It’s a great feeling to be able to talk about the Cubs minor league system in positive terms. The addition of Tim Wilken as scouting director has been a boon for a once barren farm. It’s a farm system that’s rising quickly in the overall rankings, and with many top prospects playing the year at AA or higher, the Cubs could make another move upward if prospects continue to make progress. By now, most of us have heard of Starlin Castro, Josh Vitters and Andrew Cashner. We're also getting a glimpse of the future this year with Esmailin Caridad and Tyler Colvin among 4 rookies cracking the opening day roster. So I’m going to throw out a few lesser known names to keep an eye on…feel free to add anyone I’ve missed.
1. Hak Ju Lee, SS - He may not qualify as a "lesser known name" for Cub fans, but he's still a relative unknown on the national scene for most fans. Lee has the potential to be something Cub fans haven’t seen in a long, long time: a leadoff hitter with on base skills and speed. He hit .330 at short season Boise last year and also had a 10% walk rate giving him an OBP of .399, outstanding numbers for a 19 year old. He also stole 25 bases and was successful 76% of the time. In addition to his leadoff skills, Lee has outstanding range at shortstop, a good arm, and if he can cut down on his errors, may actually be good enough defensively to bump the more heralded Starlin Castro to second base. If Lee takes another great leap forward, he'll become the second Cubs SS prospect sensation in two years.
2. Kyler Burke ,RF – The Cubs were ready to convert Burke into a pitcher, a testament to his outstanding throwing arm and his struggles to hit A ball pitching. In the end, the Cubs gave Burke another chance and he took advantage of it. His plate discipline improved tremendously, going from a 7.6% walk rate to an outstanding 14.1%. He also hit a little bit, putting up a .303/.405/.505 line (batting average/on base percentage/slugging pct) We should expect some regression, Burke had an unusually high .353 BABIP and had trouble hitting lefties for power, but he seems to have turned a corner and the toolsy outfielder should be interesting to watch this year.
3. Dae Un Rhee, RHP – Another great product of the Cubs scouting efforts in Korea, Rhee looked like he had top of the rotation starter written all over him two seasons ago. Unfortunately, an injury has set him back somewhat but Rhee appears to have recovered nicely. He’s throwing with very good velocity, mid 90s, to give him potentially 3 above average major league pitches, the best of which is an outstanding change-up. Rhee may not get the ink that fellow prospect Cashner gets, and he is a different type of pitcher, but he has the ability to be every bit as good, even better, if you believe those who say that Cashner profiles best as a reliever.
4. Jeffry Antigua, LHP – A lefty who’s 19 and very polished for his age. He held his own at full season Peoria against hitters that were 2-3 years older. I know what you’re thinking…polished lefty is a baseball euphemism for below average stuff, but that’s actually not the case with Antigua. He can get his fastball up to 92 mph and his changeup and slider project as average or better. Three solid pitches, good command, and “pitchability” give Antigua a legitimate shot of being a middle of the rotation starter, maybe more.
5. Chris Archer, RHP – part of the payment for Mark DeRosa, Archer has the highest upside of the three pitchers obtained in that deal (John Gaub and Jeff Stevens were the others). He breaks bats with a heavy 93 mph fastball and hard slider that Class A hitters could not hit out of the park. Archer did not yield a single homerun last year. He needs a lot of work on his command and control before he can be considered a top prospect, but if he can improve in those areas, he has exactly the type of stuff that plays well at Wrigley Field.
These are just a few of my favorites. Anyone out there have a different prospect that we should keep an eye on this year?