Why is Matt Stairs pictured on an article talking about Cubs prospects? Stairs, who played his last big league game in 2011, was never considered a five-tool player. He stole 30 bases in his career and was caught 24 times. He had two seasons of more than one triple, with three in both 1999 and 2004. His dWar was negative for his career. He played two games in center field (for the 1999 Athletics) and one at second base (for the 2001 Cubs). I don't remember anyone making the contention that he had a particularly strong arm. Ever.
Nevertheless, he had a career OPS of .832, and managed to put together a solid career of over 5000 at bats. How did he do that? He hit for power, and was willing to draw a walk. Not bad for an undrafted free agent.
When looking at players off the beaten prospect path, what I try to not do is as important as what I try to do. I'm not saying any of these players will craft a Matt Stairs-esque career. They could, though, come from the back of the prospect pack to net the Cubs something of value if they accentuate their positives. While the longer-shot guys are generally thought of as good-teammates-first types, some do get dealt for 25-man roster options during pennant races. Some get the proverbial cup-of-coffee. And, yeah, I consider that a positive. Here are some options that few people are talking about that could be big leaguers, or dealt for them, over the next few seasons.
Justin Marra, catcher. A 20-year-old 15th-round pick in 2011, Marra was a fill-in early and late for the Northwest League runners-up Boise Hawks in 2012. In his two games, he sported a 1.267 OPS. While small sample size rules here, he had a three-hit game in his early-season start, and drew a walk as a pinch-hitter late in the season. I expect he'll get time at catcher in Boise in 2013, and if he calls a good game and hits some, he could move up in a rather weak catching corps in the system.
Carlos Escobar, catcher. A 15th-round pick in 2012, Escobar was the Hawks' best defensive catcher. He was injured before the playoffs in August, but probably will have a realistic shot in Kane County this season. His OPS was under .800 in Boise, but a defensive-minded catcher can have a nice run in pro baseball.
Jacob Rogers, first base/third base. Drafted in the final (40th) round in 2012, the Cubs have selected him twice, as has Theo. Rushed to Peoria after Paul Hoilman was injured, Rogers hit two homers for the Chiefs, one of which was of the tape-measure variety. A player that draws walks (19 as compared to 14 strikeouts) and can crush mammoth blasts can be dangerous.
Jesse Hodges, third base. Hodges was signed in the Far East after a tournament involving his Canadian team. He recently proudly and humbly received the Canadian junior nationals MVP. It's going to be a long road for the undrafted player, but he sounds up to the task of trying. I'm guessing his bat will be his calling card, but he certainly sounds worth minding.
Ben Carhart, third base. If Hodges doesn't start at third for Boise, it could be the Cubs' 2012 35th-round selection from Stetson. Carhart had an OPS of .875 for the team's rookie-league squad in Mesa. Walking more than he fanned (15 to 14), I remember hearing him referred to as having a 'bad baseball body'. That was also the rap on Pablo Sandoval. Carhart just turned 23, so he probably doesn't have many missteps left, but if he hits, people tend to be forgiving.
Tim Saunders, infield. It could be argued the 32nd-round pick in 2012 doesn't belong here. The 22-year-old crushed Arizona League pitching, handled the Midwest League, and did well in the Florida State League after a slow start. He hits, and has very good speed. His defense is less certain, but if his bat continues to play, someone could eventually want to give him a chance.
Oliver Zapata, outfield. A member of the much-more-impressive looking outfield corps, Zapata might be the longest shot on this list. I include him because he homered to the deepest part of the park in Appleton last season to win a game in the 11th inning. If he shows that power more often, he might hang around awhile. I doubt he will supplant the bigger names, bt that's not what this column is about.
Here's the complete Cubs 2012 draft. Since I'm not remembering the rumored strong points of most of these names, I'll just throw a few of them out there. Carl Lang, Anthony Prieto, Ryan McNeil, and others have a chance at upgrading both their control (finding the zone) and command (effectiveness at locating pitches within that zone). If they do so, we will follow them through Boise, Kane County, and the rest. If they don't have any idea where the ball is going, they will be replaced by guys this June or next who do.
I really expect roving pitching instructor Derek Johnson to emphasize strike-throwing at all levels of the minor league system. If a 21-year-old's best stuff can't retire hitters in Boise, he will soon and surely be replaced by someone whose best stuff can.
Will any of the long-shots post a career WAR of 11.6, as Matt Stairs did? Probably not. It does look like, however, some guys that would have, in the past, been advanced in the system might not be any more. This April, those of us who are invested in the system's players emotionally will have some sad surprises as quality players get released. This will be a good thing for the system, as it indicates better things, and players, are on the way.