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Get To Know: The 2011 Peoria Chiefs

The minor league season starts this Thursday, and as always, I'm going to be giving nightly updates of all the games. The Cub system has produced several top players in the past few years like Geovany Soto, Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner, and this is your chance to get to know the next stars of Wrigley before they make the majors. Or maybe just the next stars of Tropicana Field. But as everyone who has read me in the past knows, I don't just mention the prospects. The top prospects don't become quality major leaguers without having quality teammates in the minors, so my way of thanking them is to mention pretty much everyone who has a good day down in the minors.

The first team to release their opening day roster is the Cubs low-A team in the Midwest League, the Peoria Chiefs. For reasons of geography, this is the team that Cub fans are most likely to see in person. Even if you don't live in central Illinois, you can see the Chiefs play in Geneva against their rivals the Kane County Cougars. There are also Midwest League teams in Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and now even Kentucky. (And the Chiefs will travel to Bowling Green this season. They don't every year.)

If you want the complete opening day roster of the Chiefs, the pdf can be found here.

After the jump, a look at the players to watch this season.

Coaching Staff: Manager Casey Kopitzke is back for his second season managing the Chiefs and his third season managing in the Cubs system. Kopitzke was an infielder in the Cubs system from 1999 to 2006, making it all the way to AAA Iowa before his playing career ended. Still only 32 years old, Kopitzke is considered rising star and a candidate to be on a major league coaching staff one day.

The pitching coach is Jeff Fassero, who is someone who should be familiar to anyone here who's been a Cub fan for more than a decade, since the 16 year major league veteran spent two seasons with the Cubs in 2001 and 2002. This is his second season coaching for the Cubs. Last year he was the pitching coach for the Boise Hawks.

The hitting coach is Ricardo Medina. Medina has been coaching in the Cubs system since 1999. This is his second season as the Chiefs hitting coach. He played for the Chiefs in 1993.

Pitching: All eyes this season are going to be on last season's number one draft pick, right-hander Hayden Simpson. He certainly qualified as the most shocking pick of the first round last season (although the Yankees pick of Cito Culver would be a close second) as the pitcher out of Div II Southern Arkansas wasn't on very many draft radars before the Cubs took him. He signed quickly after the draft, but came down with a case of mononucleosis that put him on the shelf for the rest of the season.

Very few people have seen Simpson pitch, but those who have generally have very positive things to say about him. The Cubs saw him throwing a mid-90s fastball with a nasty curve, a good slider and changeup, with command of all four pitches. His combination of stuff and short size has drawn comparisons to Roy Oswalt, although that might be a bit of a tough comp to hang on someone who hasn't throw a professional pitch yet.

You won't have to wait long to see Simpson pitch. He'll be the opening night starter on Thursday. He'll be on a strict pitch count after his long layoff, but that's not unusual for any Cub pitcher in the low minors.

Another pitcher to watch this season is Robinson Lopez, who was the prize prospect that the Cubs got in the Derrek Lee trade with Atlanta. Lopez throws very hard and has a good changeup, but he's still raw and his control will be a major story this season. Lopez finished last season with Peoria.

Left hander Austin Kirk was a third-round pick out of high school in Oklahoma in 2009. He and fellow lefty Cameron Greathouse were probably the two best starters for Boise last season. Kirk had a 3.36 ERA and 65 strikeouts and 21 walks in 64 innings between Boise and Peoria. Greathouse, an 8th round pick out of junior college last June, has a devastating curve ball. He was 3-2 with a 2.75 with 44 strikeouts and 11 walks in 39 innings for Boise.

Lefty Jeffry Antigua was a top 20 prospect in Baseball America for 2010, but a mediocre season had him drop out of the rankings. He's only 20, so he has time to turn it around. Lefty Graham Hicks came over in the Tom Gorzelanny trade and was a 4th round pick in 2008.

Catchers: Third round pick Micah Gibbs was considered the best defensive catcher in the draft last June. The glove is there, but he didn't hit last year in Boise. He'll be challenged moving up a level and going to the bad offensive environment of the Midwest League. Sergio Burruel was a 19th round pick in 2009 who hit very well for the Cubs Rookie ball team last year. He's a sleeper prospect to keep an eye on this year.

Infielders: Second baseman Pierre LePage, a 13th round pick out of UConn last year, is a little guy who's offensive game consists of putting the ball into play. Fortunately, he's very good at that and he hit .331 for Boise last season. He also struck out in fewer than 10% of his plate appearances. First baseman Richard Jones and third baseman Greg Rohan are both back in Peoria after finishing the season there last year. Both have the size to hit for power, but so far their power is just average and the Midwest League is a tough place to hit the ball a long way. Shortstop Eliot Soto is a solid glove from Carpentersville, IL. He'll share SS duties with Arismendy Alcantara, whose name I'm sure will cause me grief to no end this season. May he force me to write it a lot.

Outfielders: If Simpson is going to be the most-watched Chief this season, center fielder Matt Szczur (pronounced "Caesar") is going to be a close second. Szczur got $1.5 million this off-season to give up a potential football career. Szczur is extremely fast and profiles as a prototypical leadoff hitter. He hit .397 in Boise last summer before getting a brief call-up to Peoria and then leaving to finish his senior season of football at Villanova. There is some disagreement as to whether or not he'll ever develop any power. Baseball America says yes, others say no. What no one disagrees with is that he scores an "80" on the "makeup" scale.

DJ Fitzgerald has some talent, but is now in his third season with Peoria. Rubi Silva and Smaily Borges round out the outfield and are two of the three Cubans on the Chiefs roster. (Pitcher Juan Serrano is the other.) Borges is an organizational player. Silva should be a prospect, as he signed for $1 million this off-season after defecting from the Cuban National Junior team. According to Baseball America, he's a free swinger with a line drive stroke and gap power.

The Tennessee Smokies are up next. I'll try to write them up tonight.