Chicago Cubs Top 20 Prospects

Its prospect rankings time again, Cubs fans. has compiled our annual rankings of the top 20 prospects in the Chicago Cubs' system and divided them into two segments.

As we have said before in this space, our rankings are based purely on the opinions of our staff and from our own observation of players, though credence is often given to scouts and coaches feedback.

Pitchers that have logged over 50 innings at the major league level and position players with 150 accumulated major league at-bats are not eligible for this list.

1. Josh Vitters, 3B
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in first round of 2007 draft from Cypress (Calif.) HS
2008 stats: .322 AVG, 5 HR, 38 RBI, .357 OBP

His potential to hit for both power and average isn't going to diminish. In spite of his strikeouts and anemic walk totals to date, he continued to show the Cubs a good view of the strike zone in the Instructional League last fall. He was likely on his way to a respectable if not overly strong campaign at full-season Class-A Peoria before a wrist injury cut short his time there after just four days and relegated him to extended spring training and eventually short-season Class Low-A Boise, where he had a 25-game hit streak. He'll get another crack at the Midwest League in 2009.

2. Jeff Samardzija, RHP
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in fifth round of 2006 draft from Notre Dame
2008 stats: 7-6, 4.30 ERA, 113.1 IP, 58 BB, 84 K, 1.42 WHIP

Samardzija prides himself on being a quick learner. That's a good thing because he's had to learn a lot in a short amount of time since the Cubs drafted him and began moving him to the front of the pack. He shows streaks of wildness, but was able to throw all of his pitches (four-seam fastball, splitter, slider and changeup) for strikes with regularity last season. His velocity peaked in the upper 90s with good movement, which helped coincide with Samardzija's first big league call-up. He'll be part of the Cubs' starting rotation one day, although General Manager Jim Hendry and manager Lou Piniella have no reservations about using him in the bullpen for the short-term.

3. Andrew Cashner, RHP
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in first round of 2008 draft from TCU
2008 stats: 1-2, 5.85 ERA, 20 IP, 4 BB, 1 K, 2.35 WHIP

The numbers above can be downplayed because of how dominant Cashner was in the Florida State League postseason with Class High-A Daytona. He was described by one scout as "lights out," tossing six scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts and retiring all but four batters faced. His fastball was clocked at 98 mph on several occasions with a top-out speed of 99 mph, and he featured a hard curveball that Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken said was registered at 87 mph. A changeup is in the works to give Cashner a third pitch, but the Cubs have said they're going to let Cashner dictate his own future as either a starter or reliever. For now, they seem to be leaning toward him as a reliever, and he should progress quickly, perhaps reaching the big leagues faster than any Cubs draft pick in recent memory.

4. Welington Castillo, C
Acquired: Signed by Cubs as non-drafted free agent in 2004
2008 stats: .287 AVG, 4 HR, 37 RBI, .337 OBP

Castillo is the top catching prospect in the system now that Geovany Soto has graduated to quality big league backstop. Because of his arm and defensive skills, he's been likened by Cubs coaches to such household names as Yadier Molina, and this past season he threw out 43 percent of runners at Double-A. Offensively, he has more power than his four home runs indicate, and he drives the ball into the alleys with some consistency. Castillo got a brief taste of Triple-A at the end of 2008 and should be the team's primary catcher there to start 2009.

5. Jay Jackson, RHP
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in ninth round of 2007 draft from Furman
2008 stats: 4-2, 2.88 ERA, 50 IP, 13 BB, 72 K, 1.06 WHIP

Jackson had arguably the most eye-popping year for any 2008 Cubs draft pick, racking up strikeouts as often as John McCain racks up ‘Joe the Plumber' references. Part of that, most scouts agree, is due to the development of his two-seam fastball, his best pitch at present time. He's one of the most athletic pitchers in the Cubs' system, and his velocity is anywhere from 90 to 95 mph with good movement. Like Cashner, scouts described him as overpowering in the Florida State League playoffs. He features what David Rosario and other Cubs pitching instructors hail as a plus slider and a changeup that is in the developmental stages. He should begin 2009 back in High-A with a chance to move up.

6. Ryan Flaherty, INF
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in supplemental first round of 2008 draft from Vanderbilt

2008 stats: .297 AVG, 8 HR, 26 RBI, .369 OBP

Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken first saw Flaherty at a showcase game in St. Petersburg, Fla., during Flaherty's high school days in Maine and fell in love with the infielder, who has grown to 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. Flaherty isn't considered a power hitter per se, but he has some pop to his bat and can drive the ball over the fence and to the gaps. He hit eight home runs in Boise, a number that might have been higher if not for some of the pitcher-friendly parks in the Northwest League. The Cubs drafted him as a shortstop and kept him there for his first taste of pro ball, but scouts and college coaches have been grumbling for years about Flaherty being more in the mold of a third baseman. He'll get his first taste of full-season ball next spring.

7. Mitch Atkins, RHP
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in seventh round of 2004 draft from Northeast Guilford (N.C.) HS
2008 stats: 17-7, 4.00 ERA, 164.1 IP, 132 K, 50 BB, 1.25 WHIP

Atkins doesn't have a flashy, overpowering arm, but his consistency, maturity and ability to stay healthy make him a legit prospect. His fastball is 88-92 mph, and like Kevin Hart a year ago, he's added an effective cutter to his repertoire, plus an improved two-seam fastball – all of which complements an already serviceable curveball. What often goes unnoticed about Atkins is that he's a good athlete capable of fielding his position and laying down a bunt when called upon. He was added to the 40-man roster to protect the club from the threat of losing him in the Rule 5 Draft, and though he projects as a back-end starter, he could challenge for a spot in the Cubs' bullpen as early as 2009.

8. Tyler Colvin, OF
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in first round of 2006 draft from Clemson
2008 stats: .256 AVG, 14 HR, 80 RBI, .312 OBP

Colvin played through left elbow pain in 2008, which led to Tommy John surgery in October, thus cutting short his stay in the Arizona Fall League. In spite of not being 100 percent, he showed some impressive power against Southern League pitchers. The big concern is Colvin's lack of plate discipline, though he showed better patience in the mid to latter parts of the season. Because he became more selective as the year progressed, he was able to drive the ball more to the opposite field instead of trying to pull pitches. He'll miss at least part of 2009 while rehabbing.

9. Kevin Hart, RHP
Acquired: From Baltimore for OF Freddie Bynum in December, 2006
2008 stats: 4-2, 2.84 ERA, 60.2 IP, 22 BB, 66 K, 1.03 WHIP

The big difference between Hart's struggles in Chicago early on last season and his dominance in 2007 (when he made the postseason roster) was that major league hitters started coming around to his sinker. It didn't help that Hart had lost the feel of his breaking ball and changeup after essentially becoming a two-pitch guy in the bullpen. Eventually, the Cubs sent Hart to Iowa to stretch his arm and build up endurance, which helped Hart regain command of his off-speed pitches. When he returned to the big league club in September, he strung together a respectable 3.24 ERA in seven appearances with noticeably better control. His fastball tops out in the mid-90s, and because the Cubs' bullpen has some wiggle room, Hart could work his way back into a reliever's role in Chicago in 2009.

10. Micah Hoffpauir, INF/OF
Acquired: Selected by Cubs in 13th round of 2002 draft from Lamar
2008 stats: .362 AVG, 25 HR, 100 RBI, .393 OBP

It has taken Hoffpauir awhile to get noticed – longer than it should have anyway – but the 28-year-old continues to ignore his age and play above his competition. He has overcome injuries the past two years, and the success he had with Chicago -- albeit in limited playing time -- is enough so that no one in the front office is worried about his production being limited to just Triple-A. At worst, he figures to provide an upgrade as a solid left-handed bat off the bench and could spell the Cubs a few starts at one of the corner outfield spots, or as a backup to Derrek Lee at first base.

Part 2 of our rankings, 11-20, will be posted in the coming days.

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