Culpepper Looks to Build on Success

MESA, Ariz. -- At first glance, there's nothing overly catchy about Cubs OF prospect Jeff Culpepper. The organization didn't spend an enormous amount of cash to sign him, nor did he constitute or ask for such figures.

That's why first glances are often so deceiving.

Culpepper knows how to hit, and he's been doing it in front of fairly good-sized crowds ever since his freshman year in college at Gonzaga University.

Selected on two different occasions in the First-Year Player Draft, the Washington state native chose both times to return to college for another season. Finishing up a college education was important to Culpepper, who eventually signed with the Cubs as a draft-and-follow after being taken with the organization's 24th round pick in 2004.

Once signed, Culpepper went to short-season affiliate Boise and spent less than a month with the Hawks before moving up to High Class-A Daytona. Between the two cities, he had 58 hits in 177 at-bats for a .324 average in his first season of professional ball. At Daytona alone, Culpepper batted .343 in 38 games.

His approach to every game is what he credits for his success last season.

"It's more of a mental thing that I had," said Culpepper,a four-year standout at Gonzaga. "At first I really didn't know what to expect in pro ball or with handling the wooden bat. But I ended up using the same approach that I had in college."

That approach (or at least an essential part of it) involves studying his opponent on the mound before and during games. Culpepper uses extensive scouting reports on opposing pitchers before each game and admits to timing his opponents' pitches and familiarizing himself with that pitcher's release point.

When he's not glancing over a scouting report, Culpepper stays in close contact with teammates following their at-bats during games to stay on top of a pitcher's movements. There's no room for goofing off.

"My preparation goes beyond the on-deck circle," Culpepper said. "If I have a scouting report on someone, I'll look and see if he strikes out a lot of guys, or if he walks a lot of guys so I can tell if he's going to be around the plate or not. I like to be as prepared as I can. When it comes to my approach, I'm a thinker, and I'm trying to get any advantage I can."

Culpepper considers himself a spray hitter. He displays modest pop, usually opting to drive the ball into the gap and leg out doubles rather than swing for the fences. As a left-handed batter, he prides himself on driving the ball to the opposite field just as much as he does pulling it. Opposing pitchers have a hard time predicting what he's going to do with a pitch.

"I use the whole field to my advantage," Culpepper said. "I go the other way very well. I like to use that left-center gap quite a bit. It really depends on how I'm being pitched. A lot of guys tried to bust me in, but most of what I saw were guys trying to get ahead early away. It fit right into my hands."

Away from the park, Culpepper stays loose by doing things his own way. He doesn't spend hours a day in a batting cage, stressing that he prefers swings of quality over those of quantity. He constantly lifts weights, and completes small drills and tasks with his hands to fine-tune his swing.

Those workouts, along with some much needed R&R, were all a part of his off-season regime.

"I took a few weeks off from everything," Culpepper said. "As soon as I was done with last season, I went home and took a long break. A lot of these guys had 140-game schedules, but I had almost three straight years of non-stop baseball under my belt between [the Cubs] and Gonzaga."

In minor league camp this spring, Culpepper hasn't took up much of the instructors' time. Already a well-coached athlete, a lot of what he worked on dealt with getting back into everyday routines and practicing fundamentals. He's gotten the chance to take in some games with the big league club, and even garnered an at-bat in two of the Cubs' Cactus League contests.

With his first season of pro ball under his belt, Culpepper hopes to move up through the farm system quickly. He's already 24, and it wasn't surprising to see him promoted to Daytona considering the Cubs' tendency to let many players with extensive college careers elevate quickly through the lower levels of the farm system.

With players expected to find out where they'll be sent for the start of minor league season over the weekend, Culpepper is hoping for Double-A.

"I feel like I got off to a solid start last year and moved up pretty quickly to High-A," he said. "It was a blast playing ball with some of these guys. The key is obviously moving up. If I don't start in Double-A, I hope to get there soon. Wherever I am, I'm looking forward to playing hard and moving up as fast as I can."

E-mail Steve Holley: staff@insidetheivy.com.


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