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.
Very little, if ever, do you hear about the guys in the low levels of the minors. Especially the guys in Single A. However, that is where the foundation of a team is started. With the multiple levels of Single A, getting to “High A” is the first real step on the road to Wrigley.
The Daytona Cubs are the home to 2010 1st Round pick, Hayden Simpson, who has not had a prestigious start to his professional career. This season, Simpson has gone 1-3 in his 12 games, including 4 starts with Daytona. His 7.32 ERA is also not much to brag about at this early stage of his career. Clearly, it’s been a struggle for Hayden to transition from Division II to professional baseball, but the 23 year old righty has good stuff. If he can figure out where it is going, he still has promise to be a major league pitcher.
Minor League Pitcher of the Month for May is P.J. Francescon, earned his promotion from Peoria to Daytona last month. He is 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA with the D-Cubs after going 5-1 with a 1.86 with Peoria. He did settle into the Florida State league nicely in his first start, going 6, giving up 2 runs (1 earned) before getting roughed up a little bit in his second. P.J. is another 23 year old righty, selected in the 40th round of the 2010 amateur draft.
One player I was wrong about was CF Matt Szczur, who I thought would start in AA Tennessee after a solid showing in 2011. After some time with Peoria this season, Szczur has gone to the D-Cubs with some mixed results, leading to a .260 average in 43 games. The 5th round pick in 2010 has a good strong bat, though, and will hit for average and get on base. He makes good contact, has good speed, and is a good overall athlete, as he played football and baseball at Villanova. He found himself in the Midwest League All-Star Game, and MLB Futures Game in 2011, and Cubs’ fans can expect to see him make it through the Cubs’ system. It may not be too many years before we see Szczur and Brett Jackson standing side by side in the outfield at Wrigley, as both figure to be major league players.
It is tough to outline each player at a lower level, mostly because I don’t see them on any type of regular basis, but it is important to keep an eye on these levels of the system. It takes an entire organization to build consistent routines, winning attitudes, and develop the style of play that the big league team is going to use. While the 23-30 D-Cubs aren’t blowing anyone away in the standings, there are some talented players down there to keep an eye on. Soon enough, we could be watching them from the bleachers in Chicago.