Spring training is underway. If you haven’t read Jordan’s rundown of the position battles for the Chicago Cubs, do that now. Those aren’t the only stories to watch though. In the minor league side of camp the story will be the hunt for players on the verge of a breakout season. There are plenty of them to mention here, more than I really have room for, but for some, the need to break out is greater than it is for others. These players may fall into that category.
Josh Vitters: This will be Vitter’s fifth season in the minors, and this should be the season when he either secures his job as the third baseman of the future, or is passed on the depth chart by someone else. With Ramirez’s option coming up at the end of the year, the Cubs would probably love to reinvest the $12 million they would save by giving Vittters the hot corner in 2012. For Vitters, if he doesn’t lock up the near future major league job now, by the time third base in Chicago opens up he might have been passed on the depth chart. He has put in the work and his talent is obvious. I think everything looks good for Vitters. If he stays healthy he could easily have a monster season.
Wellington Castillo: The Cubs trade of Chirinos to Tampa clears all the catching at bats in Iowa for Castillo. Castillo will have plenty of time in Iowa to get used to working with pitchers who should be a big part of the Cubs future. That familiarity and his solid defense behind the plate should be enough to make him the heir apparent to Koyie Hill as the backup. However, Castillo should be setting his sights a little higher. If he can put together a breakout offensive season, he could cause the Cub’s front office to seriously think about trading Soto and letting Castillo have his job. On the other hand, lurking in the low minors is Micah Gibbs, a potentially powerful catcher who could rise through the system very quickly. Castillo will be in his second season at Iowa. If he doesn’t break out this season, he may not be the best catching prospect in the system this time next year.
Hayden Simpson: For this controversial first round pick, there isn’t much middle ground. If he doesn’t establish himself as one of the most elite pitching prospects in the minors, he’ll likely be known as the wasted draft pick. The Cubs think he has a good fastball to go with some dangerous breaking stuff on his list of four pitches that grade well above average. The critics say he is too small to ever be a major league starter, and that his pitches are average at best. If the Cubs are right, Hayden Simpson will push Trey McNutt and Andrew Cashner for the status of number one starter over the next decade. If the critics are right, Simpson will never get past Double A. To make matters tougher on the kid, he contracted mono last fall and has lost a lot of weight. Despite all that he will likely be the most watched player in the Cubs system and among the most watched in the minors.
Junior Lake, DJ LeMahieu, Ryan Flaherty: In the normal course of player progression, these three players should all be spending time in Double A. Unfortunately, they all three play the infield, and they all three are probably best at third. If Vitters takes third, the only infield slot available in Chicago will be at second. LeMahieu has the best bat, Flaherty has more power, and Lake might have the highest ceiling. Two of them will likely make it to the majors late this year or early next year at second base or backup infield. The third might get a look at first, if his bat demands it. Any of the three could break out and take huge lead on the top of the middle infield depth chart. On the other hand, there is another crop of infielders coming up behind these three who will be looking for upper level at bats very soon. Logan Watkins, Pierre LePage, and Matt Cerda are all on the way and the Cubs will have to find room for all six of these guys somewhere. For Lake, LaMahieu, and Flaherty, there is no time like the present to step up and demonstrate who wants it the most.