5 Cubs prospects who will try and prove doubters wrong in 2012

5 Cubs prospects who will try and prove doubters wrong in 2012

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.

poll by twiigs.com

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  • With this list I was expecting more of the lost cause prospects than the Szczurs and Watkinses of the system. Something more along the lines of Jay Jackson, Casey Weathers, and Marquez Smith.

  • In reply to elusivekarp:

    That would be a separate piece! Those guys are last chance guys. I'm not even sure Smith is on the Cubs anymore. Jackson and Weathers have to show something this spring (nice to see Weathers pitch well today).

    All 5 guys I wrote about will get more chances even if they don't succeed, so they're not potentially at the end of their Cubs careers, but this year will define whether they will still be highly regarded or headed on the Jay Jackson path.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I decided to check up in Marquez. He still exists. According to an article I found, he reported to Mesa yesterday with the rest of our minor league camps. Wonder why he wasn't a non-roster invitee again.

  • In reply to elusivekarp:

    That's a pretty strong indication that the club thinks of him more as an organizational player now. Lots of competition for those IF spots at Iowa too. Not going to be easy for him.

  • John, my money is on Vitters to improve..I blame the former regime for not having him work with someone early on improving his plate discipline but his bat speed and hand eye coordination are great..He has Shawon Dunstonitis in swinging at anything and everything..I hope BJax and Rizzo help him up his dedication..I'd love him at Wrigley

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    I'd like to see him make it. It's not too late to learn a better approach and hopefully Vitters has it in him. I think Szczur shows the most potential to have a good batting eye, though I was encouraged that Vitters seemed to take more pitches last year. I'm still not sure if he's doing it with a purpose or just because he's been told to do it. I hope it's not the latter, it's something he has to learn not do it for the sake of doing it.

  • Decided to tack a poll on to the article...

  • Sounds like, if things work out, they've got some speed coming through the system. That'd be a nice change.

  • In reply to Dan Bradley:

    They do, 3 of the 4 players are speedy, athletic types. It's their baseball skills that people question. We'll find out a lot this year.

  • Excellent article john, as usual. You know how I feel about Vitters, I really think this is his last chance to show he's still a top prospect. He has to show this year that's more patient and disciplined , otherwise he starts becoming just a guy after this year. Hayden Simpson is the other guy who really has to step it up this year, his drop in velocity is troubleing, hopefully it's not an injury causing it. If he doesn't show some real improvement, I think we have to out him in the draft flop category and Tim Wilkins real first big first round whiff.

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    Thanks. I think Vitters is probably the most frustrating prospect since Corey Patterson for me. He was highly regarded by everyone. Goldstein said in 2009 that "he'll either compete for batting titles in the future or hit a paltry .300 with 20 to 25 HRs"

    I remember thinking I'd be tad disappointed in that floor that Goldstein laid out for him. I'd be thrilled to see it now.

    Simpson is a little bit of a puzzler. It's always going to get a lot of attention because it took everyone off guard. The guy many thought the Cubs should pick instead, RHP Alex Wimmers, has also struggled. Boston and Texas also whiffed with their picks, but because they took consensus guys, they don't get a lot of flak for it. The best prospects the Cubs passed up were Christian Yelich, Gary Brown, and Zach Cox but I don't think the Cubs were really in on any of them. They seemed to focus on pitching for that pick.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I voted for Simpson. If he really was down to 150 lbs, there is no way he could have been an affective pitcher. I don't know anything about his work ethic, but if he's healthy, has his energy & strength back, I would imagine he is highly motivated. Add in a little more experience, and I think he can easily bust out. Wilken must have liked him an awful lot to begin with, and he has drafted some great pitchers.

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    I've heard reports on that and I'd like to see if they were true. I have a friend who's 6ft tall and about 150 lbs. He's a great guy but he doesn't look like he can fire a 90 mph fastball.

    Wilken fell in love with him and good point on his history with drafting pitchers, i.e. Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter (the good one).

  • Looking at these five guys, it is tough to say as they are all so young and haven't reached the upper minors.
    Vitters (22) - AA
    Simpson (22) - A
    Lake - (21) - AA
    Szczur - (22) - A
    Watkins - (22) - A

    My highest hopes out of this group are Lake and Szczur. Vitters is young enough to turn things around but I fear he is Gary Scott reincarnated. It looks like Watkins and Szczur are the most likely to make the majors at least as platoon players.

    I also would lump Reggie Golden (20) and Trey McNutt (22) in this bunch as well. Goldeg is raw but still just 20 years old so you never know. At what point do you make McNutt a reliever? What do you see as the new regime's plan for him this year? Lets say Samardzija wows everyone and takes a spot on the roster, would McNutt have a shot at the bullpen, or do you see him pitching AAA in the hopes that he can be in the rotation in the next few years?

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    I agree. I think Szczur, Lake, and Watkins all have enough tools to at least be useful reserves if they don't figure everything out. The good defense by Szczur and Watkins give them the edge over Lake, however. Vitters, on the other hand, is a bat off the bench and not any help on defense. He might not find a role quite so easily if he isn't a starter.

    I don't think there's as much doubt or split opinion about McNutt or Golden. Most think McNutt can be a starter if he figures out command or a late inning reliever if he doesn't. I think you wait as long as possible on McNutt. The Cubs started Carpenter all the way until age 25. You can always switch to relief. I'd say he has at least 2 years to refine his command.

    Golden is just plain raw and everybody likes his tools and the improvement in his approach. By the same token, everyone agrees he's a long way away.

    I think both are guys to watch, but they don't draw as much mixed opinion.

  • Why is it that Szczur's speed doesn't play on the basepaths?

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    He doesn't have a natural instinct on the basepaths and tends to be a bit tentative. He's still learning what he can and can't do. He's not a slow-poke out there by any means but you'll hear people say that he's not a burner -- but for someone who's been clocked from the right side at less than 4 seconds to first base and a guy whom his college coach called the fastest player he's ever coached (faster than all-pro RB Brian Westbrook), it's hard to believe he's not a burner. It's just a matter of learning the game. People were starting to think Junior Lake was slowing down until last season. He obviously didn't suddenly get faster and steal 54 bases (including AZL stats), he just learned to use his speed better. I think the same will happen with Szczur.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    If I may use a football analogy here, you often see a guy who can run a 4.3 40 yrd dash in football but yet they aren't as good on the deep route as "slower" guys like Jerry Rice. Szczur has raw speed, he's just working to develop game speed.

  • Perfect list, John. I love that keith law is so down on szczur- i'm dying to see him make an ass if law! And i'm actually most curious about simpson. I know wilkin & fleita kept saying for simpson just to make it through that first year was the key. But, john, have you heard ANYTHING about him? His weight? What he did this offseason? I'm DYING to know where he's at. IF there's a chance he's going to succeed, the idea of garza, maples, simpson, mcnutt, concepcion etc is a sweet start fir the years to come. ANY news on him?

  • In reply to MikeyB:

    Thanks Mikey!

    I'd love to see these guys prove some of the experts wrong, but really because I'd like the Cubs to have as many good players as possible in the future more than making any media members look bad. Prospect gurus know they can be wrong, it happens all the time.

    Unfortunately, it can happen both ways. Experts universally thought that Vitters and Corey Patterson were going to be great players. They were wrong on Patterson, who had a couple of decent seasons and many have changed their minds now on Vitters. It's just so difficult to predict.

    No new news on Concepcion, unfortunately. Cubs in no hurry to fill that 40 man roster spot.

  • Another informative article, John.Thanks.

    I had the same question about Simpson as MikeyB (above). "But, john, have you heard ANYTHING about him? His weight? What he did this offseason? I'm DYING to know where he's at. "

    Thanks

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Thanks! I don't know. I'm going to have to ask around. In the meantime, if anybody in AZ right now knows, let us know how he's doing.

  • I really want Vitters to be the man on this list that makes a huge jump this year. I've got a friend who worked as an intern for the Cubs and spent some time with Vitters. He said that he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer but when he would step in the cage and swing the bat everyone just stopped and watched in amazement at that sweet swing. I really hope he develops the discipline he needs to succeed because we could certainly use a big stick at the 3 bag.

    A close second on this list to me is Simpson because of our lack of pitching depth in the minors. Anyone that can control 4 pitches and has a fastball in low 90's (assuming it comes back) has to be intriguing no matter where he was drafted. John i'm too lazy to google it; how much did Simpson weigh prior to the mono? If I remember correctly he was a slight fellow to begin with.

  • In reply to Bilbo Baggins:

    That kind of highlights my worry with Vitters. He has the talent and the desire to do well, but does he have the aptitude to make adjustments.

    He was about 170-175, so yeah, he's a pretty slight guy to begin with. He probably needs to regain his weight and then gain a bit more as he gets stronger. Oswalt was about 180-185 lbs when he was younger.

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