A funny thing happened to the Cubs’ minor league organization on its way to being a perennial National League contender. A system that was painstakingly built from 2012 to have “position redundancy” was suddenly finding itself lacking in talent. While the graduation to the major leagues of first round draft picks Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ had a little something to do with the decline, trades of highly rated prospects Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney, Dan Vogelbach, Donnie Dewees, Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Jeimer Candelario, and Isaac Parades contributed.
But the roots of the current state of the Cubs minor leagues run deeper than promotions and trades. From the beginning, the Cubs’ front office failed to get any significant returns on players such as DJ LeMahieu, Ryan Flaherty, Marwin Gonzalez, Justin Bour, Marco Hernandez, and Welington Castillo. The international free agent buying binge of 2014 that netted Torres and Jimenez among others got the Cubs slapped with a three year signing restriction that they are just coming out from under. In addition, the Cubs lost their first two picks of the 2016 draft for signing Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. The 2016 draft was also the first time since 2010 that the Cubs did not have a top ten selection.
All this has led to, depending on who you read, the Cubs minor league system lacking in any impact players or having a very raw prospect base. So it is very curious as to why a franchise that has averaged 30 prospects participating in the winter leagues over the last seven seasons had only 18 playing currently, and saw them pull back in participation in the Fall Instructional League.
Following the end of the 2017 season, the Cubs decided to shake up their major league coaching staff. They parted ways with pitching coach Chris Bosio, hitting coach John Mallee, assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, and third base coach Gary Jones; they have been replaced by Jim Hickey, Chili Davis, Andy Haines, and Brian Butterfield. Teams usually make announcements concerning their minor league coaching staffs following the winter meetings. However, the Cubs have yet to make any statements concerning their minor league coaches for 2018. It is not certain as to whether this has effected any decision making over direction of player development.
It is unclear as to whether the major leagues decided not to field an “advanced instructional” league this past fall, or the Cubs chose not to participate. What is clear is that the Cubs did choose to become more insular with their own instructional players, not scrimmaging against anyone outside the organization and holding only one intra-squad game. The instructional league is usually a very loose affair, with teams often setting up parameters prior to a game in order to maximize the best experience for prospects. The Fall Instructional League is usually when international signees get their first experience in Mesa. It is also where players are moved around in order to find out what they “can” do, as opposed to “want” to be.
The winter leagues have long been a place where players can go to improve their games in a relaxed, but still competitive setting. The biggest advantage of the winter league is the diversity of rosters. Winter league rosters include not only up-and-coming prospects, but current and former major-leaguers along with local favorites. The exposure to a wide range of players on both sides of the field as well as the competition often has an accelerating effect on prospects. The Cubs have seen at firsthand how this can benefit players with the following two recent examples.
Following the 2010 minor league season, Marwin Gonzalez was a 21 year old utility infielder with a career batting average of .243 before playing for Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League. Gonzalez would go on to hit .324 with 38 RBI in 59 games for the Leones and carried that momentum over to the next minor league season. Gonzalez was a combined .288 for Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa before being plucked from the Cubs organization in the Rule 5 draft. Gonzalez went on to be a vital cog for the Houston Astros in 2017, contributing heavily to their World Series Championship.
In 2014, Willson Contreras had only a career .253 batting average over six minor league seasons and was considered a “four corners” back-up type of player who had recently added catching to his skills, and had already been exposed to the Rule 5 draft. While hitting only .273 in 26 games for Aragua in the VWL, Contreras was able to benefit from the experience of catching major league pitchers Freddy Garcia, Wil Ledezma, and Chris Smith along with the guidance of veteran catcher Gustavo Molina. That set the stage for Contreras’ 2015 season, in which he was the breakout prospect for all of baseball. Contreras captured the Southern League batting title with a .333 average and was named the top catching prospect by nearly every publication.
While there is debate about the overall current talent level for the Cubs’ minor league system, there is no doubt that there are players that could have benefited from the experience winter baseball brings. Emerging sluggers such as outfielder Eddie Julio Martinez and catcher/first baseman Tyler Alamo could have prepared to make the big jump to Double-A ball next season, while athletic players such as outfielders Luis Ayala and Chris Pieters, along with infielders Andrew Monasterio and Yeiler Peguero could have used more experience. The Cubs also had several pitchers coming off of injury-plagued seasons such as David Berg, Jose Rosario, and Rob Zastryzny who could have used extra innings. And following some tough times in 2017, pitchers like Zach Hedges and Ryan McNeil could have used a potential boost in confidence. In addition, the Cubs could have seen just how far 2017 minor league bright spots such as reliever Dakota Mekkes, swingman Michael Rucker, and infielders Zack Short and Austin Upshaw have progressed.
However, there are some risks involved with some of these off season activities, particularly the winter leagues. In the past decade, the leagues have grown to become a little more parochial, and less inviting to “non-native” players. In an ugly 2012 situation, Cubs prospect Bryan LaHair was blowing the VWL competition away during the first five weeks before being harassed by a local Venezuelan reporter calling himself “Pepi Beisbal”. LaHair left Magallanes for a short period of time before being coaxed back by the team, and suffered from harsh fan reaction every time he stepped on the field for the rest of the season. Yet, LaHair was able lead the VWL in home runs and was named Winter League MVP by several outlets, and went on to be a major league All-Star the following season. Also in 2012, Ranger farmhand and future Cubs prospect Mike Olt was off to a good start in the Dominican Republic before being beaned, effecting his vision for the rest of his life. After being ranked in the top 25 of all baseball prospects prior to the incident, Olt has played only 135 major league games to date.
There are also other risks. For the most part, the places where the winter leagues are held are not the safest places on earth. Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico this past September and wiped out the Roberto Clemente League for this year. There has been ongoing political unrest in Venezuela and drug violence in Mexico. And there have been many incidents car crashes leading to injuries and even deaths in the Dominican Republic. One such incident particularly struck close to home as four Cubs prospects had to be pulled out of a fiery car crash in 2014 that resulted in ending the baseball careers of pitcher Jose Zapata and 2013 Northwest League batting champion Kevin Encarnacion.
But the apparent risks are the same each ballplayer takes whenever they show up at the park. And while there is no guarantee that a player will become a Gonzalez or Contreras, the opportunity is real. With the Cubs essentially sitting out this off season’s opportunities, it will be interesting to see the effects on the organization and its players.