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).
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.