State of the System: An Introduction to the Coming 2023 BN Top Cubs Prospect List
It took six seconds after the alarm clock, according to Jed Hoyer, to get their strategy underway.
The first phone call was made – David Ross to Matt Mervis – and it was off to the races.
In just a few days in June 2020, after the pandemic-shortened five-round draft, the Cubs would sign 13 new prospects to the organization. You know Mervis and probably Ben Leeper, and surely over the next year or two, another one or two will be well-known by prospect casuals. Of course, the majority won’t reach even Triple-A. The Cubs knew that, but they agreed with Driveline founder (and then Reds Director of Pitching) Kyle Boddy that the 2020 undrafted free agency process was a “generational opportunity” should even one produce positive Major League value. And they struck with vengeance.
This is baseball in 2023, where the search for the tiniest scouting and development advantages is paramount. Thus, the Cubs’ near-exclusive deal with a robot pitching company. Thus, the not-insignificant sum they’ve poured into an app (Ivy) built for just a couple hundred individuals. Thus, a gym on wheels to follow the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
Since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the Cubs, the search for loopholes to exploit has been a frequent staple. They used to try it in the Draft, when the penalty for above-slot bonuses was nothing more than a strongly-worded call from the Commissioner. The introduction of draft pools ended that. They did it by scouting Mexico in the mid-2010s during certain International Free Agency cycles, when they were in the penalty box from the previous year’s overage, and you could use your bonuses more creatively there. But the bonus structure on Mexican prospects changed. An extra complex league team was created for extra bites at prospect apples, but a cap on domestic minor leaguers went as far as to render that strategy a disadvantage.
The exploitations were built around the pocketbook, and the buy-in from ownership that the couple extra millions these small advantages cost would be worth more in the long run. But baseball during Rob Manfred’s tenure is sensitive to big market advantages … except, of course, for the St. Louis Cardinals. Those avenues would all be dead-ends, with relatively little to show for it. (Not counting Javier Assad, one of the more fun breakout stories of the 2022 season, and a contender for the Cubs’ rotation this year.)
Perhaps it’s a sign that the 2020 undrafted free agency process might have something to show for it – maybe a new long-term first baseman? – that the Cubs are possibly and finally becoming a leading player procurement organization. The Cubs were top two in MiLB in the largest jumps from 2021 to 2022 in BOTH Stuff+ and xwOBA, possibly signaling the Cubs have laid the proper foundations for a player development machine that they’ve dreamed about for a decade. I think it’s possible, for example, the Cubs have more prospects in the organization that can throw 98-plus today than they did from 2010-2019 combined.
The problem with good process is that it doesn’t count for anything. You can play a poker hand brilliantly, and when the river supplies the guy on the other side of the table with his gutshot miracle card, you lose. Sometimes, Alexander Canario and Ed Howard just happen to hit first base the wrong way. Brennen Davis was all set last Spring Training to be the shining example of the new era’s development process – a player nurtured from a skinny slap hitter to a strong, power slugger – before blood vessels in his back intervened.
So while 2022 was an undeniable step forward, I can understand the skepticism from some pockets of Cubs fans.
The team has only one consensus top 50 prospect, and generally just three in the top 100. You want those numbers to be higher. Prospect depth is good and important – and this is the deepest list I’ve ever created this year – but the desperation for a return to homegrown All-Stars is, I’d argue, more important. Particularly given the Cardinals farm system is pretty much the opposite: lacking in depth, but led by two potential stars in Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn (both of whom were drafted in the shortened 2020 MLB Draft).
The Cubs have a good farm system, I’m quite sure of it. Over the next week, I’m going to tell you about nearly 100 prospects who intrigue me. We’ll rank 50 of them, and I think you’ll get a sense for the increased depth in reading about the skills that players at even the back end of the list have. But the quality of this farm system, at this exact point in time, is not yet at the place where I’d lay odds in MLB success later this decade. It’s getting close, but it hasn’t fully turned the corner.
The 2023 minor league season will (obviously) be huge. We’ll see if the breakouts from 2022 – Pete Crow-Armstrong, Mervis, Porter Hodge, Jeremiah Estrada among them – can continue the momentum created last year. We’ll see if the team can successfully nurture numerous former top 10 prospects back from injury to a return to their prospect heights (Davis, Canario, Howard, Miguel Amaya). And we’ll see if the Cubs latest attempt at breaking from the pack – spending the 2022 draft almost entirely on pitchers – was a smart strategy.
With all the trades, all the dollars, and all the words focused around the farm system for the past two years, 2023 is when this organization needs to prove it’s become a player development machine. It’s time for the minor edges to begin reaping more Major League rewards.