Will it play in Peoria?

Recently I got a chance to watch some of the top prospects in the Cubs’ organization (and yes, I know this is not exactly a high bar to reach). I went to see the Peoria Chiefs play the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Cardinals’ Low-A affiliate. On hand was the Cubs’ consensus top prospect, Josh Vitters, as well as consensus top-10 prospect Ryan Flaherty.

First, I should warn you that I am not a scout. But I am not exactly an econometrician, either, and I haven’t had a problem with doing that sort of work on an amateur basis. But I don’t feel comfortable grading tools on a 0-80 scale or anything. Also, I doubt real MLB scouts ever have to turn their attention away from the field to check diapers, to clean up ice cream spills, or have their notepads stolen by their toddlers. So feel free to take these observations with a grain of salt.

First, a few notes on the game conditions. Despite what the boxscore might lead you to believe, the conditions weren’t ripe for a slugfest—the air was damp and humid from an oncoming rain storm (as well as having the stadium on the banks of the Mississippi River) and the air was calm, with no wind to speak of. As with many minor league fields, the quality and upkeep was less than that you’d expect from a major league park, with tufts of grass standing up at the edge of the infield and a playing surface uneven enough to be seen from the stands.

Some perspectives on scouting

Again, I am not a scout. But I did try to act like one, and so this is based upon my understanding of the purpose and methods of scouting. So, as best as I understand it, here are some basic principles of the scouting process:

Process, not outcomes
The idea is not to focus on what a player does, but how he does it. In the course of one game, the sample size isn’t there to discover what a player is capable of by his results. A scout, then, should focus on the hows: how he swings the bat, how he approaches an at-bat, how he sets at his position.
Not what he is, but what he can be
Few (if any) of the players at a Low-A ballgame are cabable of stepping into a major league game and playing at even a replacement level. The best player and the worst player on a Low-A team would probably have roughly results if you were to call them up to the majors right now. So the idea isn’t to figure out who is currently the best player, but who will be the best player in a few years.

I am at a disadvantage, in that I have rarely seen a minor league game (at least in recent years; I doubt my childhood experiences are particularly relevant here), so I don’t have much of a frame of reference for these players. These are rather raw evaluations. I also do have a “homer bias”—these are players from the Cubs organization, and fans have a tendency to grow attached to their prospects out of proportion to their abilities. I am doing my best to be impartial here, but a little disclosure never hurt anyone.

Josh Vitters

The first thing to notice about Vitters as a hitter is his bat speed. His swing is very fluid, and he looks very in control of the bat as it goes through the zone. And his hands are very, very quick. It’s very noticably a line-drive swing, as well—he isn’t a hack, swinging for the fences; and he isn’t a slap-hitter, looking to just get the ball in play. He also runs well, with good speed out of the box. He hustles.

He doesn’t have a ton of raw power behind that swing yet, however. He is still very young, however, and it’s easy to see him maturing into that sort of power as he grows older. Because of this, the Cubs don’t need to rush him through the minors just yet. He’s an impressive hitter where he’s at right now, but it’s likely to be several years before he’s physically developed into a major league hitter.

I don’t have much to say about his defense at third base; I only saw a handful of fielding chances for him and they seemed pretty routine. He charges the ball well and he has an adequate arm for a third baseman.

Ryan Flaherty

Flaherty also has what I’d call a line drive swing; he’s a balanced hitter. He seems to have a bit more pop in his bat (which makes sense, as he’s an older player who was drafted out of college.) He doesn’t have Vitters’ bat speed though. I’d say he’s closer to being MLB-ready, but he doesn’t have the same ceiling as a hitter that Vitters does.

The larger question for Flaherty is whether or not he can stick at shortstop. I found some discouraging signs in this regard. He did make some impressive plays in the field, but he didn’t seem very rangy and I got the impression that a better shortstop could have made those plays look a lot less impressive. They also would have had a better chance of getting the runner on those plays. His throws over to first were uninspiring, and not very on-target. (He was charged with one throwing error on the evening.)

It’s possible that he can stick at shortstop, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Luckily for him he has enough of a bat that he still has a possible MLB future if he slides over to another defensive position, such as second or third. (I know I mentioned that he has an unimpressive arm, but moving to third base is not out of the picture—shortstops typically have a longer throw to first because of how deep they play in the hole.) At this point, though, there’s no reason for the Cubs to move him off shortstop. Again, there is always a chance he could stick there, and he’s far enough away from the majors at this point that keeping him at shortstop isn’t going to slow down his progress.

Some other players of note

Rebel Ridling
He swings the bat with authority, that’s for sure. He struck out three times on the night, so I didn’t have much of a chance to see how well he makes contact with that swing. As a first base/DH sort he needs to hit very well to make the majors; he doesn’t look like a defensive liability at first, though, with a couple of nice plays on ground balls to right. At 23 years old he’s probably a bit older than your typical Low-A hitter (the average age for a position player in the Midwest League last year was 21.6).
Junior Lake
A shorstop by trade, he was slotted at second base to make room for Flaherty. Very slick fielder, and very speedy. His bat was less impressive, though: He looked like a slap hitter, and seemed to have troubles making contact.
Luis Flores
Impressive bat for a young catcher, with some real pop to his bat. Young might be a stretch, however, since at 23 years old he’s old for his level. He has a strong arm, but threw the ball into the outfield in his only attempt at throwing out a runner.
Michael Brenly
Son of Cubs TV announcer Bob Brenly, who was on hand to sing the seventh inning stretch. A bit of a cliche, perhaps, but he looked like a professional hitter—fouled a lot of balls off, took pitches and worked counts. Runs pretty well for a catcher. Didn’t actually get to see him catch, however. Also 23 years old, so old for his level.

A side note

The park wasn’t exactly empty, but it wasn’t exactly bustling either. If you’ve come this far in reading, you’re obviously a fan of baseball and of prospects. Consider going out to see your local minor league team—it’s a very different experience than what you get on telelvision or at a major league park. It’s a more intimate experience, like seeing a band play a smaller venue.Bleacher seats that typically cost $7 were as close to the field as some of the nicer lower-deck box seats I’ve sat at in Wrigley Field. The quality of play may not be the same, of course, but it’s still exciting and above all else, still baseball. Give it a chance, if you haven’t already. After a long hiatus from minor league ball, I’m excited about it and look forward to going back later this summer.

References & Resources

Player ages from the 2008 Midwest League from Baseball Reference.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

A look at the Cubs’ prospects, and their rankings, from:

Cubs blog community Bleed Cubbie Blue is attempting to do a more comprehensive look at the Cubs’ prospects.

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