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Now that 2012 season is over, at least for the Cubs, I think it is time to take a hard look at the farm system as a whole and at many of the prospects in particular. While it is important that we evaluate the Cubs’ farm system and prospects against their peers throughout baseball, it is equally important that we evaluate them against themselves. Each player in the system needed to show progress this year, some more than others, and I think it will be worthwhile to check in on many of those players and see how well they have progressed. Starting today, that is exactly what we’ll be doing with the Prospects’ Progress series. Each of the (hopefully) twice a week articles will contain a brief summary of two Cubs’ prospects, what we hoped to see from them this year, what we actually witnessed, and what we can expect going forward.

This first article in the series will be a little different. I can’t think of a better way to kick that series off than by taking a hard look at the farm system as a whole, so that is exactly what we’ll do.

The Chicago Cubs Farm System

Pre-Season Evaluation

The farm system entered the 2012 season with a lot of depth. They were loaded with potential back of the rotation starters and bullpen arms, endless middle infielders, enough third baseman to field a flag football team, a flotilla of defensive outfielders, and quite possibly more prospects with a decent chance of making it to the majors than any other system.

But it lacked star power. As deep as the Cubs were with potential regulars and bench players, the system boasted a stunning scarcity of future stars. Starting pitching and power hitting were the two most critical areas, but the lack of players the Cubs could realistically build around was glaring no matter where you looked. For the 2012 campaign to be a success the Cubs would need to address that lack of star power, shore up their high ceiling stating pitching situation, find some power hitting prospects, and develop some potential impact players out of that wealth of depth.

Post-Season Verdict

And that is exactly what the Cubs’ did. As an organization the Cubs’ farm system made some remarkable strides in a very short period of time. There is visible progress at every point on the checklist.

  • Star Power – This farm system now stands among the best in the league in terms of potential future stars. To start with, Javier Baez has emerged as one of the best young infield prospects in the game. With the signing of Jorge Soler and the drafting of Albert Almora, the Cubs’ now have a pair of very high ceiling outfielders who could eventually form part of the core of a Cubs’ contender. The mixture of drafted talent (including Pierce Johnson), international free agents (including Juan Carlos Paniagua), and trades (especially Arodys Vizcaino) significantly improved the Cubs’ crop of front of the rotation starter prospects as well, even if they aren’t quite on the level of the positional prospects. And then we have the 2012 Boise Hawks, a team so loaded with talent that the utility infielder made the League Top 20 list. In terms of potential stars, the Cubs’ farm system is in much better shape today than it was six months ago.
  • High Ceiling Starting Pitching – Pierce Johnson headlined a very good crop of 2012 draftee pitchers for the Cubs. That draft, which also included quality young arms like Duane Underwood, Ryan McNeil, Paul Blackburn, and Anthony Prieto, provided a badly needed infusion of pitching talent into the system. Thanks to the signing of Paniagua and the trade for Vizcaino, the Cubs now stand a good chance of having high ceiling arms sprinkled throughout the ranks of the organization in 2013. There is still some room for improvement in this department, but the situation is vastly improved from a year ago.
  • Power Hitting Prospects – In addition to Baez and Soler (who may be one of the best slugging prospects in the minors today), the Cubs also enjoyed quality seasons from young Boise stars Dan Vogelbach, Rock Shoulders, and Jeimer Candelario. Those three, along with Almora and possibly Soler, should make Kane County batting practice next season a ticket that is not to be missed. Higher in the system, Josh Vitters showed more power than most of us were expecting in Iowa while Anthony Rizzo turned Triple-A into his own private batting cage before moving to Chicago. Even the more fringey sluggers like Greg Rohan and Michael Burgess made some positive strides over the past season. The Cubs are not terribly deep with power hitters yet, but they did improve more in this area than most of us could have expected.
  • Emerging Impact – This will be a focus of the player-centered Prospects’ Progress articles, and on the whole the news is good. Logan Watkins, for example, can now be considered a legitimate major league second base and lead off prospect who could challenge Gold Glove candidate Darwin Barney for the starting job in Chicago as soon as Spring Training. Welington Castillo has already proven he can handle a bat in the majors, and he still has room to improve. Pitchers such as Matt Loosen and P.J. Francescon (among others) emerged as mid-rotation candidates worth watching. After a solid 2012 Double-A campaign, we can easily imagine Tony Zych pitching the eighth inning in Chicago in the second half of next season. And then we have the middle infield; it seems like every Cubs’ farm team enjoyed some degree of a breakout performance at second base or shortstop (or both) this season. The news wasn’t universally good, however, and the Cubs’ did suffer some setbacks. Despite that, enough players made significant strides this summer that I have to say the system did quite well in this area.

Future Prognosis

The 2012 season was no doubt a good one for the Cubs’ farm system, but there is still some work to be done. The pitching situation is less dire than it was a year ago, but it is still far from healthy when compared to organizations like Toronto or Seattle. Acquiring arms should continue to be a priority for the Cubs as they head into the winter.

I think it is also time for the organization to reshuffle the deck a bit. There are some prospects in this system who are quality players with a lot of potential but who do not quite fit the mold for the new front office. The Cubs should be looking for deals that can turn some of their swing-away inclined hitters into more patient, disciplined, OBP-generating hitters at a variety of positions. They could also consider moving some defensively challenged hitters for more complete players, particularly on the infield.

Player development needs some work as well. For example, the Cubs have drafted a number of good hitting catchers over the past few years, but most of them have stalled. Likewise, the system still boasts a number of tools-heavy players (headlined by Junior Lake) who are much more raw than they should be at this stage of their development. The farm system is not doing a bad job of developing talent, but it needs to be better still.

I think the Cubs will be very active over the winter and in 2013 as they shift the rebuilding process into a higher gear. Thanks to a successful 2012, the Cubs’ now feature one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, and that system looks like it will only be getting better for some time to come. Things are quite definitely moving in the right direction. Starting later this week we will dig into the details of that positive (and sometimes negative) movement two players at a time.

[Easter Egg planted by Brett.]

  • Dan

    Great work as always, Luke!

    • jimswarthou

      non max effort guys in the mid to upper 90’s are special, as is ????, Theo, PLACE?KV

  • OlderStyle

    Nice work, Luke. Could you give a few thoughts on Junior Lake? Is this coming year going to be crucial in determining whether he has a future with this club and what do you rate his chances of progressing?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I’ll hit Lake at some point in this series, and will go into greater detail then.

      The answer to both of your questions is: It’s up to Lake. His tools are some of the best in the system. If he wants to be a quality major league regular, I think he can if he puts in the work and cleans up his game.

  • BluBlud

    While I like pretty much everything Theo has done with the farm system, I think Hendry deserves some of the credit also. The majority of the names you mentioned were added to the system by him. Thos and Co. made have played a large part in changing the coaching direction of the players, but Hendry’s impact can’t be overlooked.

    This is in no a way suggestion that Hendry should have kept his job, just making a point that he wasn’t as bad as some might have suggested.

    • Stinky Pete

      NO! Hendry is the devil!! He did nothing good and should be drawn and quartered because the team I root for is not very good!!

      Haha j/k in case that isn’t apparent.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      The problems with the farm system under Hendry I attribute primarily to the unwillingness of the ownership groups at that time to invest significant money into amateur talent and player development.

  • Whiteflag

    Agreed. Hendry deserves some credit, but it was still time for him to go.

    • terencem

      Hendry oversaw some good moves but he was still in what you might call “empire building mode” in that last season, which is to say that he appeared to be too scared to tear down the problems with the team because that would look like he was admitting to making mistakes. The Cubs were in no position to be holding onto the past in 2011.

  • Stinky Pete

    I really look forward to this series, Luke. Great Job!

  • MightyBear

    Fantastic Luke. Your usual stellar job.

    • terencem

      Great article. Awesome Easter Egg.

  • Cyranojoe

    Easter egg where??

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      That’s what makes it an Easter Egg.

      • Sandberg

        Does it have anything to do with science?

        • Webb

          Brett, if this is a new strategy to have your readers comb over each article three or four times while blowing off even more work before the lunch hour, well, mission accomplished. You should sell the “eggs” to Dr. Pepper or something: “Jorge Soler’s got a cannon that looks like it might generate more outfield assists per season than flavors in his favorite soft drink.”

          • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

            Ha. Sincerely, I wish I could think of other/better ways to bury Easter Eggs. I find the concept awesome, funny, and enjoyable when I find them on DVDs, for example.

    • Ogyu

      I think the Easter egg is the treat you get if you click on the photo in the article. :-)

      • Webb

        Ha!!! He kinda did sell the egg!

  • baseballet

    Luke, where does the Cubs’ minor league system rank in comparison to other teams?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I think it will be Top 10, but I don’t want to go beyond that just yet.

  • Myles

    Where’s the egg?

    I need the egg

  • Jeremy

    Really looking forward to seeing which pitchers in the 2012 draft class take a step forward next year. With the quantity of pitchers we took, at least 1 or 2 of them should become a potential TORP arm. My bet is on Blackburn or McNeil.

    Blackburn and his control are damn good, mix that in with his plus curve and a full offseason conditioning program and he has good shot to add some velocity to his fastball and take that step forward.

    McNeil seems to be that aggressive throwing righty with a good fastball and power curve. Really like this kid.

  • BluBlud

    Is the “Easter Egg” the video that plays when you click on the picture of the farm.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Yes. And, for the record, the point of the addendum at the end of the article wasn’t to set off an unrelated hunt in an otherwise good and meritorious Luke article – I just wanted to make sure folks knew it came from me in case they didn’t care for the implied message.

      • Picklenose

        Brett, did you plant this easter egg because you like the song, or are you attacking the sciences?

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          Attacking the sciences? I love Chipotle, the song, and the video…

          • Picklenose

            Sorry for the bad reaction, I’ve heard that song used by some people to attack the idea of using genetic research to enhance crops or food production. When you said implied message I was nervous you were going in that direction. I should have known better as you generally try to avoid politics on this site. I just wanted to make sure that I was wrong.

            • TWC

              Well, I mean, it’s pretty clear that Chipotle used the song and the video to attack (or, at least, to differentiate themselves from) industrial agriculture, isn’t it?

              • Picklenose

                I think this is the wrong place for that kind of a debate, and as long as Brett wasn’t trying to provoke it, I’m going to stay away too.

                • TWC

                  Yo, kid, I ain’t trying to start a burrito battle here! Genetic research for food production goes all the way back the the first savanna dweller who though it might be fun to save some seeds from last season’s crop. All I’m saying is that Chipotle’s views are pretty clear in that ad.

                  But FWIW, my reply should have been under Ace’s comment, not yours.

                  • Picklenose

                    In that case we would be on the same side Thomas, I’ve done some genetic engineering work, although it was mostly to try a figure out how certain types of endocrine tumors develop in young children. (If you can figure out how they form, you might be able to figure out how to stop them from forming. And I hated the thought of infants having to have tumors removed from their ovaries or testes.)

                    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

                      You were correct that I was deeeeffffinitely not trying to start any kind of broader discussion. I just really like Chipotle, really like that version of ‘The Scientist,’ and really like the video (concededly, in part because I personally agree with many of Chipotle’s positions on the way they acquire their food). Including it was just coincident of me using a picture of a farm – because of the title of the post.

                      Now I’m eager to work in another Easter Egg in the near future … and I won’t call attention to it that time … let the hunt begin!

  • Rcleven

    Great work, Luke. There has been great improvement at the lower levels of the farm system. Missing is the talent that can be an immediate impact to the parent club. Baez and Soler are at least two years out.

    Should be great fun watching KC next spring and into the fall.
    Pitching is still the name name of the game and I will reserve judgement until some of the kids get a lot further in the system (just too many things can go wrong. ie. injury or just sucking). Vizcaino is still a question mark till he can resolve health issues.

    Still not sold on Castillo. Yes he can hit but needs much improvement in his defensive game. Tho he did show improvement over the season. Barney is Barney a impact player he is not. His stock will never be higher and maybe moved for a pitching or third base proven AAA prospect who is blocked.

    Looking forward to off season moves that can help this club improve at the AAA level and the parent club.

  • http://www.fantasybaseballinsiders.com Nick Kappel

    It’s great to see the Cubs adding talent in the minors. But what’s most encouraging is the type of players they’re adding and what they’re teaching them. In the past, guys like Patterson, Vitters, Jackson and even Castro were/are high strikeout, low walk players. It’s great to see the organization acquiring more patient hitters who can also field.

    • BluBlud

      While its true that Castro and vitters are low walk players, calling them high strikeout players is false statement.. A guy who strikes out 267 times in 1783 PA, 14.9%(Castro) and 323 times in 1962 career PA in the minors(Vitters) is not a high strikeout guy when the league average is 18.5% and anything better then 15% is above average by fangraphs.

      Also, I would argue that high strikeout guys produce more in the way of run production anyway. See Ryan Howard, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds, Jim Thome, Reggie jackson to name a few. I would much rather have the high strikeout, heavy producing player then the low strikeout soft hitting contact and walk guy. Hits are more valuable then walks.

      • spearman

        While I don’t mind a guy with high strikeouts. The only problem is having several guys that strikeout in a lineup. I don’t have a problem with 1 or 2, but anymore is bad for a lineup

  • Kyle

    I might as well get my now traditional negativity out of the way first

    1) The prospects at the top levels did not have a good year (excluding Rizzo, who barely qualifies as a prospect, and Castillo). Jackson fell apart. McNutt never got his groove back like we hoped. Vitters had a neutral season in total, and he needed a good one at this point in his career.

    Even the next wave was a bit disappointing. Szczur made Keith Law look right (ick) by showing absolutely no power at the medium levels, slugging .390 for the year, and most of it was “minor league fast guy power (stretching singles into doubles against bad minor league outfielders, something that evaporates when you get to the majors). You’ll note that he did not make Baseball America’s Top 20 FSL prospects list, despite being eligible. Junior Lake had an okay season at best and not the major breakout many hoped for. We also didn’t have any upper-level relievers establish themselves as we might have hoped (no one even bothered to hope for anything from the upper level starters).

    2) In terms of high-ceiling minor league pitching, we may have improved, but we went from 0 to 1.5 on a 1-10 scale. Vizcaino is a legit get, of course, and he’s the one that moved the needle in my opinion. The rest? Meh. Non-elite draft picks are always way more exciting before they take the field than after (case in point, Blackburn is struggling to consistently throw 90 MPH in Arizona, according to AZ Phil). They’ve got to go with the best deals, of course, but I’m surprised how many of our trades brought back position players over pitchers.

    Okay, now on to the positives

    1) The low minors did break out just like we all hoped going into the season, especially the hitters. Javier Baez – woof! His emergence is by far the story of the year in the minor leagues for the Cubs, and it’s pure positive. He could become a franchise-changing bat at a premium defensive position somewhere on the infield. Soler and Almora did more than enough in their first exposure to American pros to not bring up any red flags, which is about all you can ask out of a first taste. Even a guy like Logan Watkins emerged from the sea of average MI prospects (though I think the love for him has gotten a bit out of hand).

    2) This is sort of a subset of No. 1, but the 2011 draft had a great year. I’m not a huge DeVoss fan, but Baez and Zych look like surefire major leaguers and Vogelbach’s floor at this point is a solid asset to trade in the next few years. We’re still waiting to see what Maples can really do, and he has the potential to be another bright spot. I couldn’t begin to touch on the all the guys from that draft who didn’t have great years, but are young and talented enough to still have “prospect” status, which is saying something even a year later.

  • Kyle

    The real mistake of the minors, of course, was giving up on Ben Klafczynski. This jewel caught on with Lake Erie in the Frontier League, where he starred in their bullpen after converting to pitching. 44.2 IP, 2.22 ERA, 29 H, 31 BB, 40 K. Plus 1-for-1 with a BB at the plate. 1.000 for the former college All-American!

    • TWC

      This is my favorite Kyle comment. Ever.

      • DarthHater

        Perhaps because it’s less than 5,000 words?

        • TWC

          If it were a full 5000 words extolling the virtues of Ben Klafczynski and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad wrongs that were bestowed upon his tender head, it would still be worth reading. In fact, I’d pony up some cash to get it published. I can almost guarantee that his mom/aunt/whomever would buy all of the copies once they took a break from spamming Cubs message boards.

        • Tommy

          DarthHater – you make me laugh at least once a day. Classic!

          • DarthHater

            I find your lack of hate disturbing. ;-)

    • AB

      haha awesome

      I think Maples is Chris Huseby 2.0

    • Flashfan7840

      The old scouting reports said 70 plus arm. The player was also one of the best hitters
      in Kent State history, a solid resume, and an entire 2.5 months afforded him by Epstein
      to be a position player. Regardless of who, that just is plain wrong treatment to any player.

      Now, the fun part is that in just a few short weeks of converting to pitching, the player was getting professional hitters out, and at an alarming rate, very difficult to square up, opponents SLG% was like .220………………………….and, he went 14 and 2/3(44 hitters) consecutive NO HIT innings.

      The player works in the 92-95 range effortless(according to BA and soxprospects) and can hit 98 if asked, a decent 12-6 charley, and the rest of the secondaries a work in progress, which Boston will oversee and develop.

      There is no reason to bash. As for now, Theo doesn’t even warrant a comment.

      http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/minors/independent-audit/2012/2613957.html

      • Drew7

        “As for now, Theo doesn’t even warrant a comment.”

        Right, because he *definitely* has enough time on his hands to hold a press-conference every time a kid is cut from one of the 8 farm teams.

        Zzz…

      • TWC

        I really wish that at least ONE member of the I Love Ben Klafczynski fan club would explain to me how it’s Theo’s fault that

        EVERY OTHER MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM

        passed on dear Benny when they had the chance. It’s just so fracking easy to be a victim, isn’t it? Certainly easier than admitting failure.

      • Kyle

        Keep fighting the fight. It’s all politics in baseball. Since Klaf wasn’t making some scout look smart, he didn’t get a fair chance. He’s going to have to keep making them look dumb before they give in, but he can do it!

        • Flashfan7840

          Apparently the Red Sox(post-Theo) see the upside. Sorry 105yr losing Cubs, keep kneejerkin guys

          • Kyle

            I was making fun before, but if he’s really hitting 94, I’m annoyed we didn’t think to try him as a pitcher.

  • Brandon – AA Correspondent

    Outstanding article Luke!

    From a AA perspective, I think you were dead on with regard to Burgess, Watkins, Lake and Zych.

    Although Burgess only had 10 HR in 2012…..I truly believe he has/had the most potential from a power standpoint for the Smokies. If he starts back in AA; I look for a strong 1st half and a potential All Star selection. I still believe he is someone to watch.

    Love Logan Watkins. Kid is a winner and has turned himself into someone for the Cubs to really watch and I believe count on for the future.

    Junior Lake has a ton of raw talent….but like you said….it is still way too raw. He has frustrated me in TN for a season and a half…..and I believe he is probably someone that should be moved in a trade. There is still a lot of hype with this kid…..I say “sell high”.

    Tony Zych is a stud. Looking forward to seeing how he does in the AFL. But in his short stint at AA, I could clearly see that his pitching has the potential to land him in the big leagues. He has an unorthodox delivery; which could lead to an arm nijury….but it is deceptive and he throws heat. I like this kid’s future. Most impressive is that he is humble, down to earth and not at all cocky. The kid shows up to work, delivers the heat and gets guys out.

    One final thought on 2 other players who called TN home last season whom I think still may have an impact……Jae Hoon-Ha and Justin Bour. Jae-Hoon Ha is probably THE BEST defensive outfielder I have seen in the minors in some time. He had an “off year” witht he bat; but I believe that will be corrected in 2013. I think he hits .300 with 15-20 HR’s next year between AA and AAA. He played in the Futures game and did well and I believe has a future. He is a little cocky and unapproachable at times (I’ll give him a pass for the language barrier). Justin Bour had another solid minor league season and flies under a lot of people’s radar. His defense is average (maybe slightly-below); but the kid can really hit. Is he a “poor man’s” Brian LeHair?? Who knows…..but obviously he is blocked in this organization. All I am saying is that it would not surprise me to see Justin Bour moved in a trade; but wind up eventually having a productive career. AAA needs a first baseman…..and it would not surprise me to see him there next season and producing. JB is a great kid and I will root for him wherever he plays.

    GREAT WORK LUKE. Looking forward to the updates.

    P.S. Any thoughts on who we may be able to expect to see in AA next season from Daytona or Peoria/Kane County?

  • Dan

    Found the Easter Egg :D

    Nice Choice…

    • BluBlud

      Sorry Buddy, I found it first. It’s mine. Give it back, or I’m going to tell my Mommy!!!!!!! HaHa

  • Jay

    Luke you stated: “The farm system is not doing a bad job of developing talent, but it needs to be better still.”

    How are the Cubs addressing this? Is it the personel? What are teams that develop talent better doing differently than the Cubs?

    As i am very pleased with the dorection the team is headed, a prospect is still a proespect. Lets hope for continued success next year and many years to come.

  • Clark Addison

    Hendrys biggest failing in the farm system was hiring cronies instead of good instructors in the minor leagues which is one of the reasons players didn’t progress as expected

  • ruby2626

    Anyone remember Mark Pawlek (spelling???). Hendry made him the 20th pick in the first round in 2005 and he was a huge bust. His fastball maxed out in Germano territory and talk of drafting another Greg Maddux proved ridiculous. My point is the new regime would never draft a guy like that, they seem to love power arms and I’m fine with that.

    • Kyle

      There’s already reports of Blackburn struggling to reach 90 MPH in Arizona.

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

        After a full high school season, and then a partial minor league season at age 18? I suspect that isn’t particularly uncommon or unnerving without more.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          I’m not worried.

          If we get the same reports in the spring, that will be a different story. I strongly suspect the Cubs are more worried about cleaning up his mechanics than his velocity right now anyway.

          • EvenBetterNewsV2.0

            Maybe that is why his velocity is down. They are making him emphasize his mechanics and worry less about velocity until he is comfortable.

      • ssckelley

        Release him to make room for Klafczynski!

  • Caleb

    Awesome. Psyched for the future! Ps went to the cards game today (sunny, cheap) wearing my BN shirt. Class.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      NOYCE.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Well played.

      If only you had seen a better game…

  • Carne Harris

    Woot! Look forward to it.

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