After more than a century of false starts and near misses, is it possible "next year" is finally in sight?
For baseball fans on the North Side of Chicago, at times, the wait has been numbing, excruciating, exhilarating, and above all, exasperating. After 106 seasons without a World Series title, the Cubs' latest rebuilding effort began bearing Major League fruit in 2014, with plenty more talent seeded in the player development soil. It's a familiar refrain in the land of the billy goat, but with Theo Epstein's fingerprints marking the progress of Chicago's latest Operation: Next Year, there's reason to believe Wrigley's turn as friendly confines for lovable losers may be nearing its end.
You can count the MiLB.com staff members among the believers. After a season in which the Cubs produced MiLBY winners for Top Offensive Player (Kris Bryant) and Best Team (Kane County), the MiLB.com staff has voted the Cubs as the Minor League's farm system of 2014.
New York Mets
Think they're ready for the next wave in New York? Mets fans stuffed the ballots with nearly two-thirds of the votes to give their squad a MiLBY for Best Farm System. There's plenty to be bullish about in the near future. Offensively, Kevin Plawecki emerged as one of the game's premiere catching prospects, while Brandon Nimmo played his way to Double-A by June and Dilson Herrera jumped all the way from the Florida State League to the Majors. On the pitching side, Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard showed positive strides at Triple-A, while Steven Matz emerged as a notable southpaw. Voting results »
The criteria for selection were two-fold -- the staff weighed on-field production with evaluations of the performance of a team's notable prospects. The difference between the Cubs and D-backs was that of star power. Arizona put five affiliates into the postseason behind the second-best winning percentage in all of Minor League Baseball -- trailing Texas by a margin of .565 to .564.
Though the Cubs had only three playoff teams and a .520 winning percentage in the Minors, no team, in our estimation, could compete with the performance of Chicago's top prospects. The best players took strides toward stardom, and it added even more impact talent at the trade deadline. The top pitchers were outstanding -- at least when healthy -- and at the lower levels, a second tier of high-ceiling prospects emerged as the initial cavalry began graduating to the Major League level.
The upper levels of the team's system are stacked with talent, particularly in the infield, where difficult questions await the player development and coaching staffs down the road. Those quandaries are ones other Major League franchises would love to face, though, since the Cubs have done everything possible to assure the big league squad is loaded with capable bats for the next half-decade or more.
Big years from the biggest bears
The Cubs' case for the Best System MiLBY is bolstered most by the growth of their top prospects in 2014. At the top of that list was Bryant, the team's No. 1 prospect who was a runaway selection for the Best Hitter MiLBY. The 2013 first-round pick (second overall) dominated at Double-A and Triple-A, crushing 43 homers while hitting .325 with a 1.098 OPS.
The numbers are remarkable, but ask around the Cubs' front office, and the sentiment is that the San Diego product could've been even better and the team expects notable improvement going forward. The third baseman actually surprised the Cubs early on in 2014 by giving at-bats away with his passivity. The team was thrilled with his willingness to work counts and take walks, but they've challenged him to be even more aggressive on pitches in the zone, particularly in hitters' counts.
"There were times where he wasted some at-bats early where he could've been more aggressive," Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison said. "You think about all the at-bats he gave away this year and think about what his batting line would've been, it's scary how good he is and how good he's going to be in the near future."
Bryant wasn't the only brand-name Cub to erupt in 2014. At Triple-A Iowa, Arismendy Alcantara continued to assert his presence as an essential piece of Chicago's rebuild, hitting .307 with 10 homers and 21 steals in 89 games.
Next to him in Iowa's infield, super prospect Javier Baez faced perhaps the sharpest learning curve of any player in the system and came out the other side a better player. The 2011 first-rounder (ninth overall) looked primed for a Major League callup in Spring Training, but after being shuttled to Iowa to start 2014, he struggled mightily. The infielder hit .172 in April, striking out 22 times in 58 at-bats.
No player -- sans perhaps Minnesota's Byron Buxton -- faced more external pressure heading into the season than Baez, but despite the lackluster start, the Puerto Rican infielder managed to get himself back on track. Baez ended up hitting .260 with 23 homers in 104 Triple-A games and did earn that callup to the Majors.
The Cubs gave Baez an extended look in Chicago to end the season, figuring he might struggle -- he did -- but also counting on him to use the exposure to sharpen his game for the 2015 season and beyond.
"The key for him is just swinging at strikes, period," Triple-A Iowa manager Marty Pevey said. "It's just a matter of getting a good pitch to hit, like any other hitter, like they said in 1910 and 1930 and 1940. Now, just get a pitch to hit. That's it."
Joining Baez and Alcantara in Chicago at year's end was Jorge Soler. The Cuban outfielder had his ascent to the bigs slowed by injuries, but even after missing time this year with a hamstring injury, the 22-year-old rocketed to the Majors, where he hit .292 with five homers in a 24-game sample.
Heading into 2014, the Cubs system was already considered among the strongest in baseball, but with the Major League team struggling at midseason, the opportunity arose to add even more talent. General manager Jed Hoyer had pieces to trade in Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Emilio Bonifacio and a few others. In return, the Cubs added even more positional depth to a system that ended 2013 with five Top 100 hitting prospects.
The most notable additions came in exchange for Samardzija and Hammel, who were packaged and sent to Oakland in exchange for MLB.com's No. 5 prospect Addison Russell and current No. 7 Cubs prospect Billy McKinney.
Neither Russell or McKinney had been playing particularly well prior to the trade. For Russell, that was mostly a factor of health -- the 2012 first-rounder (11th overall) missed most of the first half of the season with a hamstring injury, appearing in just 18 full-season games prior to the trade.
Once acquired, Russell played shortstop every day for Double-A Tennessee and was one of the Southern League's best players. The 20-year-old hit .294 with 12 homers, posted an .868 OPS and showed promise defensively.
"Obviously, we had scouted him a lot," Madison said. "He'd been one of the hottest names in baseball for a while, and we were thrilled to get him. He even exceeded our expectations as far as plate discipline. His makeup is off the charts. He has the ability, we all think, where he can stay at shortstop long term."
McKinney, meanwhile, hit his stride with Class A Advanced Daytona in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League after posting a .241 average in 75 games with Class A Advanced Stockton in the California League. The Cubs think highly of McKinney's pure hitting abilities, something he showcased after the trade by batting .301 in 51 games with Daytona.
The outfielder's bounce back in the FSL didn't get the attention it might've, though, because he was overshadowed there by another midseason acquisition in 2014 first-rounder (fourth overall) Kyle Schwarber. No 2014 draftee made a stronger first impression than Schwarber, who thundered his way from Class A Short Season Boise to Daytona in less than a month by cranking eight homers in 28 games.
Once he arrived in the FSL, Schwarber continued to rake, posting a .302 average and .952 OPS with 10 homers in 44 games.
There's no doubt in Chicago's front office that Schwarber is going to hit, but his timeline to the Majors is going to be tied to his defensive development. The 235-pound Indiana product has shown the Cubs enough as a catcher that they're going to try to develop him there, likely penciling him in as Tennessee's starting catcher to start 2015. It's possible the experiment may go the way of Wil Myers or Bryce Harper -- scrapped in the interest of accelerating the bat. But that's a determination that hasn't been made so far.
Winning with pitching
Because they've eschewed pitching the past few seasons in their most high-profile chances to acquire talent (first-round Draft picks and the Samardzija trade), the reputation of Cubs' Minor League pitchers has lagged behind the bats. Six of the team's top seven prospects, per MLB.com, are hitters, including the four most prominent in Bryant, Russell, Albert Almora and Soler -- that list excludes recent graduates Baez and Alcantara.
The cupboard isn't as bare as that might suggest, though. For starters, there's right-hander C.J. Edwards, who was acquired for Matt Garza in 2013. Edwards missed significant time with shoulder issues in 2014, but posted a 2.44 ERA in 10 Double-A starts while healthy and continues to draw rave reviews.
Beyond Edwards, the effort to acquire pitching has been more of a numbers game. In the three years since Hoyer took control, the Cubs have reportedly signed 37 Draft picks to bonuses of $100,000 or more, and 25 of those have been pitchers. First-rounders Almora, Bryant and Schwarber all got multi-million dollar deals as top 10 picks, but otherwise, seven of the eight $1 million-plus bonuses the team has handed out have gone to pitchers.
That group includes Pierce Johnson, Rob Zastryzny and Duane Underwood, plus four more pitchers added in the 2014 Draft. That trio all posted encouraging results this year, with Johnson and Zastryzny showing strides at higher levels while Underwood aided an outstanding rotation at Class A Kane County.
That staff propelled the Cougars to a Minors-best 91 wins, a Midwest League title and a MiLBY for Best Team. Underwood was one of three recent Draft picks -- Paul Blackburn and Tyler Skulina being the others -- to post solid ERAs in the rotation, and that group was joined by big-money Taiwan signee Jen-Ho Tseng (2.40 ERA), as well as a duo of Latin imports in Daury Torrez (2.74 ERA) and Jonathan Martinez (2.31 ERA) -- all except for Skulina started the season at age 20 or younger.
'Guys are buying in'
There are many ingredients to building a player-development pipeline. Every team calls on an assembly of scouts and coaches to procure and develop talented athletes. Where systems differ is on the periphery -- in allocating time and resources to specific priorities. To Madison -- who is charged with operating the development side of that equation under vice president of player development and scouting Jason McLeod -- what stands out most is the Cubs' process in place to ensure that when talent is acquired, it's maximized.
The Cubs scout players who fit their player-development model, particularly from a makeup standpoint. It's something Madison sees at every level, from the instructional league to that 91-win Kane County club and up to Triple-A and the Majors.
"We expect a lot out of those guys, and we tell them that straight out," Madison said. "This is what we expect -- do it or get out. Our scouts internationally and in the Draft have done a good job to bring in high-quality makeup guys who have the work ethic, who haven't had the discipline problems."
Baez, Soler and Alcantara should begin next year in the Majors, with Bryant, Russell, Almora, Schwarber and a whole lot more on the very near horizon. The kids might need a little time adjusting to the second decks, but you throw that many good darts at a wall, you're bound to hit some bull's-eyes. Is it enough to end the ceaseless chase for "Next Year"? Maybe. At the least, the groundwork has been laid by Epstein, Hoyer, McLeod and their staff to make the Cubs an immensely watchable team over the coming half-decade.
"There's an understanding with all our Minor Leaguers that they have a chance to be part of something special," Madison said. "That's [Hoyer] and [McLeod] and the process and philosophy they have for the organization. Guys are buying in."