I suspect there are a lot of new or reformed Cubs fans out there. A popular team with a storied history and very likable players going into extra innings in Game Seven of one of the best World Series we’ve seen in years should produce a lot of new fans, or bring back a lot of old fans.
Welcome, folks! This article is for you.
If you have been poking around Bleacher Nation, you’ve probably already noticed that you are going to be hearing a lot about the minor leagues, prospects, and player development. (For example, just last night the Cubs added several prospects to their 40-man roster). These were important topics when the Cubs were rebuilding, but they are no less important now that the Cubs are on the top of the heap and are working on a dynasty.
Why? What are the minor leagues for? Glad you asked. It’s a good place to start.
What are farm systems for?
The short answer is player development. Unlike the NFL or NBA, we do not often see baseball players immediately play at the highest level as soon as they are drafted. With a handful of exceptions, even the best college players need at least some polishing in the minors. For example, Kris Bryant (2016 MVP, 2015 Rookie of the Year, 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, and 2013 College Player of the Year) was about as good as we could have possibly hoped from the minute he reached the majors in April of 2015. He played in 201 minor league games beforehand, even though he entered the Cubs’ system as one of the best college hitters we had seen in years. Likewise, Kyle Schwarber moved through the minor remarkably fast, and he still needed 147 games on the farm before he was in the majors to stay.
The benefits of that time in the minors were on display in the World Series. When Bryant tagged up at third on a shallow pop fly and scored on a textbook slide in Game Seven, we were watching – together with raw athleticism – the coaching and practice he received in the minors at work. When Albert Almora Jr. tagged up and went to second to set up a crucial run in the tenth, he was simply doing a thing I have seen dozens of times in the farm system.
Players may enter the organization with a lot of talent and athleticism, but it is in the minors they master the dozens of smaller, less flashy skills that separate great athletes who play baseball from great baseball players.
Where do the players come from?
Players enter the from system from four main sources.
The big three are the draft (Bryant and Schwarber, for example), trades (Rizzo and Hendricks, for example), and international free agent signings (Soler and Contreras, for example). The fourth vector, minor league free agency, is less talked about, but it is something that good teams do well. There is also a thing called the Rule 5 Draft (Rondon), but we’ll save that for another day.
The amateur draft takes place in June, and is how high school and college players are added to the farm system. This draft is a very big deal that we will be talking about a lot more when May and June roll around.
International free agency is a complex process that brings players from outside the United States (including Puerto Rico, as well as Canada) into MLB farm systems, and it begins in July of each year. However, the rules that govern how these young players (mostly from Caribbean countries) can be signed are likely to change in a matter of weeks once a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the union is reached. We’ll save further discussion of this topic until we know those changes.
Trades can happen at almost any time, but we are on the doorstep of one of the major trading seasons. In a typical trade, teams use prospects to acquire Major League players, but it is very common to see major and minor league players going in both directions in many deals. Trades are just about the only way to immediately add young talent at positions where your own farm system is weak.
Minor league free agents tend to be veterans who are not quite good enough to hold down a regular job in the majors, but are still useful to have around as backups in case someone gets hurt. Sometimes we will see a minor league free agent signing turn into key contributor to a team, though. Those are cool and memorable stories, but in the grand scheme of things, they aren’t stories that happen very often.
Are all the minor league players “prospects”?
Depends on what you mean by prospect, and to some degree, who you ask.
Not all players have a chance to turn into a Kris Bryant or a Kyle Hendricks. But, for the most part, every player in the farm system as a chance, if things go well, of making it to the Major Leagues. In the vast majority of cases, that chance does not play out.
And that is where prospect rankings come into play. A lot of publications (including Bleacher Nation) rank the prospects under various criteria on an annual basis. The point of this is partly because rankings are fun, and partly because it is useful to know which players have the best shot of making it to the majors, and how much they might contribute when there. Not all chances are equal, and rankings help separate the more-likelies from the less-likelies.
But rankings can be wrong (believe me, as a guy who has done quite a few of them, I know it). Willson Contreras was missed by many rankers until he hit Double A and started raking. Kyle Hendricks was missed by many rankers even after he was about to break into the majors. Meanwhile, former Cubs prospects like Brian Dopriak and Felix Pie were highly ranked, but never quite reached the potential we expected in the majors.
Prospect evaluation grows into more of a science every year, but there is still a lot of art to it. It isn’t exact. And that is why, at least in my book, it never pays to write off any player entirely. A guy may have only a 1% chance of reaching the majors, but this is baseball. A 1% chance can still happen.
What is the difference in minor league levels?
The minors leagues are broken into several levels, and a rough summary of those levels (at least as they pertain to the leagues the Cubs are in) follows.
Triple A (Iowa): A mix of prospects who are just about ready for the majors and minor league veterans who are in reserve in case of an injury.
Double A (Tennessee): Pretty much any player who reaches Double A could play in the majors if a dire need developed. For the Cubs, this is the last serious developmental level for their best talent.
High A (Myrtle Beach): High A is good for sorting the best talent from players who did well in the low levels because they were simply more advanced. In particular, pitchers who do well here are generally pitchers worth watching.
Low A (South Bend): This is the first full season level, and is often the level where players have to adjust to playing baseball as a full-time job. The off-field transitions in Low A can be just as important for the success of the player as the on-field training.
Short Season Low A (Eugene): Draft picks from the past year or two often start playing in Short Season Low A in June. This level is where we can start to accumulate really useful statistics about the prospects that shape our expectations (and rankings) for the next few seasons.
Rookie (Arizona): This is the entry point for the US-based portion of the farm system, as well as a next step for many young international players. Players here are often rehabbing injuries, were just drafted, are making their first stop in the United States, are changing position, or some combination of those three. More advanced players don’t stay here long, but don’t dismiss anyone just because they are playing in this level.
DSL (DSL 1 and 2): The Cubs run two teams in the Dominican Summer League. This is usually the first stop for players signed out of the Caribbean countries. Some never leave the DSL, but every year quite a few travel to Arizona to start climbing the rest of the system.
How do you know what prospects to follow?
I’d suggest keeping in eye on prospect-focused publications like Baseball America, 2080 Baseball, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and MLB Pipeline. Twitter is also an excellent place to pick up prospect tidbits, sometimes from the prospects themselves.
And, of course, reading Bleacher Nation is a good place to start. We’ll have a lot of prospect coverage throughout the winter, culminating in the 2017 edition of the Top 40 Prospects List – not to mention daily minor league coverage throughout the season after that.