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Two years ago, Zach Cates was a catcher at Northeast Texas Community College.

A big kid with a big arm, Cates was converted to a pitcher late in 2009, before taking on the role full-time in 2010. Then, that summer, the San Diego Padres – under Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod – took a chance on Cates in the third round of the 2010 draft, and paid him big bucks to sign (his $765k signing bonus was double the recommended slot amount). Clearly, they saw serious potential in the young man, despite the limited track record.

The move paid relative dividends in Cates’ first professional season. Although he had a 4.73 ERA in 2011 at A-ball, his WHIP was a respectable 1.356 WHIP and struck out 111 in 118 innings of work.

Cates has a fastball that sits in the low to mid-90s, and touches the upper-90s. More impressively, he’s got an advanced changeup that is usually in the high 70s. He’s looked good enough that he was recently named by John Sickels as the Cubs’ 16th best prospect.

Hoyer was very pleased to land Cates in the Andrew Cashner/Anthony Rizzo swap.

“We’re excited to get Zach Cates,” Hoyer said. “He’s got a very good arm, he’s athletic. His velocity is around 96 and he has a very good change-up. There’s some development left, for sure, but he’s a prospect we’re excited to get.”

Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein agrees that there’s a great deal of upside with Cates.

“He’s got good stuff,” Goldstein said of Cates. “The best way to put it is he’s still kind of transitioning from thrower to pitcher. When he pitches, you watch him and you go ‘oh that looks like a catcher trying to pitch.’ Which is what he is.

“He has trouble throwing strikes because there’s effort to what he does. But there’s upside there. There are pieces of raw ingredients. He’s a big, strong kid who throws hard.”

Goldstein added that an impending issue for Cates is the lack of a good third pitch – a breaking ball – which could relegate Cates to the bullpen in the future.

Even if Cates ends up in the bullpen, this review only makes me more impressed at the Cubs’ work in the Rizzo/Cashner swap. Despite the Padres knowing how strongly the Cubs coveted Rizzo, they landed him for Cashner and Kyung Min-Na, a young outfield prospect most slot as a significantly less impressive prospect than Cates. Increasingly, I feel like Rizzo for Cashner and Na would have made sense. To land Cates – a very legitimate pitching prospect – on top of it? Well done, boys. Very well done. (And, yes, I understand the counterargument that, by acquiring Yonder Alonso, the Padres tipped their hand about their opinion of Rizzo, thus depressing his value. Still. I’m impressed.)

Cates, who turned 22 in December, will probably begin 2012 in High-A, and continue to work as a starting pitcher.

  • ferrets_bueller

    Quite a haul, indeed. Yet again, you give up low upside for great potential in both players.  Total win.

  • CubFan Paul

    i didnt know the other player was a Top 20 prospect too (until yesterday). Theo&Co. are plucking ‘their guys’ from the Sawx and Padres, players and coaches. So you’d have to believe that they’re plucking the BEST, not just whats available

  • Luke

    I think I read one report on Cates that said he has a slider that shows promise.

    The Cubs have had a lot of success converting position players to pitchers (Wells, Marmol, Dolis). No reason Cates can’t be the next success on that list.

  • ty

    Northeast Texas College has an oustanding coach that has a reputation for sending pitchers to the pros. Great weather for year around practice and play. Coachs wife is granddaughter of Mr. walmart. Scouts hang out there by the dozen!

  • jandersonjr81

    Basicly. Look at it this way. We traded Cashner for a younger Cashner. Maybe not same type of pitcher, but nearly same ceiling. Cashner does have a higher floor.

    But if you look at it that way, we basicly got Rizzo for Na. Under any circumstance, that is robbery. Good job guys.

    • baldtaxguy

      Interesting view. I agree.

  • Boogens

    I’m like all of the other bloggers that like the way Theo & Jed are always looking for upside in their deals. What I’ve noticed on the boards is that we always tend to think that the upside or potential is a given or will payoff. In reality only a percentage of those hedges will come in so even though we may like the thought process, it’s only valuable if a decent number of them do actually hit their upside.

    Another concern, who is going to work with all of the projects? Although there may be some successful examples of Cub reclamation projects (Dempster), the Cubs really don’t have a track record of success in this area. We’re taking on many projects (i.e. Travis Wood, Volstad, Ian Stewart, DeJesus, etc.) at the major league level without having a staff with genuine experience in turning guys around, let alone the volume we’re bringing in this year. For example, how many projects can pitching coaches with a track record of reclamation success (like Dave Duncan or even Don Cooper) actually handle in a year? It seems like the coaches won’t be able to handle the kind of through-put that’s being tossed at them right now.

  • Gabe

    great article brett! i’ve been waiting for someone to do a piece on cates. i was also hoping you could do a piece on the catching situation for the cubs. pluses and minuses of soto versus castillo. or are the cubs shopping for another catcher? you’d think that having such a young staff you’d want someone in there that could both call a great game and throw runners out. a javier molina type guy.

  • scottie

    and u can follow him on twitter @zcates50

    • Brett

      And you can tweet him this complimentary article!