The spring is starting off with some optimism. Mike Olt's vision is coming back, Dan Vogelbach lost 30 lbs and looks ready for a big season, Josh Vitters looks like he's in the best shape of his life, and Arodys Vizcaino is throwing 98 mph fastballs.
Every year we like to speculate on who is going to surprise and breakout and with the first spring game tomorrow, today I'll ask you who your candidates are. The definition of a breakout player can vary, so I've decided to break this up into different categories.
The Spring Surprises
Every year it seems like a player comes out of nowhere and makes the team. Sometimes it's only temporary like Joe Mather and Brent Lillibridge, sometimes you find yourself a nice role player, as with James Russell a few years back and more recently, Blake Parker went from non-roster fringe prospect to a solid 7th inning guy last year. Welington Castillo had a great spring and went from question mark to full time starter last season.
The other kind of surprise is the prospect who shows he's more ready than the standard timetable might otherwise suggest. Starlin Castro nearly made the team as a 19 year old phenom in the spring of 2010 and wound up getting the call that May. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler proved they could compete with the big boys last year with Baez carrying it into the minor league season after a slow start. Baez entered last spring as an A ball player and this year is locked into the AAA shortstop spot at Iowa with a chance to make the big league club by midseason.
Josh Vitters. He's a longshot to make the team but you have to like the renewed commitment. The Cubs may have an OF spot available and perhaps Vitters can be the RH compliment to Nate Schierholtz or Ryan Sweeney.
Albert Almora. Almora didn't have too much trouble adjusting to more experienced pitching in the AFL after missing a couple of months at low A ball. Almora has no shot at making the team but I think his combination of maturity, poise, and skill will give the Cubs a glimpse of what's to come -- perhaps as soon as 2015.
The Regular Season Breakout MLB Player
Ryan Sweeney. He's been a prospect for so long but hasn't developed as hoped. Despite good size, he has not been a power hitter but I think he started to show some improved pop during the times he was healthy last season. I don't think he's going to be a 30 HR guy, but I can see him hitting 15 while also putting up solid OBP numbers and playing good defense. I also liked the way he hung in tough vs. LHP and think he has a chance to be an everyday player rather than a platoon guy.
The Regular Season Breakout Prospect
We can further split this into two categories.
- Which new prospect will enter national top 100 lists
- Which sleeper prospect will emerge as a possible top 15 Cubs prospect
I like Paul Blackburn for the first category. I think he's underestimated right now on the national scene, but the Cubs know what they have here. Blackburn put on a lot of muscle weight last season and I think this year he'll be more accustomed to pitching with his new frame. If the command comes along with his improved stuff, he could move very quickly.
For the second category, I have a couple of names I like. The first is pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng, whom we talked about in the first segment of our prospect list. The second is Mark Malave. I like the move back to catcher after showing he has the athleticism to handle the infield. There are no questions about his arm strength. Malave has always played younger than the rest of his league -- even in Venezuela, and he has shown the maturity to handle it. He's disciplined at the plate (15.75 walk rate, .381 OBP) and has good natural strength to develop in-game power down the road.
Those are my guys...who are yours?
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