Every spring there seems to be a surprise player who either makes the team or puts himself on the radar for the near future. Last year Welington Castillo rebounded from a mediocre 2010 minor league season and had a big spring, re-established his status as the Cubs top catching prospect, and eventually got the call during the season. The year before Tyler Colvin broke north with the team and hit 20 HRs.
Who will it be this year? We're going to track some candidates early on this spring.
One player who has already caught Dale Sveum's eye is RHP Blake Parker.
“Blake Parker I think threw the ball really well today,” Sveum said when he was asked for any early camp surprises. “I like how the ball comes out of his hand.”
Two years ago, Blake Parker looked like he was on the brink of a bullpen job with the Cubs. He was the closer at AAA Iowa in 2009, saving 22 games while posting a 3.06 ERA and over 10 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. He was also ranked as the Cubs 20th best prospect following that season.
The next year he struggled and his K rate went down to just over 7 Ks and his walks increased to 5.11/9 IP. His ERA shot up to 4.74 -- and what's worse is that Parker actually pitched worse than those statistics would indicate. It certainly wasn't a case of bad luck. Parker had a ghastly FIP of 5.63.
Last year Parker rebounded a bit in AAA, once again raising his strikeout rate above 10 and lowering his ERA down to 2.81. Control is still an issue. Parker walked 4.73 batters per 9 innings in 2011. Despite the solid year at AAA, Parker is still a longshot to make the team.
But don't count him out yet.
Parker has already beaten the odds to get as far as he has. He was drafted as a third baseman out of the University of Arkansas in the 16th round in 2006. He didn't exactly tear the cover off the ball in college. He hit .266 and then followed that up with a .224 season in his first season as a pro.
It wasn't long before the Cubs decided they had seen enough of Parker -- as a hitter, that is. As they have done with many players, most notably Carlos Marmol, Randy Wells, and top closer prospect Rafael Dolis, they immediately switched him to the mound once it was determined that his best tool by far was his arm. He didn't project to have the bat to profile as a big league player.
The results were encouraging from the start. Parker, on the strength of a strong arm that can reach 95 mph on the radar gun, took quickly to pitching. He's a sinker/slider type pitcher. The slider is an above average pitch which at one point among the best in the organization. He complements it with a hard sinker which he throws in the low 90s. He also has a pretty solid change-up that he learned in just his second year of pitching. Clearly he has a feel and aptitude for the mound.
Another trait Parker has that will likely endear him to Sveum is his competitiveness. He brings a bulldog mentality to the mound and doesn't back down when things get tough for him. He often "out-pitches" his FIP. His control tends to get him into some trouble, but he often manages to bail himself out.
He may not be able to get away with that in the big leagues, so despite his good arm and his moxy, Parker will simply have to find the plate more. He has Sveum's eye now, but he's a non-rostered player so his margin for error is slim. If he wants to keep the Cubs attention, he's going to have to avoid walking batters this spring. The numbers game may get him in the end but, as usual, don't expect Parker to back down from that challenge.