A total of 10 players who spent last season in the Cubs' farm system were invited to big league camp as non-roster players back in January. That is not counting those already on the 40-man roster (roughly another 10 players in all) that spent the majority of 2006 at various levels of the farm system.
While most of these players' chances of making the Opening Day roster out of Spring Training are slim even by their own admissions, Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita laid out the significance of their presence in big league camp.
"It does a couple of things," Fleita said. "It rewards them for the work they've done. It gives them a chance to be seen by the new manager and by their organization. It gives them a chance to be involved with major league players in a major league setting, and it helps them in terms of development and what is expected of them. It serves a lot of needs for a lot of reasons."
The Cubs opened their 2007 Spring Training schedule with a 9-2 loss to a Barry Bonds-less San Francisco Giants team on Thursday. On Friday, the Cubs fared better offensively, but still lost, 9-6, to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In both games, many of the prospects on hand in camp saw action.
Matt Murton, two years ago fighting for a spot on the Cubs' Double-A roster, was the most impressive player on Friday, going 3-for-3 with a home run. Though Murton is no rookie and certainly no longer a prospect, he is one of the younger players on Piniella's squad, and he had some help in the power department on Friday in the form of former college teammate Eric Patterson.
Patterson, the Cubs' top second base prospect and one of the aforementioned players invited to camp as a non-roster player earlier this year, came in off the bench and picked up three at-bats, hitting a home run.
Meanwhile, Tyler Colvin (the Cubs' first-round draft pick a year ago) picked up two at-bats on Friday, but went hitless. Colvin, who was named the top prospect of the Northwest League in 2006 by Baseball America, was invited to big league camp in large part because it is written into his contract.
Of the players that have been in the farm system longer than Colvin, consensus top first base prospect Brian Dopirak, who is back from season-ending surgery on his fifth metatarsus a year ago, appeared as a pinch-hitter Friday and at first base on Thursday.
Dopirak was considered by some as the top prospect in the Cubs system two years ago after a 39-home run, 120-RBI campaign in his first year of full-season, Class A ball in 2004. He struggled in a down year at Daytona in 2005 and appeared in only 52 games last year because of the foot injury.
And of course, no mention of the Cubs prospects would be complete without a reference to Felix Pie. The Cubs consensus top prospect picked up two at-bats both Thursday and Friday and managed one hit (a single).
Then there are the pitching prospects.
Of those five pitchers, Gallagher is the one generating arguably the most buzz. Drafted out of high school in 2004, he has put together two quality seasons for the Cubs at the Class A and Double-A levels, which resulted in the award for Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2005.
Gallagher wasn't originally scheduled to pitch Friday, and his first time on the mound in a big league atmosphere was a rollercoaster of emotions.
"I didn't know I was going to throw until about 15 minutes before I started warming up. I was scheduled to go (Saturday)," Gallagher said. "I was warming up and felt great. All of my pitches were working and I said I wasn't nervous, that I felt fine. Then when you get on that mound, all of the nervousness hits you at once."
Gallagher seemed to handle the nervousness well. He threw two scoreless innings in his Cactus League debut, surrendering two hits.
"Everyone kept telling me for a long time that I was going to be nervous, but I always said that baseball is baseball," Gallagher said. "It's the same 60 feet to home plate. But once you step on the mound, it's a totally different experience. It's one of those things you have to experience first hand."
Gallagher, ranked the Cubs' fifth best prospect by both InsideTheIvy.com and Baseball America entering 2007, should experience a few more situations similar to his debut Friday. He will likely begin the season in the minor leagues at either Triple-A or Double-A, but he is keeping an open mind to the possibility of winning a spot on the major league roster.
"My goal right now is to come out and just perform to the best of my abilities. I'm a long shot to make the big league team, but so was Sean Marshall last year," Gallagher said.
"You never really know what's going to happen, but my goal right now is just to leave a very good impression on those around me. I want to let it be known that if I don't make the team and I go to Double-A or Triple-A, and something happens during the year – guys get hurt or moved down and they have to call someone up – hopefully my name will be one of the first brought up and they'll remember what I did here," he said.
For his part, Wells pitched one inning on Thursday, allowing one hit – a home run to Giants infielder Tomas De La Rosa.
"I tried to throw strikes and for the most part I did that well," Wells said. "I made one mistake and I paid for it, but I came right back and got the next guy out. Overall, it was a quality outing."
Wells is currently serving his second tour of duty with the Cubs in big league camp. He was invited to camp a year ago and went on to pitch at Double-A West Tennessee, where he was named a Southern League All-Star before finishing the year at Triple-A Iowa.
Both Gallagher and Wells spoke Friday on the difference between minor league spring training and major league camp.
"Out here, it's more individualized and more one-on-one work," Gallagher said of major league camp. "In minor league camp, there's more work as a group. Now they sort of take you one-on-one and you go through it like that.
"It's worked out great so far," he said.
Wells said, "It's a really fundamental camp. If you're not doing things right, you do it over until you do. Hopefully it carries over into the game."
And just what is it like for a young guy in camp playing for someone with the reputation Piniella has?
"Laid back. Fun. Awesome. Totally amazing experience," Gallagher said. "Lou is an amazing guy. You read all of these reports that he's well-documented and a little out there. Even on the first day of camp, he was very laid back and a good guy to talk to. He doesn't B.S. and goes right to the issue."
The Cubs will travel to Phoenix Saturday for their first road game on the spring schedule. They'll face the Oakland Athletics beginning at 2:05 p.m. CST. No broadcast coverage of the game will be provided. Sunday, the Cubs are back in Mesa to face the Chicago White Sox, also at 2:05. The game can be seen on WGN with radio coverage provided by the Cubs Radio Network.