Chicago Cubs Have a Stable of Impressive Young Studs

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJune 21, 2010

HOUSTON - JUNE 05: Shortstop Starlon Castro #13 of the Chicago Cubs fields a ground ball in the ninth inning against the Housto Astros at Minute Maid Park on June 5, 2010 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The 2010 Cubs are a team I think of as being full of geezers, with Marlon Byrd, Mike Fontinot, Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukodome, Xavier Nady, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Silva all over 30.  However, the Cubs have been quietly slipping a number of promising rookies into the mix this year.

The position players are SS Starlin Castro and OF Tyler Colvin.  Castro is only 20 years old, and while I think he’s got a big learning curve ahead of him at the major league level, he looks like a major star of the future.  Colvin has positioned himself as a dark-horse rookie of the year candidate, but I am less certain about his long-term prospects.

Castro has made explosive progress the last two seasons.  He spent 2008 in the Arizona Rookie League.  In 2009, he jumped over low, full-season A-Ball directly to the Class A+ Florida Coast League, a notorious pitchers’ league, and played well enough for three-quarters of a season (.731 OPS) to be promoted to the AA Southern League.

In 31 games for the Tennessee Smokies in 2009, Castro posted a .743 OPS, not great on its face, but fantastic for a 19 year old shortstop.  He started the 2010 season at Tennessee and after 26 games in which he hit .376 with a .990 OPS, he was promoted directly to the majors.

After a hot May in Chicago (.310 batting average, .769 OPS), Starlin has cooled off considerably in June, hitting only .196 with a .527 OPS for the month so far.

Starlin certainly has a lot to learn as a major league hitter, but Fangraphs ranks his shortstop defense as above-average already, which should help to keep him in the line-up enough to get the at-bats he needs to develop at this level.

There’s still a chance, of course, that if his hitting slump continues into July, he’ll get sent down to AAA Iowa to regain his batting stroke.  Even so, he should be in the major leagues to stay soon enough.

LF Tyler Colvin was the Cubs’ first round pick out of Clemson in 2006 (13th overall).  His college numbers don’t look like what you’d expect from a first round draft pick, and his minor league career numbers to date have been underwhelming (.785 OPS).

However, Colvin hit reasonably well for half a season at Daytona in the Florida State League in 2007 and for two-thirds of a season at Tennessee in the Southern League in 2009.

Colvin made the Cubs out of Spring Training this year, and Cubs manager Lou Piniella has mainly used the lefty-swinging Colvin as a platoon player against right-handed pitchers.  It’s worked extremely well for Colvin, who is presently hitting .310 with a .984 OPS in a little over 100 at-bats.

Despite his terrific major league numbers so far in 2010, I’m not sold on Colvin.  He turns 25 on September 5th, and his minor league numbers don’t suggest a future star.  It also remains to be seen whether he can hit left-handed pitchers well enough to be an everyday corner outfielder.  However, Colvin has played well in very limited playing time in centerfield (90 major league innings or ten full games), so if he can play major league defense in center, he’s got a much better shot at having a sucessful major league career.

Twenty-three year old RHP Andrew Cashner was recently called up from AAA Iowa, and so far he looks like he’s going to reward the Cubs for selecting him with the 19th pick of the 2008 Draft.

Cashner wasn’t overly impressive in the minors in 2009 (he had a fine 2.60 ERA, but his strike out and walk ratios weren’t great), but he seems to have put it all together in 2010.  After going 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA and a line of 57 IP, 39 hits, one HR and 15 walks allowed and 59 Ks at AA Tennesse and AAA Iowa, he was called up in early June.

The Cubs have had Cashner pitching middle relief so far, which is the best place to start out rookie pitchers, and he’s been terrific so far, allowing no earned runs in 8.1 IP and seven appearances with fine ratios.

Another rookie pitcher who’s pitched reasonably well for the Cubs this year is 24 year old lefty James Russell.  In 20 appearances out of the Cubs’ bullpen, he has a 4.71 ERA, which earned him a demotion back to AAA Iowa two weeks ago.  He looks pretty hittable, but he throws strikes and he’s young enough to amount to something in the future.

Russell was a 14th round pick out of Texas selected by the Cubs with the 427th pick of the 2007 Draft.  What’s surprising about that is how well he pitched his junior year for a top tier college team to go that low.  He went 8-4 with a 3.86 ERA with 92 Ks and only 28 walks allowed in 109.2 IP.  You’d think that would be enough to get him selected in the first ten rounds by somebody.

Russell really didn’t pitch that well in the minors until he reached AAA last year.  As a reliever and spot starter for the Iowa Cubs, he had a 3.43 ERA in 65.2 IP.  He pitched well in Spring Training this year and made the big league club.

There’s always a need for left-handed short men, so I doubt it’s the last we’ll hear of Russell.