Sickels ranks Cubs system as top 10 in the game

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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.




Filed under: Minor Leagues, prospects


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  • I also liked seeing the Padres and Red Sox ranked in the Top 10. Just reinforces the idea in my head that the Cubs front office guys know how to build a farm system. Makes it that much easier to shell out for my season tickets.

  • In reply to North Side Irish:

    It can't be a coincidence, right? Whatever they've been doing has worked and continues to work.

    Hold on to those tickets...I''m guessing they won't be easy to get later.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Our seats are in the first row of the upper deck. Just have to hope that the 2013 team doesn't make me throw myself over the railing.

  • In reply to North Side Irish:

    I wonder which would be worst while watching another bad Cubs team.........throwing yourself over the rail....or throwing up over the rail?

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    How can the Cubs be bad this year when CubsTalk has them winning anywhere from 89 to 95 games? Thus the only thing we will be throwing is confetti....

  • Great article. I'm pretty jacked about our system, but cautious because we had top talent before and failed to deliver. I always wonder why we drafted talent everyone rated as top level, but failed to develop them through the system. I remember Vitters being ranked 70 for power and hitting when he was drafted. Obvioulsy that hasn't developed. Can the new regime still rescue him? I think they will be in the top 3 ranked systems in the next two years.

  • In reply to cubman:

    Thank you and yes, I have that fear as well, though I feel better that the Cubs have better information and development systems in place. Hopefully that translates to better success.

    Vitters was a stud as a high school prospect. I think even if the Cubs didn't draft him, he had no chance of slipping outside the top 5. I think there's always a chance the light bulb can still go on, but the odds decrease as the years go by. I have hopes, but they're fading. Maybe he hits his stride in those age 26,27 years.

  • The "2013 BA prospects handbook" just can out and I was
    surpirised the 2nd baseman they received from the Red was not

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Probably has to do with his size and that almost all of this value is in his bat.

    I didn't get mine yet. I'm jealous!

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    In reply to emartinezjr:

    Do you mean Ronald Torreyes? He doesn't get alot of prospect love, despite being a plus fielder, being young for his level (19 in A+ last year), and striking out basically....never (67 career Ks in 1179 PAs!)

    I think he's underrated, but let's see how he does in AA

    Scouts I think also assume he's too small to ever hit for power, and will become basically a 2B version of Rey Sanchez

  • In reply to Zonk:

    seem to remember a fella named Dustin Pedroia who was called "too small". Seem to also remember him being AL MVP 2 years ago, and being a solid 20HR/80rbi, 280-300 Avg hitter with aboveavg defense. Also seem to remember a HOF named Joe Morgan, who was about 5'8 and 180 lbs, who had a fairly worthwhile career.

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    Nice read here John...thanks

  • In reply to freeagent24:

    Your welcome..and thanks!

  • Makes the fact that I got a set of 10 game tickets to Kane County for Christmas all the more attractive. Go Theo Go!

  • In reply to bucknervsdurham:

    Me too. Hope to see you there!

  • I'm not overly concerned about the lack of pitching as I think this will be addressed in the draft and in future trades not only of their current pitching staff, but also if/when they can deal from strength such as a young SS. If a bunch of those guys look like keepers (Hernandez and Alcantara, etc.) then they can trade them to other tools that might be re-tooling for pitching help.

    As long as they keep adding talent, they can use that talent later on as trade bait to address whatever holes they have. Choose BPA in the draft regardless of position/perceived need.

    Very exciting to see the work that the FO has done in such a short time and how that might improve more this coming year! Should be fun to follow Cubs Den! Thanks John and Tom and Felzz for helping us all keep abrest of all the new developments and thought-provoking articles.

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    *teams not tools. Oops

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    Your welcome and thanks for the kind words. I'll do those daily minor league recaps so you guys won't miss a beat. I plan on see a ton of games this year both live and through Really looking forward to seeing who breaks out this year.

    I think they're going to attack that pitching gap and they should get a large piece next June whether it's Appel, Manaea, or Stanek or someone. I think there is a good chance they get the BPA and fill a big need at the same time.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Cubs will have plenty to spend in the draft too...

    Jim Callis ‏@jimcallisBA
    Yes. Rank 2nd at $9.8 mil (2012 $) @cliffy46405: Is it fair to say the #Cubs will have about 10 million to spend in the 2013 #mlbdraft then?

  • In reply to North Side Irish:


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    It stinks seeing the Cards at the top........I hate those guys! Pirates also look like they won't be a doormat anymore.

    Vizcaino is our only impact arm that's even close, and it seems like the plan for him in 2013 is to establish health and stretch out in AAA.

    We have some raw material in pitching (Paniagua, Pierce Johnson, Dillon Maples, Duane Underwood,) but not much finished product

    I read Sickel's comments like the Cubs would be a top-5 system based on hitting, but bottom-10 based on pitching

  • In reply to Zonk:

    I'd say that's pretty close. The Cubs have some intriguing hitting prospects but the pitching situation is so riddled with question marks. It seems their SPs are either a) coming off of injury, b) at the lowest levels or c) have a modest ceiling.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    The Pirates may have some good prospects, but they will encounter lots of obstacles. The Bucs will invent the term "Boot Camp Attrition".

  • In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    Pirates have some really good arms coming . Cole, Tallison, TOR type stuff. How long they can keep there position players is where they will rise or fall. They need Alvarez to become McCutcheon.

  • And 5th in the National League. Here's hoping the FO can turn the Major League roster into an annual Top 5 one also.

  • In reply to Raymond:

    I think it's just a matter of time.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Chicago Cubs. World Series Champions. I'm ready to hear and read that.

  • In reply to Raymond:

    That can't come soon enough. Party at my house!

  • The other thing I liked was seeing that the Cubs moved up from #20 last season, even after graduating Rizzo, W. Castillo, Sappelt and Dolis (some debate over how much a loss those last two are). The 2012 list also lost Carpenter and Kurcz in the Theo compensation, saw regression from Jackson, Vitters, Rhee, and McNutt, as well as injuries to B. Wells and Maples.

    Despite all that, the system still moved up 10 slots, which shows how much talent has been added in the past year.

  • In reply to North Side Irish:

    That brings up a good point because you can't just take a snapshot in time. You have to keep re-loading to maintain that status.

  • The FO seems to have slowed the shuffle of minor leaguers and cup of coffee majors this year compared to last. I quess that is good, but I want more Rizzos.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    We all want more Rizzos! You hope you can find one or two core players each year through your system. Last year it was Rizzo. Hopefully they make up for it with two players this year.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Do you think Tony Zych could come up sometime this year and make an impact, maybe if we need a setup or a closer?

  • In reply to SFToby:

    I think he could easily make it this year. I don't think it would be as a closer but he could get himself some high leverage innings by the end of the year.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I'll take him as my pick to click this spring.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    That might be a fun spring training piece/contest. Who will be this year's spring training surprise...

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Zych can Pych !

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    It's gonna take a trade or two to open up space for him. If you look at the staff, the top 12 -- as of right now -- are pretty much written in stone.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    That's why I was thinking at first he may show up after a trade or an injury, although he should remind people of his presence this spring.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    Last year was roster chaos.....I don't think we'll see any more Germanos or Berkens or Corpas. Hopefully nobody gets Hinshawed. Last year was a revolving door.......101 losses and losing/trading 60% of the rotation will do that

  • In reply to Zonk:

    One reason why we will win 89 games this season.

    Dempster, Garza & Maholm was with us for a half of a season.....

    add on the new doubt in my mind we will surpass +25 wins from last ears total.

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    we don't have Dempster/Maholm anymore, and Dempster sorta pitched over his head the first 2 months of the season. You have to subtract the 15 wins Dempster/Maholm gave you. I still see this team as about a 75 win team, unless players like Stewart and Schierholtz exceed there last several years. a return to the 2009 Ian Stewart would be nice.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    also no more Casey Colemans. Id have taken Caseys dad rather than him.

  • Recounting that 2011 draft brought back how impressed Theo was with the Cubs' draft that year. I remember him saying something like, "They get it. They're going for it." That's a feather in Ricketts' cap.

    I always think of Tony Campana when it comes to how poorly the old regime developed players. Just amazes me with his skill set he can't take a walk to save his life. This FO would have done their best to fix both that and his tendency to uppercut. Still love to see him get some work in with Dave McKay on his defense. With his late inning steal threat, if his defense can just improve, even if his offense doesn't, he could be a valuable guy to have on the roster.

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    Other than Brett Jackson, who is starting in Iowa, Campana is the closest thing to a true CF on the roster, which is saving his bacon right now, imo.

    Those flaws were present with Campana for a long time in the minors. It really would have helped to have stressed the importance to OBP with Campana from the get go. He's had to unlearn and re-learn a lot of things, and that's not easy to do at the MLB level.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John, you may not have any recollection of one of the Alou brothers, Matty. His stature was just about the same as Campana's, IIRC, but my, what a difference in his game. He was never anything more than a slap hitter, but he had a lifetime NL BA of .309 and OBP of .345. And, if I recall, he was a very good CF, if not spectacular. That's the kind of player we all would take from Campana and that's the kind of player that should have been molded by now.

  • In reply to cubs1969:

    I've been thinking about Matty Alou and his batting style lately. Years ago, you'd see a lot more players choking up on a bat. This allowed players to use a heavier bat while still maintaining good control of it, meaning they could turn it quicker with their wrists. Matty used to use a 40 oz bat (or more) as I recall. He also choked up quite a bit. He said it was the reason he hit so well.

    More players today choose lighter bats to increase their bat speed instead of choking up. (I think players somehow think choking up doesn't look cool or otherwise demeans themselves as hitters). The thing you lose with a lighter bat is obviously mass, which means you've got to hit the ball a little harder to make up for this loss of mass/weight which usually means a longer swing, etc. I wonder how much the game has changed as a result of the gradual evolution in bat weight.

  • In reply to cubs1969:

    !969-Id pray all day for Campana to be even close to Matty Alou, yes hew didn't have power, but he hit hard ground balls, liners, pulled doubles and triples into the corner, played excellent defense. Any discussion about Campana would be null and void if Campana were remotely close to Matty Alou.

  • *pokes head up*

    Two thoughts.

    1) People who thought the system was devoid of talent a year ago were wrong. It was definitely underrated. There's this weird delay where it seems like it takes six months to a year for the reality of a farm system to reach the general consensus. On that same vein, I think the "Cubs' system has no pitching" consensus is getting a bit dated; I think you described the pitching pretty well. Outside of *maybe* Vizcaino, it lacks any upper-level arms who have the potential to be at the front of a rotation. But it's got plenty of upper-level BOR, plenty of interesting bullpen guys at all levels, and the seeds are there for some interesting FOR guys to develop at out of the low minors.

    2) Given the amount of resources the Cubs have spent since Ricketts has taken over, I consider the No. 10 farm system to be a pretty average result. In the last 2.5 years (starting with the 2011 draft), here's a list of the resources the Cubs have spent on the farm system:

    Two drafts picking No. 8 and No. 6 overall.
    Roughly $20 million to sign draft picks
    Committed roughly $50 million to international free agent prospects, not including what are essentially escalator clauses in Soler's contract
    Traded 8 major league players for prosects

    With that kind of resource commitment, No. 10 overall seems like a par score to me.

  • In reply to Kyle:

    I think there's some truth to the 1st idea but looking back, it's hard to name a true impact prospect from two years ago. Brett Jackson? Trey McNutt? They are talented but I think enough questions remain where you can't fully call them top prospects quite yet. I've been following the Cubs minor league system since the days of Karl Pagel and I'd have to say that as of two years ago, the Cubs were at a pretty low point in terms of impact talent.

    Your second point just repeats part of the formula stated in the article. The Cubs have to spend to acquire talent. That wasn't the case before 2012. But it's only part of the equation. You can't ignore scouting and development and just attribute the rise to dollars spent and draw some some sort of "you get what you pay for" conclusion. It's definitely big part of it, but that's oversimplifying the matter a great deal.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    *before 2011

  • In reply to Kyle:

    Kyle, every kid rated here is either a 2011/2012 draftee. The last 2 years, which coincides with Ricketts taking over as owner. The system lacks in the upper levels, its balance of top prospects are 2-3 years away.

  • Well hopefully these rankings will settle down some of the F.O. critics. I mean a rebuild takes time and patience. There's some out there who have none. In one year's time, they have added a lot of talent. Enough to garner some high rankings(compared to last year) from some respected talent evaluators. Of course there are no guarantees but it's nice to see our infrastructure being built and the MLB club with as much flexibility as it does. Allowing it to be helped if they surprise or sold/purged if they don't. Like many others on this site, I've been on board with the plan from day one. But it is nice to see some fruit from the labor.

  • In reply to Bill:

    I hope so too. I guess there will always be critics and that's okay, but I think there are more and more Cubs fans who understand the process than in year's past. It's always tough in a big market, especially one as hungry for a championship as this one is.

    Our patience will pay off soon...(fingers crossed)

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    You sounded like Stuart Smalley there!

    "...there will always be critics....and that's...okay...because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."


  • In reply to Just Win:

    Haha :)... I actually felt cheesy when I wrote it. I almost re-worded it but for some reason just left it. Meant to say there should be criticism of the front office and I think people are becoming more informed about how they do it. Mostly because it seems to me more and more fans understand what the Cubs are trying to do

    Sometimes I feel like I want to write a critique of the front office myself actually, but there hasn't been something that has motivated me to do that. All their mistakes have been low risk. Now, if they sign Michael Bourn or Kyle Lohse, that will be a different story!

  • The most exciting thing is the system is pretty much a lock for top 5 next year, as long as the guys that are currently in the system have average progression. The Cubs will graduate basically no one of significance to the bigs this year other than maybe Vizcaino and Jackson. They'll bring in a guy in the draft that will immediately come in as a top 75 player. They can spend the 2nd most on international talent. And they'll have a couple more added pieces from trades.

    And if a couple guys make big jumps, this could be the best system in the bigs this time next year.

  • In reply to TulaneCubs:

    That's a good point. Of their top 10, I think Jackson will be the only casualty from their stock of prospects. He'll either be a big leaguer or he'll drop off the top 10. I don't think any other top ten prospect will exhaust their rookie status next year. Vizcaino may get a cup of coffee, but I think 201 is his target year.

    They won't lose a lot and they figure to add an impact prospect at #2 at the very least.

  • I include Wellington Castillo in that prospect group, he really didn't play that much last season. I think he has a chance to be great.

  • He is a prospect in the sense that he's not an established MLB player, but technically he doesn't qualify by the numbers. Those numbers are arbitrary, though. In the grand scheme of things, it's just a way of delineating for things like rookie status. If he succeeds this year, then I'm with you...we can add him to the Cubs successful graduates.

  • Was watching some you tube videos of the Cubs top prospects. Have you seen the home run that Soler hits against Kane County last summer. Looks like a man child out there.

  • I've seen all the Soler videos of the HR at Kane. In fact, I took one of them :)

  • Wonder how many they'll have of Soler and Vogelbach this year?

  • John, you mentioned that the Cubs were never one to invest a lot in the draft. I think it was more than that.

    For years the Cubs and the rest of baseball didn't really have to do much of any scouting or development. Baseball used to be more of a local entertainment for years, and it seemed that nearly every town of any size had a team and that's where players were developed. There were 59 different leagues in the US, with 438 different teams. Whenever a major league team needed someone, they'd make a few phone calls and send a scout over to look at a player and either buy him from the club or simply sign him away. It was that way until 1962 when MLB organized the minors and did away with classes B, C and D.

    In 1965 the first draft was held and Rick Monday was the first pick that year. PK Wrigley evidently never caught on to the importance of scouting and development after that, which is part of the reason of their futility. The Tribune company never really understood the business of baseball. Ricketts is the first owner the Cubs have had who does understand the game.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Yes! Agreed Toby. It's a real change in focus and it started with Ricketts even before he hired Theo. The philosophy change started and then he brought in the right guys to do it. I don't think it would have happened otherwise. The first step always comes from good ownership. Good observation.

  • Excellent article. I really enjoyed it. Such a great breakdown of the Cubs of years past, and what the Cubs of today are doing now: build properly.

  • In reply to MikeWadle:

    Thank you Mike!

  • Add that young talent, year by year, and DEVELOP that talent. Music to my ears. It will certainly be exciting to see that top FA come into town, but to me, it's more exciting to see that rookie emerge and become an impact player. We've waited a long time for that to happen.

  • In reply to cubs1969:

    If there's one thing long-time Cubs fans will really appreciate -- it's player development. Something the Cubs haven't had, in my opinion, since the Green/Goldsberry days.

  • In reply to cubs1969:

    Last one I remember who had a true impact was Prior/Zambrano back in the early 2000s. Soto was a one-year wonder who never recaptured his rookie year.

  • It seems to me that many FOs are using similar approaches as the Cubs to building their systems as well. A couple of years ago most organizations were still plugged into the Hendry old school approach. Everybody figured it out to some degree. So our guys are just going to have to do it better.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    There is a smaller margin than there used to be out there, so the Cubs will have to be better, in every corner of the process. If they can just be incrementally better at several parts of the process, that can add to a lot. They have the people, the money and the motivation to edge the competition.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Imo new frontier for advanced stat analysis for use in baseball is in data collection and development of new metrics. Old sabermetrics were based on common data everyone had and focused on doing new analyeses, now that everyone is catching up, need to have proprietary data collection and use it for new types of analyses that other teams don't have, don't know about and don't know you have them. Cubs new position of research and development is to direct this effort. but there will be new technologies used and more people recording the numbers that will be crunched by othere stat folks, like Tom Tango.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Id have to credit Billy Beane with starting the new trend. The As were the first team to use sabermetric analysis. Any coincidence Theo and several other GMs started out in the As front office?

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    When did Theo work for the A's?

  • In other words, John, the Tribs financial woes led to an understaffed front office, which in turn led to poor drafting, etc. One thing besides the new FO is that Ricketts has upgraded the scouting and increased the number of scouts, and the advanced use of sabermetrics, something Hendry/Wilken never employed.

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    In reply to mutant beast:

    Not sure the Tribunes financial woes had anything to do with the small size of the teams front office. It was small long before Sam Zell ran the company full speed into a brick wall. It had more to do with the Tribune wonks not wanting to spend unnecessary dollars on a team that was drawing well at the gate and raking in the TV dollars as it was.

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