Smith & Stroh Cubs 40 (Part Three)
As the title implies, this is the third part to a series counting down the Cubs top forty prospects backwards to forwards. We started the list with 40-31 on Sunday, followed by 30-21 at The Cub Reporter yesterday. Today, we return with the third segment, Cubs prospects 20-11. Enjoy...
20. Brandon Sing- 1B- West Tenn
Smith: Am I skeptical of Sing this high? Gosh yes, the man's offensive past prior to 2004 hardly is better than that of Ronny Cedeno. It is undoubtedly risque to put Sing, after six minor league seasons, in the top twenty following his first .800 OPS campaign. But, since we closed part two talking about the lack of ceiling in Cedeno and Geovany Soto, it's fitting to talk about a guy with a huge ceiling now. Sing's 2004 season was everything and more that Jason Dubois' 2002 was, which sent Dubois to a Blue Jays uniform for Spring Training 2003. Sing, on the other hand, was passed on by all twenty-nine teams in the Rule 5 draft this December. Credit that to his spotty offensive past, and a little athleticism problem, similar to that of Philadelphia Phillie prospect Ryan Howard. Sing is a Three True Outcomes player, chock full o' homers, walks and strikeouts. I can already envision the following he'll get, a mix of chicks and sabermetricians. Yikes.
Stroh: Part of me says, yeah well you try anything three times and you'll probably succeed, and the other part of me says egads, a .970 OPS would be incredible if it were in Little League. Sing's always had a ton of power, and Fleita originally compared him to Jim Thome about 4 years ago, in terms of being a late bloomer with tons of power. Sing's walk rate also increased dramatically last year, at least partially because FSL pitchers undoubtedly pitched around the guy who would later be the league's MVP, which almost makes his 32 bombs even more impressive. The only real negative to his season last year was a middlish .270 batting average. The story goes that power prospects face a tough adjustment in AA because pitchers have a much better command of their breaking stuff, and I will admit that Sing still can look rather foolish against good offspeed stuff. But in the end, I'm emphatically on the fence. If he can hit home runs and draw walks, nobody will care if AA pitchers do make him look foolish. Either way, Sing is likely to be prime trade bait for an organization with a stud like Brian Dopirak behind him, and a guy like Dubois in front of him.
19. Jon Connolly- SP- West Tenn
Smith: Funny, I thought as the true "stat-heavy" evaluator of the two of us, that I would have Connolly higher on my list than Stroh. It was not true though, as the other Bryan was singing his praise when we argued over positioning. When you see Connolly, you just wish that every prospect had that kind of change, a pitch that has been good enough to let him dominate low and high-A. Despite that, my concerns with Connolly are an awful long list, one that leads me to be skeptical on how he'll handle AA. First, there is the lack of a big league fastball, or even a AA fastball for that matter. Second, a K/9 that has never topped 7.0, and only got over 6.0 this year. While the rise is encouraging, it is still too low for me to really believe he'll keep it going. I like his control and K/BB, it was just be nice to see a little more pop...both on his stat sheet and the catcher's mitt.
Stroh: Why is it that performance analysts still have questions about guys like Connolly? If what they espouse were really true, wouldn't they be falling all over themselves in support of guys like this? I think the fact that they are not is a tacit acknowledgement that there are certain things the numbers don't tell you, and in this case, it's that Connolly's fastball rarely tops 87. Still, as much as I would like to start talking up scouts, most of the guys who see Connolly pitch probably don't stick around for long unless they have his stat sheet in front of him. The Cubs have a pretty good history with pitchers like this, starting with Scott Downs in '99 and Carmen Pignatiello more recently. Connolly's numbers last year were a lot like Downs' in 98-99, just with fewer strikeouts (but not with any corresponding increase in walks or hits). As a left hander with possibly the best changeup in the system, Connolly will get plenty of chances, and if his lone AA start last year is any indication, his lack of velocity won't matter. I see Connolly knocking on the door to Des Moines fairly early in 2005.
18. Will Ohman- RP- Iowa
Smith: We have already talked about Russ Rohlicek, the aging LOOGY that we both think could do significantly better than Stephen Randolph given the opportunity. Better than Rohlicek, we think, would be Will Ohman. If it seems like Ohman has been in this organization forever, it is because he has: drafted in the eighth round of the 1998 draft. His 1999 as a swingman was encouraging, his 2000 as a reliever was fantastic. Think Chadd Blasko's 2003, from the bullpen. And like Blasko, things worsened a bit the next year, only to find that his arm had some structural damage. Everyone had given up on Ohman; his 2004 spot in the Iowa 'pen was probably due more to loyalty than optimism. 45 games with a 12.9 K/9 later, his bandwagon is getting crowded again. There are monster control problems still, and his season wasn't awe-inspiring, but the solidness of it all caught us off-guard. To do so again in 2005, Ohman will get that WHIP down, while keeping the K/9 up. If he does so, Stephen Randolph will become the unemployment rate's concern.
Stroh: When I saw Ohman last Spring, he wasn't anywhere near the same pitcher I saw at Wrigley a few years back. His fastball was under 90, his slider didn't have much bite, and he seemed to really be struggling with himself. But after a year of mediocrity in AAA, Ohman's arm is apparently back, and his numbers over the winter seem to prove that. This will be the proverbial second year after arm surgery, and Jim Hendry talked up Ohman a number of times this winter. At this point, I think Ohman has the potential to be more than a LOOGY, given the quality of his slider. At best, he's BJ Ryan, but at worst, he's still a left handed arm with a power slider, and that is still a valuable commodity in a game filled with inefficient markets. Heck if we actually gave up something to get Steven Randolph...
17. Mark Reed- C- Peoria
Smith: As Stroh did yesterday with Eric Patterson, I'm pretty much going to pass this report over to my partner. While Grant Johnson was the Cubs first choice in the 2004 draft, I was a bit surprised to see Mark Reed get more hype. Credit that to his brother, probably, and I should mention that everyone says their hitting abilities are equal. Reed was very good in his first ten professional games, but the raves from scouts are definitely more notable than the stat sheet. I can tell you this: consider my appetite already whetted from the possibility of combining Jeremy Reed's offensive set with a catcher.
Stroh: In Vineline's annual prospect report, Mark Reed was rated as having one of the top "baseball IQs" in the Cub system. I may be biased, but guys like that tend to do well. Reed was drafted in the 3rd round, but that was partly a signability question, and nobody questioned his talent as a first or second rounder. His ability to catch obviously adds value, but the Cubs are thrilled with his athleticism and his ability to play nearly any position. Scouts project him with more power than older brother Jeremy, who will probably start in CF for the Mariners this year, but with the same plate discipline. He's still a long ways away, but his bloodlines and athletic ability indicate big things ahead.
16. Matt Craig- 1B/3B- Iowa
Smith: Back to a guy I know a lot about, and love, we have Matt Craig. I'll admit to fighting for his placement this high, so if he falters, you guys know where to find me. Plain and simple, this kid can flat out rake. He's getting old and his athleticism is not a strength (in the slightest), but we Craig is one of the top three hitters in this system. At the University of Richmond, he was sensational, drafted in the third round following a season where his OPS neared 1.200. He finished out the 2002 season in a struggle, and had an unimpressive 2003 season in the Florida State League. A .782 OPS isn't bad there, but it definitely isn't enough for a offensive-minded third basemen. Now, following a .275/.363/.509 season in West Tenn, I can officially become a full-fledged supporter. His walks were way up this year (strikeouts too, unfortunately), and his twenty home runs are enough to brag about given the league and park. Defensive issues will keep him back and forth at the corners, but if his basement (to continue the house analogy) is Greg Norton, I'm glad we have him.
Stroh: To be blunt, Craig's value comes almost purely from his ability to continue to play 3b, something that is severely in question at this point. If he has to play 1b, he suddenly doesn't look all that special standing next to Brandon Sing and Brian Dopirak. I have no problem with my partner fighting for Craig's high placement, because I love that Craig is a well rounded hitter. He hits a few doubles, a few homers, draws a few walks, and if I'm going to the mat with Micah Hoffpaiur, then I should do the same with Craig. And I will. I just hope I'm saying that his offense outweighs his defensive woes, rather than trying to come up with a reason for him to be useful as a first baseman.
15. Roberto Novoa- RP- Iowa
Smith: Another player I'll admit to not knowing a ton about, but reports of him have made my initial reaction on the Kyle Farnsworth trade a good one. A mid-90s heater with a plus-slider, minus the craziness that Kyle gave North Siders on a daily basis. It is easy to get lost in the mess of solid relief prospects that the Cubs have, so it is a possibility that Novoa won't even sniff the Majors with this organization. Heck, it's possible he won't sniff the closer's role in Des Moines. While this trade was a good move for the Cubs, in my opinion, it definitely wasn't the career move that Roberto Novoa was hoping for. He was looking forward to a team plane and five-star hotels, not the Iowa Cub bus with the occasional motel. Ya gotta feel for the kid.
Stroh: Novoa's right arm is like a sling shot that needs to be aligned, and I think that is a good thing. Nothing he throws is straight. He flings his two-seamer from varying 3/4 arm slots, and his slurvey slider acts like a Frisbee more often that not. I only saw him pitch twice last year, so I can't comment further until I see him in Mesa, but Novoa has an arm and a frame that go together like pizza and beer. His control can be an issue, and there are also rumors of makeup questions (what, again?). But all in all, the return on the Farns wasn't half bad. Novoa will be one of a cast of thousands hanging out in Des Moines this summer, waiting to get the call.
14. Mike Wuertz- RP- Iowa
Smith: His 2004 numbers were as good as any PCL reliever. His two-pitch combo was impressive enough for Dusty to bring him north last season. Alex Ciepley phrases it well, when asking, "Is it because he's not blonde?" Todd Wellemeyer and Jon Leicester undoubtedly have the lead in the last-spot battle, though I don't think Wuertz has done too much, besides being a wonderful Iowa closer, to really prove he's the right man. Take yesterday, when Wuertz was awful in his first spring outing against the Giants. The kid has had some problems stepping up when the time is right. I like him a lot, and think he deserves 40-50 games in a big league bullpen. But I also have part of me asking, "Is he just another quad-A player?"
Stroh: Wuertz's slider is about the best in the Cubs system (reminds me of Jason Hart, circa 1994). He can throw it to both sides of the plate on any count, and when he was successful last year, he was able to stay ahead of hitters. Wuertz was among the most reliable members of the bullpen last September, but unfortunately Dusty only used him early in games. He's not flashy and will never blow it by hitters, but he profiles very well as a setup man, and is a refreshing part of the depth the Cubs have in the high minors. Where as the Wellemeyers and Leicesters of the world have 95 mph FB calling cards, Wuertz can come in and nibble with his offspeed stuff (which is admittedly better than either of those two). In the end, pitchers with even a single dominant pitch still have success. Heck, Mel Rojas lived off his great splitter and nothing else for many years, so I can see Wuertz becoming a good setup man. But he'll need the opportunity to be able to do that, and I wonder if he'll get the 40-50 innings to prove himself in Chicago.
13. Richard Lewis- 2B- Iowa
Smith: Part of me thinks that Richie Lewis, if given the opportunity, can be everything this year that Mark Grudzielanek was a year ago. The other part of me thinks that Lewis' breakout that began in the Arizona Fall League in 2003, and went through all of last season is a bit fake. With Soto, Cedeno and Craig all having good years this season after bad offensive histories, you have to wonder if there was something in the water in Jackson, Tennessee this year. If so, then Lewis must have been drinking loads of it, because he had a year to remember in the Southern League. Lewis has doubles power, walks just barely enough, and strikes out too much. His career length will be decided on how often he makes contact, and how high that batting average is. Lewis is the only thing that will make the Juan Cruz trade justifiable, so you can understand why his fan base rose so dramatically this season.
Stroh: What are we supposed to do with his 100+ Abs at Iowa at the end of the year, before he got hurt? Sure, his .900+ OPS at AA is incredible, especially for a guy who doesn't have a ton of power. But what about his AAA time? I, of course, am willing to chalk that up to nerves or changing scenery or whatever, otherwise we wouldn't have Lewis this high, but it is fairly concerning. Hendry loves Lewis, and talks about him as a possible 2b replacement for Todd Walker if he ever leaves. Like Bryan Smith said, Lewis hits a ton of doubles and walks just enough to balance out his lack of home run power. He was voted the MVP of the Southern League last year, and will probably play a bit more of a utility role this year in AAA, both because of Fontenot's presence, but also because it could hasten his ability to contribute to the Cubs. Andy Pratt is chilling in Milwaukee now, so Lewis is all we have left if Billy Beane can turn Juan Cruz into Octavio Dotel.
12. Grant Johnson- SP- Daytona/Peoria
Smith: I'm going to pretend that selecting Johnson so high in the 2004 draft had nothing to do with him being a hometown boy (from my rival high school, no less), or because of Jim Hendry's connections with the Notre Dame program. Instead, I'm going to hope that Hendry got some inside info from his friend that coaches at ND, verifying that Johnson is at full health. Still, I worry about spending so much on a college pitcher with an injury history, which is why Mark Reed excites me more. Still, Johnson is supposed to be a solid kid with a heavy fastball, who still could use some baseball experience. His control is a problem, and in case you wondering, Johnson was not one of Craig Burley's top 100 pitchers in the 2004 college season.
Stroh: Every year I have to rank somebody based on nothing more than what I've read, and I hate that. Hence, my yearly trip to Mesa, Arizona in about two weeks. Because of this, I can't really objectively comment on much, other than to say that Johnson already had shoulder surgery and came through it still with his 94 mph fastball in tact. To say that is rare would be like saying teenage girls are fickle. Some scouts think his slider is his best pitch, and to his credit, he pitched most of the year last year at Notre Dame without even using it. Jim Callis (or should I call him sempai?) says that Johnson was easily a 1st round talent who fell because of his injury and because he could have gone back to school. Without a first round pick last year, the Cubs were smart to get early round value with guys like Johnson, Reed, and Patterson, even though none were actually picked that high. The Cubs have followed Johnson for years and are said to love his makeup (there's that word again). While he might start relatively slow because of his arm history, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Johnson start in sunny Daytona this year. The easiest comp for Johnson is Blasko. Blasko has a longer arm delivery and a different breaking ball, but both are taller, power right handers. Reproducing Blasko's 2003 would move Johnson to the top 5 of this list in a heartbeat.
11. Bobby Brownlie- SP- Iowa
Smith: Unfortunately, I have never had the pleasure of watching Bobby Brownlie pitch. But, I've talked to people who have, and most come away with the same report. Flat, unimpressive fastball, but wow, "you should see that curve." I think of Brownlie as a poor man's Gavin Floyd, but if his fastball is as straight and slow as I've heard, he's not going to have much success. A lot of home runs indicate that he tends to hang that curve too, but who doesn't? As his arm injuries become more and more a thing of the past, anyone has to wonder if that fastball velocity is going to ever return.
Stroh: Sometimes I wonder how much Brownlie's stock has dipped over the years simply because of these 94 mph radar gun readings when he was a junior in college. Since then, Brownlie has been anywhere in the 87-92 range, but I wonder how we would analyze him if we didn't know that he used to throw a bit harder. If we didn't know that, he might not be quite this high, but he'd still be pretty high -- I mean, it's not as if he can't get anybody out, and last I checked, he still had that hammer curve ball. Brownlie's deuce is an any count, any speed, any time pitch. His control is very good, and the Cubs love his ability to attack and control hitters. His change still ranges from good to not so good, but he doesn't have to use it that much since his curve is that good. One scout last year made the comment that he didn't see Brownlie as any more than a setup man because of his velocity. However, that news never made its way back to Bobby, as he continued to throw outs on his way to a 3.36 ERA in 150 innings at West Tennessee. This is one of the things that separates shallow analysis from well-rounded baseball analysis. In Brownlie's case, much like Connolly, he constantly is downgraded with the whole "where's the velocity" bit, which has been around for years, and even the stats guys say the same thing. Even if it is a point that needs to be made, the extent to which it dominates the discussion is a bit unsettling. In the end, Brownlie is getting guys out, he is getting them out frequently, and there are plenty of guys in the big leagues who throw 90 and don't have Brownlie's curve. Doesn't that count for something?
Our series will close tomorrow with the final installment at the Cub Reporter. I want to thank Bryan Stroh for what has been a very fun and enlightening set of articles. As for me, expect me to abandon the Cub bias later this week.