With the Cubs doing their best to load their farm system with as many elite hitting prospects as humanly possible, a lot of fans have been downright giddy about the potential of the future. And rightfully so. These guys have a ton of talent.
On the other side of it, many have shown their own special brand of concern over guys who are “just prospects.” This argument points to the fact that prospects have a tendency to not be as good as we think they'll be, and usually invokes the names of Corey Patterson, Felix Pie, Josh Vitters, and others. Those who pay attention know that this isn't fair.
Patterson was rushed by the Cubs, and anyone could see the issues with his swing when he reached the Major Leagues. Vitters was drafted high out of high school as a guy with a bat but no patience, questionable work ethic, and poor defense. Pie never learned which pitches to lay off and which to swing at, and the Cubs just called him up anyway.
For reasons that are a mixture of failure on the part of the players and failure on the part of the Cubs, these guys never developed into the players many thought they'd be (although Patterson had several really good seasons in the Majors, and Vitters may still make it as a platoon guy or bench bat). In many ways, these guys aren't fair comparisons with guys like Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and the others.
If you want to make the argument that prospects sometimes go bust, don't just point at the failures of the previous Cubs regime. It's a lazy argument and makes you look like you don't pay attention to baseball well enough to name anyone outside of the Cubs. Other teams have top prospects that bust, too.
All players have flaws, of course. The biggest thing standing between Jorge Soler and a successful Major League career is his own ability to stay on the field. Bryant's biggest concern is long-term ability to play third base. Javy Baez is high-boom, high-bust potential. Enter the Andy Marte comparison.
I know what you're thinking: aren't you the same guy who compared Javy to Pedro Alvarez? Yeah, that was me. And didn't another writer on Cubs Insider write about why comparisons are stupid? Yes, that did happen. No two players are exactly alike, but we can use Marte as a cautionary tale for Baez.
Marte was a third base prospect in the Braves (and later Indians) minor league system in the early-to-mid 2000's. He didn't have as much power as Baez, but otherwise had some fairly similar features. As a 21-year-old in AAA, Marte was the 9th-ranked prospect in baseball. Here are some of his Minor League stats:
*Click here for full stats.
2004, 20 at AA- 450 PA .269/.364/.525 with 24 HR, 23% K rate, 12% BB rate
2005, 21 at AAA- 460 PA .275/.372/.506 with 20 HR, 18% K rate, 13% BB rate
2006, 22 at AAA- 394 PA .261/.322/.451 with 15 HR, 20% K rate, 8% BB rate
2007, 23 at AAA- 379 PA .267/.309/.457 with 16 HR, 17% K rate, 5% BB rate
Check out this Marte scouting report from John Sickels in 2003:
“Scouts say that Marte has very quick wrists, helping him generate plus bat speed even though he's not the biggest physical specimen in the universe. He has power to all fields, can pull the ball for home runs, or hit to the opposite field gap when needed.
He still needs to improve his plate discipline, but he made huge strides in that regard last year, increasing his walk rate substantially. He will still lunge outside the strike zone occasionally, but that should ease with time.
On defense, Marte has enough range to play shortstop in some farm systems, though the Braves have kept him at third base since he doesn't have much pure speed. His arm is strong and accurate, and he has soft hands. With additional experience to iron out his footwork, he'll be a fine defensive player.”
Marte drew comparisons to Adrian Beltre at the time. Unfortunately, things didn't work out for him in the majors, as you may have guessed by now. Here are his dismal MLB stats:
*Click here for full stats.
924 PA over parts of 6 seasons, .218/.277/.358 with 20 HR, 19% K rate, 7% BB rate
It's hard to really say what went wrong for Marte. His K-rate wasn't extreme and his BB rate was low but not awful. The guy just struggled to hit elite, MLB pitchers. It's the problem with falling in love with prospects. Sometimes the “can't miss” guys do, in fact, miss.
Even the prospect gurus get it wrong sometimes; Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus wrote a good column on the topic. To put all of your eggs in the basket of a single prospect to be a star that elevates your team to a championship level is foolish. The same is true of expensive free agents on the wrong side of 30 as well.
But the Cubs have set themselves apart. Fans don't have to project all their hopes and dreams onto Javier Baez. This isn't “cross your fingers that Marte takes over for Chipper Jones someday.” It's not Patterson, Pie, or Vitters, either. If Baez goes bust, it's gonna be okay. The Cubs have a safety cushion.
If only half of the Cubs hitting prospects end up being good, they're sitting pretty. Go ahead, pick just three or four of Bryant, Baez, Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber. Add that to Castro and Rizzo. Fill in some role players and, guess what? You've got a really good lineup.
When you see guys fill out their 2016 or 2017 fantasy Cubs lineup, it's usually most of these names filled somewhere around the diamond. But I'll tell you right now: don't count on it. A few of these guys will end up elsewhere. A few may not be good enough. It's unrealistic to expect all of these guys to make it.
But then again, we don't have to; it's all part of The Plan.
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