Sparks of enthusiasm are once again kindling among Chicago Cubs’ loyalists, as the long-awaited influx of position-player talent onto their major league roster has begun in earnest. The club is far from a finished product, and a loaded minor league system is no guarantee of major league success — just ask some of the teams I’ll discuss below. It’s an exciting time on the North Side, however, and this is before Kris Bryant — arguably the best of the lot — has been penciled into the big-league lineup. How does this group match up with some other recent talent infusions?
For much of the 2014 season, the National League Central has featured one of the most interesting races in baseball. Until recently, it was a four-team scrum, and with the recent fade of the Reds, it’s now down to three. The one club that hasn’t been involved in anything more than a spoiler role has been the Chicago Cubs. They’ve arguably had more impact to this point on the AL West race, as they traded top starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland back in July. In the process, they added to their stockpile of impact offensive talent, bringing the A’s two best position player prospects — shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy Mckinney — into the fold. The club already had impact youth in place all season at the major league level in the person of Anthony Rizzo, and he has been joined by second baseman Javier Baez, outfielder Jorge Soler and utilityman Arismendy Alcantara as the summer progressed. Bryant, likely the best of them all, isn’t here quite yet, and 2014 first rounder Kyle Schwarber has torn the cover off of the ball in his pro debut. It is an embarrassment of offensive riches that Cubs’ fans hope can at long last lead them to the promised land.
Since 1993, I have compiled a season-ending ordered list of top minor league position player prospects based on both production and age relative to the level of competition. It doesn’t adjust for other types of context, such as ballpark or position, so it serves as more of a follow list than a true top prospect list. Still, with over 20 years in the bank, it is a good resource to look back and search for the closest matches to the Cubs’ current situation. To finish in the top 20 on my annual minor league position player list is a pretty big deal – they obviously don’t all pan out, but virtually every impact offensive player over the last 20 years has ranked that high at least once. This current Cubs’ group? Well, Bryant ranks #2 in 2014 (behind the Rangers’ Joey Gallo) and Rizzo and Baez both peaked at #4. Schwarber (#9), McKinney (#12), Soler (#14) and Russell (#20) all ranked in the Top 20 this season. Alcantara’s peak rank was #52 in 2013 — a pretty solid performance for a middle infielder, considering the lack of adjustment for positional context. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of all of this is that most of these guys are either in the major leagues or are very close to major league ready. They aren’t likely to be low-level flukes who will be exposed at upper levels.
I took a look back over my lists going back to 1993 and identified the 12 best clusters of top prospects who achieved a peak minor league position player ranking of 20 or better (with the odd “just missed” guy thrown in). They appear below.
ORG YRS PROS #1 PEAK RK PROS #2 PEAK RK PROS #3 PEAK RK PROS #4 PEAK RK
CLE 93 Thome 2 M.Ramirez 3 Giles 28
MIL 03-05 Fielder 2 Hardy 4 Braun 8 Weeks 10
MIN 01-03 Morneau 3 Mauer 11 Cuddyer 17
LAD 96-97 Beltre 1 Konerko 4 K.Garcia 12
TOR 94 S.Green 4 C.Delgado 6
ATL 08-09 Heyward 1 Freeman 5
CLE 02-03 Sizemore 2 V.Martinez 12 Crisp 16
KC 94-95 Sweeney 7 Damon 10
TB 05-06 BJ Upton 1 D.Young 1 Longoria 6 Dukes 18
MIA 08-10 Stanton 1 Dominguez 10 Morrison 13
KC 10-12 Myers 1 Moustakas 4 Hosmer 7
KC 06 Butler 15 Gordon 16
From bottom to top, here’s a thumbnail sketch of those systems, and the eventual major league impact of those players.
Three of the top 12 offensive prospect clusters belong to the Kansas City Royals, and two of them are in the process of writing some of the most important chapters of their careers. The 2006 group features Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Neither qualifies as a superstar – though Gordon isn’t terribly far off. This is the only group listed that lacks a Top 10 minor league peak ranking.
The 2010-2012 Royals cluster was busted up by the trade that sent Wil Myers to Tampa for James Shields. Moustakas’ career is in some degree of trouble, but Myers and Eric Hosmer project as core players going forward for their respective clubs. The 2008-2010 Marlins “cluster” is basically Giancarlo Stanton and a couple lesser lights who just happened to earn Top 20 minor league rankings in the same time frame. When all is said and done, Stanton could well challenge for the title of best player on this list – pretty heady stuff, as there are some future Hall of Famers present. The 2005-2006 Rays group possibly presents a cautionary tale for the current Cubs. Upton and Young, though they have had somewhat productive careers, were expected to be much better, leaving only Longoria as a long-term stud among the group. The Cubs certainly hope none of their prospects becomes Elijah Dukes.
The highest-ranking Royals cluster is the 1994-95 Mike Sweeney/Johnny Damon collaboration. Sweeney was a catcher for a portion of his minor league career, and put up great numbers in a very pitcher-friendly environment at High-A Wilmington at one point. If I used some journalistic license to shoehorn in Carlos Beltran (#8 in 1998), they would rank even higher.
The 2002-2003 Indians group features one homegrown player (Victor Martinez) and two shrewd trade acquisitions. Sizemore came over in the famous Bartolo Colon rental deal that represented the death knell for the Montreal Expos’ franchise, and Coco Crisp arrived from St. Louis as a player to be named later for a rental of Chuck Finley. Brandon Phillips had a couple of near Top 20 finishes as a member of the Expos organization, but performed poorly in the Indians’ minor leagues.
The book is still being written on the Braves tandem of Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, but it’s going to be a good one. Heyward’s offensive game has perhaps stagnated, but he remains a strong all-around player, and Freeman is one of the game’s most dependable sluggers.
Back in the day, the Blue Jays were one of the game’s most prolific drafting/Latin American scouting/player development machines. The Shawn Green/Carlos Delgado 1994 group represented the final salvo for a club that had won the previous two World Series championships.
Many forget that not only was Paul Konerko drafted by the Dodgers, he was also drafted as a catcher. He and Adrian Beltre were a fearsome 1-2 punch for the Dodgers in the 1996-1997 time frame, and at times, Karim Garcia appeared to be in their class as well. The power-before-hit Garcia never did learn to make contact at the major league level, though he was a useful role player for a few years.
The 2001-2003 Twins cluster laid the framework for one of the best small-market clubs of the past decade. Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer were the faces of the franchise for a decade, and only a post-prime, first base version of Mauer remains in place in Minnesota.
Ryan Braun is all that remains of the 2003-2005 Brewers cluster. While Corey Hart was the first to arrive in the majors – his peak rank was #27 – the group that also included Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks revitalized baseball in Milwaukee. I was present for some very quiet nights at Miller Park in the early 2000′s that won’t be repeated anytime soon thanks to this group.
It’s pretty tough to argue with the 1993 Indians for the best position-player-prospect cluster over this time frame. A couple of pretty much sure-fire Hall of Famers in Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, and one of the most underrated players of his or any era in Brian Giles.
There is one thing that all 12 of these organizations and their prospect clusters have in common – none of them have won a World Series. The Indians came within a game of doing so, and the Rays’ group also went to the World Series. A few others have reached the postseason, with only middling success on the whole. A handful of the players listed went on to win World Series rings – Ramirez, Damon and Konerko – but only after leaving for greener pastures. These players were largely developed by small- to middle-market clubs, but had to go to large-market teams to win the big one.
Besides the Cubs, there are five other current prospect/young major leaguer clusters that could join the above list. From bottom to top, they are:
6. 2012-2013 Red Sox – Mookie Betts (#4 -2014), Xander Bogaerts (#8 – 2013), Garin Cecchini (#16 – 2013), Jackie Bradley Jr. (#17 – 2012)
This group has been hurt a bit by Bogaerts’ and Bradley’s big league struggles this season, but they aren’t the first top prospects to struggle in their maiden voyage. Bogaerts and Betts in particular retain very high upsides.
5. 2012-2014 Twins – Miguel Sano (#1 -2013), Byron Buxton (#2 – 2012), Oswaldo Arcia (#3 – 2013)
Just a year ago, an article could have been written about these three – the first trio from the same organization to occupy the top three slots in my annual list. Sano had Tommy John surgery, Buxton didn’t play much and Arcia has been a solid but unspectacular big leaguer. Their cumulative upside remains high.
4. 2011-2014 Rangers – Joey Gallo (#1 – 2014), Rougned Odor (#5 – 2013), Lewis Brinson (#10 – 2014), Jurickson Profar (#10 – 2012)
Gallo’s domination of the High-A Carolina League this season was virtually unprecedented, and along with the 20-year-old Odor’s representative major league performance, it made Profar’s second consecutive injury-plagued season more easily endured. Brinson’s a high-risk, high-reward type who is a ways away.
3. 2013-14 Dodgers – Joc Pederson (#6 – 2014), Corey Seager (#7 – 2014), Yasiel Puig (#15 – 2013)
Puig’s already a star, and Pederson and Seager are relatively low-risk types who should at least be quality major league regulars. Though the Dodgers are playing for the present, they have wisely drawn the line and avoided dealing their top two offensive prospects to bolster their 2014 club.
2. 2010-2014 Astros – Carlos Correa (#7 – 2013), Jon Singleton (#8 – 2010), Jose Altuve (#9 – 2011), George Springer (#11 – 2013), Domingo Santana (#20 – 2013)
The Astros stand out because of the volume of prospects. Even beyond this group, the Astros have waves of potential major league regulars and contributors in place – keeping all of them protected on their 40-man roster might be their greatest challenge. They haven’t proven as much at the major league level as some of the other current prospect clusters, but they will.
1. 2012-2014 Cubs – Kris Bryant (#2 – 2014), Javier Baez (#4 – 2013), Anthony Rizzo (#4 – 2012), Kyle Schwarber (#9 – 2014), Billy McKinney (#12 – 2014), Jorge Soler (#14 – 2014), Addison Russell (#20 – 2014)
They’ve drafted them (Bryant, Baez, Schwarber), signed them internationally (Soler), traded for them as major leaguers (Rizzo) and traded for them as minor leaguers (McKinney, Russell). The last few years haven’t been pleasant, but the Cubs are now poised to reap the benefits of the long-term plan put in place when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over.
The Cubs’ true test will be avoiding the fate of all of the other “prospect cluster” clubs discussed in this article. None of them were able to win the big one in October. While their century-plus championship drought is daunting, the club does possess the resources to keep premium talents in town for the long haul, unlike the smaller market clubs discussed above. Step one was to develop a talent procurement and player development machine. Done. Step two, have those players translate their tools and skills into major league performance. That is easier said than done, but the odds appear to be in the Cubs’ favor, given some patience (nods head toward Javier Baez). The ride should be fun, and could well end in the greatest party in the history of the Second City.
Good read. But also doesn't include Starlin, Almora, or the pitching they've assembled. In other words, even more riches than what their other examples had. And with Theo able to add pitching this year, and next, and possibly another top 10 pick in June, there's even more help on the way.