Saw a tweet that inspired me to rap out a few words about the Cubs. Lucky you!
The main gist: because the Cubs farm system have seen so many swings and misses (literally and figuratively) from their "top prospects" year in and year out, it ought to be the case that a few guys work out one of these years, and so you should go buy your Javy Baez shirsey now.
This type of thinking smacks of the gambler's fallacy; it's why a Cubs-to-win-it-all ticket in Vegas is always so expensive. People watch a coin flip come up heads four times in a row and think, "Surely it'll be tails on the next throw!"
But of course, that's not how probability works. If you think a top 50 prospect has a 1-in-3 chance of making it in the bigs, and two of your top 50 prospects fail, that doesn't somehow make the third guy a sure thing.
Put another way: the fact that Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Trey McNutt, Hayden Simpson, Tyler Colvin, and Felix Pie have all (to date) been relative busts at the major league level doesn't mean the Cubs are somehow owed a blue chip.
That said, there are two things working in the Cubs' favor that bode well for the 2015 major league team.
The first is top-tier talent. Let's start this part of the discussion by talking about Brett Jackson: for more than a year, the power-hitting outfielder with a big hole in his swing was regarded the most talented prospect anywhere in the Cubs' minor league system. But then, Jackson never cracked Baseball America's top 30 rankings. (He was rated 32nd before the 2012 season.) So even though he may have been the Cubs' best prospect, he was never really considered a first-tier minor league talent by the game's best analysts.
In contrast, Ednel Javier Baez was rated the 16th best prospect in the game by BA prior to the 2013 season (just like Starlin Castro was in 2010), and BPro calls him the game's fourth-best prospect. So we should expect better production out of this crop of minor leaguers because the best Cubs prospect in 2014 is better than the best Cubs prospect in many years past.
Beyond that, however, is another factor which I consider to be even more important, and that's depth.
How many times have we all pointed to one flawed Cubs prospect and said, "If only he could put it all together!" That's not the right way to run a talent development system. In baseball, so many different things can go wrong with different types of developing players that you really need 10 good bets for one or two of them to truly work out.
And that's why I've included Matt Szczur in the headline of this post. If you look at the BA, BPro, and Fangraphs lists of top 10 Cubs prospects headed into 2014, you see Matt Szczur's name exactly zero times. The last time Szczur was on the prospect analysts' radar was in 2012, when BA had him 64th headed into the season.
Granted, Szczur no longer looks like he'll be an impact player at the major league level; his MiLB career OPS is .750, and he probably doesn't have enough speed to make up for the fact that he won't ever hit for much power. At the same time, the former 5th round draft pick has posted a .353 on-base percentage over the course of his minor league career, can handle center field, and could sneak his way into the bigs at some point.
But my broader point is that the Cubs aren't counting on Szczur to be an all-star for the next 10 seasons for their development plan to work. Szczur is similar to former Cub Tyler Colvin in that both are/were flawed outfield prospects that could/would see some time in the bigs, but not a lot of it. But whereas Colvin used to be included in Cubs marketing material and flaunted at one time as part of the future of the franchise, Szczur is essentially off the radar at this point.
Think of where the Cubs stand today in terms of talent depth among young players: Rizzo and Vogelbach at first, Alcantara, Baez, Bryant, Villanueva, Castro, and Olt elsewhere on the infield, and Almora, Soler, Lake, and Szczur as potential outfielders. Josh Vitters has a .317/.359/.549 OPS in his minor league career against lefties, and is just 24 years old -- yet few are counting on him for anything at MLB.
The Cubs' minor league pitching depth remains a year or two off; once a few of the guys from this year's projected Tennessee rotation prove they can pitch at the higher level, we can start to talk about all-out depth across the system. But at least in terms of position players, the Cubs now have something they haven't had for years and years.
Yes, Baez and Bryant are fabulous young talents. But even if 75 percent of our C+-or-better prospects don't work out, the Cubs have amassed enough lottery tickets where we should see something nice happen at the major league level sooner rather than later.
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