Not a Rookie: Felix Pie
Felix Pie was signed by the Cubs out of the Dominican Republic in 2001. An excellent all-around athlete with strength and speed, he was rather raw when signed, though he hit well in his pro debut (.321/.385/.565) in the Arizona Rookie League in 2002, even hitting 13 triples. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2003 book, a high grade for a rookie ball player, noting his rawness but also praising his tools and writing that I was inclined to be optimistic.
The Cubs assigned Pie to the Midwest League in 2003. He played 124 games for Lansing, hitting .285/.346/.388, which came out to a +7 OPS. He stole 19 bases but was caught 13 times. Scouts continued to praise his athleticism and upside, and his strike zone judgment wasn't horrible. I gave him another Grade B- rating, though maintaining optimism about the future.
Pie moved up to Daytona in the Florida State League in '04, hitting .301/.364/.448 (+15 OPS) with 32 steals in 48 attempts. His power was increasing, as he whacked 10 triples and doubled his homer output from four to eight. However, his strikeout rate shot up, 113 whiffs in 106 games. I raised him to Grade B, impressed by his performance as a 19 year old in the Florida State League, noting the progress refining his tools into skills.
2005 was a good-news/bad-news season. The good: moving up to Double-A, he hit .304/.349/.554. He cut his strikeout rate back below one per game, while boosting his power output and setting a career high in homers. The bad: the career high in homers was 11 bombs in 59 games, as his playing time was limited by a severe ankle bruise. Nevertheless, there was enough progress that I was comfortable raising his grade to B+ in the 2006 book. I wrote "Pie is a high-risk, high-reward investment. He could be spectacular, or he could also be mediocre if he doesn't refine his game."
Pie was healthy in 2006, hitting .283/.341/.451 in 141 games for Triple-A Iowa. He hit 15 homers and 33 doubles, and stole 17 bases. Scouts reported that he improved his defense (which has previously been rather rough). He also played very well in July and August, hitting over .300 with 20 doubles in those two months alone. While his BB/K/AB ratio still wasn't ideal at 46/126/559, he did reduce his strikeout rate compared to past seasons. I gave him another Grade B+.
You know what happened in 2007. He was a monster in Triple-A (hitting .362/.410/.563 in 55 games for Iowa), but was pretty horrible in the majors, hitting .215/.271/.33 in 87 games for the Cubs. Plate discipline was a big problem, as I expected it would be. However he did flash some pop, he was much more effective stealing bases in the majors (eight in nine attempts) than he was in the minors, and his glove (which was a weakness at times in the minors) was just fine.
So, what happens now with Pie?
Cubs fans and people who invested fantasy resources in Pie are worried that his early struggles are a sign of possible Corey Pattersondom to come, a guy with tremendous tools who never turns them into consistent skills. This is certainly possible: it's a risk you run with any tools player who needs polish. And Pie does need more polish. However, it is much too early to panic or pull the plug on this guy.
He was just 22 last year, 23 heading into spring training 2008. Given his performance in 196 games of Triple-A, he has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. Since July 2006 he has been a monster for Iowa, and I see no point in sending him back there. Triple-A pitchers have nothing left to teach him. The best line Patterson ever managed at Iowa was .253/.308/.387. This is not the same thing at all.
If I were the Cubs, I would give Pie the center field job and let him play, don't pull the plug if he gets off to a slow start. I'd hit him low in the order, 8th if possible, and I'd just let him play. Given the improvement Pie has shown over the last few years, I think he has every chance to end up as a very good player, perhaps an excellent one, provided the Cubs retain faith in him if he gets off to a slow start.
Projections from the various prognosticators
Shandler: .285/.334/.461, 18 steals in 456 AB
James: 283/.333/.456, 23 steals in 553 AB
ZIPS: .269/.321/.429, 20 steals in 539 AB
Me: .266/.320/.433, 16 steals in 500 AB
I'm not as optimistic in the short run as the others, but in the long run I think Pie will be fine, IF they let him play long enough to work his issues out.