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.
In the depths of a farm system is the Arizona Rookie League. The AZL Cubs feature the bulk of the future of the Chicago Cubs, as designed by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Led by Manager Bobby Mitchell, the lowest level of the minor leagues features some names we have heard quite prominently since last winter. Cuban defector and prize international free agent Jorge Soler, 2012 draft picks Albert Almora, Paul Blackburn, and Duane Underwood, 2011 14th round pick Dillon Maples, Rule 5 pick, Lendy Castillo (rehabbing a case of “Rule5itis”), Shawon Dunston, Jr., and others are all getting their professional baseball orientations in the deserts of Arizona. And, if the early returns are any indication of their potential, the Cubs appear to be in capable hands.
OF Jorge Soler has played in eight games to this point for the Arizona League Cubs, and has played as advertised. He has hit .296 in the early going, fueled by his dominance over left-handed pitching, going 5-7 with 1 HR and 3 RBI. Overall, his 2 HR, 6 RBI and 2 SB stand as a strong showing for a young player that comes with the pressure of a $30M contract. Defensively, he’s also been solid. Again, it’s eight games. There hasn’t been a large sample size, but he has gotten off on the right foot, and that is good news for everybody hoping to see him hitting long home runs onto Waveland Ave in a few years.
OF Albert Almora took a while to sign after being selected 6th overall last month, but he, too, has started his professional career. While hitting .190, he does have a home run and 4 RBI in his first five games manning center field in Arizona. In spite of an error, his defense has been as advertised, with a 2.00 range factor in the early going.
RHP Paul Blackburn has pitched in 4 games, making 2 starts, totaling 6.1 innings. His numbers boil down to basically one start, and are pretty strong. He’s given up 2 earned runs on 7 hits, with 1 walk. Not too bad for the beginning of a professional career.
RHP Dillon Maples finally made his debut and gave up a run in one inning of work. Maples is one of the more highly regarded prospects in the organization, and could go down as former GM Jim Hendry’s final good deed for the Cubs. Selecting Maples in the 14th round and convincing Tom Ricketts to back up the money truck for a pitcher with first round talent but thought to be impossible to sign may be one of the better moves in Hendry’s tenure, even though by the time he made the move, he new he would be moving on.
There are a number of good players in Arizona, starting their road to Wrigley. It may take a few years before we see any of these players in Chicago, but players like Soler and Almora could be everyday names for Cubs fans as Epstein and Hoyer continue to build an organization from the bottom up.