the tribco hype machine and look at the statistical performance of the kids in the system. and the cubs do, it seems to me, have some guys that are close to helping this team out of some of its trouble spots. given that this year is over in all likelihood, i'd like to see the cubs take a closer look at some of these kids in the show; it may save a lot of payroll room in 2006 for the free agent acquisitions this team would need to compete.

so here's my rundown, in most-desirable to least.

rich hill (25 y/o lhsp) -- hill's cup of coffee in 2005 thusfar was a tantalizing taste, but the university of michigan product has been one of the cubs' toughest-to-touch-up pitching prospects at the lower levels. he followed a 7.10 hits/9 performance in 2004 with an excellent show while climbing the ladder from single-a in 2005, allowing just 27 hits in 39.1 innings over six starts at iowa, while striking out 59. just as importantly, hill has gained in command, walking 34 in 110.2 innings at all levels -- 2.77 bb/9, a major improvement on his prior career 6.28 number. as this was hill's major drawback heretofore, a continued display of command would make hill a possible back-of-the-rotation starter for the cubs in 2006.

matt murton (24 y/o of -- r/r) -- murton is already platooning in left for the cubs, and perhaps with good reason. not only do the cubs sport one of the worst overall outfields in baseball, but murton seems to be showing himself to be on the verge of becoming a second-tier major league player. his decent a-ball career gave way to a wonderful 2005 in west tenn. murton isn't exceptional at any particular skill, but can hit for average, show gap power, make consistent contact, steal a base and play a reasonable outfield. is he gary sheffield? no. murton isn't a patient hitter (as some of his cub escapades thusfar have shown -- he saw a patterson-like 12 pitches in five at-bats while collecting four hits yesterday) and may never hit 25 home runs in a season. but he might be enough to play left for this team in 2006, or fill a role as a fourth outfielder better than david kelton could hope to.

jermaine van buren (25 y/o rhrp) -- van buren's career as a minor league starter was unexceptional, but his move in 2004 to the bullpen revealed a sharp reliever who quickly climbed to iowa on the back of a 4.62 hits/9 with 76 k's in 62.1 innings. 2005 has been just as stellar, with van buren allowing 22 hits in 37.1 innings (5.31 h/9), striking out 45. control is a minor issue, as he's hovered around 4 bb/9 his whole career, but not so much of an issue that van buren couldn't leap from the pcl all-star team to the cub bullpen with possibly great effect. his career as a reliever indicates a brighter talent than the crop that has seen wrigley this year, at least the equivalent potential of a mike wuertz.

russ rohlicek (25 y/o lhrp) -- a lanky reliever made the switch to the pen in 2003 and has been pretty good ever since, allowing just 136 hits in 176.1 innings (6.95 h/9). control, however, is a serious issue for rohlicek, walking an average of 5.86 per nine innings and posting a 1.48 whip this year. i doubt he'd be a reliable reliever at the big-league level because of it, but the kid is hard to hit and the cubs might want to look at him as a potential loogy.

reynel pinto (23 y/o lhsp) -- pinto has exhibited dominating stuff in recent years, compiling a 7.13 h/9 over his last 362.2 innings while striking out a man an inning, significantly bettering west tenn rotation-mates ricky nolasco and jae-kuk ryu. this year, pinto has marked a southern-league-low 2.06 era in 13 appearances for the d-jaxx. however, this all follows a demotion from iowa this may after a rough go of it in six pcl starts. and no commentary on pinto is complete without mentioning his control; while he seems to be able to command his pitches, he has walked more and more batters as he's risen higher. i suspect (sight unseen) that pinto simply needs to trust his stuff and throw the strikes he's shown himself capable of tossing.

pinto is perhaps the single most promising pitcher in the cubs farm system -- but he might need another year and some time to prove himself at iowa before making the jump to the big club.

felix pie (20 y/o cf -- l/l) -- probably the most hotly discussed minor league player in the cub system thanks to the patterson meltdown, pie nevertheless reminds me of no one so much as... korey patterson. the kid has missed some time this year and is just now coming back, so his 2005 line will begin to expand. if it continues as it's been going, there's no doubt it's a breakout year for him in the context of his career. but pie's 53 k's in 240 at-bats against only 16 walks should frighten anyone who pictures pie leading off the cub lineup in 2006, as should his nine caught stealings in 21 attempts. more plate discipline is a must, in my humble opinion, but the rumor is the cubs will bring him up after he's played a few games down in tennessee.

brandon sing (24 y/o of -- r/r) -- sing really seems to have turned a corner in plate discipline in 2004 at daytona, where his walks-per-plate appearance jumped by half from 11% to 17% and the better pitches he saw lifted his statline to career highs (.270/.399/.571). that trend has continued in 2005, where sing is walking in 16% of his trips and going a brilliant .295/.404/.577 with 18 homers in 281 at-bats. sing still strikes out quite a lot, and will probably benefit from some time in iowa this year or next. but his new eye at the plate is a ticket to right field in wrigley if he can keep it up.

david aardsma (23 y/o rhrp) -- aardsma came over in the hawkins trade, and i'll go with what i said at the time:

a two-pitch reliever with a low-to-mid-90s sinking fastball and a knucklecurve that can be great but has been inconsistent, he was seen as a first-rank prospect to contribute in 2005 for the giants. aardsma seriously struggles with control, as many younger (born in 1981) guys do, but his hits/9 and the fact that he simply doesn't give up the long ball indicate major-league quality stuff.

his 2005 hasn't done much to dispel those notions. control does continue to be an issue, with 19 walks issued in 32.1 innings at west tenn, and that may have to sharpen up before aardsma is ready for the bigs. 23-year-old andy shipman is in much the same boat, though pitching well for the d-jaxx; 22-year-old lefty starter sean marshall -- whose control is quite good -- probably hasn't pitched enough yet after a late start to justify a promotion to chicago. bobby brownlie -- one of the best young pitchers in the system before this year -- is coming back from arm trouble which has spurred the cubs to move him to the bullpen. how it goes may determine the outcome of his career, and he's certainly nowhere near chicago, but so far so good.

buck coats (23 y/o ss -- l/r) -- coats is having a nice little season at west tenn, but there's little he's done that makes me think he's a starting shortstop for 2006. his presence on this list is more to emphasize the lack of a prospect at this position in the higher minors for the cubs. while nomar is rumored to be going after 2005 and neifi is not an answer to any problem, this is a trouble spot that this team is best positioned to fix in free agency for next year. ronny cedeno has had a nice third of a year at iowa and has earned his look, but his history does not inspire confidence that he can be an improvement on neifi.

so that's the batch. feel free to complain about who i left out or underemphasized, but this is what the cubs have that's worth anything, in my opinion.

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