Things are certainly looking up these days for the Cubs' farm system. For a team hoping to make it back to the top of the NL Central, not just for this year but for the long-term, there's plenty of reason for hope.
The talent isn't just in one area, either. While there might not be any elite pitching prospects in the system, there's a lot of depth with several arms now in the upper levels and just about ready to knock on the door. Over the next year, guys like Andrew Cashner, Jay Jackson and Chris Carpenter should arrive to contribute.
It's the bats that might have people more excited, though. There are few shortstop prospects creating more buzz than Starlin Castro, who should continue his meteoric rise in 2010. Brett Jackson, last year's first-round pick, had a stirring debut and gives the Cubs a top-flight, five-tool athlete. Add in former first-round picks like Tyler Colvin and Josh Vitters -- both of whom are starting to fulfill their potential -- to interesting college infielders such as D.J. LeMahieu and Ryan Flaherty, and there's reason for optimism all over the organization.
Tyler Colvin, OF
He made it up briefly late last year, but it's unlikely many felt the 2006 first-rounder might be ready to stick in Chicago. But the outfielder put on some weight this offseason and flat-out raked all spring. If the Cubs decide there will be enough ABs for the 24-year-old, they'll keep him around, giving him a couple of starts a week among all three outfield positions.
Sam Fuld, OF
Officially no longer a rookie based on service time (by about 5 days), the outfielder is still just establishing himself. Last year, he performed well in a backup outfielder role, hitting .299 with a .409 OBP over 97 ABs. He's capable of playing all three outfield spots, something he'd be called upon to do if he makes the team.
James Russell, LHP
The 14th-round pick in the 2007 Draft began his pro career as a starter but transitioned to relief last year. It seems to have served him well as he's secured a place in the Cubs' bullpen on Opening Day. Tossing nine scoreless innings this spring certainly didn't hurt as he beat out John Gaub and Marcos Mateo for the spot.
Under the Radar
Steve Clevenger, C
How come a left-handed hitting catcher with a career .303 average can't get any love? Any team could've taken him in the Rule 5 Draft last winter but didn't. Yes, he doesn't have much power, but the guy can hit and he'll do so with Triple-A Iowa in 2010 waiting for someone to give him an opportunity.
Jeremy Papelbon, LHP
When the younger brother of the Red Sox closer (and his twin, Josh, pitches in the Red Sox system) seemed to stall a little bit in a relief role, he gave starting a try and seemed to like it. In 14 Double-A starts, Papelbon had a 2.84 ERA. August was his best month: 3-1, 2.75 ERA, .220 BAA over 36 IP. Where he goes with it remains to be seen, but he'll give it a shot in Iowa this season.
Rebel Ridling, 1B
Aside from having one of the better names in the Minors, he's showing he can hit a little bit. A 25th rounder as a senior sign from Oklahoma State in 2008, Ridling spent the year in Peoria in 2009 and hit .310/.357/.466 while driving in 97 runs. He had 51 extra-base hits. He'll turn 24 in May, so it's time for him to start moving a little more quickly, but the Cubs might have a steal on their hands.
First-rounder Brett Jackson made a strong first impression by hitting .318/.418/.488 in 211 ABs with Boise and Peoria. He had 17 extra-base hits and stole 13 bases to boot. ... INF D.J. LeMahieu (2nd round) hit .316 with a .371 on-base percentage over 38 games with full-season Peoria. ... LHP Chris Rusin (4th) got in 31 innings with Boise, posting a 3.48 ERA, walking nine and striking out 27. ... LHP Brooks Raley (6th round) was a two-way player at Texas A&M but will be a pitcher as a pro. His debut was brief, covering 10 2/3 total innings and he allowed just five hits (.139 batting average against) and three earned runs. ... 10th rounder and 1B Charles Thomas, though 21 in the rookie-level Arizona League, nonetheless hit .306/.354/.431 over 45 games. ... Between Arizona and Boise, RHP Kenneth McNutt (32nd round) had a 0.96 ERA over 27 2/3 total innings. Hitters managed just a .143 average against him and he struck out 28 batters.... After tearing up the AZL for 15 games, Robert Wagner (38th round) still put up decent numbers in Boise. He's 23, but his .290/.361/.580 line leaves people wanting to see what he does in 2010.
Starlin Castro, SS
The only thing that could hold this up is if he's so impressive he works his way to Chicago for an extended period. Look for him to hit over .300, steal loads of bases and even start to grow into his power a bit more. At the very least, he'll be ready for Wrigley in 2011.
Andrew Cashner, RHP
We tried this a year ago, and it ended up being Jay Jackson's award. Jackson wouldn't be a bad choice, but the thinking here is that Cashner will dominate Double-A and continue to do so upon being promoted up to Iowa. A trip to Chicago before the season's over isn't out of the question.