The Chicago Cubs‘ top two positional prospects, third baseman Josh Vitters and center fielder Brett Jackson, are off to very strong starts for the Tennessee Smokies this season, batting .351 and .395 respectively through 11 Sm0kies games. Jackson has nine walks and five stolen bases; Vitters has two home runs and 11 RBI. Infielders Ryan Flaherty (four home runs) and D.J. LeMahieu (another .351 batting average) have also gotten the season off on the right foot.
For the Cubs, these four players’ progress over the course of the season is as important as anything likely to happen at Wrigley Field this year. The parent club is 8-8 after a 1-0 win Monday night, and they might well contend for a division title, but this team is far from a finished product as a pennant contender. General manager Jim Hendry must face the real possibility that the Cubs are a team best served by rebuilding from within. In what could be an offseason of tremendous turnover, Hendry’s best hope of doing that will be continued development by these four players and others.
The Cubs hold a $16-million option on the services of third baseman Aramis Ramirez in 2012. Ramirez, a cornerstone of the franchise almost since the moment he arrived in July 2003, is one of the best clutch hitters in Cubs history and has been one of the team’s two best hitters the entire time. Cubs nation will remember him fondly no matter how things unfold in 2011.
After an injury-plagued 2009 and a rough (also injury-plagued) 2010, though, the team may not want to invest that heavily in Ramirez as he begins to age. The third baseman has a .351 average of his own thus far, with a homer and five doubles, but if he battles more shoulder or thumb problems or just wears down as the season wears on, Hendry will certainly cast about for alternatives.
Vitters is the only legitimate replacement. He lacks Ramirez’s power, at least for now (he’s just 21), but in general he projects as a very similar player: Great overall hitting skills, but not special plate discipline; the ability to drive in runs; and average defense of third base on his good days.
Vitters was the third overall pick in the 2007 draft for a reason. He can really hit. He has struggled briefly during his minor-league career and injuries have been a major issue, but if he continues to rake this year at Double-A, the Cubs have every reason to believe he can be their starting third baseman by early 2012, and they can save $14 million by declining Ramirez’s option.
Kosuke Fukudome is on the record saying he would like to return to the Cubs after this, the final year of his four-year, $48-million deal. The feeling does not seem mutual. The Cubs would prefer to let Fukudome and his $13.5-million price tag for 2011 go and head into 2012 with a foursome of Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Tyler Colvin and Brett Jackson in the outfield.
By contrast with Vitters, Jackson came to the Cubs as a polished player. He went near the end of the first round, rather than near the front, but he has quickly proved himself a real and toolsy talent. He has succeeded at every level. He will not turn 23 until August, but he already has conquered three levels of the farm system, including Double-A, where he currently plays. He has everything a guy needs to defend center field at Wrigley, should hit for average or slightly better power and draw a ton of walks, and could steal 20-plus bases in the big leagues. There have been no stumbling blocks.
If Jackson does not somehow stagnate this year, he could see Chicago by his next birthday, and in almost any event, he goes into next season as at least the better half of a center-field platoon with Byrd. Jackson should save the Cubs another $10-15 million in 2012, as they need not re-sign Fukudome or chase down anyone else in a tepid free-agent class so long as Jackson looks ready.
Here’s a fun fact: McNutt shares his birthday with Jackson. Jackson was born Aug. 2, 1988; McNutt a year later. Yet here they are, each poised to break into the big leagues very soon and merely dominating Double-A in the meantime. we probably will not see McNutt at Wrigley this year, after a blister ran him out of his first start and onto the disabled list. That was a highly precautionary measure on the Cubs’ part. McNutt will be fine; he may just need to stay in the minors and get enough work this summer to be ready for a relatively full load next season with the parent club.
McNutt, the top pitching prospect in the system, will be a part of the team’s starting rotation by this time next year. In the meantime, though, the Cubs must decide whose spot he will take. Ryan Dempster could decline his $14-million player option for 2012 and look elsewhere, although it sure seems unlikely and even if that did happen it would probably precipitate Cubs interest in either CC Sabathia or a lesser free agent.
More plausibly, Randy Wells could battle injuries or ineffectiveness the rest of the season and earn a ticket out of town as he reaches arbitration next winter. Andrew Cashner, sidelined as wells is for now, could move back to the bullpen and focus on becoming a dominant set-up man and future closer. In any event, McNutt’s degree of preparedness to step into a load-bearing role with the 2012 team has to be a major factor in determining Hendry’s strategy for improving the team’s pitching this winter.
Flaherty and LeMahieu
These two guys just don’t quite fit any mold we yet have for effective big-league regulars. Both are big, much bigger than the prototypical second baseman, yet that is where LeMahieu has always played and it’s where Flaherty may find his future in an otherwise log-jammed organization for him.
Here’s what I say: Give them both their shot anyway. LeMahieu will be just 23 in July, about two weeks before Flaherty turns 25. In 2012, make these two your regular second-base platoon. Both are young and athletic enough to cover the ground, and when a defensive sub is needed, all-glove, no-stick Darwin Barney can be called from the bench. You save maybe $2 million with these two instead of Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt, who could each be non-tendered without a whimper from anyone, and the good odds are that Flaherty and LeMahieu outperform the incumbents anyway.
There are others in Tennessee who could make the jump and be helpful very soon in Chicago. Keep your eyes on left-handed Chris Rusin and right-handers Alberto Cabrera and Rafael Dolis, starters all for the Smokies but future power arms for the Cubs’ bullpen.
Overall, this Smokies team could graduate as many as five or six players into meaningful big-league roles by 2012. Watch the box scores. Look for Jackson to continue to cut down on his strikeouts, and for Vitters to prove he can coax the occasional walk. LeMahieu added about 20 pounds of muscle this season, according to manager Brian Harper, so check in occasionally and see whether the lanky LSU alumnus had turned the added strength into usable power at the plate.
If things break right here, the Smokies could free up some $30 million-plus next year for the big-league front office, who need to turn that money into Prince Fielder and another piece or two if the 2012 team wants to be a contender for more than the NL Central title.