McKamey on Cubs Prospects

Last week, noted minor league expert Deric McKamey dropped by to reveal his top-15 Chicago Cubs prospects. The author of the annual "Minor League Baseball Analyst" book has returned to answer readers' questions about why he ranked certain players in specific spots and about some of the Cubs' prospects that didn't appear on his list.

Last week, BaseballHQ's Director of Minor League Analysis, Deric McKamey, offered his list of the Chicago Cubs top-15 prospects going into the 2008 season. McKamey then opened up the floor for questions about his rankings and his thoughts on the Cubs' system. We have those questions and his answers below:

1a. With Geovany Soto crushing minor league pitching in 2007 and showing strong possibilities in the Majors, why only make his ceiling as being an "average player" with an almost definite possibility of achieving that? He's so young, how far away is he from being a Victor Martinez type player?

1b. Exactly how do you measure ceiling? In 54 at bats last year in the Majors, Soto put up the following: .389/.433/.667. If he put up those numbers on a consistent basis over several years, he would clearly be a Hall Of Famer (10). Now, we don't expect the numbers will stay at these levels clearly, but he has shown a very high ceiling. Wouldn't Soto be a 10E or perhaps a 9D given that he has already demonstrated potential? Listing Soto's ceiling as a 7 seems odd since he has clearly played well above that level to date...and isn't the ceiling supposed to measure his highest level of potential?

Deric McKamey: Lots of questions regarding Soto and my ranking of him within these two questions, and I'll try to hit them all with my reply. Soto, as everyone is aware, had a sensational 2007 campaign, hitting .353/.432/.652 for Iowa and winning the PCL MVP, and hitting .389/.433/.667 for the Cubs. While his season was outstanding, it was totally out of line with his past six seasons, where he posted these combined averages (.262/.344/.371), and I don't think you can ignore that when evaluating him. He really reshaped his body last off-season, becoming slimmer and stronger, whereas previously, it was kind of sloppy, in my opinion. His bat speed was noticeably quicker and coupled with his solid contact rate, gave him greater power. His power numbers were definitely inflated by the PCL, so he won't be slugging .600 or likely even .500, but he still has above average power that is game-usable. Factor-in his above average defense, and you have a real solid starting catcher.

As to how I generate a player's ceiling, in the lower minors, I'm looking for a logical, upside potential, along with a probability that the player will reach that potential. As the player progresses, I want to be more accurate with the probability (letter portion) of my rating system, which may mean the player's potential rating (number portion) may change (usually lower).

How does this relate to Soto? Soto has been at the Triple-A level for three years, which is long enough for me to be able to accurately assess his probability rating as an A. He is 25 years old, which is not young for a prospect, and is not a workhorse type catcher that is going to catch more than 120 games (he has never caught more than 102 games in seven minor league seasons). I do believe in his improved offense, but not at the level he hit in 2007 and certainly not Hall of Fame-caliber. By giving Soto a 7A Potential Rating, I'm confidently saying that he will be an average MLB regular, which is still pretty good. I don't see him as an All-Star and with all the other things factored-in (age, role, and past performance), I like how I have him rated.

Just curious as to Sean Gallagher's ranking (sixth in the organization). How does a guy continue to dominate the minors like him not get more recognition? He has a good makeup, good pitches, and can actually throw them for strikes. It's not like the guy throws 90 MPH; he can get it up there.

Deric McKamey: I think Gallagher gets plenty of recognition. He is also one of the more talked about players among other organizations that have wanted to deal with the Cubs. Gallagher has been very successful due to the skills you touched on (make-up, quality stuff, and command). He touches 93 MPH with his fastball, but more often works in the 88-91 MPH range. His ability to keep the ball down and mix his pitches lets him pitch above his stuff, which overall, is slightly above average. His curveball was once a plus pitch, but I think it has regressed somewhat in deference to his change-up. I don't think he will sustain his strikeout rate (+8.0 K/9) in the Majors, as he lacks a true "out" pitch, but I see no reason why he can't succeed with the way he goes about his business. I project him as a #4 starter and should see plenty of action for the Cubs in 2008.

Why does Jeff Samardzija, rated an "elite player", have only a 30% probability on reaching that potential?

Deric McKamey: I rated Samardzija the way I did because he is a special talent, but there are lots of questions in regards to realizing it. He is highly athletic and has excellent arm action which helps him generate both velocity (88-95 MPH) and movement. He derives natural, late life to both his fastball and slider, and that's something that's difficult to teach. His experience level is less than most college-drafted pitchers of his age due to his two-way status as a football player, so he still, in essence, is learning how to pitch. He doesn't repeat his ¾ slot or his arm speed for his change-up, which negatively affects his command. I think the improvement in his base skills (K/BB, K/9, and oppBA), as well as the lower ERA in Double-A, means that he has perhaps turned a corner. And let's not forget that he was less than two years removed from playing Division 1 football, so he was still in the transition of re-shaping his body (muscle memory) to baseball.

What is Darin Downs' projection? He had 67 strikeouts and only 16 walks at Daytona last year in half a season. Now that the nerve (injury) that he suffered with has been taken care of, this could be a good year for him.

Deric McKamey: Downs has an outside chance to be a fifth starter, but probably projects better as a long reliever. His base stats (K/BB, K/9, BB/9, and oppBA) have been strong, no question, but his style of pitching is more conducive to success at lower levels than the upper levels. Downs doesn't throw that hard (85-89 MPH), but commands his fastball, is deceptive with his delivery, and has an above average curveball. The curveball generates most of his strikeouts. He isn't that adept at keeping the ball down (1.5 HR/9), lacks stamina, and without an overpowering fastball, I question whether he will get upper level hitters out on a consistent basis.

What do you think about the performance of Jesse Estrada the past two seasons? How much has he advanced in his ability to pitch at the next level?

Deric McKamey: Estrada, a tall, strong-framed pitcher has had moderate success the past two seasons (Midwest and Florida State Leagues). The positives are the downward plane he generates for his pitches, giving him a solid G/F ratio, and his above average control. The negatives include a stiff arm action and lack of fastball movement. The latter results in few missed bats, which could be hard to overcome against advanced hitters. He has adjusted well to each level he has pitched at, but to me, he has very little margin for error when he's on the mound. I will say the same thing about Estrada that I said about Downs, in that I think he will struggle at the upper levels of the minors, and projects as a reliever at best.

Josh Donaldson seems like the real package. I notice you have him as your 10th overall prospect. I don't recall seeing a Cubs catching prospect ranked so highly after just one year. We know he has a good bat but how would you grade his skills behind the plate?

Deric McKamey: In the Minor League Baseball Analyst, I rated Donaldson as an average defender. He is fairly agile and makes-up for his average arm strength with a quick release (1.95 seconds). His ability to squash the running game (38% CS%) was better than expected. A former third baseman before being converted to a catcher at Auburn, he does lack experience and receiving skills, so will need to block and frame pitches more consistently. He appears to have the aptitude to improve, so I see no reason why he can't be a solid, overall catcher in a few years.

What role do you see Jose Ceda in for the long haul? Does he have the third pitch to become a starter?

Deric McKamey: I believe Ceda has the stuff to be a #3 or #4 starter, with his 90-97 MPH fastball and lethal slider, but will have to overcome some issues to make it happen. He lacks a serviceable change-up as he doesn't repeat his arm speed. That also negatively affects his command. The biggest issue overall, is the effort to his delivery, which may be the culprit behind his sore shoulder in 2007 and could affect his stamina as a starter. He has yet to be extended as a starter for a whole season, maxing-out at only 11.5 batters faced/game in 2006. The Cubs want to see what he can do as a starter and plan to start him there in 2008, but I think he would make a dynamite reliever with his overpowering velocity, slider, and aggressive approach.

It feels like forever ago since Ryan Harvey was drafted and I noticed he was absent from your top prospects list. Why in your opinion has he struggled so much with plate discipline, and will we ever see him receive a tryout as a pitcher?

Deric McKamey: Harvey's poor plate discipline is only partly responsible for his dreadful contact rate. He also possesses a long swing, which makes him susceptible to inside heat in addition to the breaking pitches that he tends to flail at. Improving plate discipline isn't as easy as one would like to believe it is. Hitters develop tendencies, sometimes bad ones, and the worst thing you want to do is have a hitter thinking too much at the plate. Harvey hasn't been able to adjust and that's going to keep him from making the Majors as a hitter, regardless of his bat speed and power potential.

I've heard rumors that the Cubs may very well convert him to a pitcher in the very near future, and I would have to think that another season's worth of offensive struggles would be enough for both parties to want to give it serious consideration.

Do you see Josh Vitters sticking at third base or do you see him moving to a corner outfield spot eventually? I know he is a good athlete, but do his skills really translate to him sticking to the infield?

Deric McKamey: Vitters should be able to stay at third base. He has a strong infield arm, soft hands, and average first-step quickness, though he does have trouble with groundball reads. I would think that could be cured with experience, and I know he has the work ethic to make it happen. As Vitters matures physically, he should end up around the size of a Mike Lowell, so I don't see him out-growing the position.

Tony Thomas has speed and a good bat, but seems limited defensively. Is he a prospect that will get play if he can't stay at 2nd base?

Deric McKamey: Thomas' offense is certainly ahead of his defense, showing an excellent contact rate, plate discipline, and above average speed. I'm not sold on his ability to hit for power, but he has the capability to hit .300. That being said, he has some work to do defensively at 2B. He ranges well in all directions, but his arm strength is insufficient to the extreme right and when making the double-play turn. His hands, while quick, are somewhat stiff. He won't have the type of bat that will play in the outfield, so if he can't play an adequate 2B, he's not going to be a MLB starter.

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