Improved depth bodes well for Cubs

Notoriously pitching-heavy system could see offensive boost in 2008

Donnie Veal could bounce back from what was a rough 2007, both on and off the field. (Tony Farlow/

By Jonathan Mayo / | February 25, 2008 4:00 AM ET

The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.

Things are looking up in Cubbie land. Chicago won the NL Central a year ago and thanks to a deeper farm system, it's the kind of success that could be sustained in 2008 and beyond.

In seasons past, the strength of the system has always been on the mound, some of which has graduated to the big leagues and some of which has been dangled as trade bait. There are still some young arms on the horizon to keep things moving in the right direction at Wrigley, but thanks to the drafting acumen of Tim Wilken and his staff, a slew of bats have been added. Several young position players like Geovany Soto, Felix Pie and Ryan Theriot, all homegrown players, will be asked to make major contributions and Cubs fans should start seeing some more live arms in the bullpen, with rotation spots a hot commodity as well. It looks like the Cubs system could be firing on all cylinders.

Once again, the NL Central is up for grabs heading into the 2008 season. With a healthy boost from a deeper farm system providing reinforcements when needed, there's no reason to think the Cubs won't be at or near the top of the division for years to come.

10 Spot
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:

Jose Ascanio, RHP
Obtained in a trade with the Braves last December for Will Ohman and Omar Infante, Ascanio has a big-time arm. The reliever will be just 23 in May coming off a season where he got in 16 big-league innings after spending all season in Double-A. For Mississippi, he had a 2.54 ERA, 10 saves and held hitters to a .234 average. He played for Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League and excelled, holding hitters to a .167 batting average and striking out 23 in 16 innings.

Ascanio gives the Cubs another power arm to consider for bullpen help at some point in 2008. He's been clocked in the upper-90s and also has a nasty slider. He'll likely start the year in Iowa, but don't be surprised if he sees time in Chicago during the season and could eventually become a successful setup man or closer at the big-league level.
Audio: Ascanio notches a save

Here are a few players on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:

Sam Fuld, OF -- The AFL MVP and Stenson Award Winner could take the center-field job from Felix Pie or stick as a fourth outfielder.

Sean Gallagher, RHP -- So many questions on staff, Gallagher could sneak in...if he's not traded.

Geovany Soto, C -- The catcher of the future is the catcher of right now.

Kevin Hart, RHP -- Impressed the skipper enough to make the postseason roster last year and could be middle man to start season.

Jose Ceda, RHP
Ceda is another power arm in the Cubs' system who has the makings of an intimidating closer. Listed at 6-foot-5 and roughly 250 pounds, he resembles a young Lee Smith. Spending most of the 2007 season with Peoria at age 20, Ceda held Midwest League hitters to a minuscule .093 batting average against, striking out 66 in 46 1/3 innings. He moved into the bullpen after six starts and some time off with a sore shoulder and promptly pitched 23 1/3 innings the rest of the season without allowing a hit.

To say Ceda throws hard would be an understatement. He sits comfortably in the upper 90s and there has even been a recorded 100-mph heater. He's also got a slider that improved once he didn't have to worry about working on a third pitch. He's in big-league camp this spring and just needs experience to get big league hitters out. He'll start getting that either in Daytona or Tennessee, depending on how much they want to challenge the big right-hander.
Audio: Ceda strikes out five

Tyler Colvin, OF
Colvin has done nothing but impress since being a somewhat surprising first-round pick in 2006. In just a year and change, he's advanced to Double-A, and performed well there at just 21 years old. He's shown the ability to hit for power and steal bases, hitting 16 homers and swiping 17 bases at two levels in 2007. The Cubs rave about his innate ability to hit and is already developing a reputation for coming up with big hits.

As a 20-year-old junior coming out of Clemson, Colvin was a year behind others simply in terms of physical maturity. He can play center and right field currently, with enough arm to play a corner, but he's got the kind of body that will likely get bigger and stronger. That could come with a boost of power, though he may not run quite as well as he matures. He could end up being a prototypical right fielder who hits for average and pop. He's already surpassed expectations and is in in big-league camp this spring. There's a chance he'll head back to Tennessee to start the season so he can have some success before moving him up the ladder.
Audio: Colvin hits an opposite-field homer

Josh Donaldson, C
The report on Donaldson, the Cubs' supplemental first-round pick last June, was that the Auburn product could swing the stick some, but there were questions about his ability to stay behind the plate. His pro debut, mostly with Boise, showed that the first part seems to be true. Donaldson hit .346 in 49 games with the Hawks and showed outstanding strike-zone judgement (.470 OBP).

The Cubs were pleasantly surprised about the second part of that report. The Cubs were happy with how Donaldson looked behind the plate and he even threw out 39.7 percent of would-be base stealers in his debut. Combine that with the leadership characteristics and durable body you want in a backstop, and the Cubs think he has the chance to be a front-line offensive catcher. There's no doubt that the bat is ahead of the glove, but that could just be a matter of experience as he split time behind the plate and in the infield at Auburn. He could start the year as a full-time catcher in Daytona.
Audio: Donaldson goes deep
Audio: Donaldson guns down a runner

Mark Holliman, RHP
The Cubs' third-round pick in 2005 isn't going to wow people by lighting up the radar gun, but he will leave you impressed with his ability to pitch. It's not that he can't get the fastball up there at times -- he's dropped a 93 or 94-mph heater from time to time -- but he usually pitches more in the 88-91 mph range and is a little more inconsistent with his velocity.

Some of that is by design. Where he'll throw different fastballs at different speeds a la Bronson Arroyo. Holliman mixes in a slider, curve and changeup with excellent command. After throwing 144 innings in his first full pro season, he compiled 161 1/3 innings last year in Double-A, where he was a Southern League All-Star. He'll likely move up to Triple-A Iowa and profiles as a back of the rotation innings-eater in the future.
Audio: Holliman no-hits Huntsville

Eric Patterson, OF/2B
Patterson has fallen off the radar screen and it's largely because of one unfortunate incident. He reported late to a game in September, a definite no-no, especially for a rookie, and was officially demoted to Double-A. As a result, no one seems to be talking about the multi-talented player.

Maybe it will be hard to climb out of the doghouse, but E-Pat's skills might help. He can hit, can hit for power, and can run. Last year in Triple-A, Patterson hit .297 with 14 homers and 25 steals. He's got a career .828 OPS in the Minors, not bad for a second baseman. Throw in the fact that he's shown an ability to handle center field and he should be able to get noticed again. He'll turn 25 in April and while he's a long shot to make the big-league club, he is in camp and crazier things have happened.
Video: Patterson's longball makes a splash
Audio: Patterson drives in a game-winner

Jeff Samardzija, RHP
The former Notre Dame football standout created quite a buzz when the Cubs took him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft and signed him to a Major League deal to lure him away from the gridiron (drafting Colvin in the first round, as an aside, probably helped Chicago afford this). A tremendous athlete, Samardzija came a long way in his first taste of pro ball.

Pretty much just a thrower at the outset, Samardzija began to look more like a pitcher as the season wore on, responding particularly well to the challenge of a promotion to Double-A late in the year. He features a heavy fastball with some serious sink. He can pitch at 92 mph, but when the Cubs had him come out of the pen at times, he was up to 96-97 mph, perhaps planting a seed that he's got short reliever potential if starting doesn't work out. For now, though, the plan is to keep him as a starter since he looks like the type who could log 200+ innings annually with plus stuff. Part of the 40-man roster, he's in big-league camp and he's just scratching the surface. Coming off the first winter he's had where he could focus solely on baseball, the Cubs are excited to see how he progresses. He'll likely begin the season back in Double-A Tennessee.
Audio: Samardzija picks up his seventh K

Tony Thomas, 2B
Thomas exploded on the draft radar in 2007 when he hit .430 with Florida State with a .948 OPS. He stole 31 bases and led the NCAA in runs, doubles and total bases. He kept on hitting during his pro debut, finishing sixth in the Northwest League with a .308 average. His .948 OPS was second-best in the circuit, as were his 28 steals (in 30 attempts).

You wouldn't know it by the numbers, but Thomas isn't a plus runner. He does have, though, a tremendous first step and terrific knowledge of how to steal bases. He makes solid contact with really good strike-zone control. He's strictly a second baseman and it will be his bat that gets him to the big leagues. That bat could land him in Daytona to start the year.
Audio: Thomas triples in two

Donnie Veal, LHP
It was an extremely tough offseason for Veal, who just a few years after losing his mother, lost his father as well. That puts his struggles on the mound during the 2007 season in proper perspective.

Veal had difficulty commanding his pitches for much of the season, walking 73 in 130 1/3 innings. He did strike out 131, showing that the stuff was still very much there. The Cubs don't want to make this comparison for obvious reasons, but Randy Johnson walked 128 in 140 Double-A innings back in 1987. The Cubs feel that Veal's stuff -- a mid-90s fastball, slider and changeup -- combined with a tremendous work ethic should help him overcome his disappointing 2007 season. Time often sorts things out when you're left-handed and have that kind of an arm. The Cubs didn't want to add stress to Veal's spring by bringing him to big-league camp and they'll likely ease him back with another go-round at Double-A to find out where he is both physically and mentally.
Audio: Veal picks up eight Ks

Josh Vitters, 3B
Pay no attention to the poor numbers Vitters posted in his very brief pro debut. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 draft went just 6-for-51, but that was coming off of a lengthy layoff while waiting to sign. He was thought to be the top high school bat heading into last draft season and he did nothing to dispel that reputation.

Vitters has unreal hand-eye coordination and has the ability to hit for average and tremendous power thanks to a tight, short swing. His defense is decidedly behind his bat, but he's got a strong arm and good hands and should be just fine at third with more time and experience. In other words, he's the prototypical third baseman and the Cubs are excited to see him come in ready to play this season. He's got the chance to start at full-season Peoria, but a combination of some depth at the position and allowing Vitters to stay out of the early-season cold weather could see him stay in extended Spring Training before getting an assignment later in the year.
Audio: Vitters lifts a single

Under the Radar

Kyler Burke, OF
While Burke, a supplemental first-round pick of the Padres in 2006, struggled in his first full season as a pro, it's unclear why San Diego gave up on him so early. Granted, they got Michael Barrett in the deal, but the Cubs are happy to have Burke and his upside potential with the bat. After hitting .211 in 62 games with the Padres' Midwest League affiliate, the Cubs sent him down to the Northwest League he hit .254 with 10 homers in 63 games. He then further impressed by hitting .333 over 87 at-bats in the Hawaii Winter League. He still swings and misses a lot, but he's got plus power along with a plus arm from right field. Left-handed bats with pop don't grow on trees and the Cubs feel they might have a real sleeper here. He'll give the Midwest League another try, this time with Peoria, still only at age 20 for most of the year.
Audio: Burke launches season's first homer

Wellington Castillo, C Playing last year at age 20, Castillo more than held his own in the Midwest League, hitting .271 with 11 homers in 98 games while fighting through cold weather just a year after missing most of the season with a high ankle sprain. Getting sidetracked by injury is a big reason why people don't know much about him, but they will soon. He's the best defensive catcher in their system and the Cubs see a lot of Yadier Molina in him. He's got great catch and throw skills and does a terrific job of blocking balls in the dirt. He'll get the chance to open some eyes in big-league camp this spring and will likely make the jump up to Double-A.
Audio: Castillo puts Peoria on the board

Steve Clevenger, C
The Cubs might have a real position conversion success story on their hands here. Drafted as an outfielder in the seventh-round of the 2006 draft, Clevenger didn't look like much of a prospect after his first summer. The Cubs asked him to try catching and to say things have gone well would be an understatement. He began last summer in Boise and hit .373 in 22 games while making one error in 11 games behind the plate. Chicago then sent him up to the Florida State League so he could work with former big league backstop Jody Davis. He showed great improvement there before heading to instructs. When there was an injury in the Arizona Fall League, Clevenger went to fill in, with the thought he'd mostly throw bullpens to get experience. He ended up catching four games because pitchers liked throwing to him. Even if he ends up as a backup left-handed hitting catcher, it'd be quite a find for the system. He'll go to Daytona or Peoria, depending on where Donaldson gets assigned (they won't be together).
Audio: Clevenger singles in two

Alessandro Maestri, RHP
He started out as a bit of a novelty, an Italian baseball prospect. But he's proving to be much more than that. He was working in the mid-90s for Peoria during the season and was clocked at 95 during the Midwest League All-Star Game. He's got a good slider as well, which allowed him to post a 1.19 ERA in 44 relief outings (he started four games with less than desirable results) and picked up 12 saves. His biggest save, however, may have come in November, when he closed out Italy's stunning win against the United States in the World Cup held in Taiwan. He's come a long way since the Cubs signed him prior to the 2006 season and now he'll move up one rung to Daytona.
Audio: Maestri strikes out the side

2007 Draft Recap

SS Darwin Barney (4th round) was very solid at shortstop while hitting .289 in 49 total games. ... LHP Casey Lambert (6th round) was terrific in relief, both for Boise and Peoria. Combined, he posted a 2.61 ERA, striking out 47 in 41 1/3 IP and holding hitters to a .176 average. Lefties hit just .111 against him. ... OF Ty Wright (7th round) spent time in Boise and Peoria and hit .308 for the summer with an .874 OPS over 71 games. He finished with 10 homers and 11 steals. ... OF Leon Johnson (10th round) dominated the AZL (1.266 OPS in 18 games) and struggled in Peoria (.583 OPS in 33 games). One thing he did do was run well, swiping 23 bases in 27 attempts. ... LHP Chris Siegfried was dominant in 14 relief outings with Boise (2.35 ERA), but found Peoria to be a little more challenging (5.59), though most of that came from one awful outing. Still, he had a 3.83 combined ERA with 40 Ks in 42 1/3 IP and held hitters to a .228 average. ... OF Jonathan Wyatt (13th round) was a Northwest League All-Star after hitting .306 with a .406 OBP and 12 steals for Boise. ... LHP Zach Ashwood (16th round) had a 3.28 ERA, striking out 49 in 57 2/3 IP for Boise.
Audio: Wright hits a three-run blast
Audio: Wyatt triples in a run


Organizational Player of the Year: Tony Thomas
There might be more obvious choices, like Tyler Colvin, perhaps, but look for Thomas to keep on raking in his first full season. The second baseman will hit over .300, slug over .500 and steal more than 30 bases while reaching Double-A before the season's over.

Cy on the Farm (Organizational Pitcher of the Year): Donnie Veal
There's a good chance that Jeff Samardzija will really start to click in 2008 and get this unofficial title, but instead will go with the sentimental favorite. Veal's stuff is unquestioned. In 2008, he'll show just how mentally tough he is by moving past tragedy and last season's struggles to become one of the game's top left-handed pitching prospects.

Team to watch: Tennessee Smokies
At least in the first half, that is. With Tyler Colvin in the outfield, Wellington Castillo behind the plate and a rotation headed by Donnie Veal and Jeff Samardzija -- possibly backed up by reliever Jose Ceda -- the Smokies look like they'll have some serious prospect power, at least to start the year before some of these guys get promoted. Of course, there's some decent talent in Daytona which will come up when the time comes to keep the good times rolling.

20-20 vision: In his first full season, Tyler Colvin hit 16 homers and stole 17 bases. As he matures, he may not be that big of a base stealer in the future, but in 2008, he'll still have good wheels while getting a better understanding of how to steal bases. Combine that with some more pop and Colvin should be headed for a 20-home run, 20-steals season.


"We took a lot of position guys that all have the ability to hit a baseball. It was a fun draft. It's going to be hard to find everyone jobs without forcing some guys up. It was a position-player driven draft. They all can hit and they call can play the game. These are guys we'll see at the Double and Triple-A level soon, while in the past we had to sign a lot of six-year free agents to do the same thing. It was no secret. We were heavy on pitching for a while and didn't do a good job with position players. I think there's more depth now. Last year, everything seemed to work well together. It made my offseason real quiet since I didn't have to go out and sign a lot of players. Hopefully, the players appreciate they'll get the chance to play here. We're going to push them and hopefully they'll get to Wrigley soon."

-- Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita on the fact the Cubs took nine position players in their top 10 picks in last year's draft.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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