The Cubs are a team that is best described in the future tense. That is not to say that they are completely unwatchable at the major league level; they have a budding star 1st baseman in Anthony Rizzo and an enigmatically talented shortstop in Starlin Castro. But it is the players that have not yet reached The Show that intrigue baseball fans. Since trading Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for wunderkind SS prospect Addison Russell and others, the mystique and potential of the Cubs system has increased dramatically. They have an amazingly talented and deep farm that according to prospect wizard Keith Law has the number 5,8,9 top prospects along with many more in the top 100. Almost all of those players having something in common-their jobs are to crush baseballs and eat planets.
Besides C.J. Edwards, (acquired in the Matt Garza heist) the future of the Cubs being a great team will be based on if those prospects hit. This is why many thought that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would target a club with pitching prospects to send back in a trade. It seems however that such a deal never materialized so the front office did the smart thing and traded their two talented pitchers for the best over all assets which ended up being Addison Russell and co. In the process they created an interesting case study on rebuilding teams farm system composition. For the piece I’ll look at the Cubs with their hitter heavy system, the Astros with their more balanced system system and the Oriole’s pitcher heavy system.
What is perhaps the most important caveat to remember though is that GMs don’t get their way every time; assembling a farm system does not happen in a vacuum. The Cubs, Astros, and Orioles composed their farm systems with the parts that were available to them and who knows how each decision maker would build his ideal farm system. Each of the three franchises however do have amazing talent in the minor league systems and if everything breaks right those clubs will be well equipped to compete for the foreseeable future.
The way the Cubbies have constructed their farm could be described as putting all of their eggs in one basket, after all it’s great if you can average 5 runs a game but if you can’t get anyone out its a moot point. But the kind of eggs the Cubs are investing in are much less fragile than the pitching prospect variety. We live in a baseball age where fans fear the words “elbow soreness” and worry about their favorite pitcher throwing too many breaking balls. That is not to say that hitting prospects don’t get injured, just look at Miguel Sano and Carlos Correa, but as a whole hitters seem less likely to spontaneously explode. The Cubs front office knows that can’t-miss prospects do indeed miss all the time, but by having such a large amount of hitting talent they can hope a few of them at least will reach All-Star levels.
The Astros farm system is also very deep and talented like the Cubs but their top players are a mix of pitchers and hitters. Including the recently graduated Springer, Singleton and Santana (who promptly spilled his cup of major league coffee on himself) they still have Correa in the minors along with Aiken, Appel, and Foltynewicz to make a pretty enticing next generation of Astros. This is a more even approach than the Cubs that allows for the inevitable disappointment of a couple of those big names by having depth in both batters and hurlers. Unfortunately, Aiken apparently has a elbow ligament injury and has not even taken the mound yet. This along with the Correa injury takes out the headliners of both their pitching and hitting departments.
To be fair, those two players just happened to get hurt around the same time of this piece so in a sense I am cherry picking a bit. But it goes to show just how much has to go right for prospects to make an impact in the majors and by diversifying your assets you can sometimes spread yourself a little thin. Nothing is worse than watching a player get hurt but thankfully modern medicine has come along way and odds are that both of those prospects will be again be healthy and productive. However, nothing is a sure bet and injuries that require surgery are serious by definition.
The Oriole’s minor league system is not in the same class as the Cubs or Astros, but it does have three pitchers that are considered to be top of the line starters, if not outright aces. Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and Hunter Harvey are the pitchers Baltimore is hoping to have anchor its staff by 2016. Those guys each have filthy stuff and in a hitter friendly environment like Camden Yards, having dominant pitching is especially valuable. While the Oriole’s hitting prospects are nothing to write home about not many other systems (if any) can boast the top of the line pitching the Orioles have on hand.
But like any top heavy system there is the concern of injury wiping out the crème de la crème and being left with next to nothing. Already Bundy has gone under the steady hand of Dr. James Andrews (and has looked great so far, especially considering it hasn’t been a full year since he underwent surgery) and Harvey is still in Low A ball with plenty of time between now and the majors. Gausman on the other hand has already pitched for the Orioles and at times has been excellent which makes the teams handling of him curious to say the least. While having all three of those guys become aces seems unlikely, even if only two of them reach their potential that would still give Baltimore a pair of feared fire breathing hurlers to hold court in the AL East. On the other hand I’m sure most still remember Generation K back in 1995 with the promise they showed and while that is an oversimplified comparison it is a reminder of how pitching prospects can break your heart.
Another factor that I believe demonstrates building a farm system with mostly hitters is the way to go is based on the players who are likely to test free-agency in the next couple of years. Rarely do elite position players enter free agency and if they do, they do so with their best years likely behind them and cost the GDP of countries to sign. That is not to say that elite pitchers are flooding the free agent market, but the talent of pitching that will be in the free agent market is indubitably better than the hitting. For your entertainment, here are a couple of the best hitting free agents-to-be in the 2015 class and their 2014 WAR so far in parentheses (I have not included players that have any sort of option for 2015)- Victor Martinez (2.5), Adam LaRoche (1.1), Chase Headley (1.1), Hanley Ramirez (2.4), Russell Martin (2.1), Melky Cabrera (1.8).
If your eyeballs still work after reading that remind yourself that all those guys are going to be at least 30 years old when the 2015 season starts and many have injury histories. Sure V-Mart is a great hitter but he is 35 and almost strictly a DH at this point. Ramirez can be a real difference-maker when healthy, but he unfortunately hasn’t been able to stay on the field the last two years. The free agent pitching class is headlined by Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jon Lester and the immortal Edinson Volquez. While Scherzer, Shields, and Lester all have their warts, they have the potential to anchor a staff for at least a few more years. And in 2016 there are some incredibly attractive starting pitchers who could test the market.
So while having the arms the Orioles can trot out or the excellent combination of hitting and pitching the Astros have on the farm is an enviable position for a GM, having a surplus of athletic hitting prospects who can play multiple positions like the Cubs have seems to be the safest approach to building a major league roster. For a club like the Cubbies that has suffered for years you can’t help but hope this incoming tsunami of talent will be the core of their next great team. And in the process perhaps the idea of hoarding hitting prospects in a time when scoring runs is at a premium will be copied by other franchises looking to rebuild. Until then the Cubs doubling down on bats will be a fascinating storyline.