After finishing the regular season well below .500 for the second consecutive year, the Chicago Cubs invested in their future by hiring Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in October 2011. The move also ushered in a wave of much-needed change throughout the organization, and indicated that a lengthy and potentially arduous rebuilding process was now underway.
However, simply knowing that Epstein and Hoyer were running the organization didn’t necessarily make the Cubs’ 101-loss season any easier to stomach.
But thanks to a strong amateur draft in June and a few under-the-radar prospect acquisitions at the trade deadline, a new and improved farm system is already taking shape. And if the front office continues to make shrewd trades and free-agent singings, it’s conceivable that the Cubs will contend for a playoff spot by 2017 season.
Faces of the Franchise
Over the course of the season, the Cubs made it well known that only a select few players were part of their long-term plan: 1B Anthony Rizzo (23), SS Starlin Castro (22) and RHP Jeff Samardzija (27). But at the same time, it also magnified the team’s weakness at other positions—especially in regard to the starting rotation.
Even though the Cubs have quietly begun to restock their farm system, their prospect pool is comprised of high-ceiling players—both pitchers and position players—who are still at least a year away from the major leagues.
Therefore, it’s likely that the team will target free-agent starting pitching this offseason with the hope of assembling a respectable rotation while patiently waiting the arrival of their various pitching prospects.
New Arms and Debuts
RHP Arodys Vizcaino (21): Acquired from the Braves at the trade deadline, the right-hander missed the entire 2012 season following Tommy John surgery. Although various arm injuries forced him into a bullpen role while with Atlanta, Vizcaino’s true value comes as a potential mid-rotation starter.
RHP Kyle Hendricks (22): One of the prospects traded by the Rangers in exchange for Ryan Dempster, the 6’3” right-hander registered a 2.99 ERA with 123/18 K/BB in 147.2 innings at High-A.
RHP Pierce Johnson (21): Selected by the Cubs in the supplemental-first round of the 2012 draft, Johnson posted a 3.27 ERA with 14/3 K/BB while reaching Short-Season Boise.
RHP Dillon Maples (20): Expected to honor his commitment to North Carolina, Maples ultimately fell to the Cubs in the 14th round where he signed for $2.5 million before the deadline. The right-hander didn’t debut until this season when posted a 4.35 ERA with 12/10 K/BB for the Cubs’ rookie-level affiliate in the Arizona League.
RHP Paul Blackburn (18): Drafted shortly after Johnson in the supplemental-first round, Blackburn, an athletic right-hander, was 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA and 13/7 K/BB in 20.2 innings.
These young arms will join the likes of RHP Trey McNutt (23), RHP Robert Whitenack (23) and RHP Ben Wells (20) in the Cubs’ system.
Don’t Believe the Hype (?)
Prior to the acquisition of Rizzo in January 2012, Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were the gems of the Cubs’ bleak system. However, despite spending the final two months of the regular season in the major leagues, their respective prospect stocks took a hit in 2012.
The third-overall draft pick in 2007, Vitters’ ascent through the Cubs system has been so gradual that it’s easy to forget he’s still only 22. After putting up an .869 OPS with 17 home runs and 77/30 K/BB in 110 games for Triple-A Iowa. Appearing in 36 games down the stretch for the Cubs, he batted just .121/.193/.202 with two home runs and 33/7 K/BB.
After a strong finish to the 2011 season at Triple-A, Jackson—the 31st-overall selection in the 2009 draft—spent the entire season at the level and saw his production decline across the board.
Even though striking out may always be part of his game, the left-handed hitter’s strikeout and walk rates moved in divergent directions this year. Before the news of his promotion, Jackson was batting .256/.338/.479 with 15 home runs, 27 stolen bases and 158/47 K/BB in 106 games.
His propensity to swing and miss followed him to the major leagues, seemingly, as he ultimately hit .175/.303/.342 with 11 extra-base hits and 59/22 K/BB in 44 games. For the record, his defense in center field was impressive.
Regardless of whether Jackson and Vitters ultimately excel in the major leagues, it’s the organization’s next wave of offensive prospects that should have everyone excited.
Young Hitters, Bright Futures
SS Javier Baez (19): The ninth-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Baez has a chance to be a special hitter given his bat speed, hand-eye coordination and plus raw power, and will attempt to remain at shortstop for as long as possible. In his full-season debut this past season, the right-handed hitter posted an .888 OPS with 16 home runs, 24 stolen bases and 69/14 K/BB in 80 games between Low- and High-A.
OF Albert Almora (18): The sixth-overall draft pick this past June, Almora is advanced for his age in all facets of the game. An excellent defensive center fielder, both his bat and power could grade as above-average by the time he reaches the major leagues. Overall, he posted a .795 OPS with 45 hits and 19 RBI while reaching Short-Season Boise in his professional debut.
OF Jorge Soler (20): Despite their rebuilding process, the Cubs signed Soler to a nine-year, $30 million deal on June 30. At 6'3", 205 pounds, he is an explosive right-handed hitter with raw power to all fields. The 20-year-old offered a glimpse of his potential this past season, as he batted .338/.398/.513 with eight extra-base hits, 15 RBI and 6/6 K/BB in 20 games for Low-A Peoria.
3B Christian Villanueva (21): Acquired along with Kyle Hendricks in the Ryan Dempster deal, Villanueva is undersized at 5’11”, 165 pounds, but can really drive the ball.
Despite switching teams at the trade deadline, he played the entire season at High-A, posting a .780 OPS with 14 home runs, 14 stolen bases and 103/34 K/BB. His plate discipline is lacking, but the addition of a run-producing, third-base prospect is huge for their system.
3B Jeimer Candelario (18): Making his stateside debut this past season, the switch-hitting third baseman batted .281/.345/.396 with six home runs and 55/26 K/BB in 71 games for Short-Season Boise. With raw power from both sides of the plate, his defense will ultimately determine whether he’s able to remain at the position.
1B/DH Dan Vogelbach (19): Unlike Villanueva, Vogelbach is not undersized at 6'0", 250 pounds. Say what you want about his appearance, because the left-handed hitter absolutely mashes. Splitting the season between the Arizona League and Short-Season Boise, Vogelbach batted .322/.410/.641 with 21 doubles, 17 home runs, 62 RBI and 48/35 K/BB in 61 games.
With Rizzo seemingly entrenched at first base for years to come, he’ll have a difficult ascent to the major leagues. However, with Vogelbach’s bat, I’m not ruling anything out.
2B Gioskar Amaya (19): Signed out of Venezuela in 2009, Amaya is an impressive young hitter with a potential above-average hit tool and present plus speed. In his age-19 season, the right-handed hitter posted an .877 OPS with 12 triples, eight home runs, 15 stolen bases and 65/33 K/BB in 69 games for Short-Season Boise.
OF Matt Szczur (23): Incredible two-sport athlete at Villanova who finally graduated from A-ball is his third professional season. Batted .267/.360/.390 with 92 runs scored, 42 stolen bases and 79/61 K/BB in 113 games while reaching Double-A.
SS Junior Lake (22): Spending the entire 2012 season at Double-A Tennessee, the 6’2”, 215-pound shortstop posted a .773 OPS with 10 home runs, 21 stolen bases and an ugly 105/35 K/BB in 103 games. His lack of plate discipline continues to hold him back, as he ranks well behind Castro and Baez on the organizational depth chart.
OF Jae-Hoon Ha (21): Signed out of South Korea in Sept., 2008, the 6'1", right-handed hitter held his own as a 21-year-old in Double-A this past season, posting a .737 OPS in 121 games. Ha also set career highs with 96 strikeouts and 50 walks thanks to a more advanced approach.