I buy into the current Cubs’ front-office’s promises to build a championship-caliber team in due course, and am on-board with their timetable for success, even if it means enduring another uncompetitive season. But as the proprietor of a blog that has followed the progress of Cub prospects for going on six years now, I recognize that I might possibly have some ‘splainin’ to do. Why was it necessary for Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod to rebuild a team that had been acquiring and developing decent prospects for six years? And if they weren’t decent prospects, what have I been talking about?
Actually, the kids are doing fine, as the following list will indicate. A coherent time frame for this compilation might begin in late 2005 when Tim Wilken came aboard as national scouting director, and end in late 2011 when Jason McLeod took over from Wilken. During these six years, Oneri Fleita was responsible for scouting and signing international players. If you take all the players whom the Cubs acquired as prospects during this period, the following twenty-one players were on major-league rosters on opening day 2014: Brandon Guyer and Chris Archer (Rays), Ryan Flaherty (O’s), Al Alburquerque (Tigers), Josh Donaldson (A’s), Marwin Gonzalez (Astros), Jim Adduci (Rangers), Ryan Buchter (Braves), Josh Harrison (Pirates), Jim Henderson (Brewers), Angel Pagan (Giants), D.J. LeMahieu (Rockies), Andrew Cashner (Padres), Tony Campana (D’backs) and Welington Castillo, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Junior Lake, Jeff Samardzija, James Russell and Brian Schlitter (Cubs).
That’s fourteen non-Cubs and seven Cubs. There are players who were prospects in this period–Robinson Chirinos (Rangers) and Sam Fuld (A’s), for example–who are major leaguers today but I didn’t count because they came to the Cubs earlier than 2006.
The number of major leaguers is bound to increase, since included in this time window are ten or twelve current prospects who, to varying degrees, still have a shot: Hak-Ju Lee, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Javier Baez, Zeke DeVoss, Shawon Dunston, Jr., Dan Vogelbach, Arismendy Alcantara, Rubi Silva, Zac Rosscup.
I think that’s a respectable haul, and I feel justified in having written about several of these players. I don’t see a murderer’s row here, but Donaldson, Baez, Castro and Lake were not a bad start to an offense. (Donaldson was fourth in MVP voting in the AL last season.) Colvin and Vitters may have been misses, but Vitters may still bloom late and in any case I’m convinced he will be a major leaguer. As for pitching, you could do worse than a starting threesome of Archer, Cashner and Samardzija.
Of course, the Cubs don’t have that starting threesome or that MVP-4, because it’s hard for a GM to hang onto his better young players. When your phone rings, people are mostly calling about your Donaldsons and Lees and Archers and Cashners. Hendry traded Donaldson for Ernie Broglio–I mean, Rich Harden–and Archer and Lee for Matt Garza, while Epstein exchanged Cashner for Anthony Rizzo. Epstein argued that Cashner’s balky shoulder made him a reliever and that a slugging 1B was a good return for a reliever (though probably not for the Padres’ starter on Opening Day).
After Donaldson, Archer and Cashner, the best Cub prospect to make the majors in our time frame might be Castro or it might be LeMahieu, a promising young second baseman for the Rockies. LeMahieu is a better hitter than Barney and almost as good a glove, with 3 errors in 750 innings at second compared to Barney’s 4 errors in 1237 innings. LeMahieu was something of a throw-in in an early Epstein deal, Colvin for Ian Stewart, in December 2011.
Like Colvin, LeMahieu was not an on-base guy and thus was a player McLeod would not have drafted, so he was considered expendable. I get that. The one issue I have with how they treated Wilken’s and Fleita’s prospects was that they tried to change them, to make them over, which I’m not sure can be done at this level. A former hitting coach, manager Dale Sveum has his fingerprints all over the declining offensive stats of Castro and Barney (and even of Brett Jackson–take at look at his Iowa numbers in 2011) over the last two seasons. They should have just played them, praised them and traded them if they didn’t like them, as I’m sure Theo and Jed and Jason would acknowledge (privately) by now.