Average collection of Cub farmhands

Buddy in Peoria asks:
I recently heard a Chicago sports radio personality say the Cubs are now in the bottom third of major league farm systems. I was shocked by this comment, and wondered if you would address the Cubs prospects in detail.

I did not hear the radio comment, so it isn't fair for me to take it on directly, not knowing the context or any possible nuances in the original statement. But I can tell you what I think about the Cubs farm system.

The system is not in as good of condition as it was a couple of years ago, thanks to injury attrition, trades, and the graduation of some players to the major league roster. There has been some slippage, yes. There are no Mark Priors on the way up right now. But to say that the Cubs rank in the bottom third of farm systems seems a bit extreme to me.

There are still many quality prospects available, such as power-hitting first baseman Brian Dopirak, pitchers Angel Guzman, Billy Petrick, Reynel Pinto, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, and Ricky Nolasco. Outfielder Felix Pie has an impressive set of tools and has shown signs of turning them into skills. There is still substantial depth in mid and lower tier prospects, the Grade C guys that fill out farm rosters and sometimes turn out as unexpectedly good players.

Right now, I would rate the Cubs system as average overall. The last couple of draft classes have been a bit thin, but the system has shown good resilience in general, and should be able to rebound quickly. I don't think Cubs fans should fret at this point, at least not about the farm system.

Mitchell C. in New Jersey writes:
What's your view of Yankees position-player prospects Eric Duncan and Robinson Cano and pitching prospects Steven White and Sean Henn?

Duncan is the best prospect in the Yankees system right now, and has justified New York's selection of him in the first round in '03. Although his numbers in '04 don't look spectacular on the surface (16 homers, .258 average combined at two levels), he knocked 43 doubles, drew 69 walks, and impressed the Yankees with his defensive progress at third base. His OPS was 17 percent above league average in both the Midwest and Florida State Leagues, very credible performance for a guy who was only 19 years old. With Alex Rodriguez at third base, Duncan will probably end up moving over to first eventually, if he isn't traded first. I gave him a B+ in my 2005 book.

Cano is closer to being ready than Duncan is, having played Double-A and Triple-A last year. He hit .301 in Double-A, but dropped to .259 at Triple-A. He has moderate power and should be good for 10-15 homers a season, with adequate plate discipline. The Yankees believe that Cano can remain at second base, but other clubs are not so sure, which has hurt his value as trade bait. For me, he's a B- prospect, someone who could be a decent regular but likely won't be a star.

White was a fourth round pick out of Baylor in 2003. He can hit 93-95 mph, and went 10-4 with a 2.59 ERA last year in Class A. Scouts love his fastball, but his command is inconsistent, and his changeup isn't very good right now. But he has a live arm, and in the long run I think he has a decent chance to help as an inning-eating starter, say a No.3 or 4 guy. We do need to see how he adjusts to Double-A in '05.

Henn, a left-hander, was hot stuff a few years ago, but persistent arm problems have dimmed his star. He had an elbow injury in '02 and a shoulder problem in '03. He still gets his fastball into the low 90s, but his command is a problem, and he struggled at times in Double-A last year, going 6-8 with a 4.41 ERA and mediocre peripherals. He did manage to avoid the doctors and threw 163 innings, but he gave up 173 hits; his K/BB of 118/63 was not impressive. Henn can no longer be considered a premium prospect, but as long as he is left-handed and has a pulse, he will get more chances to rebound.

Overall, the Yankees have a mediocre farm system. Aside from Duncan, rookie ball hurler Christian Garcia, and 2004 first-rounder Phil Hughes, I don't see anyone who projects as a sure-fire impact player, and both Garcia and Hughes are a long way from being ready. Given the amount of money that George Steinbrenner is willing to spend, perhaps a Babe Ruth cloning project is in the works.

Will T. asks:
Giants prospect Nate Schierholtz hit close to .300 last season, splitting the year between Hagerstown (Class A in the South Atlantic League) and San Jose (Class A in the California League). At Hagerstown, he put forth the following numbers: .298 BA, 22 2B, 15 HR, 19 BB, 52 SO in 235 at-bats. At San Jose, he finished with the following line: .295 BA, 18 2B, 9 3B, 3 HR, 15BB, 41 SO in 258 at-bats.

Seems to me the strikeout rate is a little high, do you think it will be a problem as he progresses or is this an overall trend you see in the minors of 100-plus strikeouts being acceptable? Would you consider him a high-level prospect at this point or do you think that a year at Double-A will tell us if he's for real?

A second-round pick in 2003, from Chabot Junior College, Schierholtz combined to hit .295 with 40 doubles, nine triples, and 18 homers this year, splitting between two levels of A-ball. As you point out, his performance at both levels was pretty similar. I think he is a very intriguing prospect, but I do have some concerns. He fanned 93 times while drawing just 33 walks, and plate discipline will be an issue for him against advanced pitching. Some scouts don't think he'll be able to remain at third base, and project a move to the outfield, which will increase the pressure for him to hit.

I don't worry too much about raw strikeout totals, but if a guy strikes out a lot he also needs to draw some walks, or else it can be a major red flag for his chances to make contact at higher levels. Schierholtz is quite young, not turning 21 until next month, and scouts insist he has excellent bat speed and will be able to make any needed adjustments. Given his youth, that is probably true. But you're right, I want to see what he does in Double-A before going heavy with the praise. For now, he is a very intriguing prospect with a high upside and good long-term potential, a classic Grade B prospect.

Personal note: The 2005 Baseball Prospect Book is finished and at the printer. Grade lists and the top 50/50 will go to anyone who pre-orders and provides a valid e-mail address. We are on target for shipping by Feb. 1.

John Sickels is the author of The 2005 Baseball Prospect Book. The book ships on Feb. 1, and can be ordered only at Johnsickels.com. He is also the author of Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, which can be ordered online or at your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas and two happy cats.