Depth, Talent Shape the Outfield

The freshly cut spring grass of the outfield is where you'll find some of the biggest depth in the Cubs' farm system, including the crown jewel of that system.

That jewel would of course be none other than 21-year-old Felix Pie, a true baseball natural with all the signs and wonders of a genuine five-tool player and voted the Cubs' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America (as if you needed them to make it official) upon entering the season.

The fast and flashy leadoff hitter and starting center fielder received an invitation to big league camp this spring and will begin the year at Iowa when the Triple-A club opens regular season play April 6 against the Albuquerque Isotopes in Des Moines.

In 19 games against Cactus League pitching this spring, Pie held his own by going 10-for-35 with six extra base hits and six RBIs. Despite the acquisition of Juan Pierre from the Florida Marlins in the off-season, many feel that Pie being optioned to Triple-A is simply a formality for now; that the question of his major league debut isn't if, but when.

If healthy, Pie will likely make his official big league debut with the Cubs some time this summer. It almost happened last year before an ankle injury at Double-A West Tenn cut short his season in June. At the time of the injury, he was batting .304 with a career-high 11 home runs.

Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita often says he has a list of "untouchables," referring to players he asks General Manager Jim Hendry not to use in major trades. Although Fleita never discusses the contents of that list, anyone can see that Pie is one of the exclusive names on it and likely the one right at the very top.

Fortunately for the Cubs, the outfield buck doesn't stop with Pie. Further down the prospect charts but at the same level of competition is Adam Greenberg.

On the field, Greenberg is neither as charismatic nor as scout-friendly as Pie, but he can play all three outfield positions with solid to above-average defense and has a tendency to stay out of prolonged slumps by managing to bunt his way on base.

Like Pie, Greenberg battled an injury last season. He was plunked in the head with a pitch from Marlins hurler Valerio de los Santos in Greenberg's first and to this point only major league plate appearance.

After the incident with de los Santos, which brought on a bout of Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (or "BPPV"), Greenberg tailed off toward the end of the year upon returning to Double-A and batted .250 in his last 20 games.

He hit .269 in 95 games with the Jaxx, which was actually his worst year for average since his 2002 showing at Class-A Lansing. It will be interesting to see if Greenberg bounces back in 2006, presumably at the Triple-A level.

If there was an award for "Comeback Player of the Year" in the Cubs' farm system last season, Luis Montanez undoubtedly would have been one of the finalists.

Montanez, the Cubs' first-round draft pick out of high school in 2000, made the switch from shortstop to the outfield midway through the 2004 season. At the time, his future with the Cubs looked bleak at best.

Since then, Montanez has been on a tear, first rekindling his stroke at Low-A Boise and then earning All-Star honors at Class-A Peoria last season. He went on to earn a promotion to Double-A midway through last season and hit .268 in 45 games with the Jaxx.

The jury is still out on whether Montanez found the magic touch just in time to save his sinking professional career, or if he was only delaying the inevitable. Now 24, he could become a minor league free agent once the season ends.

Not always regarded as a top prospect, Chris Walker doesn't seem to mind. He just keeps on going about his business ever so quietly and shy, almost like a friendly and well-mannered snake in the grass just waiting for the right time to bite into that juicy big league apple.

Although he's the same age as Greenberg, Walker is one level below him and because of his age is often carelessly ignored on most prospect rankings lists. All the same, he has stolen 60 bases in each of the last two seasons as a leadoff hitter on the Class-A circuit, all the while hitting above .280 both years. His defense remains sound with good range and accurate, though admittedly not overly strong throws to the plate.

If there's one thing Cubs minor league coaches and instructors could change about Walker, it would be his strikeout totals. The switch-hitting center fielder whiffed 111 times in 536 at-bats last season to surpass his previous total of 78 the year before in Lansing.

With a brief taste of big league action this spring and currently in workouts with the Double-A squad in Spring Training, expect him to be bound for West Tennessee in a few short days.

Also moving up is another center fielder, Sam Fuld. Drafted by the Cubs in both 2003 and '04, he recovered from a slow start at Peoria only to finish the year with a solid .300 batting average in 125 games -- most of them as the Chiefs' leadoff hitter.

The best thing Fuld has going for him, however, is his overall knack for getting on base. He walked 50 times and fanned on just 44 occasions during the 2005 season. In addition, he swiped 18 of 29 bases and was a good rally starter when the team needed one.

Lastly, no overview of the Cubs' crop of outfield talent would be complete without mentioning Ryan Harvey.

Although his .257 average at Peoria wasn't spectacular, the first-round draft pick from 2003 made the Midwest League All-Star team in ‘05 and directed almost 50 percent of his hits for extra bases.

The problem was that Harvey struck out 137 times -- the most by any player in the Cubs' farm system. Just as scary, he drew only 24 walks.

Originally compared to a younger version of former big leaguer Dale Murphy out of high school, the two certainly don't differ excessively in strikeouts. Compare Murphy's stats early on in his minor league career to those of Harvey's and the two appear to be cast almost exclusively in the same light.

Before making his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves in 1976 at age 20, Murphy's best minor league average for any one season was .267 that same year. (He went from Class-A ball to the majors within the span of one season.) The Cubs can only hope for similar success out of Harvey.

Overall, in spite of the fact that the Cubs have a well-known tendency to draft pitchers over players at any other position, the team has no shortage of outfield prospects from top to bottom, including many not covered here such as last year's rookies Davy Gregg and Johnny Defendis.

It all starts at the top with Pie, who the Cubs have decided is best suited for Triple-A to open the 2006 season.

Of course, it wasn't so long ago that the Cubs had a talented center field prospect with five-tool potential waiting in the wings to take over the spot at the big league club from less-than-admirable acts like Lance Johnson, Gary Matthews, Jr. and Damon Buford.

We know how that played out, but things are different now.

With a solid leadoff man in Pierre already put into place in Chicago, there's not as much of a rush on Pie to get to the major leagues (let alone the desire to scoff at the minors). Fleita and Hendry won't let it happen, especially considering what became of that last center field prospect as close to stardom as Pie currently is.

Oh, yes, things are different now.

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