The Chicago Cubs Have Been Terrible at Drafting

If you’ve paid even a modest level of attention to the MLB Draft over the past decade, that headline is not altogether shocking to you. But, for the most part, it was just a feeling and a trash can on the receiving end of your boot.

Now, thanks to a study by FanGraphs, we can put some ugly, ugly numbers on just how terrible the Cubs have been at the Draft.

Here’s a chart of the accumulated WAR of homegrown players drafted in the last decade for each team (i.e., the total WAR that the draftees contributed to the team that drafted them), together with the average WAR per homegrown player (to account for outliers):

And there are the Cubs, fourth from the bottom. Worse, their accumulated WAR is just 1/3 of what the *median* team totalled. In a writeup about the Cubs’ woes, FanGraphs was unsurprisingly unkind:

If the Astros have only developed one stud player since the 2002 Draft, the Chicago Cubs have developed no one significant. They have been relatively successful at drafting and developing minor role players — Tony Campana, Rich Hill, Darwin Barney, Tyler Colvin, etc — but the homegrown talent is lacking star power. The best the Cubs have done is Sean Marshall, who found success as a dominant set-up man — which, while nice, has little overall value for creating a homegrown core to build around. Perhaps the 2005 Draft personifies the Cubs’ developmental success over the past decade. The 2005 Draft saw one Chicago Cub draftee make the big leagues (thus far), and that was left-handed reliever Donnie Veal, who pitched 16.1 innings for the Pirates in 2009 and compiled a 7.16 ERA.

That feels about right, and a look back the the Cubs’ first rounders, for example, over the past decade (Bobby Brownlie, Ryan Harvey, Mark Pawalek, Tyler Colvin, Josh Vitters, Andrew Cashner, Brett Jackson, Hayden Simpson, Javier Baez – the range for the study missed Mark Prior by one year) makes it feel even more right.

There are at least two caveats here, and they aren’t insignificant. First, this is solely about the Draft. In other words, it doesn’t consider international amateur signings, which have contributed a significant amount of value to the Chicago Cubs’ big league team over the past decade (and, if Starlin Castro continues to progress, that figure will explode).

A second caveat is that the list doesn’t consider drafted players who didn’t become “homegrown” players – i.e., players that were traded away. That’s why a team like, for example, the Yankees doesn’t fare terribly well – they frequently trade top Minor League talent to acquire ML-ready players.

Were you inclined, you could add a third caveat that the Cubs, during the last decade, have been relatively unwilling to spend big on the Draft (last year was a notable exception). They also lost a number of high picks after signing free agents. I say you could call that a caveat to the study – I call it yet another symptom of an organization that is terrible at the Draft.

If there’s any solace to be taken from this list, it’s that team up at the top, whose drafts, during the time period, were mostly run by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod.

Brett Taylor is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation, and can also be found as Bleacher Nation on Twitter and on Facebook.

67 responses to “The Chicago Cubs Have Been Terrible at Drafting”

  1. Spencer

    Meh. The Royals are in the top ten. I think that says all you need to know.

    1. Kyle

      The Royals are a nice little team that should challenge for a playoff spot soon.

    2. Ron Swanson

      The Royals being top 10 could simply be reflective if there rather extreme lack of free agency participation. Whether that is due to financial constraints or not is a valid question but they never supplement with top free agents whereas most other members of the top 10 do.

      1. hansman1982

        and their propensity to trade away a guy just as he was becoming a stud for piles of cold garbage. Before the past 22-3 years, the Royals were the AAAA team of the majors.

    3. Gabe

      Ron is right in that the Royals are simply a small market team. They draft well but can’t afford to bring in additional talent to supplement their younger players. To take it a step further, they rarely are able to afford to re-sign their young stars once their rookie contracts expire.

      Remember when their outfield was once Beltran, Dye and Damon? One of the best outfields I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

  2. Kyle

    This is precisely why the Cubs’ organization is awful, and it’s amazing how often it gets glossed over by the fans and media who want to tear their hair out over fundamentals and big contracts.

    1. DocWimsey

      Indeed, I think that what it really shows is that the Cubs’ idea of “fundamentals” for signings at all levels is greatly at odds with what wins games. Hopefully that is about to change: but will the fans and media follow?

  3. Luke

    You can add another caveat.  About half of that time span was pre-Tim Wilken.  Before he arrived the Cubs were remarkably terrible at the draft.  After he arrived, they started developing a fair quantity of role players… which isn’t bad given the budget he had to work with.

    Now that he has a budget to work with, we should finally get the full benefit of his hiring… after the team wasted half a dozen drafts.

    1. djriz

      You may be letting Wilkens off the hook a little. He drafted both Colvin and Simpson in the first round, even though neither one of them was rated top 150 in their draft class. Somehow I think ‘money’ for a mid first round pick was not the reason. Wilken’s problem was the same as Jerry Krause, be the hero with the ‘sleeper’ pick, rather than the mainstream ‘safer’ pick.

      1. Cedlandrum

        He drafted those players because of the budget he had to work with.

        1. AB

          And he choose to spend alot of the the budget on overslots like Chris Huseby, Drew Rundle, Cliff Anderson (none of whom reached more than A) and Samardzija (book is till out on)

      2. King Jeff

        I don’t really care for Jerry Krause, but he did draft Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant.

    2. Ralph

      True Luke, I always look for your posts, good stuff.

  4. Steve

    I have always bemoaned the Cubs affinty to drafting poorly. Yes, it is a crap shoot for the most part, but I’ll be dang if you couldn’t see Hayden Simpson and Mark Pawalek not panning out.
    It’s almost like the former FO put names in a hat and drew them out.

  5. Jim L.

    Horrified is a given, Brett.

  6. Fishin Phil

    This is my shocked face: —> O:

    1. CubFan Paul

      Shocked. I shook my head when they drafted Hayden Simpson

      1. Luke

        I think I’m the only Cubs minor league analyst in this camp, but I still like the pick.  I’d rather have taken him in the 2nd, but he wouldn’t have been there in the 2nd.  There are persistent whispers (that, frustratingly, I can’t validate) that the Angels were poised to snag him if the Cubs passed.

        2011 was meaningless for Simpson.  Hopefully we’ll finally get to see what he can do this season.

        1. Norm

          Like the pick?? He was a tremendous reach. MAYBE one team had them on the board in the 2nd round. Maybe. That’s just a rumor.
          There are a number of people picked after Simpson that would’ve been a much better choice.
          Simpson was probably the single worst pick in Tim Wilken’s career.

          1. Drew

            Is it just me, or does it seem like every thread has been a Luke v Norm grudge match the last couple weeks?

            1. Richard Nose

              BN to sponsor an oil wrestling match?

            2. Norm

              Really? I think I’ve disagreed with like 2 comments…

        2. Bric

          I’m thinking your response of being the “only minor league analyst in the camp”, (which I guess means this website) is exactly the Cubs’ problem for the last 30 years. Because you have a title obviously your opinion is more valid than the other 30 something million of us. We don’t know anything about it and we’ll trust your judgement. Oh wait, did you just defend Wilken’s recent picks, especially Simpson? Previous statement retracted.

          Also- any “insider” who would allow his teams’ name to be used in speculation like your friend in the Angels would certainly have no legitimate credibility to do so or is whacked out on his own power. Either way, it just looks foolish.

  7. Steve

    I’ve said this before. The reaction from the MLB Network after the Cubs selected Simpson was PRICELESS.
    The newly coined term “I got nothing” truly was never better suited.

    1. J Wilson

      I will always remember the MLBN’s reaction after the selection as well. MLBN had plenty of video for each player in the 1st round, and they didn’t have a single frame of Simpson, just embarrassing overall. I was livid because I had waited at least 45min for the Cubs’ slot to come up, and for nothing.

  8. Brian

    The Cubs do look significantly better if this is expanded to include one more year (the 2001 draft). That would allow them to include Prior (15.8 WAR), Soto (11.7 WAR), and Theriot (~9 WAR as a Cub), and would move them towards the middle of the pack.

  9. Mick

    I was always waiting for Bobby Brownlie to speed through the minors and make the MLB roster. We took him in the 1st round back in 2002 and signed him to a $2.5 bonus, what a bust.

    1. Ralph

      I think the Cubs had 5 picks in the first 2 rounds in ’02 and took all pitchers, none of whom made it the the bigs… ouch!

  10. Peter O

    It would also be interesting to see total WAR for all players drafted by a team regardless of team they played for. That would account for players used to acquire talent.

    1. Joe

      Agreed!

  11. Peter O

    To be fair, Vitters was seen as a slam dunk when he was drafted. Best HS hitter in the draft. Just goes to show that there is some luck involved in the process as well.

    1. DocWimsey

      Actually, I remember some people back then cautioning that Vitters swung at everything. Supposedly, the Cubs thought that he could learn how to do this in the minors. (Just like, um, what’s his name…..) But, again, what the old-school things is “can’t miss” and what the new school thinks is “can’t miss” are two different things.

  12. cls

    Hey, as low as we are, at least we are better than the White Sox! ;)

  13. Freshness21

    Brett,
    An interesting article I’ve always wished for and wondered about is who have the Cubs missed out on (trades) in the past because they have refused to trade an untouchable prospect who eventually was a flop? I’m thinking guys like Corey Patterson, Felix Pie, Rich Hill, etc. who the Cubs have had as their #1 prospect and there have been offers of possible trades that the Cubs could have landed a legitimate player? I know it is total hindsight, but I think it would be interesting to go back over the years and look into that. Hendry was at least able to sell high to Hee Sop Choi and Bobby Hill, but most of the time we get stuck with a lemon. Just a thought. For some reason Vitters comes to mind as the next in the long line of lemons. Love the blog

    1. Kyle

      I certainly recall refusing to trade Wood and Pat Cline for Piazza.

    2. DocWimsey

      As a corollary, the Cubs passed up on signing some good free agents because they were going to go with youth that never panned out. For example, the Cubs didn’t make an offer to Jim Thome in 2002/3 because they were going with Hee-Seop Choi. Had they signed Thome, then they could have traded Choi for (say) pitching or a 3Bman earlier in the year. (The did get DLee for Choi: but imagine the 2003 Cubs with Thome at first….)

      Similarly, they didn’t retain Kenny Lofton to keep Patterson, and Patterson supposedly was a factor in the decision to not pursue Beltran. Of course, it’s always possible that the free agents in question would have signed elsewhere anyway: but that turned into “definite” when the Cubs decided to go with the youth.

    3. Edwin

      I think that would be tough to do. We don’t know any of the details of trades that don’t happen. We might hear about deals, but most of it is speculation. At best you’ll end up with a “we might have had Player X” but you can’t be too sure.

      Also, even if you put together an analysis like this, I don’t think it would tell you much. All teams hang on to prospects too long. They hang on to them because they want to see if the prospect can be a major league player, and the only accurate way to do that is let the player make it the Major League team. Once the prospect proves himself a major league player, or proves himself a bust, it’s too late to trade him as a top prospect. And if that’s the case, their value is probably so low that they’ll either be a throw in for a trade, or it’ll make more sense for the parent club to keep them to hope they “figure it out” late.

  14. EQ76

    the most exciting part of this list to me is who’s on top.. that’s our new leadership coming in 1st over the past decade..

    1. Luke

      If you include the value for players received by trading players drafted, the Red Sox go even higher.  As good as their drafts have been, their track record in trading high draft picks might be even better.

      1. EQ76

        great point.. hopefully we are in that position over the next decade.

      2. FromFenwayPahk

        If you include trades using draft picks in Boston, yes… But where was that judgement on Free Agents?
        Keith Foulke, Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, Matt Clement, Coco Crisp, Daisuke Matsuzaka, JD Drew, John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre, Carl Crawford.

        Interesting to consider average WAR per million dollars on these free agent signings in Boston over approximately the same time period. Not so good I think. (Although Foulke was worth every dime he was paid for WHEN those wins were deployed!)

        1. King Jeff

          If you are counting all those guys against Theo, you have to count Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, and all of those role players who signed minimum contracts that helped the team win a couple of World Series. I’m also not sure why you would count Adrian Beltre as a negative for Epstein, he signed a one year deal and was probably the best third baseman in baseball that year.

          1. FromFenwayPahk

            Three good points, KJ. Mueller was a particularly great player to root for. I never thought of Ortiz as an Epstein guy, I don’t know why. Adrien Beltre’s numbers were fantastic that year. I never got excited about him because it was all so business-like, but at 10 million for a one year rental there is no real complaint.

            But the agregate still shows poor performance on average. Does he have spend these billions (average around 12 million per a year on each guy on this admittedly incomplete list) to get a few studs? Free agents tend to have larger data sets attached to their names. Shouldn’t that yeild a better rate of success in picking your winners?

            Or, Maybe I’m just still bitter about Lackey.

            1. DocWimsey

              Yeah, well, Lackey was a total dud. Hopefully he’ll come back after the surgeries.

              One thing about Crisp that is overlooked is that he basically was a fairly cheap “stop-gap” signing that let Theo keep Elsbury in the minors for another few months, delaying Els’ arbitration and free agency, or even just delaying that team-friendly big dollar extension. That’s going to save the Sox some big $$$$ down the road.

              1. FromFenwayPahk

                Never thought of that, Doc. It seems that was part of the rationale, but fans seemed unaware of this in Boston. I never even knew about this kind of delay for dollars until I read Brett’s recent article on why we are likely to see Jackson or Rizzo later rather than earlier.

        2. DocWimsey

          Lackey is the only on that that list that I’d call a bust. Amusingly, the only FA signing that winter considered “safer” than Lackey was (and get ready to giggle) Chone Figgins.

          Drew has been Drew: brilliant when he’s able to play, but too frequently injured. Crawford has had one bad year: I won’t write him off yet.

        3. jr5

          Clement was great for Boston until he took the line drive off the head.

          He was never the same after that, which was too bad. Underrated for the Cubs. He had great movement on his fastball, yet retained a lot of command. It’s a real shame his career ended like it did.

          1. FromFenwayPahk

            Still remember Clement’s fans wearing stick-on beards at Wrigley. Clement’s injury hurt so much to watch (and hear) that I totally put this out of my mind, jr5. It is a shame.

            I liked JD Drew and remember there was one fall when he absolutely carried the team, Doc. He absolutely stepped up. But he came to Boston with two warnings. He was injury prone and he never appeared to hustle. The first thing bothered me much more than the second, both before Theo acquired him and after. (And I don’t think either rap was something JD had control over.)

  15. Eric

    Wow I think this article really makes me feel even better about Theo. I know he had alot of money to work with and that surely helped. But I think the proof is in the pudding here. While our boys were in charge, their drafts provided incredible WAR. And we hear Theo talk up WAR alot. I feel very confident we will draft really well under the new regime.

    1. Richard Nose

      What we were…what we got. Wow.

  16. Joe

    .

  17. Big Joe

    We should take into account, players drafted, then traded away? Huh. I can’t think of one player that was drafted by the Cubs, over the last ten years, that has done ANYTHING of significance for the team they were traded to.

    1. DocWimsey

      HJ Lee will be the first. Rickey Nolasco has been a sort of “meh” pitcher for the Marlins for several years, but I think that he might be the most valuable guy that the Cubs have traded.

      Still, it shows that the fans were right. Every time Hendry traded a prospect, he was trading away the Cubs future! And the Cubs future was basically “meh.”

  18. Bric

    Even if the analysis were extended a couple of more years to include Prior it woulds also include Patterson and a couple others that I don’t even remember. And would Prior make any significant difference for his 1 dominant year?

    In the last 30 years of a lot of really bad teams (which means high draft choices) can anyone think of a 1st round choice that amounted to anything? Wood and Prior are the only ones I can think of and that’s nothing to brag about career wise. Big shocker that no World Series in my life time.

    I know, I know, the draft is all about depth and finding hidden gems, and 5 middle infielders that all bat .300 in AA equal one middle infielder that bats .280 on the team… I’m sorry, I was channeling Jim Hendry for a minute. At least Iowa and Tennessee will sell some more tickets this summer.

  19. Big Joe

    You would think that some draft pick, over the course of the last 10-15 years, would end up a star…if, for no other reason, than dumb luck.

  20. Joe

    Dumb luck.

    You got the first part right. ;-)

  21. Crockett

    This was a fun article AND comment thread.

  22. florida Al

    beltre was great that one year because of the juice!! wink wink…he has reportedly been connected to it….wink wink