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When the Chicago Cubs traded, among others, top pitching prospect Chris Archer to the Tampa Bay Rays in the Matt Garza deal, a number of dedicated prospect fans were disappointed. They saw Archer as a kid with Garza’s upside at a fraction of the cost. Setting aside the fact that, even after establishing themselves as well as Archer has, most prospects still fizzle out, the complainers were right in that respect: Archer’s upside is as a Matt Garza-caliber starter.

But the Cubs weren’t left without a solid pitching prospect. In fact, I’ve heard rumors that the Rays demanded that they receive, in the Garza deal, at least one of Archer, and the Cubs’ other big-time pitching prospect: Trey McNutt.

The Cubs elected to keep McNutt.

So what does that mean? It means, perhaps, that the Cubs see an even brighter future for McNutt than they do for Archer – a reasonable position given McNutt’s dominant 2010 season. But what do outside observers think? If they were given the choice – Archer or McNutt – whom would they choose?

John Sickels analyzed the two pitchers, and concluded that there’s very little separating them. A sample of the analysis:

Physicality, Health, and Tools

Archer: Archer is a 6-3, 180 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born September 26, 1988. He’s had no serious health problems. His fastball velocity has increased over the last three years; he tops out at 97 MPH and works consistently at 92-94.The heater has movement as well as velocity. His breaking ball was more curve-like earlier in his career, but is now a firm slider, a very effective pitch rated as plus by scouts. His changeup is average but has improved a great deal over the last two years. He is a good athlete and has a smooth delivery, two factors which should help him stay healthy. His biggest weakness right now is control, which still wobbles on him at times.

McNutt: McNutt is a 6-4, 205 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born August 2nd, 1989. He has had no serious health problems. His fastball has picked up considerable steam since he was a junior college freshman, now topping off at 97-98 MPH with consistent 92-94 velocity. Movement on the pitch is average but he locates it with precision. His curveball is a plus pitch, but his changeup is just average at this point and needs to be improved as he advances. His command and control are excellent, and like Archer he is a good athlete.

Advantage: Very close. Both are healthy and athletic. Both throw hard, McNutt with a bit more peak velocity, but Archer with more movement. Both have plus breaking balls but need to improve their changeups. McNutt has better command, but Archer gets more grounders. I call it even.

Sickels goes on to find the two comparable in other categories, including background, intangibles, current performance, and projection. He sees both as future number two starters, if all goes according to plan. In the end, he gives the ever-so-slight edge to McNutt because of his superior command and better K/BB ratio last year.

Only time will tell whether the Cubs were better to deal Archer and hold onto McNutt. Sickels would say they were – he ranks McNutt as the 20th best pitching prospect in baseball going into 2011, and Archer 22.

McNutt ended the year with a few starts in AA Tennessee, which is where he will begin the 2011 season. He’s not likely to make the leap to the big club this year, but could certainly be in AAA by mid-season.

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