The most famous member of the Tennessee Smokies infield is undoubtedly Junior Lake. He's the one with the all the tools and the sometimes exciting brand of play that fans can dream on. We also know that Lake has some work to do on his approach, which may work against Class A pitchers but there's no guarantee it will work against more advanced hitters. If it does (or, perhaps more accurately, if Lake makes the necessary adjustments), he can pretty much punch his ticket to the big leagues.
When the Smokies are televised on MiLB TV tomorrow, however, Lake won't be in the lineup. He's on the 7 day DL with a back issue, but it's not serious and he should be activated soon.
That doesn't mean there aren't other Smokies infielders to watch when they take on the Jackson Generals.
Logan Watkins and Matt Cerda may not have the tools or tremendous physical size and abilities that Junior Lake does, but they are good athletes themselves and both have a better approach both at the plate and in the field than the Cubs more gifted, more famous prospect. Their ceiling may not be as high but it doesn't mean they don't have big league ability themselves.
Logan Watkins (2B, SS, OF) is currently the more highly regarded of the two, ranking 23rd on Baseball America's list of top 30 Cubs prospects. As a Kansas high schooler, Watkins was an all-state QB and DB who was headed to Wichita State on a scholarship. He received far less fanfare as a baseball player, but the Cubs loved the combination of athleticism, mental makeup and natural leadership skills. They lured him away from a football scholarship with a surprising 500,000 bonus.
As a baseball player Watkins is making excellent progress. Batting from the left side, he has a somewhat unusual stance in that he holds his elbows a little high, but despite his small 5'11, 170 lbs frame, he has wiry strength and generates very good bat speed from that stance. The Cubs one day think he'll hit for gap power and he did start to show that last season (high Class A Daytona) with 15 doubles, 12 triples, and 5 HRs, leading to his career high slugging percentage of .404.
His approach at the plate is solid. He is selective but is aggressive with pitches in the strike zone. Because of that, he doesn't draw as many walks as his patient approach would suggest, but he does draw his share of free passes. Last year Watkins walked 44 in 502 PAs, which amounts to about a league average 8.8% walk rate. For his career, his walk rate is a very solid 10.3%. Combined with his speed and ability to make contact, it has translated into a .370 career OBP in the minors.
Getting on base is important for Watkins so that he can utilize his plus speed. He continues to learn more about the nuances of base running and base tealing as he moves up the levels. Last year he posted his career high in stolen bases (21) while simultaneously recording his career low in times caught (5).
Defensively, his best position is 2B where he shows above average range. He also has good hands and a decent arm. He has the athleticism to also play SS and CF, so if he doesn't make it as a starter, he would make a pretty valuable utilityman.
The key for Watkins to make it as a starter is that gap power I alluded to earlier. Without it, he's a singles hitter with good defensive ability. In other words, he's a faster, more athletic version than last year's version of Darwin Barney, though he is a more selective hitter. The key is to build on his progress with the bat he started last year. So far this year he is 8 for 17 (all singles) with one walk for a .471 average and a .526 OBP. Of course, it's early and the Cubs would eventually like to see him get more walks and extra-base hits, but the fact that he hasn't been overwhelmed by AA pitching so far is encouraging.
Matt Cerda (2B, 3B) is another left-handed hitting infielder with some MLB promise. He was drafted in the 4th round and like Watkins, signed for a $500,000 bonus. He isn't as fast as Watkins but he's an athletic player in his own right and is also known for his strong mental makeup. Standing at just 5'9", 165 lbs., Cerda is nevertheless solidly built and makes the most of his natural physical gifts. He has worked hard to become stronger and improve his baseball skills. He has perhaps the best plate discipline in the system, rivaling top prospect Brett Jackson in that area. BA called his knowledge of the strike zone "uncanny" for someone his age and it continues to improve. Despite not posing much of a power threat, Cerda has increased his walk rate as he has faced more advanced pitching, going from 11.2% in short season ball to 12.8% in Peoria, to an outstanding 15.2% last season in Daytona.
At the plate he is a natural hitter who shows good feel for what he wants to do up there. He makes contact very easily, never posting anything higher than a 15.2% strikeout rate. Last year, Cerda achieved career highs with a .283 batting average, a .394 OBP, .351 wOBA, and 115 RC+ (see stat glossary).
Because he doesn't hit for extra base power and his small frame doesn't project for that to develop down the line, Cerda's ultimate role in the big leagues is likely to be as a utility man. He can play 2B or 3B and is athletic enough to play OF as well. The Cubs originally tried him some at catcher when he was drafted but nixed those plans after his second season. Still, he's a player the Cubs like a lot. Cubs area scout Denny Henderson had this to say about Cerda upon the Cubs drafting him,
"He's a pretty special kid. About as special a kid as I've ever seen. I think this'll turn out favorably for the people at Wrigley Field. He's a dandy."
Neither Watkins or Cerda carry the star power that their teammate Lake does, but each has a chance to become a contributor at the big league level. They may not have prototypical size or top prospect status, but they have the skills on the field and mental makeup off the field to make the most of what they do have. Don't be surprised if these guys are wearing Chicago Cubs uniforms in a couple of years.