What Now? The Farm System in a Post-Russell Era
I offered a thought experiment this offseason to my followers on twitter. The question posed was what would the Cubs farm system rankings look like if it graduated Addison Russell in addition to Kris Bryant this year? I was mostly shouted down with “who cares about farm system rankings then?” but my hypothetical scenario appears to be turning into reality.
The Cubs built a historically good farm system in a very short amount of time. The big league club was bad for five years, but the first few years they have done the opposite of what Jim Hendry did as he tried to save his job. The proof is in the Cubs’ current top 10 at Baseball America, which does not include a single prospect acquired by the Hendry regime in that time.
In the time since they took over, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have purposely focused solely on acquiring as much young talent as possible and have succeeded in record fashion. The time in the sun for the Cubs farm system will likely be shorter than its rise to prominence.
The system ranking rested largely on the trio of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler, and there is not a wave as massive to replace it. There also might never be another like it since the Cubs’ ability to replace those types of prospects hinges on being bad. The Cubs will draft ninth this year, and hopefully not in the top ten for a very long time again. The front office plans to blow out its international amateur budget again this year, but its ability to duplicate the success of two years ago will be limited since the Dodgers, Rangers, and Phillies are all likely to do the same.
As a result, the Cubs will be prevented from spending big on a single prospect in this arena for two years, by which time an international draft will be in place that will further limit the Cubs options in amateur acquisition. Add on top of that the hope that the Cubs will be buyers instead of sellers this trade deadline and you’ve painted a bleak picture for a return to farm system dominance.
But that is, of course, okay as long as the major league team is succeeding. The whole point of developing a farm system was to provide resources for the major league team. It is also unreasonable to expect to be able to call up an Addison Russell-type prospect to fill any hole the team has on the roster, but we have also seen what happens when there isn’t sufficient depth to cover glaring holes. The current situation in the bullpen is exacerbated by the fact that the Cubs really don’t have any MLB-ready arms to replace Justin Grimm or Neil Ramirez.
The purpose and need for the farm system is changing. The focus up until now has been on developing impact talent for an organization that was starved for it when Theo Epstein took over. That will always be the hope when drafting and acquiring amateurs, but as the Cubs’ opportunities to acquire those kinds of amateurs will be (severely) limited, the focus will shift to the under-the-radar type prospects.
These are the guys that do not have the national publications buzzing, but end up being useful big league players anyway. The guys that will hopefully mean that the Cubs don’t have to continue giving opportunities to Brian Schlitter.
This transition is going to begin this season as the Cubs’ edge in draft spending will finally end. The Cubs, by virtue of their poor records, have accumulated some of the largest draft bonus pools. Add in that they have spent up to the 5% overage every single draft and you see why the Cubs currently have spent the most in the draft since the new CBA kicked in.
Epstein and Co. draft ninth this year, which will severely cut into the amount they can spend and the hope is that it will only get worse. The fact that the rest of the division is eligible for additional competitive balance picks means that the Cubs will likely be unable to outspend any of their division foes until the next rebuild.
The Cubs still have tremendous depth in their system and they will add to it with the June amateur draft and July 2 signings. But the days of the farm system being historically good are over almost as fast as they began. The depth remaining is worth watching, as is the manner in which the Cubs are able to add to it without the advantages enjoyed during the rebuild. The window is still open, but how the brass handles the farm in the face of success will determine how long it remains that way.