First off, here is the entire 2018 Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects List. If you missed any of the articles, those links are provided as well. Take your time, refresh your memory on who’s who and where they fall, and then let’s talk about the farm system as a whole.
1. Jose Albertos, RHP
2. Oscar De La Cruz, RHP
3. Adbert Alzolay, RHP
4. Alex Lange, RHP
5. Aramis Ademan, SS
6. Tom Hatch, RHP
7. Brendan Little, LHP
8. Nelson Velazquez, OF
9. Jonathan Sierra, OF
10. Bryan Hudson, LHP
11. David Bote, INF
12. Miguel Amaya, C
13. Charcer Burks, OF
14. Zack Short, INF
15. Erich Uelmen, RHP
16. Austin Filiere, 3B
17. Dakota Mekkes, RHP
18. Trevor Clifton, RHP
19. Javier Assad, RHP
20. Keegan Thompson, RHP
21. Jeremiah Estrada, RHP
22. D.J. Wilson, OF
23. Cory Abbott, RHP
24. Jason Vosler, 3B
25. Michael Rucker, RHP
26. Michael Cruz, C
27. Duncan Robinson, RHP
28. Brailyn Marquez, LHP
29. Austin Upshaw, 1B/2B
30. Eugenio Palma, LHP
31. Andruw Monasterio, 2B/SS
32. Faustino Carrera, LHP
33. Wyatt Short, RHP
34. Eddy Martinez, OF
35. Erling Moreno, RHP
36. Daury Torrez, RHP
37. Ian Rice, C
38. Bailey Clark, RHP
39. Chesny Young, INF
40. Jake Stinnett, RHP
There are no two ways about it. This is not a strong farm system. A lot of fans may take exception to that sentence, but I can’t look at this list and come away with any other conclusions. This system is just not very good right now.
There are alot of “Yes, but…” sort of comments that can be tacked onto that statement.
…it isn’t good because they promoted or traded all the best prospects. And that’s true. That’s a big part of why it isn’t very good. The Cubs’ organization as a whole, including the Major League team, is in excellent shape as a result of all the young Major League talent that has graduated from the organization or been acquired in trade.
…they have a lot of players just outside the Top 100 who could break out and make it look a lot better by mid-season. That is probably the most optimistic way to look at this system, but it is also one of the statements that should be true of just about every farm system. Any organization that doesn’t have a pack of guys who are on the verge of breaking into some Top 100 lists with a good first half is in really bad shape. The Cubs farm system isn’t historically bad by any standards. It’s just not very good right now.
…if they didn’t have a weak farm system now they wouldn’t have won the World Series in 2016 so pointing out that they have a weak farm system means you wish they hadn’t won the World Series in 2016 and therefore you are a terrible fan. I get that one quite a bit, and I mention here only so the rest of you can have the same laugh at it I get everytime it comes up. Sure, many of the moves that depleated the farm system did help win the World Series. Helping to win Major League games by promotion or trade is exactly what a farm system is for. The Cubs did that very well. But the fact remains that the system is now weak.
…the Major League team is so young that they won’t need any prospects for a long time. I wish that were sure to be true. If baseball has taught us anything, it is that you can’t plan for everything. Right now the Cubs have a young, deep roster locked up long term. They have no apparent holes, an enviable amount of depth, and the kind of roster flexibility that most teams can only dream of. The Cubs 25-man roster is a work of art. And I feel very confident in saying that before July 1, we will be seeing regular rumors of the the Cubs nevertheless exploring trades that will improve that 25-man roster. Trades often require prospects, which brings us back around to the farm system. It’s on the weak side, and that will come into play during trade season.
…give them a couple a years and it’ll be rebuilt. That depends on the definition of rebuilt. I don’t think there is any realistic scenario during this competitive window in which the system makes it back to the 2015 peak, the peak that led to the current Major League team. The system should be improved in a couple of seasons, but it is very possible that it won’t even be back in the top half of the league wide rankings. That isn’t necessarily a problem, so long as we keep our expectations realistic. The best we can probably hope for is a middle of the pack system that produces plenty of replacement level players at all positions, maybe one or two average quality Major Leaguers a season, and maybe an All-Star level player every couple of years. That sort of system should be able to sustain a winning team, so the Cubs should be fine with sort of an organization. I’m just not convinced that is the usual definition of “rebuilt”.
…there is a ton of talent in the lower levels. That is very true. I’d argue that it isn’t any more true of the Cubs than many other farm systems, but it is still true. There are a lot of players who are going to be a lot of fun to follow over the next few years.
There is plenty of potentially high-ceiling talent still in the system, and it mostly is at the lower levels. Beyond that, weak though it is, there are some areas of organizational strength that should be noted. Including some areas that could impact the Major League team sooner rather than later.
In particular, this organization looks primed to start providing a steady supply of quality relievers within a year or so. Dillon Maples, unranked because he has reached the majors already, is at the edge of a wave of good bullpen arms. Dakota Mekkes (17) and Wyatt Short (33) could be among the first arrive from this group. Outside this group don’t forget about Duane Underwood, Brad Markey, and Jhon Romero (among others). Likely some of the starting pitchers here will be moved to the bullpen as well (Oscar De La Cruz (2) and Brendon Little (7) are candidates for that).
In short, if you wanted to dream on a future Cubs team where nearly the entire bullpen is developed from within and providing plenty of flexibility to the rest of the payroll, I wouldn’t say you’re crazy. That’s a perfectly viable future, if things break right.
Outfield, as well, is an area of depth, and doubly so for defensive outfielders. Unranked (due to MLB experience) are Mark Zagunis and Jacob Hannemann. On this list we could see Charcer Burks (13) up by season’s end. Trey Martin did not make the cut, but his defense is on the same tier as Burks, while Connor Myers probably outshines them both.
Outfield is also the home of three of the Cubs’ highest ceiling positional prospects: Nelson Velazquez (8), Jonathan Sierra (9), and D.J. Wilson (22). And while he hasn’t broken out yet, don’t sleep on Eddy Martinez (34).
Since the Cubs are loaded with outfielders already, they’ll be able to leverage their outfield prospect depth to deal in other areas. They may even be able to find playoff pinch runner types from within if things break very right.
Of course, that role could be filled from the Cubs’ surprising depth of utility infielders. David Bote (11) and Zack Short (14) lead the pack, but there is a small army of other candidates in A ball alone: Jared Young, Jhonny Bethencourt, Rafael Narea, Yeiler Peguero, Andruw Monasterio (31), and Carlos Sepulveda all offer positional flexibility as one of their attributes. So far the Cubs seem willing to keep players who can play multiple positions playing multiple positions as long as possible, so I don’t doubt that at least some of them will stay flexible as they move on up.
And finally, while starting pitching in general deserves a shoutout due to the focus on that area in the draft of late, it is the left-handed starters that have caught my attention. It wasn’t that long ago that Bryan Hudson (10) was just about the only healthy left-handed pitcher I was sure of ranking. Now the Top 40 contains a full five lefties, and Hudson isn’t even the highest ranked. Historically the Cubs have not done well developing left-handed pitching (moreso, I think, than pitching in general), so it is good to see that they have an abundance of southpaws to work with.
All that being said, this farm system really is only the starting point. Organizations are dynamic, constantly changing things, and the Cubs’ organization is going to look quite a bit different when we re-rank these prospects in August. It will look different again next spring, and again in eighteen months. Barring a complete collapse of their player development operation, the trend across those measures should be positive.
Drafts and international free agency won’t bring this system back to being the best farm system in the modern era of baseball like it was just three years ago, but it should allow for some steady improvement, even despite the CBA restrictions. In fact, I can probably sketch out a low probability scenario whereby, if things go very very right, the Cubs could even have a top ten farm system by the middle of next year.
We’ll get into the details of that organizational rebuilding effort and rules that govern it next time.