Note: This article appeared in my first book: The 2014 Prospect Digest Annual, which is currently on sale on Amazon for $2.99.
The Cubs’ Top 10 Prospects ____________________________________________________________________________
October 12, 2011, the day that the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs took a dramatic, Boston-like shift back towards respectability. Former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein agreed to a massive five-year, $18.5 million deal to become of president of baseball’s long enduring, loveable losers.
Epstein, along with highly underrated GM Jed Hoyer, were tasked with winning the way the pair had done in Boston – though player development, savvy acquisitions, and staying one step ahead of competition. And while the club has lost nearly 200 games since 2012, the machine-like player development program the front office has put in place is nearing a boiling point in the minors.
The Cubs own the third best farm system in baseball. But just look at the club’s top 10 prospects: Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, C.J. Edwards, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Daniel Vogelbach, Christian Villanueva, Mike Olt, and Pierce Johnson.
Notice the trend?
There are two, really.
The First: The Cubs, thanks in part to Epstein, Hoyer, and Co. as well as the previous regime, decided to take an incredibly unappreciated method towards rebuilding – collecting high-end offensive talent which has a much lower attrition/higher success rate than pitchers thanks to the vagaries of the human body (also known as the injury nexus).
The road to heartbreak and front office unemployment is littered with plenty of failed top minor league hurlers, giving credence to the old baseball adage that “there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect.”
The revival of the New York Mets in the early to mid-1990s was placed squarely on the shoulders of a trio of power pitchers – Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson – aptly named Generation K. All three would quickly succumb to injury.
Lefty Brien Taylor, the #1 pick in 1991, chosen a handful of picks ahead of a pair of All Star outfielders (Manny Ramirez and Shawn Green), was once touted by super-agent Scott Boras as the best high school pitcher he’d ever seen. Taylor would dislocate his left shoulder and tear his labrum in a brawl.
And then there’s hard-throwing right-hander Matt Anderson, another #1 pick out of Rice who could touch triple-digits, but tore a muscle in his armpit and was never the same.
Prospect attrition rate is incredibly high, much higher in baseball than in any other sport I imagine. But very rarely do hitters suffer catastrophic, career-altering injuries. The same can’t be said for hurlers, though.
So Chicago has, in essence, stacked the odds of player development in their favor by going with the group of prospects that holds the least amount of risk – hitters.
The Second: The collection of offensive players all own one particular skill that happens to be in decline at the big league level – power.
It’s no secret that offense has been declining for quite some time now. The league-wide average runs-per-game has dropped in six of the last seven seasons, putting the offensive environment squarely back in the late 1980’s/early 1990s era. But the shortage in power is quite alarming.
Last season 14 hitters topped 30 homeruns. That’s it, 14. Not including the strike-shortened season of 1994, the last time fewer hitters top the 30-HR mark was in 1992, when just nine players breached that mark.
But Chicago has three players – Kris Bryant, the premier power bat in last season’s draft class, Javier Baez, and Mike Olt – who are all capable of slugging 30 homeruns today. Daniel Vogelbach, who slugged 23 doubles and 19 homeruns as a 20-year-old, and Christian Villanueva, who wrapped out 62 extra-base hits last season, both have above-average power potential. Arismendy Alcantara and Albert Almora should top out in the 20-HR territory.
Oh, and one of the front office’s first move was to acquire young slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who smacked 40 doubles and 23 homeruns as a 23-year-old playing in his first full big league season in 2013.
Not only do the Cubs put the best possible plan for a success rebuild firmly in place, but they’re also expediting the process by putting together a veteran rotation to help compete when the first wave of offensive prospects get promoted.
They signed Edwin Jackson for a reasonable four-year, $46 million last January. Solid backend starter Travis Wood is under team control through the end of 2016. And current ace Jeff Samardzija, 29, won’t be a free agent for another two years. Chicago was linked to Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka before the Yankees – unsurprisingly – swooped in.
Now this plan doesn’t necessarily guarantee a whole lot of future, but the odds are certainly in Chicago’s favor.
Photo of Ben Grey Courtesy of Ben Grey Via Flickr.com/Commons.