All prospects carry some doubt with them. If any one scout, front office, or "expert" got them right all the time it wouldn't be a whole lot of fun. Despite the advances in the use of statistics, much of scouting is still subjective. Patterns in statistics tend to get more reliable the higher you move up the ladder, but they aren't as useful for draftees and players at the lowest levels. Evaluators need to project what a player can be and that, as you can imagine, can lead to a wide range of opinion. Here are 5 Cubs prospects who have gotten mixed reviews pretty much since the day they were drafted or signed.
1. Josh Vitters
Vitters is the one exception on this list who didn't raise any eyebrows when he was drafted and signed. He was not the best player available, that distinction went to Matt Wieters, but Vitters was still considered a good pick at the 3rd spot. Vitters was also highly regarded from day one by prospect gurus such as Jim Callis, Keith Law, and Kevin Goldstein for his textbook swing and off the charts hand-eye coordination. He seemed like a can't miss prospect. Unfortunately, Vitters hasn't shown a good feel for working counts and has struggled to become even an average defender. He has become very good friends with Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson, two players who have a good approach at the plate and in the field. The three will play together at AAA Iowa this season, so maybe some of that approach will rub off on Vitters. It's difficult (but not impossible) to improve approach and discipline. Vitters is one of three players on this list who will try and beat those odds.
2. Junior Lake
Lake was an intriguing player the Cubs scouted along with Starlin Castro in the Dominican Republic. He's a toolsy player who was very rough around the edges, so it raised a few eyebrows when the Cubs signed him for $500,000. The Cubs saw a tremendous athlete with great size, a great arm, and very good speed. It's hard to believe now that Cubs people were split as to who was the better prospect between Lake and Castro for the first year they were in the organization. Even though he has made progress over the last 2 years, Lake's approach needs a lot of work. His free swinging style may not fly against more advanced pitchers. A bit concerning is that his high averages in A ball (.315) and the AZL (.296) could be partially due to an unusually high BABIP. AA will be a big test for him. If he passes, chances are pretty good he'll eventually get his shot at the big leagues.
3. Matt Szczur
The Cubs took a big chance when they selected Szczur in the 5th round. They signed him early but in order to get him to commit to baseball, the Cubs had to rework the deal and give him a spot on the 40 man roster along with a $1.5M bonus. Lauded for his makeup and athleticism, Szczur's main baseball tools are his speed and his ability to make contact, though his raw speed doesn't play that well on the basepaths yet. The first criticisms about Szczur was that he was a football guy who lacked baseball skills. They didn't think he defended well, he had a poor arm, and had no power. Szczur now rates as a good defender and the thought is he'll be major league average in the other two categories. The criticism now has shifted to his swing and plate discipline. Szczur did have around an average walk rate in his career until wearing down in the second half at Class A Daytona after a non-stop year of football and baseball. The Cubs rested him this entire offseason in the hopes that he'd be rejuvenated this spring. So far, so good. Szczur was the star of the first intrasquad game with a 3 run HR. 3 hits, and then demonstrated his plus speed by scoring from 2nd on a flyball without a play. He kept the good ABs coming today when he grinded out a walk in his AB in his first official spring appearance. It's early, though, and like Lake, Szczur figures to get a tough test at AA. He already has 4th outfielder skills with speed, defense, and the ability to hit for average, so chances are he'll make it to the majors in some capacity. Hitting for power and getting on base better than he did at Class A Daytona will determine whether he can be a regular. Of the first 3 players on this list, I think Szczur is the best bet to improve his approach.
4. Logan Watkins
The Cubs took a flyer on Watkins who was more known as a Kansas all-state QB as a high-schooler. They signed him for 500k, though not everyone agreed he was worth that kind of bonus. The Cubs, however, fell in love with his athleticism, leadership, and work ethic. They think he has the kind of makeup required to translate his athleticism to baseball skills and, so far, that has proven to be the case. Watkins isn't a big player at 5'11", 175 lbs., but he's deceptively strong for his size. Last year it started to manifest itself with a slugging pct. over .400. He's shown the ability to make contact and, as you might expect, he runs very well. He has a surprisingly good approach for someone who's less experienced in baseball, though he can get aggressive at times. His walk rates have been solid to good in his career and getting on base is going to have to be his game at the major league level. He has the defensive skills to play IF or OF, but will probably stick at either SS or 2B. Watkins best chance to make it is as a stronger, faster, more disciplined version of Darwin Barney. He'll be in AA with fellow crossroads prospects Junior Lake and Matt Szczur.
5. Hayden Simpson
Of all Tim Wilkens surprising picks in his career, this one was the most surprising. Simpson played at a small school and was under-scouted, but even if the Cubs liked his talent, it seemed he would have been available later. The Cubs insist there were a few teams interested in taking him before their pick in the 2nd round. Some had him graded as a 3rd or 4th rounder. The Cubs liked his velocity (low to mid 90s) and potential to have command of 4 pitches. They compared him to another smallish pitcher in Roy Oswalt. Unfortunately, Simpson didn't get a chance to prove anyone wrong last year. He dealt with a protracted case of mono and lost a lot of weight and strength with some reports having him down to 150 some pounds with a fastball clocked in the low 80s. That's not going to get professional hitters out at any level. The expectation is that Simpson will put the weight back on and regain his velocity, so it's not fair to call him a bust until we can see what he can do at full strength. The guess here is that he starts the year in Peoria, but much will depend on how he looks this spring.
You can be sure we'll be keeping an eye on all of these guys this year. It's a big year for all of these prospect and the hope is that at least a couple will prove the naysayers wrong.