Today we head down to sunny Florida, which always strikes me as a little odd because the Daytona Cubs have more rainouts than any other team in the system. Last year was a disappointing one in Florida, but this year the Daytona Cubs look to put on some pretty good baseball in-between the raindrops. Some of the top hitting prospects in the system will be in Daytona Beach this season.
The Daytona Cubs are the the Cubs "High-A" team in the Florida State League, one step above the Peoria Chiefs and the Midwest League. Most of the players on the roster played for Peoria last season, although many of them were promoted to Daytona mid-season and are returning. The entire D-Cubs field staff returns from last season. Manager Buddy Bailey is back for his second season in Daytona and fifth year in the Cubs system. He's a minor league lifer, having spent 20 years in the Cubs, Red Sox and Braves organization. He'll be aided by hitting coach Richie Zisk, who's a bit of an institution in Daytona. Zisk has been either the manager or hitting coach for Daytona for 21 years now. If you're old enough, you probably remember the big year that Zisk had for the White Sox in 1977. The pitching coach is Tom Pratt, who is entering his fourth season in Daytona.
I think it's safe to say that of all the teams in the Cubs system, you're going to hear the most about the Daytona Cubs. One reason is that they've got some of the top hitting prospects in the system, including Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson, Kyler Burke and DJ LeMahieu. The other reason is one of the Cubs broadcasters has taken a special interest in one of their catchers for some reason. So expect to get a lot of D-Cub updates during Cub broadcasts this season.
To sum up the Daytona Cubs in one word, I'll choose "Powerful." Daytona and the FSL aren't the most-hitter friendly environments, but I expect to see some hard-hit balls leaving Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach this summer.
Roster after the break.
Even though there are other great prospects on the D-Cubs, I think it's safe to say that most eyes will be on third baseman Josh Vitters. Vitters has been hotly-debated around here even before he was taken with the #3 pick in the 2007 draft. Without a doubt, few prospects have a better ability to put his bat on the ball and hit it hard. In a half a season in Peoria, Vitters hit .316 and clubbed 15 home runs. He struggled in Daytona, so he'll have to show this season that was just a fluke. While he's an aggressive hitter, he's not a free swinger. He doesn't swing at pitches he can't hit often, but sometimes he swings at a "pitcher's strike" rather than waiting for a mistake that he can drive. One thing to watch this year is to see if he goes deeper in the count. The talent there is limitless. His game is a lot like the Giants' Pablo Sandoval minus about 100 pounds and Panda's totally-awesome kung fu ability. Sandoval didn't walk much in the minors either.
Joining Vitters in the infield is second baseman DJ LeMahieu, the Cubs second-round pick in last year's draft. LeMahieu should fit right in in the middle of the diamond at Wrigley because like Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, LeMahieu was a member of an LSU team that won a College World Series. (Unlike Theriot and Fontenot, LeMahieu's not a native Cajun though. He's from Michigan.) He played 38 games for Peoria after signing last season and hit .316 with a .371 OBP. Although LeMahieu's a big guy at 6'4", he doesn't hit for a much power. He only had six extra base hits last season and no home runs. Maybe he'll grow into some power, but his game is always going to be getting on base more than power. Something to watch for is his defense at second. He's going to have to stick at second base because he's not likely to hit for enough power to play anywhere else.
Shortstop Junior Lake was someone who was mentioned in the same breath with Starlin Castro before last season. Let's just say their paths have diverged since then. While Castro became a blue-chop prospect, Lake struggled in Peoria. He hit .248 with seven home runs, which isn't that bad for a shortstop until you notice he struck out 138 times in 131 games and walked only 18 times. It's pretty clear what he needs to work on.
Does it surprise anyone that first baseman Ryne White was born in Chicago in 1986? However, the Cubs didn't draft the St. Rita High and Boilermaker alumnus--he came over from Arizona in the Aaron Heilman trade. He's a left-handed first baseman who has a little power and can draw a walk, which I know will make some people around here happy. He hit .266 with a .371 OBP last season in Visalia. He only had six home runs, but I'm betting he does better than that this season. He's not a great prospect, but he's a lot better than what you'd expect to get for Aaron Heilman. And I'm sure he's happy to be in the Cub organization.
Marwin Gonzalez and David Macias will serve as the utility infielders. Someone asked me last year if David Macias is related to Jose Macias. Except in the sense that we can all trace our ancestry back to a hominid in Africa who thought it would be cool to walk on two legs, he's not.
There's more great hitters in the Daytona outfield, led by last years first round draft pick, center fielder Brett Jackson. Already scouts are saying the Cubs got a steal by getting Jackson with the second-to-last pick int he first round. The strikeouts which scared so many people off in college haven't been a problem so far. Yes, he strikes out, but he also makes contact and draws walks. Last season Jackson hit .295 with a .383 OBP and 7 home runs in only 28 games in Peoria. Baseball America named him the #2 prospect in the system after Starlin Castro. Like Castro last year, a good season out of Jackson in Daytona could rocket him up to being one of the top 20 prospects in the game.
Right fielder Kyler Burke finally gets out of the Midwest League after three seasons there. Despite that, he's still a pretty good prospect and still reasonably young. Burke reminds me a lot of Paul O'Neill. I admit that the odds of him becoming that good are long, but he's got the same set of tools as O'Neill. It's possible he gets that good. But he's not going to be allowed to struggle in Daytona like he did in the Midwest League. He's going to have to produce this year to stay in the Cubs plans in 2011 and beyond.
Left field will be Nelson Perez, who reminds me so much of Nelson Cruz that I'm shocked that I never accidentally called him Nelson Cruz last season. Perez's problem is that while Cruz strikes out a lot, Perez strikes out a ton. Perez has got some power and he hit 11 home runs last season. But striking out 130 times and walking only 21 times isn't going to cut it.
The final outfielder is Smailey Borges. All I know about him is that he's 26 and has never played in the US minors before. I think he played for the Yankees Dominican League teams.
The catching duties are held down by Mark Reed and some nobody named Michael Brenly. All kidding aside on Bob's kid, he's been a pleasant surprise in the Cubs system. He's a good defensive backstop and he's held his own as a hitter. He's probably never going to be a star or even a starter in the majors, but he certainly could end up being a good backup catcher.
The pitching staff is full of guys who miss bats and miss the strike zone. The task for the staff is simple: throw strikes.
The ace on the staff is probably Christopher Archer, who the Cubs got last year in the Mark DeRosa trade. Archer's got good velocity, but his big pitch is a nasty curve ball. Last season he went 6-4 with a 2.81 ERA. He held opposing hitters to a .202 average. He struck out 119 batters in only 109 innings. That sounds so good I really hate to mention the 66 walks. But that was a big improvement over 2008, so he's moving in the right direction.
Right hander Rafael Dolis is back for a second season in Daytona. He went 3-9 last season with a 3.79 ERA. Like Archer, he walked way too many batters: 53 in 99 innings.
Walks weren't a problem with Dae-Eun Rhee, staying healthy was. He was unhittable in Peoria for the first half of 2008 before he underwent Tommy John surgery. He barely pitched last season, so it will be interesting to see how he bounces back from almost a year and a half away from the game.
Left-hander Brooks Raley is someone other people like a lot more than I do, but he is a good prospect. He's got good command of three pitches, but none of them are really spectacular. He was drafted in the sixth round last season out of Texas A&M and only threw 10.2 innings last year. He's skipping Peoria entirely and basically starting his pro career in Daytona. The Cubs gave him a huge above-slot bonus to get him to leave A&M, so clearly they're higher on him than I am.
Lefty Chris Rusin is someone I do like. Unlike the rest of the team, Rusin throws strikes. He was a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky last season and has got good movement on his fastball and a sinker that gets lots of groundballs.
Right-hander Aaron Shafer had been a top prospect in college before he got hurt his junior year. His stuff really has never completely bounced back, but if it ever does he could be someone to watch. At least he doesn't walk a lot of batters.
Australian Ryan Searle is also a candidate to start for the D-Cubs. He's back with Daytona for a second season after going 7-11 with a 4.42 ERA last year. He's got a good fastball, but he really pitches to contract.
I'm betting the closer for Daytona will be Chris Huseby. Huseby had been one of the Cub system's biggest disappointments before last season. He signed a seven-figure bonus in 2006 and then struggled with his control in the majors. It got so bad that the Cubs actually shut him down in 2008 to work on rebuilding his pitching motion. He came back last year as a reliever, and he thrived as Peoria's closer. He actually took a little off his fastball and gained a lot of control. Last year he struck out 73 and walked only ten in 54 innings. He had 18 saves.
Right-hander Mike Perconte is also in the pen. I have a soft spot for Perconte because I remember his dad, Jack, who was a second baseman for the Indians. Jack was also the butt of some stupid drunken jokes from my college days. (Don't ask.) Righty Alberto Cabrera played for Peoria last season. He also needs to walk fewer batters. Both lefties Luke Sommer and Chris Siegfried are back from last year's team. Both pitched well last year, but Sommer showed better control. Oswaldo Martinez is back this year after joining the D-Cubs from the Mexican league mid-season last year.