Discussing the Cubs’ player development process has turned into something of a minefield over the last two years or so, which is kind of weird even if you understand where the criticism comes from. With the big league team underachieving of late, a lot of folks have grown tired of the notion that the front office is seemingly relying on prospects to become stars. It’s actually okay to pound the table and demand the Cubs spend money while also acknowledging what they’ve done to reshape the farm system.
Trust me, giving credit where it’s due won’t hurt your reputation as a devout Tom Ricketts critic.
Regardless of how you view the team’s trajectory over the next few years, it’s evident the outlook for a revamped farm is bright. That’s what MLB executives believe, anyway. The final entry in the four-part 2023 MLB Pipeline Poll featured responses from front office members when asked about various aspects of their rivals’ systems. As you can probably tell from the title, the Cubs came out looking pretty good.
Though they were not among the top four in terms of having the best overall system — Orioles (50%), Dodgers (21%), Cardinals (9%), D-backs (6%) — the Cubs did receive at least one vote. As easy as it is to say the Dodgers should be the goal, their TV deal is such a massive advantage that it renders any direct comp with the Cubs and Marquee moot. Though this may anger a few of you, it’s really the Cardinals whose model should be borrowed and retro-fitted.
Not only do they develop players well, but they have done a good job of maintaining continuity via extensions. Even more important, they’ve been very active on the trade market to acquire star players around whom they can continue to build. It’s probably impossible for the Cubs to fleece other teams on trades to the extent the Cards have over the years, but the Braves have also pried big-time talent free for less than expected.
Some of that may be chicken-and-egg, as it takes a deep system to be willing to take big swings on trades. That may be particularly true for Jed Hoyer, whose machinations to this point make it look like he could be too risk-averse for his own good. Could we see a shift in the coming months with good health and performance at the top end of the prospect list?
That’s entirely possible, particularly given the depth the Cubs feature in the minors at this point. Though not replete with the kind of surefire MLB producers they had in 2014 and ’15, there’s a ton of talent spread across every level. When asked which system is the most underrated, the Cubs tied with the Astros for second place with 11% of the vote. Those bastards from St. Louis took 14% to finish first.
A lot of the Cubs’ underrated players are middle infielders, which could give Hoyer and his front office quite a bit of ammo moving forward. They’ve got second and short locked up at Wrigley for the next few seasons at a minimum and could be set for six or seven years if they’re able to extend Nico Hoerner alongside Dansby Swanson. While they won’t go trading Ed Howard, Cristian Hernandez, Kevin Made, James Triantos, or others just for the hell of it, their willingness to move one or more of those players could certainly increase.
The real driving force of the Cubs’ underrated system, however, is on the pitching front. They only fell into the “Also received votes” category when asked which team best develops pitchers, but that’s still notable because they have previously been something of a laughingstock in that area. I mean, they openly admitted how bad things were four years ago and it takes time to reconfigure an entire infrastructure.
The Guardians garnered 46% of the vote here, which is worthwhile for the Cubs because GM Carter Hawkins was pulled from that front office to help oversee the pitching side of things. Hoyer actually handles the duties more commonly associated with a traditional GM, so Hawkins is effectively an AGM who deals more with scouting and development. By working with actual AGM/pitching director Craig Breslow and VP of scouting Dan Kantrovitz, Hawkins should help the organization to close the gap on the Guardians.
Hey, can anyone tell me whether Cleveland has ever surrendered a big lead to the Cubs? That sounds really like a really familiar situation, I’m just struggling to put my finger on it.
None of this is to say that the Cubs are guaranteed to get back to World Series or even the top of the NL Central based on the strength of their farm system alone. It’s not a justification for failing to meaningfully pursue most of the top free agents. All I’m doing here is sharing what other execs told MLB Pipeline and then offering some additional context for what that could mean moving forward.
Based on what we’ve seen from Hoyer to this point in his tenure as the decision-maker on the North Side, I believe a big trade or three is the most likely path to acquiring impact talent from outside. Next year’s free agent class is incredibly top-heavy with a steep dropoff after Shohei Ohtani and Manny Machado, so it’s hard to see the Cubs adding much despite having $80 million or more falling off the books. Instead, I can see them making like the Braves and working out a combination of trades and extensions to secure a young foundation for several years down the road.
In the meantime, I just hope they’re at least more fun to watch than what we’ve seen over the last two seasons.