We hear a lot lately about the Cub minor leagues being barren of talent except at the lower levels. This note is struck mainly in the blogosphere but it really started in Boston when the Red Sox and Cubs were negotiating compensation for Theo Epstein. This was Nick Cafardo in the Boston Globe last October:
One of the problems in coming up with a deal for Theo Epstein is that the Cubs have so few prospects that even appeal to the Red Sox.
The ones they have, they want to keep.
“Couldn’t Theo have picked the Texas Rangers or the Tampa Bay Rays?” quipped one American League general manager. “It’s got to be difficult to make a deal given the pool of players you want is so limited.”
Theo himself took up the theme when he addressed the media in Chicago in April.
We need more talent; we lack impact talent. We have a number of interesting guys, especially at the lower levels, but every organization has a number of interesting guys at the lower level …. We need some more impact talent, and we need some guys who have ability and can break through. It would be really nice to get a breakthrough player this year and have somebody move from that interesting prospect category to that potentially impact category. So we’ll see. There’s a lot of work to do.
I find this subject awkward because I’ve been touting the system-stocking abilities of former scouting director Tim Wilken for several years now.
Well, everything is relative. I know for sure that Wilken came along in 2006 and fixed something that was badly broken. His predecessor, John Stockstill, chose the following seven players in the first or supplemental rounds of the June (amateur) draft during his tenure:
2001 Mark Prior, RHP, #2
2002 Bobby Brownlie, RHP, #21
2002 Luke Hagerty, LHP, #32
2002 Chadd Blasko, RHP, #36
2002 Matt Clanton, RHP, #38
2003 Ryan Harvey, OF, #6
2005 Mark Pawelek, LHP, #20
Six of these first-round draftees were pitchers. Apart from Prior, not one of the pitchers tasted the majors and only one, Brownlie, pitched for Iowa.
Harvey, the one non-pitcher in the group and the sixth player drafted in 2003, failed to reach AAA and in fact did not earn his promotion to AA.
Then came 2006, Wilken’s first year as scouting director. Here are Wilken’s first- and supplemental-round draft picks in that year and the next five years:
2006 Tyler Colvin, OF, #13
2007 Josh Vitters, 3B, #3
2007 Josh Donaldson, C, #48
2008 Andrew Cashner, RHP, #19
2008 Ryan Flaherty, SS, #41
2009 Brett Jackson, CF, #31
2010 Hayden Simpson, RHP, #16
2011 Javier Baez, SS, #9
All six of Wilken’s picks through 2009 are in the majors today. Four are ex-Cubs: Colvin is on the Rockies, Donaldson the A’s, Cashner the Padres and Flaherty the Orioles. Cashner and Flaherty are on the DL, while Colvin is in the starting lineup regularly in right field or at first; Donaldson starts at third; and Jackson is a starting centerfielder. Vitters has been sharing third base but has been promised more playing time. You may argue that Jackson and Vitters are auditioning or being showcased. The fact remains that it’s pre-September, they are on a 25-man major-league roster and they are starting.
D.J. LeMahieu, Wilken’s second-round pick in 2009, starts at second base for the Rockies at age twenty-three.
That leaves two Wilken first-rounders, Hayden Simpson in 2010 and Javier Baez in 2011. Baez, in high-A ball at nineteen, is generally considered the biggest talent in the organization, probably including Castro and Rizzo. Simpson is widely considered a bust (although he is throwing better lately).
If we leave Baez out of the picture and call Simpson a lemon, Wilken can still claim six of seven first rounders who became major leaguers, while Stockstill can claim one out of seven.
While it is true that several of Stockstill’s picks had arm problems, it is also true that a promising pitcher with arm issues can still rise through the system. Wilken first-rounder Andrew Cashner had health problems with the Cubs and then again this season with the Padres; but he still passed a medical exam and was traded for Anthony Rizzo. Third-rounder Chris Carpenter had two elbow surgeries in college and a third surgery this June for a bone spur in his elbow, just a few months after he was traded to the Red Sox for . . . Theo Epstein!
Which of the Wilken picks is an impact player is still hard to predict. Today, Baez would get the most votes. I can see Colvin, Vitters, Cashner and Jackson having an impact. The A’s, meanwhile, who are shrewd about talent, seem to like Donaldson. In any event, the new Cub management has raised the bar with their talk about players having impact. Impact is highly desirable, but we should remember that when Stockstill left, it was a big deal if his successor could come in and simply draft major leaguers.
While it may be true that strong young arms have been scarce at Iowa in 2012, we can attribute this to Wilken’s drafting only eleven pitchers in the first five rounds in his six drafts. Not one pitcher was drafted in those upper rounds in 2007. See the table below.
Samardzija, Cashner and Carpenter are major leaguers, while Shafer and Bristow have washed out. Rusin pitched for the Cubs yesterday and earned another start at least. He and the other five pitchers are still pending.
One may conjecture that after the spate of sore-armed pitchers that Jim Hendry and Stockstill encountered in earlier drafts, Hendry advised Wilken to concentrate on position players in the first several rounds of the draft while the organization tried to build a pitching staff via trades (Harden, Heilman, Garza) and veteran free-agent signings (Dempster, Lilly).