Depth Posing No Problems

One of the latest buzz items around the Cubs' farm system came about some time last week when it was learned that second base prospect Eric Patterson had been getting some reps in the outfield during the Arizona Fall League.

This doesn't necessarily mean that Patterson is moving to the outfield full-time, or at all. The 23-year-old was an eighth-round draft pick from Georgia Tech in 2004 and is widely considered the Cubs' top second base prospect.

But, "Because they signed Mark DeRosa to a three-year deal," the fantasy sports website Rotoworld.com wrote before following with a link to the Chicago Tribune's online sports hub (ChicagoSports.com), "the Cubs have Eric Patterson learning to play center field."

Interesting as always, but this should come as little surprise.

Having players learn new positions is a technique employed all throughout the farm system each year. The only difference is, it generally goes as much ignored by the likes of Rotoworld as most everything else in the system.

In the past year alone, players at or around the same level of play as Patterson that were asked to take on the move to the outfield included: Buck Coats (previously a full-time shortstop), Richard Lewis (a second baseman) and, before top first base prospect Brian Dopirak suffered a broken toe, Micah Hoffpauir (for the most part a career first baseman).

Even Cubs second baseman Ryan Theriot admitted back in October that he wanted to learn the ropes at catcher and in the outfield "just in case."

Why Patterson is any different is because he's one of the most talented and well-recognized Cubs prospects on the national scene.

Since being drafted, he has made two consecutive All-Star team's and been deemed a top five Cubs prospect by Baseball America. He was named to the annual MLB All-Star Futures Game in Pittsburgh this past season and was the organization's 2005 Minor League Player of the Year.

It still doesn't change the Cubs' burning desire for versatility in its players.

"We ask all our players during batting practice in the Fall League, ‘Why don't you go out and play some outfield and play some center field?' " Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita said. "When a guy like that gets called to the big leagues, I ask them what they're going to do if DeRosa is playing second.

"Years ago, I said this when Mark Grace was here. If you're a first baseman and you've played your whole career in the minors, you better learn how to play left field or somewhere else," Fleita said. "If you get called to the big leagues and someone is blocking you, you've got to play another position."

Therein lies a problem – if you could rightfully call it one – which the Cubs currently have throughout the organization: middle infield depth.

With DeRosa signed to a three-year contract and Theriot making the most of his big league audition in the second half of last season, the Cubs also have Patterson, Ronny Cedeno, Triple-A infielder Mike Fontenot and possibly even Cesar Izturis all capable of filling any would-be holes at second.

The club freed up some of that depth by trading Freddie Bynum to Baltimore last week for minor league pitcher Kevin Hart. Lewis was snatched up by Kansas City in the minor league phase of the Rule Five Draft.

Learning new positions isn't just an option anymore; it's becoming something of a requirement for many players.

"I came up with the Orioles and I can remember countless guys trying to take Cal Ripken's job," Fleita recalled. "Our job would be for a shortstop, or whatever his position is, to make him have some flexibility. That only helps the manager and ultimately helps the player.

"It's our job to see that; not the player's job."

Patterson batted .345 in 28 games in the Fall League, but committed six errors – most in the league at his position – for a .944 fielding percentage. His 14 errors at second this past season at Double-A West Tennessee trailed only Jacksonville's Tony Abreu with 16.

Fleita feels the outfield would be a nice fit for Patterson.

"He can run. He's got more than enough arm and he can hit," he said. "It's our job to find him a position and if it doesn't work out at second, hopefully we can work out something in the outfield. But he's going to play in the big leagues. It's our job to make sure we get him prepared enough so that when he does get there, he can help us."

What about a potential logjam in the outfield, particularly in center? The Cubs have some depth there, too, highlighted by the organization's consensus top prospect, Felix Pie.

"I don't look at it as a logjam," Fleita answered. "I look at it as a competition. Right now, yes, it's a position where we have a little bit of a surplus. You have (Chris) Walker, Coats and (Angel) Pagan, who can all play center. If you want to throw Patterson in the mix, God bless us.

"I can't control what'll happen between now and opening day," Fleita added. "All I can do is try to keep some pieces available and maybe they'll become another option for Lou Piniella and Jim Hendry."

Either way, the Cubs feel it's a nice "problem" to have.

"Any time you can create depth at all your positions – you know, you don't play your season from start to finish with the same players staying healthy all year," Fleita said. "My job is to make sure I have the players so that when the call comes, we can send players on not just to the big leagues, but guys that can help."


Northsiders Report Top Stories