Cubs Hope Future Stars Reside in Fall League

The seven prospects the Chicago Cubs choose to participate in the Arizona Fall League each year are players the organization hopes will have a lasting impact on the club's future for years to come, and this year is no different.

As is usually the case, the Cubs will be sending four pitchers and three position players -- one catcher, two infielders -- to the Arizona Fall League:

Pitchers Andrew Cashner, James Russell, John Gaub and Blake Parker; catcher Welington Castillo; and infielders Josh Vitters and Starlin Castro.

Cashner, 22, has made 23 starts between Class High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee this season, and has a 2.80 ERA with 73 strikeouts to 41 walks in 93 1/3 innings.

The Cubs' first round pick from TCU in 2008, Cashner began the season on the disabled list with an oblique injury before making 12 starts at Daytona and posting a 1.50 ERA in 42 innings. He was promoted to Tennessee in early July and has since gone 2-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 11 starts at Double-A.

"He got out of the gate a little late, but this is an effort to kind of make up the innings he lost and continue to get him some rest," Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita said of Cashner. "We'll keep him in the rotation. He's got stuff to be a frontline starter and this will give him a chance to develop all his pitches and his command."

The Cubs have been careful not to overuse Cashner, who despite missing almost a full month at the start of the season has thrown a career-high in innings.

"We've taken care of the guy. We make sure we watch our guys," Fleita said.

Joining Cashner on the Mesa Solar Sox roster, which consists of players from the Cubs, Florida Marlins, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, will be fellow Cubs pitching prospects Russell, Gaub and Parker.

Russell, 23, has spent the bulk of 2009 at Class AAA Iowa, where he's 3-3 with a 3.38 ERA in 61 1/3 innings divided up equally between the rotation and bullpen.

A 2007 14th round pick from the University of Texas, Russell gives the Cubs a variety of options and could help the club in a number of roles, Fleita said.

"He's got a chance to face lefties and pitch in a variety of roles," Fleita said. "We think sooner or later, he'll find a role, but right now it's too early to say. He could be a starter, a long man, a lefty specialist. He's got the stuff to do a lot of things."

Gaub is another southpaw that could factor into the Cubs' future plans. Acquired from the Cleveland Indians as part of the Mark DeRosa trade last December, the 24 year old left-hander began the year at Tennessee and has spent the second half at Iowa.

In 22 appearances at Triple-A, Gaub has been nothing short of lights-out, going 1-1 with a 0.64 ERA in 28 1/3 innings. He has 34 strikeouts to 13 walks in that span, and opponents are hitting just .109 against him.

"He's got a good arm and swing-and-miss type stuff. He's been real good on lefties. He's another guy that's just trying to get his feet wet. All this experience to go to the Fall League and face better competition, that does nothing but help his career," Fleita said.

From the right-hand side, Parker has established a name for himself in the bullpen the last three years after being converted from catcher early in his pro career.

A 16th-round draft pick from the University of Arkansas in 2006, Parker has converted 21 of 22 save chances at Iowa to go with a 2.45 ERA in 42 appearances.

"He's not far away," Fleita said of Parker. "At this point, you don't want to rush anybody. I think the Fall League will be a great challenge for him to continue to see more experienced hitters and to refine his command. We've given him opportunities to have [more than one inning] type saves, pitching two innings, and he's done a really good job."

From an offensive standpoint, Castillo will head to Arizona looking to continue a second-half surge at the plate at Tennessee. The 22 year old backstop is the consensus top catching prospect in the organization for the second year in a row.

Although he struggled out of the gate this season, batting just .174 prior to the All-Star break, Castillo has come alive in the second half, batting .319. He has 11 home runs and 39 RBI in 91 games combined this season.

"If you look at him in the last (seven) weeks, he's done a nice job," Fleita said. "He's been doing most of the catching, and the stat that probably doesn't show up is the fact that the team is winning. They're in first place and fighting for a championship, and he's doing the bulk of the catching so that's got to speak for something."

Fleita added that Castillo, like many catchers, has to catch first and hit second. Castillo has a .990 fielding percentage behind the plate this season with six errors and 10 passed balls.

More impressive is that he leads the Southern League in gunning down opposing runners, having thrown out 45 percent of would-be base-stealers.

"At this point in his career (defense is) all we really care about," Fleita said.

Vitters is perhaps the most recognizable Cubs prospect in the Fall League and the consensus overall top prospect in the organization. The 20 year old third baseman and first-round 2007 draft pick from Cypress (Calif.) High School began the season on a tear at Class A Peoria before being moved up to Daytona in the second half.

He led the Chiefs with 15 home runs at the time of his promotion and was batting .315 in 70 games. Since the call-up to Daytona, he has batted .232 with 11 extra-base hits in 45 games. He has been hampered by a hand injury that caused him to sit for over a week.

"The last couple of years, we've tried to get him some extra at-bats because he's lost some at-bats due to injuries," Fleita said of Vitters. "Last year he went to the Instructional League and down to the Dominican Republic (Instructs camp). He has been challenged in the Florida State League, but it looks like he is starting to feel comfortable and is starting to hit like we know he can."

Castro, 19, has had a strong year, beginning at Daytona and spilling over into Tennessee. Signed in the Dominican Republic in 2006, he skipped two levels at the start of the season after spending last year in the Arizona Rookie League.

Castro has proven he is up to the challenge, though, batting .302 with three home runs and 17 doubles in 96 games at Daytona. After his promotion to Tennessee, he batted .283 with six doubles through 26 games.

Earlier this season, Castro was named to the 2009 All-Star Futures Game in St. Louis as well as the Florida State League All-Star Game in Fort Myers, Fla., where he was 4-for-4 and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.

"I don't know that we can ask much more of him," Fleita said of Castro. "Now he's in Double-A fighting for a championship. He's hit first, third and eighth and he's playing every day. It gives him a chance to get his feet wet. He's had a lot thrown at him this year and at this point, he's met the challenge and has been a pleasant surprise.

"He's certainly surpassed expectations that we would have had," Fleita added. "I think he's got all the ability in the world to play shortstop. He's got great range and a tremendous throwing arm. Like most kids when they're young, he may be a little inaccurate at times, but that takes care of itself through time. He's a good, plus runner with a chance to hit for some power."

Fall League play begins Oct. 13.

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