In the coming weeks, you’re going to hear several keywords about the Cubs minor-league system in 2016. These include but are not limited to talent, redundancy, competition, high ceiling, and cuts. Teddy Eley and I will be previewing each of the minor-league affiliates every weekend over the month of February. We will start off with the AAA Iowa Cubs next weekend and begin working our way on down to South Bend, one affiliate per week.
When Theo Epstein came aboard in late 2011, the Cubs’ system was barren. Over the past four seasons, Epstein, along with Jason McLeod, has stocked the farm with a depth many Cub fans have never seen. The system has produced several high-end hitting prospects in Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler.
Epstein said of his plan:
“We’re going to make building a foundation for sustained success a priority. That will lead to playing October baseball more often than not. […] We won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent [flowing to Wrigley Field].”
On the other hand, not a single pitcher drafted in the last four summers has made it to Chicago, either in the bullpen or as a starter. That could change this summer with Ryan Williams or Pierce Johnson. And there are plenty more pitchers one to two years out at Tennessee.
While it produced some of the game’s great young talent in 2015, the current Cub system doesn’t have anybody at such an elite level. In two or three years, however, there are some prospects coming who have the capacity to develop in their own way.
In addition, the Cubs signed seven of the top 30 international free agents and also struck gold in the draft by signing 27 of their 40 picks. Many of those selections were pitchers taken in the first 14 rounds. The Cubs still have until July 1 to sign more international free agents, some of whom who could hail from Cuba.
Last summer was a great time to be a fan of the Cubs’ minor-league system. Many of the affiliates were in the hunt for the playoffs throughout the summer. Iowa lost out in the last week, as did South Bend and Eugene. The Cubs’ rookie-league team in Arizona made the playoffs, and Myrtle Beach won the Carolina League’s Mills Cup Championship Series.
as it stands now, the Cubs farm system really has only three concerns: a left-handed reliever shortage, a shortstop shortage (is that a short stoppage?), and the aforementioned failure to produce a single pitcher from four years of drafts and international free agency. The Cubs will try to rectify some of those problems this year, but the system is deep enough to get by another year and still help the major league club.
What does this all mean?
For the first time in the Theo Epstein era, there is much depth throughout the six stateside affiliates. There is redundancy at most positions, especially outfield, starting pitching, second base, third base, and catcher.
There is now a great deal of competition between players hoping or to move up a level, especially when it comes to pitching and outfield spots. Gone are the days of an entire team moving up from short-season A to low-A, or from low-A high-A. I don’t think you will need to look any further than Iowa and Tennessee for examples of several players who will not be moving up in 2016 (many of whom were at one time the top prospects in the system). In fact, some players that have been in the system since 2012 could be cut this year to make room for other prospects producing at a higher level.
In the previews of each affiliate in February, Teddy and I will be examining each team’s possible roster and focusing in on a few key players. Each team will have its own set of issues.
Here are some of the topics for each preview:
Iowa (Todd) – With a rebuilt and revamped roster, who will be coming up from Iowa to Chicago first? Will it be Edwards? Almora? Contreras? Johnson? Williams?
Tennessee (Teddy) – The Smokies’ core group has won two championships together and the manager, Mark Johnson, is advancing to AA with them. It is a team loaded with a lot of pitching talent.
Myrtle Beach (Teddy) – How good will Ian Happ be at second? What does Gleyber Torres need to do this year? This team is filled with toolsy but unrefined prospects who could make large jumps in their development next season.
South Bend (Todd) – What are you gonna do with all that talent on the mound and in the outfield? Will Dylan Cease be here sooner than later?
And with “Lazarito” and other international free agents still on the market, the Cubs could be adding some more interesting prospects from overseas to put into the system before the season begins. Just think, in less than three weeks these kids will begin reporting to spring training.