The Prospect’s Progress series will take a look at the improvements (or lack of improvement) made by a number of Cub prospects during the 2012 season. Each of the articles will highlight two players, one hitter and one pitcher. It seems appropriate to start things off with Logan Watkins and Nick Struck, the Cubs Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Year.
Nick Struck, RHP
Struck has put together a pretty good minor league career. He first came to the attention of Cub fans when he tossed a five inning, rain shortened no-hitter for Peoria in 2010. In 2011 he rocketed from Daytona at the start of the season all the way to Triple A Iowa, ultimately starting eleven games at the highest level of the system. Along the way we learned that Struck projected as a decent back of the rotation option for the Cubs one day, but before that could happen he had some work to do. In particular, he needed to show that he could put in a full work load as a starter, he needed to do a better job of keeping runners off the bases, and he needed to show enough improvement to keep his name in the hat for a possible look in spring training.
Mission accomplished. Struck earned his Pitcher of the Year accolades by throwing a career high number of innings and cutting his BB/9 and his H/9, all while raising his K/9. All 155 of his innings came for the Tennessee Smokies where he was a reliable, if unspectacular, fixture in their rotation. He finished the year with a respectable WHIP of 1.182 and an equally respectable K/BB of 2.80. It isn’t hard to project those number forward into a major league rotation job as a fifth starter in 2014 or so.
Unfortunately, I still think fifth starter is his ceiling. His best path to the majors is as a reliable, cheap, back of the rotation option who keeps the game close and consistently pitches into the seventh inning. To reach that target, I would like to see him cut back on his 2012 0.8 HR/9 rate and increase his workload into the 180 innings range next season. If he can do that while keeping his WHIP under 1.300 or so (remember, he’ll be in the PCL, a notorious hitters’ league) and his K/BB no worse than the 2.80 neighborhood, he could be in line for a September start or two.
If he is still in the farm system when spring training roles around, I think he will get some chances in spring training. I do not expect him to break camp on the Cubs roster. Long term, his future may be in the bullpen, not the rotation, but, so long as he can keep runners off the bases and avoid the long ball, he could have a nice career as a middle reliever.
Logan Watkins, 2B
Watkins had a very strong finish to his 2011 Daytona campaign. His finish was so strong, in fact, that there was reason to doubt that he could maintain those offensive improvements over a full season. We knew he projected as a potential plus defender with the arm to play in center and the range to play at short; what we didn’t know was whether or not he could hit enough to force himself into the Cubs plans. In 2012, he needed carry his hot finish to the 2011 season into Tennessee and maintain it all year long. He needed to prove at the plate that he was a project with all around major league potential.
He made it look easy. Watkins not only maintained his progress, he did so while setting career highs in SLG (.422), walks (76), and stolen bases (28). Suddenly, Watkins is not just a potential defense-first utility prospect for the Cubs bench, he is a legitimate second base prospect with a chance to see his name at the top of the Cubs’ order on a daily basis in another year or two.
But the news is not all good. Against right handers Watkins hit a robust .301/.406/.440. Against lefties, he slumped to a line of .221/.314/.369. That lefty split needs to improve if he is going to make the Cubs find a place for him in their daily lineup.
At worst, Watkins projects as a very useful left handed hitting utility player for the Cubs’ bench. He has the tools and athleticism to fill in at any position on the diamond, the speed to be useful in a pinch runner role, and the high OBP that should ensure him of plenty of at bats in a part time role.
At best, he’s the Cubs second baseman and lead off hitter starting in 2014 and continuing for some time to come. Watkins has the potential to be one of the league’s better defenders at second, and while he may not quite match Darwin Barney with the glove, he should have little trouble eclipsing Barney with the bat. Watkins has the combination of SB speed and OBP patience that Barney just doesn’t; at some point we may get to see these two battle for the starting second base job.
Look for Watkins to put up some very nice looking numbers in the hitter friendly PCL as a member of the Iowa Cubs in 2013. I would not be surprised if he turned in an OPS north of .900. The key number to watch will be his numbers against lefties; we need to see improvement in that department. He should get a long look from the Cubs in spring training (if he is still in the organization), but he is still at least a year away from being a serious contender for a major league job.