Top prospects may make impact soon
Several positional players skyrocketing through system
CHICAGO -- Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita gets a little excited talking about some of the prospects in the team's farm system. The organization has some talent that could be making an impact in the big leagues in the very near future.
Shortstop Starlin Castro heads the list of top prospects. There's also Brett Jackson, an outfielder with speed and power who was the Cubs' first-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, and pitcher Jay Jackson, who struck out 127 in 127 innings and walked just 46. Other No. 1 picks moving closer to the Majors include outfielder Tyler Colvin, third baseman Josh Vitters and pitcher Andrew Cashner.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry doesn't like to describe a player as "untouchable," because one never knows what kind of deal will present itself. But as the team heads into next week's Winter Meetings, Chicago has some kids it wants to hang on to.
"They're part of your plan, and in the real near future," Fleita said.
Starlin Castro, SS: He began the season in April with Class A Daytona, moved up to Double-A Tennessee in August, batted .303 in the Southern League playoffs and was the youngest player in the Arizona Fall League.
Overall, he batted .312 over 153 games, totaling 178 hits, 570 at-bats, 37 stolen bases, 28 doubles, seven triples, and four homers. Nothing seems to faze him.
"He's very talented and really on some kind of fast track," Fleita said. "Quite frankly, we haven't had a player go through the organization like this in a long time. I think the last one was Mark Prior, and pitchers are a little different."
Ask Castro and he wants to be in the big leagues next year. Could it happen?
"Me, personally, I'd like to let the kid be a kid and let him go to Spring Training," Fleita said when asked to project where the shortstop will play in 2010. "When he's ready to go, he'll tell us. We'll know what we've got."
The Cubs do have shortstop Darwin Barney in line to start at Triple-A Iowa, and Castro could open at Double-A Tennessee. However, Castro was expected to be in the Cubs' big league camp in February so manager Lou Piniella and the coaching staff could get to know him.
"We'll take our time," Fleita said. "We know we have a diamond in the rough and we need to take our time, be patient. At the same time, we don't need to hold the reins on him. When the time comes, turn him loose and let him fly."
Castro ranked third in the Florida State League with a .302 average, batting .324 from May 1 to the end of the season. He was named to the FSL All-Star team, and won MVP honors, going 4-for-4 with an inside the park home run in the game. In 31 regular season games at Tennessee, Castro batted .288.
Defensively, he's been compared to star Dominican shortstops Tony Fernandez and Miguel Tejada.
"I think what Castro has in the infield is something that you can't really teach," Vitters said.
This was just Castro's third season of pro ball. He doesn't turn 20 until March 24. Baseball America ranked him as the Cubs' No. 1 prospect and said he could be the team's first All-Star shortstop since Shawon Dunston in 1990.
"I'm really proud of him," Fleita said. "It's been a real joy to watch his progress throughout the year."
Josh Vitters, 3B: The third baseman is a little more laid back when asked when he'll be in the big leagues. The Cubs' No. 1 pick in 2007, he played with Castro on the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League and batted .353 with four doubles, one triple, one homer and eight RBIs in 16 games. He missed some time because of a strained pectoral muscle.
Vitters also was hindered during the season when he hurt his right wrist sliding into a base just before he was promoted from Class A Peoria to high A Daytona. He doesn't have a timetable.
"It's basically just experience," Vitters said. "I think the talent level [in the AFL] to the big leagues isn't too much different, with the exception of some guys. We need to get more experience at playing baseball and I think that will let [the Cubs] see what they need to see in us to get called up."
Ranked the best hitting and power prospect in the Midwest League in 2008, Vitters has been slowed by minor injuries. He has a compact stroke, and Fleita said they'll be patient.
"Third base is such a difficult position to develop," Fleita said. "I don't think there's any reason he can't play third base."
Brett Jackson, OF: Baseball America called Jackson, the Cubs' No. 1 pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, the best athlete in their Minor League system.
"For his size, strength and his speed, when you put the three together, that's hard to find," Fleita said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound outfielder. "[Outfielder Brandon] Guyer is a good athlete but doesn't have [Jackson's] power. Hak-Ju [Lee] is a great athlete, but doesn't have [Jackson's] size yet, but he's younger. [Jackson] has the potential to have five tools."
Jackson, who bats left-handed and throws right-handed, posted a .321 average with 17 doubles, six triples, eight home runs, 41 RBIs and a .407 on-base percentage in 53 games for the University of California Berkeley.
In 24 games with Class A Boise this year, Jackson batted .330 with one homer and 15 RBIs, then moved up to Peoria and hit .295 with seven homers, five doubles and 17 RBIs in 26 games there. He took part in instructional league play in Mesa, Ariz., and batted .286. Jackson's baseball experience didn't end there. He also spent 10 days in the Dominican Republic with teammates at the Cubs' academy. Fleita said the trip was beneficial for all the players involved.
"They went in with open minds and had a lot of fun," Fleita said of the Minor Leaguers on the excursion. "[Jackson] was the one guy who it seems everywhere he goes, everybody likes him.
"He's like a big part of the engine," Fleita said. "I think he'll be like that in the lineup and on his team. He's a big component of the engine. He's not a spare part. He's a big part of the engine."
The Cubs were a little concerned about the high number of strikeouts Jackson had during his junior year with the Bears. He whiffed 61 times in 218 at-bats.
"If you look at his college numbers, you thought he might swing and miss a little, but he didn't do that at all," Fleita said. "Sometimes you see those numbers and there are some college programs that require everybody to take a first-pitch strike. If you're 0-1 to start off with, there's a good chance you'll strike out. That's where those numbers are deceiving."
The Cubs see a lot of positives in the young outfielder.
"He's a California kid who loves life," Fleita said. "He's got some personality to him."
Andrew Cashner, RHP: The Cubs' No. 1 pick in 2008, Cashner injured his oblique in his first Spring Training game. He ended up missing more than a month, but made up for lost time in October when he pitched in the Arizona Fall League. Cashner was 2-3 with a 4.58 ERA in six starts, and the ERA may not be pretty, but what was impressive was that he walked just five over 19 2/3 innings while striking out 19.
Cashner was kept on a strict pitch count and never went beyond four innings or 70 pitches. The team is trying to get him to pitch to contact, which may sound odd, but it wants Cashner to be more efficient. For example, he threw 69 pitches over three innings in a start for Mesa. It's unlikely he'll be able to go deep in games if he keeps that up. The Cubs want the right-hander to become more of a pitcher, and if he can be more efficient, he'll rack up innings.
"It's so hard to develop guys to throw 200-plus innings," Fleita said. "He believes he can do that. He knows he can close -- he did that in college."
Piniella got a look at Cashner in Spring Training and the AFL, and liked what he saw.
"[Cashner] is pluses across the board," Fleita said.
The right-hander began the season at Class A Daytona and did not get a decision in 12 starts but posted a 1.50 ERA. In 12 starts at Double-A Tennessee, Cashner was 3-4 with a 3.89 ERA, striking out 41 in 58 1/3 innings.
"I thought I had a great first year," Cashner said. "I kept the ball down most of the year and gave up one home run the whole season and I come here [to the AFL] and give up one in my first outing."
He finished his AFL stint serving up two homers over 19 2/3 innings.
"The biggest thing for me is staying locked in and not getting out of whack, and just staying locked in and throwing strikes," he said.
Jay Jackson, RHP: Although he wasn't selected until the ninth round of the 2008 Draft, but Jackson has made huge advances in the Cubs system. He began the season at Double-A Tennessee but was demoted to Class A Daytona in late July after breaking team rules. He did get back in the team's good graces, and made one start Sept. 6 for Triple-A Iowa.
"He did everything you're supposed to do as a young pitcher," Fleita said. "He pitches to contact, he works fast, he holds runners, he handles the bat -- he's very athletic. A lot of time with pitchers, we try to get them National League ready and it seemed like he was pretty natural with all that."
Jackson was a two-way star at Furman and could challenge Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano at the plate. The big league team is focused on developing his pitching, though.
"For the most part, he throws three pitches for strikes," Fleita said. "When you do that, you start pitching at any level pretty fast."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.