Analyzing the Top 20 Prospects: Part 1

As pitchers and position players get set to report to Minor League Spring Training in Arizona beginning this week, our annual analysis of the top prospects in the Cubs' farm system, as ranked by in the 2008 Prospect Guide, commences.

A year ago, our off-season rankings/analysis of the top prospects in the Cubs' system were more publicized than ever before. Our rankings worked their way onto press releases from the Cubs' minor league clubs and into the on-air chatter of broadcast teams from Central Florida and Eastern Tennessee to Boise, Idaho.

As we expand on our staff's rankings of these prospects, we remind our readers that the rankings are solely the opinions of our staff and are centered on our own observations of players, with emphasis given to various feedback on said players from the organization's coaches, officials, scouts, etc.

They do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Chicago Cubs' organization, who will quickly (and bluntly) tell you that things such as prospect rankings mean about as much to them as this year's Oscar nominees.

Factors such as tools, potential, makeup and others went into the compilation of this list. Furthermore, as has always been the case, pitchers that have logged over 50 innings at the major league level, and conversely position players with 150 accumulated major league at-bats are not eligible for this list.

*The stats provided below are for minor league play only.

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The Top 10

1. Tyler Colvin – OF
VITALS: HT: 6'3". WT: 190. B/T: L/L.

2007 Season: .299 AVG, 125 G, 16 HR, 81 RBI, .324 OBP
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Tyler brings everything to the table: great arm, runs well, has great baseball instincts. At (certain times), he tries to do a little bit too much with his body at the plate. With a little more maturity and experience, he'll shorten his stride up and it's only going to get better." – Former Cubs catcher and Class A Daytona manager Jody Davis on Colvin.

COMMENTS: It's true that Colvin, 22, has some things to improve on at the plate, such as plate discipline – something he acknowledged just before joining Team USA Baseball last fall. He walked only 15 times last season and struck out 101 times in 492 at-bats (essentially one strikeout in every five at-bats). But he nevertheless had a solid showing in the Florida State League (after skipping a level and going straight from short-season ball into High A), and that was enough for him to earn a promotion to Double-A in the middle of last season. He led the league in extra base hits and RBIs for much of his time there, and the Cubs are hoping that's only a brief taste of things to come for their 2006 first-round pick. Adding some muscle to his lanky frame will give Colvin a better chance to hit for power, but he's amassed a respectable 27 home runs already in his short career, and the Cubs didn't envision him as a prototypical power hitter when they drafted him anyway.

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2. Josh Vitters – 3B
VITALS: HT: 6'3". WT: 200. B/T: R/R.
2007 Season: .118 AVG, 14 G, 3 RBI, .164 OBP
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a real thinker and a sharp guy ... He is kind of quiet. But he's a steady player that goes out there and does his business. He carries a big stick." – Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken on why the club chose Vitters with their first-round pick in 2007.

COMMENTS: Vitters, 18, was probably the most ideal selection for the Cubs with the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft, and he came with plenty of high accolades, such as the 2007 Gatorade Player of the Year in California. Scouts raved about his potential to hit for both power and average, and he was said by world-renowned optometrist Bill Harrison to have the best eyesight of any athlete he examined since Barry Bonds. While Vitters had a rough go of things last year in the Arizona Rookie League, where he finished 2-for-30 in seven games, Cubs coaches in Arizona were quick to point out that he routinely put the ball in play and connected on many line drive outs. Defensively, Vitters' natural position is third base. But he did some pitching for his high school team in Cypress and reportedly topped out at 92 MPH – more than adequate arm strength to take on a corner outfield spot if the need ever arises.

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3. Geovany Soto – C
VITALS: HT: 6'1". WT: 205. B/T: R/R.
2007 Season
: .353 AVG, 110 G, 26 HR, 109 RBI, .424 OBP
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Offensively, he's had off-the-chart improvement to where he's really seemed to figure out what it takes to be successful. He knows how to look for pitches and knows how to make adjustments with two strikes. He was already a very good defensive catcher and he's improved himself in that area. All-around, he's put himself in a position to be in the big leagues for a long, long time." – Cubs Assistant General Manager Randy Bush on Soto's breakout season in 2007.

COMMENTS: Soto, 25, took perhaps the biggest step forward of any Cubs prospect in 2007. He established himself as the premier catching prospect in the farm system by shattering his previous career-high numbers in home runs, RBIs and games played, and it had little to do with him being in Triple-A for a third year. He shed 30 pounds, which enabled him to get to pitches quicker and turn on them rather than going to the opposite field. The weight loss also quickened him up behind the plate and served to his benefit in throwing out 31 percent of opposing base runners in the Pacific Coast League. For the first time in years, the Cubs have a true home-grown prospect ready to take over behind the plate, and the position is his to lose.

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4. Sean Gallagher – RHP
VITALS: HT: 6'2". WT: 200. B/T: R/R.

2007 Season: 10-3, 3.11 ERA, 101.2 IP, 91 K, 37 BB
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If anything, it helped me. (All of the call-up's) gave me the confidence to go up there and believe in myself and to feel that I belong up there; that I could compete and get hitters out on a consistent basis." – Gallagher on the constant shuffling between Chicago and the minor leagues last season.

COMMENTS: Gallagher, 22, was promoted to Chicago on four different occasions (more than any other player) last year, but the Cubs didn't keep him there for any extended period of time, so he didn't get very many big league innings despite another solid year in the minors. All the while, pitching coach Larry Rothschild instructed Gallagher to focus more on the development of a slider while putting his curveball on temporary hiatus. Gallagher eventually went back to the curveball (his self-titled bread-and-butter pitch) and began mixing in both pitches in the Arizona Fall League. He has worked vigorously this off-season on a new training program and has shed 25 pounds from his 225-pound frame of a season ago. Normally light-hearted and fun-loving, one club official tells us that Gallagher has "gotten very serious" this off-season. He would be best left as a starter at this point in his young career.

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5. Donald Veal – LHP
VITALS: HT: 6'4". WT: 215. B/T: L/L.

2007 Season: 8-10, 4.97 ERA, 130.1 IP, 131 K, 73 BB
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Early on in the season, I think I was trying too much to prove that I could pitch at the Double-A level ... I started to relax and it became a little easier. Guys weren't overwhelmingly harder to get out; it was more just about myself." – Veal, explaining his struggles in 2007.

COMMENTS: Veal, 23, struggled with consistency, mechanics and even emotions last year, and it didn't really begin to subside until the second half of the season. But Veal eventually stopped spinning his wheels and settled down nicely to close out the year with several quality starts. Away from the field, his off-season was marked with tragedy as Veal's father passed away during a scuba-diving trip in early November. He is the top left-handed pitching prospect in the system, and he'll likely begin 2008 back in Double-A.

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6. Jeff Samardzija – RHP
VITALS: HT: 6'6". WT: 220. B/T: R/R.

2007 Season: 6-11, 4.59 ERA, 141.2 IP, 65 K, 44 BB
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's learned how to pitch, how to throw his four-seam fastball with his two-seam pitch, and how to elevate the ball at the right time. It is night and day improvement from what we saw in the first half." – Cubs Assistant General Manager Randy Bush on Samardzija's late-season progression.

COMMENTS: Samardzija's first season away from the football field was filled with ups and downs. He left his first Spring Training under orders to develop a changeup to complement his fastball and slider, and things weren't easy as he struggled in the Florida State League. The 23-year-old was sent to the bullpen for a short stay to gain some confidence, and eventually he began to clean up his delivery. That was around the time the Cubs promoted him to Double-A, citing vast improvements in his pitching performances. The Cubs plan to start Samardzija back in Double-A to open the 2008 season, Farm Director Oneri Fleita said.

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7. Chris Huseby – RHP
VITALS: 6'7". WT: 220. B/T: R/R.
2007 Season: 2-5, 3.39 ERA, 66.1 IP, 53 K, 31 BB
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There was a lot of precaution with him early in the season, but he turned into one of our strongest starters. I think (in 2008), when his pitch count is a little higher, he's more than capable of going into the sixth or seventh inning." – Boise pitching coach Tom Pratt on Huseby's progression.

COMMENTS: A 6-foot-7 presence, Huseby, 20, has the potential to develop into a top-of-the line starter, especially if he can cut back on his occasional bouts of wildness and develop the hard curveball that he currently features as his breaking pitch. A power arm, he tops out in the mid-90s and went through quite a bit of transformation last year, which involved going from a three-quarters arm slot to an over the top delivery. The most important thing was that Huseby stayed healthy, showing no signs of lingering effects from Tommy John Surgery, which he underwent while in high school.

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8. Jose Ceda – RHP
VITALS: HT: 6'4". WT: 205. B/T: R/R.
2007 Season: 2-2, 3.06 ERA, 50 IP, 69 K, 34 BB
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a great-looking kid with a body like that of a Jose Mesa or a Lee Smith." – Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita on Ceda.

COMMENTS: It's no secret that Ceda, 21, can bring the heat (he has topped out at 97 MPH). But there is the issue of control that accompanies many a flame-thrower like him, and Ceda averaged some six walks per nine innings last season. He still put together an overly good season at Class A Peoria, where he did not allow a hit in his final 23.1 innings (all in relief following a two-month stay on the disabled list). Ceda was invited to Big League Spring Training this season and could contend for a spot out of the bullpen. But it's more likely that he'll bypass High A en route to Double-A, where he closed the season a year ago following a late promotion.

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9. Kevin Hart – RHP
VITALS: HT: 6'4". WT: 215. B/T: R/R.

2007 Season: 12-6, 3.99 ERA, 158 IP, 131 K, 50 BB
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's very aggressive, pitches off his fastball and believes in his fastball. You look at what he's done ... and it was a great trade by Jim Hendry." – 2007 Iowa Cubs manager Buddy Bailey on his impressions of Hart.

COMMENTS: Hart, 25, made the biggest trek up the ladder a season ago, going from High A ball to the major league post-season in the span of one year. He won the award for Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year and was arguably the club's best pitcher in the minor leagues during the final three months of the season. After struggling early on at Double-A, he began having some success by developing a cut-fastball to mix in with his sinking two-seamer and slider. That paved the way for Hart to advance to Triple-A and then the major leagues. Now, he's looking to develop a more consistent changeup to complement what are three different variations of the fastball (counting his standard four-seamer), in addition to his out-pitch: the slider. Hart excelled last year both in the rotation and the bullpen, and he enters camp eager to fill either role.

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10. Eric Patterson – INF/OF
VITALS: HT: 5'11. WT: 170. B/T: L/R.

2007 Season: .297 AVG, 128 G, 14 HR, 65 RBI, .362 OBP
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He made a mistake, but that's in the past. We're looking for him to have a great 2008 season." – Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita on Patterson.

COMMENTS: Yes, Patterson, 24, made a mistake in arriving late to the park for the Cubs' Labor Day contest with the Dodgers last season. But that doesn't change his tools, or his potential to become an every day starter at the big league level. Playing in his first full season at Triple-A in 2007, Patterson continued on an otherwise steady path to the majors while amassing career-high home runs and doubles. His proneness to the strikeout may always be a thorn in his side, but Patterson has always been able to fall back on his natural skills and abilities to stay out of any major slumps. Defensively, he played roughly a third of his games in the outfield last season to showcase some versatility, and that could be a big benefit to him if the Cubs are in need a left-handed bat or someone to spell Alfonso Soriano in the outfield.

Part II of our analysis of the Cubs' top 20 prospects as ranked by this off-season will appear in the next several days.

*Photo attribution: Soto, Gallagher, Ceda, Hart, Patterson --; Colvin, Huseby, Vitters, Ceda -- Pam Davis; Veal, Samardzija -- Tennessee Smokies.

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