October 9, 2012

Bob Lutz: Logan Watkins continues climb

The progression of Logan Watkins as a professional baseball player has been as smooth as silk.

The progression of Logan Watkins as a professional baseball player has been as smooth as silk.

Just after being drafted in the 21st round in 2008, the Chicago Cubs assigned Watkins, fresh from his senior year at Goddard, to their Rookie League affiliate in Arizona.

In 2009, Watkins advanced one step to Boise in the Northwest League. In 2010, he played for Peoria in the Midwest League. In 2011 he was with Daytona in the Florida State League.

And this season, Watkins played in the Double-A Southern League with the Tennessee Smokies. He is climbing the Cubs ladder one rung at a time and from where he is now he can see the big leagues.

“I think I’ve been gradually getting better every year,’’ said Watkins, a second baseman by trade who has played a little shortstop and outfield as a professional. “I’m just trying to play the game the way the Cubs want it played.”

The Cubs, obviously, like what they’re seeing. They chose the 23-year-old Watkins as their Minor League Player of the Year last week, honoring him before a game at Wrigley Field. With Tennessee this season, Watkins batted .281 with 40 extra-base hits and 28 stolen bases.

Watkins batted .302 during the season’s second half.

“What it tells me that I got that award is that I’m doing what they want me to do and that they like me,’’ Watkins said. “Hopefully I’m in their plans either next year or the year after that.”

That’s where it can get tricky.

As good as Watkins has been as a Cubs minor leaguer, Chicago’s regular second baseman is Darwin Barney, who is only 26 and is already one of the best defenders in the big leagues. Barney is an improving hitter, too, but it’s his glove that counts most. He made only two errors in 155 games at second base this season.

Watkins has played some shortstop in the minors, but the Cubs are set there, too, with young Starlin Castro, who recently signed a long-term contract.

If the Cubs have a strength — and with 101 losses this season that’s debatable — it’s their middle infield of Barney and Castro.

“(Barney) and I are similar type players,” Watkins said. “I know him and I’ve worked with him in the off-season quite a bit. And Castro isn’t going anywhere. Maybe if someone is used in a trade or I’m used in a trade . . .”

Watkins caught himself looking into a place he can’t afford to look. He knows that. He has no control over anything other than his own career and if he’s good enough to play in the big leagues, a team will give him a chance. It might be the Cubs, it might not.

“You are always aware of who is ahead of you in the organization,’’ Watkins said. “But you never wish for anything like an injury or a trade or things like that. You want your organization to win.”

When Watkins was in Chicago, he briefly met first-year Cubs general manager Theo Epstein, the architect of two World Series champions in Boston. Watkins knows Epstein has a plan and likes to think he’s at least on the periphery of where the Cubs are headed.

“It was great being at Wrigley Field,’’ said Watkins, who was with his Tennessee teammate Nick Struck, the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the year. “We got to watch the game from a suite.’’

For the third year in a row, the Cubs will bring Watkins to Arizona for a weight program in November. He’ll return in January in hopes of getting bigger and stronger and making an even bigger impression on Epstein and the rest of the team’s front-office staff.

Watkins had already signed a national letter-of-intent with Wichita State when the Cubs picked him in the 21st round of the 2008 MLB draft. He looked like a sure bet to end up as a Shocker, especially since he had given scouts an idea of what it would take financially to get him to sign.

The Cubs eventually stepped up and met Watkins’ demands, signing him to a $500,000 bonus. And he hasn’t disappointed, batting .285 during his five minor-league seasons and proving himself as a top-of-the-order prospect who knows how to get on base.

He’s not just a slap hitter, either. For Tennessee, Watkins had 20 doubles, 11 triples and nine homers.

“I was really wanting to go to Wichita State and play with (Wichita North’s) Tyler Grimes,” Watkins said. “We were on the same summer team and we played up the middle together so I was excited about going there.’’

Watkins’ financial demands, he believes, caused him to fall in the draft. But the Cubs wanted their man.

“When they offered what I asked for, I had to stick to my guns,” Watkins said. “It’s worked out. Being in pro ball, you realize that the high school guys who come in — especially the ones who get a decent amount of money to sign — are going to get every opportunity to make it. The college guys probably have a little more pressure to perform right away.”

There’s pressure on every minor leaguer, really. It’s so hard to get to the majors. Inch by inch, though, Watkins is moving in that direction.

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