We've come to the last stop before Chicago -- the AAA Iowa Cubs. Most AAA teams are a mix of prospects and minor league veterans and this team is no different. This mix is especially important to the Cubs who like their prospects to spend a full year in AAA. If a player gets called up early, it could either be a veteran or a player who is in his second go-round at Iowa.
We'll take a position by position look although, as usual, a few players figure at multiple positions...
Steve Clevenger,26, was off to a great start with the bat when an oblique injury sidelined him early in the season. He struggled to regain is stroke when he returned. Clevenger has always been a hitter, including a career line of .310/.357/.410 in AAA and a .304/.367/.471 line in over 800 AA plate appearances. He has shown doubles power but won't hit a lot of HRs. On defense he's athletic for a catcher, having been drafted as a SS but has struggled to throw out runners at the MLB level. That athleticism should see Clevenger at multiple positions in 2013, including 1B, 2B, and possibly 3B.
J.C. Boscan is a defensively oriented catcher who will back up Clevenger. He's one of those minor league vets and he'll provide some leadership and stability for developing pitchers -- but probably won't contribute much on offense.
I think of Brad Nelson, 30, as the replacement for Bryan LaHair. He's not as good a hitter as LaHair was but he's been successful at AAA and should hold the fort short term for Anthony Rizzo should he have to miss any time. Nelson has a solid approach with some power. He hit .267/.352/.463 at AAA for his career, including 24 HRs in each of the last two seasons.
Bryan Bogusevic,29, has outplayed Nelson this spring and has played a lot of 1B lately, so if he and the Cubs feel comfortable at 1B, Nelson may be the odd man out. It's not just about the spring, though. Bogusevic has more versatility than Nelson, he can play the corner OF positions well and can even play some CF if needed. Like Nelson he has a good eye at the plate but not quite the same kind of power. Nelson has hit .272/.355/.391 in AAA with a career high of 13 HRs. He does provide some surprising speed for a player his size, something he combines with good instincts. He has stolen 65 bases in just 72 attempts at the AAA level.
Josh Vitters 23, hasn't played this spring and was shut own after just a couple of games in winter ball, so it's really hard to gauge where the former top prospect stands right now. It appears Junior Lake has passed him up on the depth chart at 3B, so Vitters may have to move around a bit to get playing time. 1B and DH may be his options early as he recovers from his left quad injury. Vitters had a good year in Iowa (.304/.356/.517 with 17 HRs), but those numbers were in the hitter friendly PCL and won't cut it at 1B in the MLB, so Vitters is at a crossroads. His defense is fringy at 3B, he's not athletic enough for the OF, and his offensive numbers aren't good enough for 1B. I have a hard time seeing Vitters as a full-time player until he improves his defense at 3B and either his OBP or power numbers -- but preferably both. He's too good a natural hitter to give up on, especially at his young age. He was much better against lefties last season, so perhaps he finds a role as a platoon player early in his career.
Logan Watkins is sort of an old-fashioned ballplayer and he'll find his way to the majors one way or another. He's a lefty hitter with OBP skills (.383), speed (28 steals in 35 attempts), and some surprising wiry strength (.422 slugging, 9 HRs). Cubs fans will love him because he's a combination of athleticism, grit, and he'll find any way to get on base. He had a 13% walk rate and added to that with 7 HBPs. On defense he can play an above average second base and also hold his own at SS and CF. That versatility increases his chances of making the big leagues but Watkins is talented enough to someday challenge incumbent Darwin Barney for the 2B job.
Veterans Edwin Maysonet and Alberto Gonzalez are the prime candidates to backup Watkins.
Edwin Maysonet will likely battle it out with Alberto Gonzalez to be the starter. Like the Nelson/Rizzo situation, the Cubs likely prefer a major league ready replacement should Starlin Castro go down. Maysonet is the best combination of offense and defense of all the non-roster candidates at SS, but doesn't really stand out in either category. He's solid enough that he won't hurt you too much if it's a short term replacement. Maysonet is a .258/.325/.354 career hitter in AAA. Similarly, he's hit .265/.308/.346 in 152 PAs in the majors.
Alberto Gonzalez is more defensively oriented and spent some time with the Rangers, Padres, Nationals, and Yankees, accumulating a .242/.279/.317 line in 963 career PAs in the majors. What Gonzalez gives you is some MLB experience and plus defense at 3 positions. He's an 8th hitter but he'll more than hold the fort with the glove. Whether he gets the AAA job and becomes the emergency backup to SS and 2B depends on whether the Cubs are willing to sacrifice a bit of offense for a top-shelf glove.
Junior Lake is not really a SS. He has the arm and athleticism to play there but the instincts just aren't there. Still, if he can play there part-time it will enhance his value.
Logan Watkins can play SS in a pinch though he will play mostly 2B in AAA.
Junior Lake has passed Vitters on the 3B depth chart with his play in winter ball and the spring. Despite being a much less polished hitter, Lake has a higher floor than Vitters because of his versatility and speed off the bench. Curiously, despite how raw he is as a hitter, Lake has adapted well to each level. He has improved his walk rate to 8.1% in his last 691 PAs. As mentioned in a previous article, since his disastrous start in Class A Daytona in 2010, Lake has put up an average season of .289/.339/.467 with 16 HRs and 38 steals (including stints in the fall and winter leagues). Those numbers can play at 3B or CF just fine if Lake can sustain that at the MLB level. In the more likely scenario that he does not, he can still make a valuable reserve who adds pop and speed off the bench with the ability to play multiple key positions -- though defensively, I think his only chance to be average or better is in the OF.
Josh Vitters will get some time at 3B as both he and Lake move around. Vitters has the hands and arm strength to be a solid defender at 3B, but limited athleticism and inconsistent footwork give him a likely ceiling of fringe average defense.
Brett Jackson, 24, will be among the Cubs most closely watched prospects this season. He has never been a contact guy but last year things got even worse for him. He struck out a whopping 41.5% in his stint with the Cubs last year. As we all know, he has retooled his swing and the results so far have been mixed. He has struck out 5 times in 19 PAs (26%) and while it's an improvement, it's far too early to tell. Even if Jackson can sustain that strikeout rate long term, he'll provide some value with his ability to draw walks, get on base, hit for some power, steal bases, and play good defense. The only question is whether Jackson will make enough contact to make it all matter. We'll find out this year at Iowa and if he proves he can make more consistent contact, he'll be in Chicago by mid-season.
Junior Lake, 23, should see most of his time at 3B, but he should see some time in the OF as the Cubs try to maximize his athleticism and minimize his exposure at any one position. Lake has the speed and the arm strength to be a plus CF but it's also going to depend on the kinds of jumps he gets and the routes he takes.
Jae-Hoon Ha, 22, is not quite the athlete that other CFs like Brett Jackson, Junior Lake, and Matt Szczur are, what he lacks in speed he makes up for with top notch instincts. Those instincts are most evident in CF where he may be the Cub best defender at the upper levels. At the plate Ha has always had good pitch recognition skills but that only began to translate into walks last season. He more than doubled his walk rate (4.5 to 9.4%) and had a career high .352 OBP. What he gained in on-base skills, however, he seemed to lose in power, dropping to an ISO of .112 and a slugging pct. of .385. Though he's always been more of a contact hitter, both numbers were his worst since rookie ball. If he doesn't hit for more power, then he's an extra outfielder at best. Ha has already played 181 games at the AA level, so ideally he starts in AAA but there may not be room in the first half of the season. Ha can also play the outfield corners.
Logan Watkins can play CF though it's probably too crowded for him to see much time there this year.
Bryan Bogusevic's good athleticism is better utilized in the outfield than 1B and he may get the majority of his starts there.
Johermyn Chavez, 24, has been a pleasant surprise and has likely found a job in this organization somewhere. He's already had two years in AA but has not come close to mastering that level, so he could return there. Chavez is a raw, toolsy player but since 2010, he's moved in the wrong direction. Three years go he was the Mariners' #7 prospect when he hit .315/.387/.577 with 32 HRs at the high Class A level. He's always had a surprisingly patient approach for a raw player but like Lake, he still sometimes swings at pitches well outside the zone. The best thing you can say about his AA season last year is that he improved his walk rate to 12.2%, though he hit just .232/.339/.386 overall. Still, there is a lot of potential here for improvement. Defensively, he has average speed but good instincts and a tremendous arm make him an above average defender overall -- which he has demonstrated this spring. It's impossible to know whether Chavez's great spring (.389/.368/.722) is just the result of a short sample size or that perhaps the light bulb as turned on for him. With the Cubs preference for athletic, potential impact players -- especially those who've shown they have the potential to work counts, it's likely Chavez will get a chance to prove that one way or the other in either AA or AAA.
Jae-Hoon Ha may start in an OF corner depending on what the Cubs do with Chavez and/or Bogusevic. He profiles best in CF, however, and will probably start there if Jackson gets promoted.
Josh Vitters has seen some time in the OF corners in the past and may do so once again when his quads are healthy. Junior Lake, Logan Watkins, and Brad Nelson have all shown they can handle the corner OF positions when needed.