The Epstein Administration is off to a very honest start, to say the least. When Theo came, he made no mistake that the intention was to build an organization, from the bottom up, in order to sustain success for the long term. To this point, he has kept his word. The Cubs’ system now features five of the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com’s updated, post season rankings. Half of the organization’s top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein and Co. have arrived, and that does not include First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would be the undisputed #1 prospect in the system if he met MLB.com’s criteria for what makes a prospect. The fact that he has had a rookie season in the majors, from my view, does not make him any less of a prospect. He is by no means a finished product…which is a scary good thought after his 2012 season.
With all of that, here is a positional look at the system:
- PITCHING: Pitching is still the weakness of the system. Theo knows it. Jed knows it. Even the guy in the bleachers drunkenly screaming to fire Dale Sveum because we could have won the World Series this year knows it. That is why the focus has been on acquiring pitching. The new regime spent almost the entire draft on infusing the system with new arms. They made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire Randall Delgado for Ryan Dempster. They made a successful deal with the Braves to acquire Arodys Vizcaino, who is the best pitching prospect in the system, according to MLB’s new rankings. Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are also top 20 prospects in the system, who were drafted in the slots gained from the departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Nine of the top 20 are pitchers, none of whom is Hayden Simpson, the 2010 first round pick. We are very close to reaching bust status with him. The front office knows that there is still a shortage of arms in the system, so look for a continued focus on acquiring them, either through trades or in the draft. Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza could each become prospect pitching, if there is a deal to be made.
- CATCHERS: With Wellington Castillo looking primed to crouch behind the dish on a full time basis, with Steve Clevenger being a capable back up, and Geovany Soto being a Texas Ranger, it would seem the system is lacking in catching depth. That’s mostly true. The only catcher of note who will be in the minor leagues next season is Anthony Recker, who finished the season in the majors because of a September call-up. The bright side to the catching situation is that both of the big league backstops are young players, who, like Anthony Rizzo, I would still consider prospects, who are developing at the big league level. That’s some good news. The bad news is, catchers tend to be injured more than other positions, and there is not a lot behind them.
- INFIELD: There is some talent in the infield in the organization, but it’s nothing to jump out of your chair for. Javier Baez is a notable exception to that, as the system’s number one prospect, again, according to MLB.com. Christian Villanueva and Junior Lake are also both in the top ten in the organization, but neither seem to be all that close to cracking the major league line-up anytime soon. Lake is probably the closest prospect, but he projects to be a utility player, who can play all over because of his arm and athleticism. He has good power, but lacks plate discipline and still needs some polish in the field. He could be a call-up in the mold of Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson in 2013, to get some experience at the major league level before going back to the minors to work on deficiencies he may not get to know without a call-up. As for Baez and Villanueva, both finished the season at Daytona. They may go to AA, Tennessee together next season, but a more sure bet is that they open at Daytona next year. Josh Vitters, the most major league ready prospect in the infield, showed that he still needs some time to grow. I could see him being moved to a corner outfield spot if his glove does not improve significantly. An interesting prospect on the infield is Dan Vogelbach, whose bat will probably propel him up the system. He hit for a combined 1.051 OPS between Mesa and Boise. Being a 1B, though, is going to hurt him with the Cubs. He is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. If he could become a 3B, he could be a Pablo Sandoval type player in the future, although Keith Law says he has “no shot.” My guess is, his lack of athleticism is going to be a significant issue with him being anything more than a first baseman or a designated hitter…which the Cubs have no use for.
- OUTFIELD: The outfield is where the most depth is within the system. After getting a sight of Brett Jackson, it appears that he has the ability to man CF at Wrigley for a long time, with improvements to his swing and approach at the plate. The additions of Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, both of whom played well in their first taste of American pro baseball, make them, with Jackson, three of the top five prospects in the system. With other interesting prospects, like Dave Sappelt and Shawon Dunston Jr, there is some serious talent, much of which is still saturating the low levels of the system. For the time being, it is interesting to wonder about what an Almora, Jackson, Soler outfield will look like…because it won’t be a reality for a few years. For now, we’ll get to watch a Soriano, DeJesus, LaHair (or whoever else they can manage to throw out there).
There is a lot more talent in the minors now than there was 12 months ago. That is something that has to be attributed to building the organization, as opposed to trading any and all talent we can to get veteran players to win right now. There has been a lot of that over the years, leaving the cupboards pretty bare. Building it back up will take as much time and effort as it will to build the big league team into one that can consistently win. It is a good thing to have talent saturation in the minors, and at this point in time, there is much more of it than there was when Jim Hendry left the club. It is exciting, however, to watch the build-up. Seeing lower level clubs compete, like the Boise Hawks did in 2012 is a sign of talent infusion. Hopefully, the Cubs are able to build a system that can compete at all levels. No organization can have too much talent. At this point,though, it is still a work in progress.
On a day after a ninth inning to forget, we all probably need some good news…so here we go.
- Darwin Barney enters tonight’s game vs. the Brewers one game short of the single season National League record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman. I think it bears repeating that this is only Darwin’s second full season as a second baseman, and his defense is nothing short of outstanding. At the plate, Dale Sveum said he can be a .290-.310 hitter, which would make him an All-Star worthy player, should he put together his fielding and hitting. While others may not have the hopes for Darwin that I have, I do see him as an everyday player that is still getting better. Additionally, there are very few that work as hard, hustle as much, or play with the toughness that Darwin brings to the yard every day. He’s a valuable piece, and hopefully the front office can see that.
- Starlin Castro’s extension was announced today. It is the 7 year/ $60 million that was reported, with escalators and options that could raise the value to 8 years/ $79 million when all is said and done. Reminders about Castro are important, too. He is 22. He already has 1761 career plate appearances, which have only been exceeded by Robin Yount, Edgar Rentaria, Alex Rodriguez, Elvis Andrus, Arky Vaughan, and Travis Jackson for a short stop of that age. Those are some pretty good players to be in company with, and if Castro turns into anything similar to any of those other players, this is going to be a great deal for the Cubs. During his presser, Castro said he wants “to be here” and doesn’t want “to go nowhere.” He was also asked about being a leader, which he seemed to embrace. From a body language standpoint, he seemed to be a little surprised that it was happening for him. He looked humble. He also admitted that the extension talks were a distraction, which might be an explanation for some of the dip in production. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out for Castro, and whether or not his batting average climbs back up to around .300.
- Brett Jackson seems to be settling in at the plate for the Cubs, going 1-2 with his 3rd HR in 4 games and 2 walks last night. He seems locked in at Wrigley, and defensively, he’s been as advertised, running down balls and making plays in the outfield. It was quite the slow start for both Jackson and Josh Vitters, with only Jackson breaking out of that. Vitters is 5-53 with 19 strikeouts since being called up. I do wonder if Vitters has been struggling at the plate because of the focus on his defense. That may be a simple explanation, but without asking Josh himself, and getting an honest answer, we’ll never really know.
- Jed Hoyer said during the Starlin Castro presser that the hardest things to find were starting pitchers and short stops, and that he is excited to have short stop taken care of. As for pitching, the current rotation of Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, Brooks Raley, and Justin Germano is proving his point. Since Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, and Matt Garza have left the rotation, the Cubs have only won only six games. And the starting pitching has been a big reason why. That said, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija seem to be pitching themselves into rotation spots next season.
- Yesterday, the Cubs made a minor move with the Oakland A’s, acquiring Catcher Anthony Recker for Blake Lalli, and optioned him to Iowa. To make room on the 40 man, Scott Maine was designated for assignment.
- And finally, in the “no surprise here” move of the day, the Cubs have activated Blake Parker from the 60 day DL, and have designated Alex Hinshaw for assignment. If you recall your nightmare from last night, Hinshaw is the guy that threw beach balls to the Brewers, retiring nobody, and allowing three massive home runs to ensure the Cubs had no shot against oft-gotten John Axford, en route to a nine run ninth for the Brewers.