View From The Bleachers

January 14, 2014

Putting the Cubs’ Farm System in Context

Filed under: Featured,General,Minor League — Noah Eisner @ 8:00 am

This is not a controversial statement: over the past two seasons, the Cubs have not been good. Wholly uncompetitive might be a better description, and, based upon their current roster and the strength at the top of the NL Central, the Cubs appear likely to remain uncompetitive for at least one more season. The farm system, however, is the one source that consistently provides positive news.

Quantifying the progress the farm system made, however, is somewhat difficult. We’ve heard about promising Cubs’ prospects before. From Felix Pie to Josh Vitters to Brett Jackson, we’ve been disappointed by players we’ve heard are top  prospects.

Minorleaguebaseball.com’s John Sickels provided support for just how promising these prospects are, however, when he posted his list of the Cubs’ to 21 prospects last week. Usually, these lists do not provide much context for how good a system is. Every team has 21 top prospects. With most of the prospect information sources, there is not a direct indicator of how one team’s top prospects stack up against another team’s until the top 100 prospects in baseball lists hit later in the postseason.

Sickels, however, grades the prospects in the organizational list. This year, Sickels gave two Cubs prospects A grades (Javier Baez and Kris Bryant), one an A- (Albert Almora), two B+ grades (Jorge Soler and C.J. Edwards) and four B grades (Arismendy Alcantara, Pierce Johnson, Jeimer Candelario and Dan Vogelbach).

So what does this mean? Well, my search shows John Sickels’ lists going back to 2005. Prior to Baez gaining an A- rating prior to last season, Sickels never rated a Cubs prospect higher than a B+. Felix Pie never received an A or A- grade. Neither did Vitters or Jackson. Baez, Bryant and Almora, at the least, are a different class of prospect than the players we’ve called “top prospects” over the last decade.

And it is not just that the Cubs are strong at the top of their system, but they are also very deep. From 2008 to 2011, the Cubs had three players who rated above a B- per season. This season the Cubs have nine. And the C+ type prospects, who are still legitimate prospects, go well into the 20s, if not further, for the Cubs.

Also, while Joe noted that the Cubs’ farm system lacks top of the rotation talent, it is as much that the Cubs’ hitting prospects are so good that the average pitching group of prospects looks worse than it is. This is the strongest group of pitching prospects the Cubs have had since 2006, when the system included 2005 first round draft pick Mark Pawelek before he became a bust, along with a host of B and B- prospects including Rich Hill (who was quite good in 2007, despite what happened after), Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall and Sean Gallagher (who the A’s thought of highly enough for him to be the centerpiece of the Rich Harden deal in 2008). It’s not a great group of pitchers, but there are prospects who could solidly fill the 3-5 spots in a rotation and all the bullpen spots. The ace, however, will likely have to come from elsewhere, unless the Cubs are able to draft one in June.

A great farm system is no guarantee of eventual Major League success, but this is a strong, deep farm system, that could provide several pillars for the lineup for many years, along with pitching prospects that could at least fill some holes. The last time the Cubs had this much firepower in the farm system, Dallas Green was the GM. So while it may be a frustrating time to actually watch the Cubs on television, it is also an exciting time to be a fan of the organization.

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Noah Eisner is a Chicago attorney living in the western suburbs with his wife and son (and impending daughter). When he isn’t practicing law or entertaining a toddler, Noah follows Cubs baseball with a focus on the farm system and sabermetric analysis. His Cubs-related ramblings can be followed on Twitter @Noah_Eisner.

  • Jedi

    He didn’t give Rizzo better than a B+?

  • Noah_I

    Rizzo was a B+ in 2012. He was a B in 2011 with the Padres. B- in 2010 with the Red Sox.

    Prospectors tend to be pretty conservative with 1Bs, though, since they are unlikely to bring much value with the glove, and predicting truly elite level offense is more difficult.

  • LVCubFan

    Where does Clark the Cub rank in these projections? I was hoping Soler would get the call before Clark, but just another Cubs fan pipe dream.

  • Seymour Butts

    The bear is already being retrofitted. I hear he has an appearance scheduled at “Nuts on Clark” later this month.

  • Jerry in Wisconsin

    Does that mean his last name will be Johnson?

  • http://swantron.com/ jswanson

    Ballsy move.

  • Doc Raker

    Plus we got Korey Patterson, a 5 tool player that should be great and Mike Harkey is an ace once he comes up. Does anyone remember the Cubs bringing up Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux within a short period of time? They brought Moyer up first and then Maddux, who would have known the careers those two would go on to have.

  • Noah_I

    Patterson actually didn’t strike out that insanely much (never above 25% in his career), and he was actually pretty good overall from 2003-2006, with the stinker year of 2005 that came with what was an abnormally low BABIP for him at that time. Over that period, Patterson was generally an elite defender while being an essentially league average bat. Patterson’s biggest problems came when the injuries caught up to him and he became a defensive liability.

    However, Patterson was also grossly miscast by a pre-sabermetrics media landscape as something he was not: a 5 tool player and a future star. At his best, Patterson had 3 plus tools: speed, defense, throwing arm. But Patterson’s power was more average to above average, and his hitting tool was only average. On top of that, the Cubs grossly mismanaged Patterson, and I’m not just talking about their consistent attempts to convert him to a slap hitting leadoff man. Patterson performed very well in A Ball at age 19 (.949 OPS in a pitcher’s league), skipped High A and went to Double A, where he was very good but not elite (.823 OPS). At age 21 he struggled in Triple A (.694 OPS) but was still promoted to the Majors. Patterson only showed some semblance of understanding the strike zone in Double A, and should have stayed in, if not repeated, Triple A.

    So yeah, Patterson wasn’t who he was promised to be, but, with the exception of 2005, he also wasn’t near as bad as Cubs fans remember him.

    Harkey was decimated by shoulder and elbow injuries. Those things are unpredictable, but yes, there is an inherent risk with any player, whether he is a prospect or a $200 million free agent, that he could get injured and no longer be effective.

    Maddux was a very highly rated prospect when he came up. Did anyone guess he’d be the best pitcher of a generation? No. But everyone also forgets he threw 91-93 through his prime.

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