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Continuing our survey of the Cubs’ farm system, position by position, today we are taking a look at center field. Unlike the corner outfield positions, where the Cubs have a severe lack of talent, center field is bursting at the seams with some very exciting and very promising players. Also, unlike some other positions, the talent in center stretches very nearly from the top to the bottom of the minor league system.

For the sake of this series I am considering Brett Jackson a corner outfielder and Zeke DeVoss a second baseman. It is possible that both of these guys will play in center throughout their professional careers, but I doubt it. For that reason, they do not appear on this Top Five (but remember that Jackson was named No. 1 on the corner outfield list).

Top Five

1 – Matt Szczur Age: 22. ETA: 2013.
Szczur is the clear number one in center. He is still refining his baseball skills after playing both baseball and football in college, but his very good speed and ability to make contact at the plate should result in plenty of hits. I think his OBP will easily be high enough to imagine Szczur at leadoff, but he may have enough power that the Cubs drop him to second. Given his solid spring training performance, I would not be surprised if he opens the season in Double-A Tennessee. If that happens, he could be in Wrigley sometime next season.

2 – Jae-Hoon Ha Age: 21. ETA: 2013.
Even though he projects as more of a fourth outfielder than a starting center fielder, Ha earns the second spot by consistently exceeding expectations. If a hole appears after Jackson is promoted, Ha could show up in Wrigley later this summer. Defensively, Ha is probably the best outfielder in the system. He is tough to strike out, but doesn’t have the power to play consistently in right. He has the speed to be a threat on the bases, but needs to work on that aspect of his game. I think he’ll start 2012 in Tennessee, but I’d not be surprised to see him in Iowa. He could take over for Reed Johnson next season.

3 – Pin-Chieh Chen Age: 20. ETA: 2015.
Chen has all the tools to be a high average, low power, very speedy outfielder for the Peoria Chiefs. He was converted from second base to outfield while playing for Boise in 2011, and he is still learning the position. I don’t think he will have any trouble sticking near the top of the lineup as he moves up the farm system, and, if his 20 steals last season are any indication, he will drive opposing pitches nuts at every stop he makes. I look forward to seeing what he can do in Peoria this summer.

4 – Taiwan Easterling Age: 23. ETA: 2014.
One of the bigger surprises of the 2011 Minor League season was draftee Taiwan Easterling. Taken in the 27th round as a dual football/baseball player out of Florida State, Easterling had no trouble with the lower levels of A-ball, eventually landing back in Florida as a member of the High-A Daytona Cubs. He is showing signs of decent power to go with his surplus of speed and quality defense. As is typical of two-sport college athletes, he still needs some polish at the plate, but there is plenty to like about Easterling. I suspect he will return to Daytona to start the 2012 season, and will likely stay there for much of the year.

5 – Evan Crawford Age: 23. ETA: 2013.
Crawford seems to be a forgotten man in the Cubs farm system, and I do not know why. At the age of 22 he put together a line of .307/.362/.401 with 32 steals in his first full season of High-A. He does not show much power yet, but at 6’2″ there is every reason to believe that a little power will yet develop. His strikeout rate is a touch higher than I like to see in a non-slugger (about 19%), but he showed some improvement in that department last season. What defensive numbers we have aren’t out of line for an A-ball outfielder either. Despite all of that, Crawford is often ignored completely in any discussion of Cub prospects. There may be something about him that does not show up on paper, but, if so, I am not aware of it. For now he checks in at No. 5 on this list, and I could make a case for ranking him as high as third. If he continues to have success in Double-A Tennessee this season, I think we will be hearing a lot more about him. [Brett: With Szczur and Ha ahead of him, Crawford's biggest problem as a center field prospect may be the lack of a team for which to play center field.]

Others To Watch

There were two other players taken in the 2011 draft that we should be watching, Shawon Dunston Jr. and Trey Martin. Taken two rounds apart, both are fast, athletic outfielders who have a chance to grow into more power than they have shown thus far. Both are likely to start the season in the Arizona Rookie League or in Boise. Logan Watkins and Rubi Silva could wind up in center, but, for the sake of this article series, I am counting them as second basemen. Jeffrey Baez had a nice season in the Dominican Summer League and is worth keeping track of.

That is a list of a center field prospects that would do any farm system proud. Had I dug a little deeper, I have no doubt I could have added another half a dozen names onto the list. Center field is one of the Cubs’ greatest areas of farm system depth, and one of the few areas in which the depth exists up and down the system.

Next time we will take a look at first base.

  • http://www.casualcubsfan.com hansman1982

    Isn’t some of that depth (and the lack of depth at the corners) partly due to Hendry’s philosophy of drafting up the middle athletic guys and if need be, move them to the corners?

    • Kyle

      Yes. On the bright side, that organizational philosophy netted us Castro, Soto, Jackson, etc.

      On the downside, we really lack any pure hitters.

      • Edwin

        On the downside, that’s left us with every single other player in the system.

        fixed it.

      • terencem

        Drafting “up the middle” is how the Yankees built their dynasty in the 90’s. Posada-Williams-Jeter. If your players turn into stars, then you can fill in the rest of the field pretty cheaply. I’m a big fan of this strategy, but you have to find and draft/sign star caliber players to make it work which is not something the Cubs have done very well.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I’m not sure how much of that philosphy was Hendry and how much was Wilken’s plan to build a farm system on the cheap.  Regardless of who gets the credit (or the blame), drafting athletic infielders and center fielders produced a farm system with a huge amount of depth and not much star power.

      Of course, as soon as Wilken got a decent budget to work with in 2011 he managed a much more balanced draft and injected some badly needed potential stars into the system.

  • Noah

    Aside from my disagreement with you on if Brett Jackson should be considered a corner outfielder or a center fielder, good list. I’m more bearish on both Szczur and Ha than you. This is a big year for Szczur. If he shows improvement, he could vault up into the top half of a lot of Top 100 lists. If he doesn’t he essentially becomes a non-prospect.

    The fact that Ha both doesn’t walk and doesn’t hit for much power concerns me. I just don’t think he’ll do enough offensively to be a regular.

    I also wouldn’t be surprised to see both of these guys spend the whole season in AA, and wouldn’t be shocked to even see one get sent down to Daytona at some point. Theo and Jed have a track record of pushing their prospects along the minors much more slowly than Jim Hendry did.

  • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

    With having Brett Jackson as a corner OF, this list looks worse than the corner list.
    I’m not a Szczur believer at all.

  • King Jeff

    The Baseball Reference links are very awesome. Either it’s something new, or I haven’t been paying attention.

    I consider center to be not only the Cubs deepest position, but also the most talented. I get the feeling that we will be seeing some of these guys involved in trades within the next couple of years to bring in major league talent. I agree with you on Ha, I think he could be a fast track player and end up in Wrigley sooner than any of the others on the list. His speed and defense could finally shut people up about Tony Campana’s invaluable contributions.

    • hardtop

      oh dude, invaluable. i actually only go to two sites when it comes to baseball; BN and baseball reference (with the occasional trot over to mlbtraderumors and fangraphs)

  • Edwin

    Luke,

    What kind of numbers have these guys been putting up relative to the league that they played in?

    For example, where does Jae-Hoon Ha rank against other CF in his league? He had an OPS of .733 in A+ last season, and .722 in AA.

    • Dick

      When you talk about power, in particular, you need to realize that this improves significantly with age. A 20 year old with 10-15 home runs is more impressive than a 25 year old with, say. 15-20 homers. Guys like Ha project to considerably better OPS when they reach their mid-20’s.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      League average OPS in the Southern League in 2011 was .739.  Ha compares well given that power is not a big part of his game and that he was two or three years young for the league.

      His power will continue to develop over the next several years, but he’s never going to be a slugger.  I’d say he’ll wind up as a 10-15 HR  a season guy.  If he can clean up his base running, he could probably pair that with 30 steals or so.

      • Turn Two

        You’d say he will wind up with 15 homers, 30 steals and great defense according to the post and the article, yet at the same time you target him as nothing more than a 4th outfielder unless he exceeds your expectations. Ill take the 15/30 defensive center fielder as my starter.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          Ha should have a chance to bump Jackson out of center field, but I don’t think he can keep center away from Szczur, and he definitely doesn’t have the power to be a regular guy in one of the corners.  That’s why, for the Cubs, I see him as a fourth outfielder long term.  On a lot of other teams he’d be the heir apparent in center.

          And Ha has a lot of work to do to get to 30 steals.  He is still being picked off more often than not.  I think he can get there, but it could be awhile.

           

          • Turn Two

            I see where your headed with it now. I just cant project both Szczur and Ha to reach that kind of full potential. Though both are strong assets, if either can figure it out enough to make the bigs I will be pleased. I’d agree Szczur seems to have the better shot. Great thing about depth in the system is hopefully someone will pan out in center/short/second/catcher if we keep collecting the assets and then we have our abundance of first base prospects and we just need to get a few corner guys and, in my opinion, restart at pitching.

  • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

    Ha has the same problem as Vitters, Lake, maybe even Szczur…allergic to walks. I’m pessimistic on these type of hitters.

    • Noah

      I’m going to be curious to see if the Cubs as a system walk more this season than in prior seasons. I know you’ve seen the same stories I have where former Cubs prospects have said that you couldn’t walk your way to promotions in the Cubs system, and that plate discipline was not emphasized at all under Hendry.

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

        That is one of the biggest system wide trends I’ll be watching this season.  I think I saw some improvement in that area late last year, but it was fairly nebulous.  2012 will tell the tale.

      • DocWimsey

        Hendry definitely “believed” deep down inside that BA rather than OBP was telling you how frequently a guy got on base, and that taking walks somehow took away from the hits a guy would get. For some reason, convincing some people that walks come (largely) at the expense of grounders, popups and K’s rather than doubles or HR is tough.

        • Brady

          I much rather prefer batters with high OBP that can take a bunch of walks. Not as interesting to watch but it forces pitchers to give them better pitches to swing at if they arent swinging at garbage. Also nothin like adding extra runs or extending an inning based on a little paitence.

          • DocWimsey

            It is not even that good pitch identification “forces” pitchers to throw strikes: good pitch ID punishes pitchers for failing to do so. After all, most pitchers are not trying to get batters to chase balls out of the strike zone: they are trying to throw pitches to different parts of the strike zone in order to keep batters off-balance. The catch is that the strike zone is a pretty small target, especially if you are throwing a pitch with movement.

            And actually walks can be fun to watch: there often is that tension on a reasonably close pitch when the batter doesn’t swing. And, of course, the high fives at the end of the game are fun after you’ve out-walked (and, as a result, out-scored) the opposition.

            I don’t think that Hendry ever really accepted that, however.

            • Brady

              I completely agree. My point on making pitchers throw better pitches to hit is a batter with a good eye is much more likely to see 3-0 and 3-1 counts than one who swings freely. Those counts force pitchers to either throw a good pitch or risk the walk. Most of the time they throw something good. If they dont and the batter is good enough it is another walk. I like walks but as we are usually the one giving them up I have grown to grumble a bit.

    • Brian

      I don’t understand this claim. Outside of his stint in A+ when he was clearly just worn out, his worst walk rate is over 7%. I think we’ll see a return to that in 2012.

      • DocWimsey

        Ha’s career isoD is under 0.03. That is Shawon-o-meter territory.

  • Jeremy

    I’m really high on Szczur. I like him a lot and I think he could be our future CF and lead off hitter. That being said this will be a big year for him. It seems like he has had a good solid spring, which like you said would most likely put him at AA to start the year. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what he does this year. Luke, what would be a reasonable projection for him at AA this year if he were to make his ETA of 2013?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      If he starts at Double A, then mainly I’ll be looking to see on base percentage and a greater willingness to attempt the steal.  Given his speed, he seemed oddly reluctant to run at times last year.  And as a possible lead off hitter, his ability to reach base will be the key to his game.

      I’m not worried about his power at this stage, but down the road I think he’ll hit around 10 HR a season, along with plenty of doubles.

  • cubsin

    I don’t think I’d ever heard Evan Crawford mentioned as a Cubs prospect, but I’ll pay more attention to him in the future,

    I think Matt Szczur may be an All-Star player and a possible Hall-of-Famer. His athleticism is off the charts. His detractors seem to ignore the fact that he was a two-sport player, and even returned for his senior year of football after his minor-league debut. And yes, I remember Michael Jordan’s illustrious baseball career, but I also remember Bo Jackson.

    Jae-Hoon Ha is still quite young for AA, so it’s too early for me to concede that his ceiling is a fourth or fifth outfielder.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      If we have any readers who saw Crawford play last year in Daytona, I’d like to know what they thought about him.

      • King Jeff

        From what I remember, he struck out a lot and he didn’t look real comfortable at the plate. I’m also pretty sure he played one of the corner spots most of the year, but that could have been more because of who else was in center, rather than because of any deficiency on his part. I don’t know why, but his game kind of reminds me of Delino DeShields.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          He’s not the defender in center that Ha or Szczur are, and he would have played most of his time with one of those two.  That’s why he played primarily in a corner.

          If he can post an OBP of .362 when he doesn’t look comfortable at the plate, I wonder what he’ll do when he gets comfortable.

          • Rynorooter

            Yeah, a .362 OBP, fueled by a .389 BABIP. All as a 22 year old in High A. Crawford is a non-prospect.

      • Spriggs

        I only saw him play a few games, but my first impression was “WOW!, Not a bad haul at all for Fonty”. He hit an opposite field triple off the top of the wall – and just exploded going around 2nd. Tremendous speed and surprising pop. I have been anxiously following him ever since.

        Off topic, but I saw quite a display of power (and bat speed) today from Javier Baez in a minor league game at Fitch today. What a hitter, man! His swing is a thing of beauty. Those who say Vitters has a sweet swing are in for a real thrill!! Opposite field homer and a double high off the center field wall (hitter’s background).

        • Rynorooter

          I believe he took a BB as well, per AZ Phil. Good things early on from Baez.

  • Deer

    10 HRs a year is what I think too based on his swing. If he doesn’t learn to become a big base stealer, then it’s going to be tough for him to be a ML starting outfielder.

  • Kyle

    I know this has been hashed out already, but I’d be stunned if Brett Jackson appears in a corner spot for even 10% of his major league games.

  • die hard

    best candidate is Castro….why nobody sees this is mind boggling

  • Cory

    I just don’t know how anyone can be down on Szczur the kid played 2 sports and now has plenty of time to focus on baseball. I’m not sure he will develop as quickly as others think but the kid has worlds of potential there’s really no reason to think this is a make or break year for him. Even if it takes 2 or 3 he will still be in his prime and from a rebuilding standpoint there’s no reason to judge him any sooner.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      He’s ticketed for Double A after one full season in the minors.  I’m not sure how much faster he can be expected to go.

      That said, I am higher on Szczur than most.  There are plenty of scouts who just aren’t convinced that he is a baseball player and not just an athlete.  Those skeptics often point at Samardzija as justification.  Of course, Samardzija is poised to claim a spot in the Cubs starting rotation and has the front office and coaches raving about him.

  • THEOlogical

    Luke, if (when) the Cubs trade some of these top CF’ers for key pieces, which of them do you think they will hold on to? Which one, basically, is a piece their not willing to part with being they will need a CF’er for yrs to come?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I think Szczur is the future in center.  Of this group, I think Chen is the most likely to be traded, but I doubt the Cubs are in any hurry to do so.  A future outfield of Jackson, Szczur and Soler (or Vitters, or Lake) with Ha coming off the bench would not surprise me at all.

      • ty

        Centerfield article really interesting and comments really insightful. All these center field hopefuls while Fitch Field is fronted by “Center Street” in Mesa. Easterling is a treat to watch with his outfield speed and above average arm. Ha has power potential beyond what is predicted–actually uses wrists and hips in swing much like Ernie Banks and stance is similar.

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