We expected Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod to turn this system around in a hurry, but did anyone expect this type of turnaround? Just over a year ago, the Cubs system was considered devoid of impact prospects. Gradually, that has begun to change. Jim Callis of Baseball America recently mentioned that he had the Cubs as his 12th rated system as of now.
John Sickels likes them even better, ranking them #10 overall.
To be fair, let's give the old regime a little credit before we go all gaga over our new front office. The Cubs problem was never really bad at scouting. The Cubs, led by Tim Wilken, have employed some of the most respected scouts in the game. The Cubs issues were three-fold.
- There was an unwillingness to invest in the draft. The Cubs have always had the ability to evaluate and dig up talent, but it doesn't matter if you're not going to spend for top tier impact talent. If you use premium picks on second tier talents like Hayden Simpson and Tyler Colvin, it's going to come back to bite you eventually.
- There was also the archaic way the Cubs collected and stored information. You can scout and unearth tons of talent, but good players fall through the cracks if you don't have an organized, sophisticated information system in place.
- Another problem was the lack of a cohesive, consistent development philosophy. Finding and signing talent are the first steps but the Cubs did little to develop players once they were drafted. Elite talents like Corey Patterson, Shawon Dunston, and even Mark Prior surfaced in the big leagues, seemingly without a whole lot more refined baseball skill than what got them drafted in the first place.
The Cubs and Tom Ricketts attacked the spending issue in the 2011 draft. Two of the four players Sickels mentions, Javier Baez and Dan Vogelbach, were scouted, signed, sealed, and delivered by the old regime. The difference is the Cubs paid big to sign both of them. They didn't go cheap on their first pick and they went for a tough sign for their second selection. That was a radical departure from recent history.
That's a good start, but the Cubs didn't stop there.
The Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod era has continued and expanded on that philosophy of paying for top talent. They chose the player whom they thought was the best player available in Albert Almora, then went out and signed arguably the best young amateur talent in the international market in Jorge Soler. Those two impact talents make up the other half of what Sickels calls "an impressive quartet" of hitting prospects.
The investment has continued into player development. It's easy to forget these days that the Cubs left Javier Baez and Dan Vogelbach behind in extended spring training when it was all but assumed they would begin the year in Peoria, where they likely would have held their own on natural talent alone. Instead the Cubs kept them in AZ to make sure they understood the so-called Cubs Way, which is essentially a guide to how the Cubs want their players to develop on and off the field. It was probably no coincidence that both players started so strongly upon promotion. They were more than ready.
It was no different when they signed their own guys, Almora and Soler. Each spent significant time in AZ despite being physically advanced for that level.
Once again, the Cubs development staff was proactive.
The Cubs have wasted no time tweaking Soler's swing, which works fine for now but may be exploited by more advanced pitchers down the road. Almora is a polished player in every sense except one -- he is aggressive and doesn't take a ton of pitches. That too has been addressed and it appears Almora is working hard to improve his strike zone discipline.
We can contrast that to the last minute adjustments old regime prospects like Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters have had to make on a fly at the big league level. While there is no guarantee that things would have been different, you can't help but wonder if their respective concerns had been addressed earlier, as they have with the most recent wave of prospects. Perhaps we wouldn't have the questions we do now at CF and 3B as we enter the 2013 season.
In addition to the big 4, Sickels mentions the Cubs success with Latin American players at the lower levels. He doesn't mention names but we can assume he means players like 3B Jeimer Candelario, 2B Gioskar Amaya,SS Marco Hernandez and Arismendy Alcantara, and RHP Jose Paniagua.
The weakness, as is the general consensus, is pitching. Again, it's not a very name-specific article, but I have to think the bigger concern with the Cubs is impact quality upper level arms. The Cubs do have some live arms, but none of them have yet to play full season ball. Given all that can happen as they try to advance over the next few years, it's safe to say the Cubs need to continue to stock on as many arms as possible in the hopes that a few break through as impact talents at the big league level.
The system isn't perfect, but it's one that's certainly on the rise. When it comes to scouting and development, the Cubs finally get it.
And it appears the rest of baseball is beginning to catch on.