A farm system exists for two reasons: to develop contributors at the big league level and to develop prospects capable of bringing back contributors in trades. The Cubs have reaped the benefits of both in their rise from 100-loss doormats, as all their top prospects from the past several years are either wearing rings or different uniforms.
But as awesome as that has been for the past few seasons, it doesn’t portend great things for the future. Not unless the Cubs put some serious work into replenishing a system that has yet to produce any impact pitchers for them since Theo Epstein took over. Of course, they’re in a much different position now than they were in 2012.
Consider that Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod were basically forced to cook things in a microwave over those early seasons. With the exception of Albert Almora Jr., they targeted college bats and fast-tracked them through the minors. Then they flipped most of their remaining top prospects for pitchers who could have an instant impact.
Now, however, the goal is to start producing some legitimate depth options for both the pitching staff and the bench. Developing a few stars would be nice and that’s something the Cubs would love, it’s just a little less likely when you pick lower in the draft and already have a ton of talent in the big leagues. So they’ve afforded themselves a little time to let things proceed at a more leisurely pace, but that doesn’t mean they can get complacent.
A recent review of all 30 farm systems ranked the Cubs 25th based on the projected WAR value of their prospects over time. That’s not good. It’s also not something Cubs fans should get too worried about since it’s a) based on projections, and b) produced by a group of people who are viewing things agnostically. So while objectivity is a requirement for such lists, teams are always going to have a more nuanced view of their own prospects.
That’s not to insinuate that the Cubs, or any other teams, necessarily over-value the players in their system, but they’ve got more data and scouting on those players than anyone else could hope to. It’s why they were high on Willson Contreras and David Bote, among others, far before they burst into the broader consciousness in Chicago. At the same time, there might indeed be some players on whom the Cubs are inexplicably higher than people think they should be.
What I’m driving at here is that the system isn’t some barren wasteland that can neither produce impact players nor anchor meaningful trades. And when you consider that six of the Cubs’ top 12 prospects in FanGraphs’ updated top 31 prospects list have not yet turned 20, it’s obvious a deep pipeline exists. And in a trend telling of their organizational shift in recent years, 19 of those 31 prospects — seven of whom can’t legally purchase alcohol — are pitchers.
One of those young hurlers is 6-foot-4, 185-pound southpaw Brailyn Marquez, who ranks third among the pitchers at No. 7 overall. FanGraphs called him “perhaps the hardest-throwing teenage southpaw on the planet right now,” which is what happens when you sit 93-96 mph and can just about kiss triple digits. Even better, Marquez can command the heat to the tune of a 6.5 percent walk rate over his last 100 innings. Now imagine if he can amp up his secondaries just a little bit.
That’s the type of profile fans can get excited about, and remember: He’s their third highest-rated pitcher. Adbert Alzolay (No. 4 overall) and Justin Steele (No. 5) are just a couple steps above. Want some more good news? Alzolay is one of only three players on the list at Triple-A or higher (Alec Mills, Dakota Mekkes). In fact, 18 of 31 haven’t even made it to advanced-A ball yet.
Included among that nascent group of young would-be stars are Miguel Amaya and Nico Hoerner, both of whom figure to climb the ranks rather quickly in the coming years. Amaya will take a little more time to develop because he’s a catcher, but Hoerner could make it to Wrigley by 2020 as a result of his college experience and positional ease. A shortstop to this point, FanGraphs has Hoerner listed as a second baseman, which seems like a better fit long-term.
Already, Hoerner’s swing has changed. He was making lots of hard, low-lying contact at Stanford, but since signing he has added a subtle little bat wrap that has made a substantial difference in how he impacts the ball. He hit for much more power than was anticipated in the summer and fall, and the identifiable mechanical tweak is evidence that the change is real and not small-sample noise.FanGraphs
There’s much, much more to dig into on the list and rather than block-quote all kinds of scouting reports here, I’m going to suggest you go check it out for yourself. No one should walk away from it thinking the Cubs are ready to graduate MLB-ready stars every few months going forward, but the landscape certainly isn’t as barren as some might have you believe. And given the relative youth and inexperience of the players named, it’s not unreasonable to believe evaluators will have a different opinion of this system in the future.
So while you shouldn’t expect much from the farm system in terms of how it’ll help the Cubs in 2019, there could be some real impact moving forward. And the heavy concentration of talent at the lower levels means fans at South Bend and Myrtle Beach are going to have a lot to focus on over the next year or two.
Overall, this system still appears to be below average due to recent trades that siphoned star power from the very top of the farm, but there’s enough here that the Cubs have the ammo to make some trades without totally gutting the system, so long as some of the younger guys on this list take a step forward next year.FanGraphs