Previewing the Mid-Season Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects: The State of the Cubs Farm System

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Previewing the Mid-Season Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects: The State of the Cubs Farm System

Chicago Cubs

Before we get into the specifics of the prospect re-rankings here at BN after the Trade Deadline – something we do each year – let’s step back and take a look at the farm system as a whole.

When the season began, this was a system that was badly depleted, lacking impact talent, and that was having serious problems producing pitching. Then the season began, and several prospects at the top of the pre-season edition of the Bleacher Nation Top 40 ran into problems. Jose Albertos (1) began having extremely serious control problems. Oscar De La Cruz (2) was suspended for a failed performance-enhancing drug test. Adbert Alzolay (3) was shut down with an injury. Aramis Ademan (5) struggled to hit consistently in High A. Tom Hatch (6) suffered a precipitous decline in his strikeout rate. Brendon Little (7) never really got going. Nelson Velazquez (8) struggled through a very rough trip to South Bend. And so on. At the top, things looked bleak.

But it hasn’t all been bleak. A lot of the pitchers drafted in 2016 and 2017 took significant strides forward. A couple of hitters also took significant steps forward. The Cubs had a pretty good June draft, and some key picks from that draft have gotten off to good starts. And even some of the top guys who struggled early on made corrections are finishing on a stronger note.

So where does that leave the farm system? Things are still pretty bleak, but I think we can see the shape of the what the rebounded organization will look like. The top of the prospect rankings has almost completely changed, and this mid-season list has new names scattered all over it. One player has crept back into the baseball wide Top 100 lists, and we can safely identify a few more who are likely to be candidates for inclusion over the next year or so. The system is starting to move in the right direction.

That said, we’re still at least a year, possibly two years, away from this being considered even an average farm system again. And the primary culprit, as well as the herald of recovery, is the pitching.

Pitching Woes

The Cubs have done an excellent job developing hitters. Over the past two seasons, for example, they have traded away several very good bats (Eloy Jimenez, Matt Rose, Isaac Paredes, Jeimer Candelario) and still graduated multiple hitters to the majors (Victor Caratini, Ian Happ, David Bote). If we extend the window back a few more years, the same pattern emerges. With hitters, the Cubs have been able to BOTH develop hitters to keep AND trade away hitters in various deals.

Contrast that with the pitching side. The Cubs have traded some pitching in recent years (headlined by Dylan Cease), but they haven’t graduated any pitcher permanently to the majors since Carl Edwards Jr. arrived in 2016. There have been short-term assignments and a few spot starts, but, unless we count older players signed as minor league free agents, that’s it. When the Cubs’ needed a middle reliever and a fifth starter – not an impact reliever or a new ace, but just a solid middle reliever and a guy who could keep the team in games at the back of the rotation – they had to turn to trades. The farm system wasn’t able to provide it.

Sure, there were a couple guys who were almost ready to step into the reliever role (Dillon Maples, Dakota Mekkes) or could maybe have survived as the fifth starter (Duane Underwood), but the Cubs passed on them for now and opted for outside options. For 2018, the farm system was not able to BOTH provide pitchers for trade AND provide pitchers the Cubs could slot into the major league roster on a consistent basis. That was also the case in 2017. And in 2016.

In other words, the farm system flatly hasn’t produced pitching on the same scale it has produced hitting.

Even if we throw the Cubs super high draft pick bats out of the equation, we get the same verdict. Since Edwards arrived the Cubs have sent up Victor Caratini and David Bote, neither of whom were super high first round picks.

No matter how you slice it, we get the same conclusion – the Cubs have not done a good job developing pitching.

And I do think developing is the key word. They have drafted some good pitchers over the past few years, but until 2017 we really didn’t see those pitchers progress as we expected.

But I think that tide has defintely turned.

Grokking Pitching

The rebuilt farm system that is starting to emerge from the lower levels is not going to be the bat dominated juggernaut we saw in 2015. This time, I really do think that pitching prospects will be right beside the bats on almost an equal footing.

And that means we, as Cubs fans, are going to have to do something we haven’t had to do in a very long time. We’re going to have to learn how to talk about pitching prospects.

I’m not kidding. Despite the lies you’ve been reading on the internet, there really is such a thing as a pitching prospect! Pitching prospects are thought to be harder to predict that hitting prospects, some would say impossibly hard … or it might be we’re just looking at the wrong data and valuing the wrong factors. Just like we used to think that batting average and RBIs were the best ways to talk about hitters only to learn we were very, very wrong, I think it is possible that a reason pitching prospects appear to be so unpredictable is because we’re evaluating them through the wrong lens. (Higher injury risk is, of course, still a factor here.)

I include myself here. I’ve used and discarded a couple of pitching evaluation methodologies over the past six years, and the jury is still out as to whether my current strikeout, walk, and batted ball rate approach is worth a hill of beans. Six years from now maybe we’re talking about FIP and BABIP as the key indicators and looking back at the batted ball rates in the same way we look at RBIs now.

Whatever the right answer proves to be, we’ll have to find it. The days of the Cubs producing so few pitching prospects worth discussing that we can just sort of ignore them and pretend that pitching is so inscrutable that no one can understand it are pretty much over. If we’re going to be able to dive into this rebuilt farm system with any degree of confidence, we’ll have to deal with pitching on an even footing with hitting.

And one of these days we’ll have to figure out how to grade defense in the minors, but that’s a whole different problem.

The New Farm System

The rebuilding farm system is still coming together, but it already has some very clear trends.

There are a lot of younger bats, for example, including more teenagers than we’ve had on a top prospect list in a very long time. There are also a lot of older pitchers, particularly guys who spent at least three years in college. That means there are 23-year-old pitchers in A ball playing in front of 19 year old infielders, and the pitchers are legitimately still prospects and not behind any developmental curve. They just started their professional career a lot later than the infielders, and haven’t had a chance to move up yet. That age disparity is now all over the place.

Defense remains a centerpiece. Most of the Cubs’ best hitting prospects either primarily play or could play up the middle. Players who are already elite defenders or have the ability to reach that level are to be found all over the place. It isn’t uncommon to find centerfielders playing the corners and second basemen playing first simply because of the number of up the middle prospects on the roster. That movement of players around the diamond is likely contributing to more errors than we’d otherwise see.

The focus on ground ball pitchers we saw a few seasons back has shifted into a focus on weak contact pitchers in general, and that means there might be more fly ball pitchers on the mid-season Top 40 than on any list I can remember making. The curveball is very much the poster pitch of the farm system now, and up and down the system guys either have good curves or are working on one.

Relatively aggressive promotions are looking like they are more normal across the board and not reserved for just the very best college bats. That results in more teenagers filtering into full season ball than we’re used to seeing, and in pitchers jumping up the farm system a lot faster than in the past. Seeing a guy starting in Double A a year after he was drafted is suddenly a real thing.

Because the Cubs are drafting college pitching and promoting it aggressively, the pitching side of the farm system is rebounding faster than the hitting side. The new wave of pitching prospects has started to slosh into Double A already, but the best of the hitters are a year or two behind that. That means the first arrivals in Wrigley of the rebuilt organization are likely to be pitchers, not bats.

In general, the overall trend is upward despite the bumps at the top of the pre-season rankings. I still expect the Cubs to be ranked in the bottom five all farm system this winter, but by the middle of next year that should start to change. By the end of 2019 I think they’ll be considered lower middle of the pack, maybe around 20, and from then on they will likely bounce between about 10th and about 20th depending on recent graduations and trades. I don’t think we’ll ever again see a system as loaded as the 2015 one (from any farm system, not just the Cubs), but I doubt we see a Cubs system as completely depleted as what we saw this spring either.

The worst is probably over, in other words, and we’ll have plenty more prospects to obsess over soon. In fact, we have plenty already.



Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.