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
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.
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.
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.