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Getting to know the Peoria Chiefs

I don't know if you've heard, but the major league season has started. Of course, that means that some of you are excited because that means that the minor league season is just a few days away. So for the rest of the week, I'll be bringing you previews of the four top Cubs minor league teams.

We start today with the Peoria Chiefs, the Cubs single A (or "low-A") team in the Midwest League. They are the lowest full-season minor league team in the system. They're managed by Casey Kopitzke, who's a rising star in the Cubs organization. The 31 year old former catcher spent eight years in the Cubs system, rising as high as AAA Iowa. After spending two years as a roving catching instructor, he managed short-season Boise last season.

Kopitzke will be assisted by pitching coach David Rosario and hitting coach Barbaro Garbey. Rosario was Kopitzke's pitching coach at Boise last season and was the pitching coach in Peoria in 2007. Garbey was the hitting coach in Peoria last season and was a teammate of Alan Trammell's on the 1984 World Series Champion Detroit Tigers.

If you don't want a detailed look at the roster of the Chiefs, I can sum up the team in one word: "Fast." They've got more speed than any other team in the Cubs system and they've got several hard-throwing pitchers who can bring it. That should make for some exciting baseball. There's not a lot of power on the team, so they'll have to scratch out runs in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Midwest League.

If you want to see the Peoria Chiefs this season, you could, of course, see them in Peoria. But if you live in the Chicagoland area, the Chiefs will play at Kane County on May 7, 8, 9; July 1, 2, 3; August 14, 15, 16 and September 1, 2, 3. They'll also play in the Annual "Road to Wrigley" game at Wrigley Field sometime this summer. Of course, they'll also play throughout the Midwest against different teams in the Midwest League.

The Roster is after the break.

There is very little doubt who most eyes in Peoria are going to be on this summer. Flashy Korean shortstop Hak-Ju Lee is the top prospect in Peoria after a stellar season in Boise last summer where he hit .330 with a .399 OBP and 25 SB. He was named by Baseball America as the #1 prospect in the Northwest League last season. He's also a flashy glove at SS and has got the tools to be top defensive shortstop. He was prone to some defensive breakdowns last season, which was probably just due to inexperience. I read that at least one scout compared him to Jose Reyes. I can't promise that he's going to be a superstar in the majors like Reyes, but I can promise that if the Cubs need someone to sing the Carpenters' hit "Superstar," Lee's the man for the job.

The second-best prospect on the Chiefs is Lee's close friend and double-play partner from Boise, second baseman Logan Watkins. Watkins was a shortstop in high school in Kansas and probably has the tools to play there professionally, but he moves over to second base to make room for Lee. He's still learning the position, but he should be a good glove at second or anywhere else the Cubs decide to play him. I'd expect the Chiefs to play him some in the outfield and at third base this season just to give him a little more flexibility. Like Lee, he makes good contact and runs well. Watkins hit .326 for Boise last season with a ..389 OBP. He stole 14 bases. His power isn't there yet as his SLG was only .391 last season, but he hits the ball hard and I'd expect him to at least start hitting some doubles soon. Baseball America named him the #7 prospect in the Cubs system this past off-season.

On the days that Watkins sits or plays a different position, expect Matt Cerda to play second base for the Chiefs. The 5'9" Cerda was drafted by the Cubs as a catcher, which was a position he hadn't played since being a Little League World Series star for Oceanside (CA) in 2001. He's best known even today and you can read about here. The move to catcher didn't take though and Cerda was injured most of last season. Cerda's a little David Eckstein clone, so expect much scrappiness whenever he takes the field.

The infield is rounded out by first baseman Justin Bour, third baseman Greg Rohan and utility guy George Matheus. Bour is a big left-handed bat who might be one of the few sources of power in the Chiefs lineup, although he only hit two last season in Boise and two in rookie ball. He showed some decent power as a collegian at George Mason, however. Rohan was a 21st round pick out of Kent State and hit four home runs for Boise last year.

In the outfield, there's more speed. As fast as Hak-Ju Lee is, he's probably not the fastest player on the Chiefs. That honor likely belongs to Jose Valdez. The Dominican center fielder stole 25 bases in 62 games between Boise and Peoria last season. He hit a combined .313 and reached base at a .360 clip. Once again, he has no power to speak of.

If anyone is going to hit home runs for the Chiefs this season, it's likely to be outfielder Richard Jones, a ninth-round pick out of The Citadel last season. He hit seven home runs in twelve games in rookie ball in Arizona before they finally told him to go to Boise. His power slowed down there, but he's the Chiefs' best hope for the long ball.

The outfield is rounded out by Jesus Morelli and Alvaro Ramirez. Neither one is really a prospect, but they both seem to be able to run pretty well.

Behind the plate, the big story is Jovan Rosa. Rosa played both first and third for the Chiefs in 2008 when he led the Midwest League in doubles and started to move up the prospect charts. He struggled badly after getting promoted to Daytona last year and spent the second half of the season back in Peoria, where his bat returned. However, he was never comfortable defensively at third and his bat probably wasn't good enough to reach the majors as a first baseman, so now he's going to try to be a catcher. He's back in Peoria for a third straight year, as is his backup, Mario Mercedes.

On the mound, the ace of the staff is likely to be Jeffry Antigua, who just might be the best left-handed pitching prospect in the organization. Antigua has solid command of three pitches and while his fastball is only in the low 90s, it's said to have great movement. Splitting time between Boise and Peoria last season, Antigua struck out 68 and walked only 19 in 68.2 innings of work. He held opposing hitters to a .195 batting average.

Another guy with filthy stuff is Trey McNutt. OK, get your giggles out now. McNutt throws really hard. He strikes a lot of people out. He also has trouble controlling his fastball and his breaking stuff needs work. He walks too many hitters right now. He may start for Peoria, but he might profile better as a major league reliever.

If you read the Minor League Wrap last season, you probably remember Jeffrey Beliveau. Beliveau is another lefty who throws in the low 90s and has a nasty curve ball. He also strikes out a lot of batters: 117 in 96 innings in Peoria. (Are you noticing a trend here?) So why is he back in the Midwest League? Probably those 45 walks. Beliveau will probably both start and relieve, but better projects out as a bullpen arm.

Robert Whitenack will likely start for Peoria and he's one guy I'd love to see pitch. Not so much because the eigth-round pick last year is a great prospect (he's a decent prospect) but because he features a knuckleball. How often do you get to see a knuckleball these days? Like any knuckleballer, he's going to have good days and bad days.

An early favorite to nab saves is Steve Grife, who was a 26th round pick out of Mercyhurst College last year. He had four saves last year while striking out 26 batters in 21 innings last year. Of course, he also walked 17. But most of that was in rookie ball, so keep an eye on his control early this season.

Su-Ming Jung is a groundball pitcher and someone to speak Korean with Lee. He'll need to work on his control as well to be successful this season. Jordan Latham is back in Peoria after missing the entire 2009 season. Ronny Morla came over from Oakland in the Jake Fox trade. Corey Martin, Jonathan Nagle, Andres Quezada and Nicolas Struck round out the pitching staff.