Although many of the Cubs best prospects are at the Class A level and below, some are beginning to rise to the brink of the major leagues. It's been said that the talent level from Class A to AA is the biggest jump in baseball. It separates the men from the boys, the prospects from the suspects, and the near ready major league talent from the prospects who are still more projection than finished products. We'll use the same format that we used for our AAA Iowa edition. We'll go over each prospects strengths and weaknesses, what level of impact they project to have, and what current or former major league player(s) they most resemble in terms of skill and style of play. A word of caution, I consider comps to be mostly for fun and getting a ballpark idea of what a ballplayer is like, and so I do like to compare Cubs prospects to former Cubs whenever possible.
1. Trey McNutt
Strengths: Mid 90's fastball, power curveball, and surprising command of both. They are considered "plus-plus" pitches by scouts. He has an average change up, which is more than adequate considering his first two offerings.
Weaknesses: Blisters and an occasional tendency to overthrow led to inconsistency this season. The Fall League will be big for him.
Projection: #2 starter. He's a tick below Andrew Cashner as far as ceiling, though he may have a better shot at sticking as a starter.
Comps: The fastball, curve, and blister combo makes me want to say Kerry Wood, but his pure stuff isn't as dominant as Wood's once was. He does have a chance to have better command, however, and a longer career as a starter.
2. Rafael Dolis
Strengths: A 100 mph fastball and a mid 80s slider. Dolis can overwhelm hitters when he's on. He's 2 years younger than Chris Carpenter (a pitcher with similar stuff) so he'll have the advantage of time on his side to keep refining his craft.
Weaknesses: The first two pitchers on this list exemplify the difference between a MLB starter and a reliever. McNutt has well above average command and a solid 3rd pitch. Dolis does not, though he's made significant strides with his command this year.
Projection: Closer. He looks to have surpassed Carpenter as the team's closer of the future.
Comps: Dolis has intimidating size at 6'4", 215 lbs to go with his power fastball/slider combination and average command. Sounds like Lee Smith to me.
3. Josh Vitters
Strengths: Vitters has off the charts hand-eye coordination and as sweet a right-handed swing as you'll ever see. He can hit just about any pitcher at any level. He has developing power as well.
Weaknesses: Vitters believes he can hit anything but he needs to understand he can't hit everything with authority. From my observations, though, he does have good pitch recognition, which gives a glimmer of hope. His defense at 3B is also a concern.
Projection: Starting corner outfielder. With his above average arm, he could be a nice fit in RF eventually.
Comps: A productive RF'er without a lot of athleticism, average (hopefully) walk rate and decent pop...I'm going with Keith Moreland. Jeff Francouer is a popular comparison outside the organization and probably a bit more accurate at this point.
4. Eric Jokisch
Strengths: Athletic, solid delivery with some deception, 4 pitch repertoire with good command and control
Weaknesses: Average to below average velocity-- although he has increased it by 2-3 mph which was part of the reason for his improvement. If he can add at tick or two more and pitch at 91-92, the Cubs could really have something.
Projection: Right now he's a 4th starter type. If he gains strength and has another slight uptick in his stuff, he could be a #3 guy.
Comps: Phil Rogers compared him to Doug Davis and I'd say that's pretty accurate. Although I'd call it a younger Doug Davis, not the one we saw with the Cubs.
5. Junior Lake
Strengths: Great natural tools. Can run and hit with some pop. Has good range and a rocket arm from SS.
Weaknesses: A free-swinger. He's different to me than Vitters in it's not just that he swings, but it appears sometimes as if he had no idea what was coming.
Projection: Has the ability to start, but better pitch recognition and discipline at the higher levels will be the key.
Comps: Shawon Dunston without the Energizer batteries.
6. Steve Clevenger
Strengths: Lefty hitter with OBP skills. Drafted as a SS and is a good athlete for a catcher, although he isn't fast. Much improved defense.
Weaknesses: Not much power.
Projection: He is a protypical backup catcher and is extremely likely to reach that role -- possibly as soon as 2012 opening day.
Comps: A smaller Tyler Houston, a good lefty bat without a lot of power early in his career. Similar versatility as well. Clevenger has a better attitude and is a better defender at catcher, however.
7. Jae Hoon Ha
Strengths: Decent hitter and good all-around skills, average tools across the board except for arm, which is outstanding. Can play any OF position.
Weaknesses: Lack patience and it hurts his OBP skills. Offensively he doesn't stand out in any area.
Projection: If the description above doesn't scream 4th outfielder, I don't know what does.
Comps: Marlon Byrd. Which begs the question, why isn't Byrd a 4th outfielder right now?
8. Jeff Beliveau
Strengths: He's a tough kid with good mental make up. Good mentality for a late inning reliever. Low 90s fastball and a curveball that is a strikeout pitch. He dominated this season with a 1.57 ERA over two levels, including 1.89 in AA. His K/9 ratio was 10.9 versus just 2 walks per 9 innings. On pure production, Beliveau should rank higher but I tend to be reserved when it comes to pure relief prospects, especially older ones.
Weaknesses: Has had control problems in the past but appears to be over them. At 24, he was a little old for his league.
Projection: Lefty set-up reliever
Comps: He's a half foot shorter than Sean Marshall, but throws a little harder and is every bit as productive as a reliever. Like Marshall, his curveball is his out pitch
9. Brooks Raley
Strengths: You aren't going to find many better athletes on the mound than Raley. He was also a prospect as a CF/leadoff man at the U. of Texas. Raley has above average velocity on his sinker for a lefty, sometimes running it up into the 92-93 mph range.
Weaknesses: Command, he didn't focus solely on pitching until he was drafted. He also has nothing that stands out as an out pitch.
Projection: The lack of that out pitch relegates him to a 4th or 5th starter.
Comps: Steve Trout in that he has good size and a chance to have above average velocity on his sinker. Overall stuff isn't as good at this point, though it can still improve with more experience. One "glaring" difference... I attended a game in which Trout hit a double and walked away convinced he was the slowest player I'd ever seen. In addition to being a pitcher, Raley is a legitimate pinch runner for his team.
10. Robert Whitenack
Strengths: Excellent size, excellent command. Started the year with 25 Ks versus 1 walk.
Weaknesses: Just had TJ surgery that set his development back. Velocity and overall stuff is average.
Projection: 4th or 5th starter
Comps: Randy Wells...both big (6'5") pitchers with average stuff...not as exciting as his numbers this year would indicate, but right now there's nothing about Whitenack's skill set that suggests anything more than a solid back of the rotation prospect. Remains to be seen whether how TJ surgery will affect him one way or the other.
Honorable mention: Marcus Hatley, a pitcher who advanced quickly once switched to relief and has been added to the AZ Fall League roster. Nelson Perez, an athletic outfielder who improved his walk rate this season. Kevin Rhoderick, a middle relief prospect. Rebel Ridling, a very productive first baseman with good, but not great power. A little old for the league. Ryan Searle, a bottom of the rotation/middle relief prospect from Australia. He could end up being a late bloomer because he didn't face top competition until recently.
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