With the minor league season behind us, national evaluators and writers will soon reflect on the year and the next phase — that of list-making — will commence. As Todd Johnson and others have alluded to on these pages, the Cubs will not have prospects littering the tops of these lists as they have over the past four years. In fact, their farm system is likely to be ranked among the bottom five in all of baseball.
However, that does not mean the system is devoid of talent or that the Cubs are doomed. It’s simply a byproduct of the team making the playoffs three years running, with more likely to come. Ian Happ, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Báez are all homegrown players no longer in the system. Jose Quintana, Alex Avila, Wade Davis, Justin Wilson, and Mike Montgomery have been acquired by flipping other top prospects.
With this much talent either graduating or being traded, the farm obviously takes a hit, but should it be this depleted?
In Major League Baseball, there are six ways to acquire players: Via draft (both amateur and Rule 5), international free agents, trades, waivers, or from minor/major-league free agent signings. Of the 25 players¹ on the Cubs playoff roster, 12 came from trades, six were free agent signings, five were part of the amateur draft, one was signed as an international free agent, and stuck around from the Rule 5 draft.
The Cubs have made a lot of very beneficial trades, as illustrated above, but they appear to be lacking in quality IFA signings. That isn’t actually the case, as Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez — both consensus top 10 prospects in all of baseball — were traded to aid the Cubs’ postseason push. Also, many of the top players in the current system were acquired as IFAs.
Having four above-average MLB starters and one role player from the draft seems to be a good haul, but every single one of them is a first round pick from the last six years. Isn’t that good? Well, yes, but what we don’t see is any player drafted outside the first round.
The Cubs have fared moderately well if we check back over the last 10 years of the draft, with Josh Donaldson and DJ LeMahieu standing out, but their selections after the top three rounds have rarely made the majors. Here is a graph of the WAR produced by players signed by the Cubs after the fourth round, dating back to 2007.
Listed below are the signings that have either reached the majors or are considered top Cubs prospects, along with the round in which they were selected.
2007 – Darwin Barney (4), Brandon Guyer (5)
2008 – Christopher Carpenter (4), Josh Harrison (6), Sonny Gray (27, unsigned)
2009 – Chris Rusin (4), Justin Bour (25)
2010 – Matt Szczur (5), Eric Jokisch (11), Dallas Beeler (41)
2011 – Tony Zych (4), Jacob Lindgren (12, unsigned), Dillon Maples (14), Andrew McKirahan (21), Bradley Zimmer (23, unsigned)
2012 – N/A
2013 – Zack Godley (10), Trevor Clifton (12)
2014 – Justin Steele (5), Dylan Cease (6), DJ Peters (36, unsigned)
2015 – DJ Wilson (4), Ian Rice (29)
2016 – Duncan Robinson (9), Dakota Mekkes (10), Michael Rucker (11)
2017 – Nelson Velasquez (5), Jeremiah Estrada (6)
What immediately jumped out at me when creating this list is only six players (Barney, Carpenter, Jokisch, Rusin, Szczur, and Beeler) reached the majors as Cubs. Of those, only Barney turned into a valuable player for the team. Guyer, Rusin, Harrison, Bour, Zych, and Godley have all had productive seasons for other teams.
We still have to wait for players drafted from the last five years to develop, and there still may be those who become productive pieces from out of the blue. But even picks in the last five years have not been very successful according to national evaluations of the Cubs. Dylan Cease, DJ Wilson, Ian Rice, Duncan Robinson, Dakota Mekkes, and Michael Rucker have all been successful so far in their minor league careers, but with Cease being traded, only DJ Wilson appeared on the latest iteration of Fangraphs’ top 10 Cubs list.
This is certainly a worrisome trend, but I wanted to corroborate my thinking to ensure I wasn’t crazy. In order to do that, I went through the drafts of four other organizations that have been successful and have had strong farm systems over the last 10 years. These are the players I found who have had successful spells in the Majors (a couple players from before 2007 were included, as it was an arbitrary cutoff date).
Cardinals– Albert Pujols, 1999 (13); Tommy Pham, 2006 (16); Allen Craig, 2006 (8); Trevor Rosenthal, 2009 (21); Matt Carpenter, 2009 (13), Tyler Lyons, 2010 (9); Greg Garcia, 2010 (9); Seth Maness, 2011 (11); Kyle Barraclough, 2012 (7); Luke Voit, 2013 (22); Austin Gomber, 2014 (4); Paul DeJong, 2015 (4).
Dodgers– Scott Van Slyke, 2005 (14); Nathan Eovaldi, 2008 (11); Austin Barnes, 2011 (9); Jharel Cotton, 2012 (20); Ross Stripling, 2012 (5); Jose De Leon, 2013 (24); Cody Bellinger, 2013 (4); Willie Calhoun, 2015 (4), DJ Peters, 2016 (4).
Rangers- Mitch Moreland, 2007 (17); Tanner Roark, 2008 (25); Justin Grimm, 2010 (5); CJ Edwards Jr., 2011 (48); Jerad Eickhoff, 2011 (15); Kyle Hendricks, 2011 (8); Keone Kela, 2012 (12); Kyle Cody, 2016 (6).
Red Sox– Josh Reddick, 2006 (17); Hunter Strickland, 2007 (18); Anthony Rizzo, 2007 (6); Will Middlebrooks, 2007 (5); Christian Vazquez, 2008 (9); Travis Shaw, 2011 (9), Mookie Betts, 2011 (5); Mauricio Dubon, 2013 (26); Logan Allen, 2015 (8); Mike Shawaryn, 2016 (5).
As you can see, there are plenty of studs and serviceable players among that collective. There is still a lot of fluctuation to come from this research as many of these players are still reaching the majors or are just realizing productive careers in it, but what I see is that the Cubs farm system isn’t as strong at the moment because of their poor track record of later round draft picks.
Granted, the chances of making the majors drop off pretty significantly for players drafted outside of the top three rounds, but other teams have had more success. Whether this is the result of the development process in the system or on the players themselves is impossible to tell, but the Cubs’ general lack of success is certainly a worrying trend.
The Cubs do appear to have found themselves some high-upside plays in Nelson Velazquez and Jeremiah Estrada, but they have a long way to go to reach the majors. Although this research is by no means conclusive and could be aItered dramatically in short order, it gives us something to monitor moving forward. The top picks are most often the guys making the headlines, but the strength of an organization is built outside of the first round.
As the Cubs seek to continue their recent run of success, they’ll need to realize a little more success with their lower-round selections.
¹ Trades: Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Wade Davis, Alex Avila, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Tommy La Stella, and Leonys Martin
Free agents: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Jon Jay
Amateur draft: Báez, Bryant, Almora, Schwarber, Happ
IFA: Willson Contreras
Rule 5: Hector Rondon
*It is very possible that I missed players from this research, so if you can spot anymore feel free to comment.