(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
The initial perception among some scouts and draft experts was that the Cubs might have been reaching when they selected C/OF Kyle Schwarber with the fourth-overall pick of the 2014 draft. But after an impressive half season of professional baseball, Schwarber has already put those beliefs to rest and has publications like Baseball America calling him the best hitter in the draft.
Baseball America‘s 2014 Draft Report Cards named the Indiana University product both the best pure hitter and best power hitter from this year’s draft. He also ranked second in the publication’s Best Pro Debut from a College or Junior College group, trailing only Brandon Finnegan, who has been a key piece in the big league bullpen during the Royals’ World Series run.
Schwarber impressed early on, so much so that he was promoted from Short-Season A Boise after just 20 at-bats. In 23 games with Single-A Kane County, the 21-year-old hit .361/.448/.602 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with four homers and eight doubles, before being sent to High-A Daytona to help out with a late playoff push. In Daytona, he again hit over .300 with 10 homers in 44 games. On the season, he put up a .344/.428/.634 line with 18 home runs and 53 RBI over 262 at-bats.
Baseball America also credited the Cubs with the fourth-best draft from top to bottom.
Also, check out our video with Schwarber from earlier this season.
A host of Cubs prospects were in action Thursday, and made a difference, as the Solar Sox captured a 6-2 win over Peoria. Here are some notes from yesterday’s Arizona Fall League action:
- RHP Ivan Pineyro got the start, pitching three scoreless innings in the win. He gave up four hits—all singles—and struck out three while walking none.
- 1B Dan Vogelbach went 2-for-4 with his first RBI of the fall. In the fourth inning, he doubled, scoring Addison Russell from second. He reached base again in the eighth with a soft single to left and scored on a Spencer Kieboom (Nationals) homer a batter later.
- RHP Zach Cates pitched two scoreless innings, striking out one while giving up two hits and a walk.
- SS Russell went 1-for-4, hitting a single in the eighth inning and reaching base on an error. He scored on the aforementioned Vogelbach double and Kieboom homer.
- DH Jacob Hannemann went 0-for-4.
Mesa hosts Surprise Friday, with first pitch scheduled for 12:35 local time.
Led by Cubs right-hander C.J. Edwards’ three solid innings of work, Mesa cruised to a 5-2 win over Peoria Wednesday. A few of the position players also made contributions in the victory. Here are some Cubs notes from yesterday’s Arizona Fall League action:
- RHP C.J. Edwards gave up one hit and one walk over three scoreless innings, picking up his first win of the fall. He struck out three batters, including Francisco Lindor (Indians), one of the game’s top farmhands.
- RF Bijan Rademacher went 2-for-4 with a run scored.
- DH Addison Russell was 1-for-3 with a run-scoring, second-inning double, bringing in Cal Towey (Angels). He also drew a walk.
Mesa hosts Peoria Thursday, with first pitch scheduled for 6:35 local time.
Despite outhitting Scottsdale, Mesa was on the losing end of its matchup Tuesday. Addison Russell played a big role for the offense, but Gerardo Concepcion struggled on the mound. Here are some Cubs notes from yesterday’s Arizona Fall League action:
- SS Addison Russell went 1-for-4 with two runs scored and a walk Tuesday. Russell led off the eighth inning with a single to left, and scored one batter later on a Matt Olson (Athletics) home run. He drew a one-out walk in the ninth, scoring from third three batters later on a Kaleb Cowart (Angels) force out. He also committed his first throwing error of the fall.
- LHP Gerardo Concepcion struggled in 1.2 innings of work, giving up three earned runs on one hit and two walks and striking out one batter.
The Solar Sox resume play Wednesday with a 12:35 local time start at Peoria. Cubs right-hander C.J. Edwards is scheduled to start.
Mesa was on the losing end of a 2-1 matchup with Scottsdale Monday, despite a lineup littered with Cubs prospects. Here are some notes from yesterday’s Arizona Fall League action:
- 2B Addison Russell went 1-for-3 with a single to left in the sixth inning and a walk in the eighth.
- 1B Dan Vogelbach finished the day 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.
- RF Jacob Hannemann was 0-for-4 with a strikeout, leaving six runners on base.
- RHP Zach Cates entered the game in the fifth inning with a two outs and a runner on second. He forced Blake Miller (Giants) to pop out to second.
Mesa hosts Scottsdale Tuesday, with first pitch scheduled for 12:35 local time.
A trio of Cubs prospects played in Mesa’s afternoon matchup with Peoria on Saturday. A pair of position players got starts, while a reliever pitched a scoreless 1.1 innings in the Solar Sox’s win. Here are some highlights from the Cubs prospects in the Arizona Fall League:
- RF Bijan Rademacher went 1-for-3, leading off the seventh inning with a single up the middle. He stole second and scored two batters later on a Dalton Pompey (Blue Jays) triple. He also recorded an outfield assist.
- DH Jake Hannemann went 0-for-3.
- RHP Ivan Pineyro was credited with his first hold of the AFL season, going 1.1 innings and allowing two hits, striking out one and walking two.
After an off day Sunday, Mesa resumes action when it heads to Scottsdale for a 7:35 CST start Monday.
Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?
It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.
It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.
Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.
“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”
Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.
“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?
When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.
“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”
Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.
The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.
Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.
Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.
“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”
Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.
And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.
Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.
Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.
And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.
The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.
CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.
The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.
Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.
Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.
“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.
“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”
Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.
“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”
FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.
“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.
“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”
Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.
“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”
—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus
The Arizona Fall League opened up on Tuesday, with Glendale getting the best of the Mesa Solar Sox, 9-3. The Cubs had a trio of prospects in action. Addison Russell drove in two Solar Sox runs, while outfielder Jacob Hannemann rounded out Mesa’s scoring with a sac fly in the losing effort.
- DH Addison Russell went 1-for-4 with a two-run single in the top of the second inning, scoring Boog Powell (Athletics) and Dalton Pompey (Blue Jays). He also reached on a fielder’s choice in the first.
- LF Jacob Hannemann entered the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh and recorded a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Kaleb Cowart (Angels).
- 1B Dan Vogelbach came into the game in the bottom of the sixth. He struck out in his only at-bat of the game.
A lot of eyes will be on the Cubs’ top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards this fall. (Photo by Roger C. Hoover)
The prospect-laden Arizona Fall League kicks off Tuesday. Be sure to follow the Vine Line blog all AFL season for recaps on how the Cubs prospects fared the night before. The following story can be found in the October issue of Vine Line.
The Arizona Fall League has always been a launching pad for major league careers. Every fall, organizations send their top prospects to the offseason showcase. Javier Baez hit four home runs in 14 AFL games in 2012, and Kris Bryant took home league MVP honors in 2013.
This year, the Cubs will send a new batch of up-and-coming farmhands to Arizona to see how they fare against the best players the minor leagues have to offer.
Addison Russell will headline the group—and could very well headline the league, as he’s baseball’s No. 6 prospect, according to MLB.com. Despite missing the early part of the season with a hamstring injury and adjusting to an early-July trade, the 20-year-old never missed a beat, hitting .295/.350/.508 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 homers over 68 games, all while playing elite defense at shortstop. This will be his second appearance in the AFL, as he represented Oakland last year.
Injuries derailed much of right-handed pitcher C.J. Edwards’ Double-A season, but he was lights out once he returned to action in late July. Baseball’s No. 56 prospect finished the year with a 2.35 ERA in 58.2 innings, striking out 54 batters.
First baseman Dan Vogelbach got off to a slow start, but picked things up as the season progressed. The slugger, who slimmed down in the offseason, hit .268/.357/.429 with 16 homers and 76 RBI for High-A Daytona.
Right-handed pitchers Ivan Pineyro and Zach Cates, lefty Gerardo Concepción, and athletic outfielder Jacob Hannemann have also been invited to the AFL. Outfielder Bijan Rademacher will serve as a member of the taxi squad, which means he’s available to play only twice a week.
It’s not always easy to stick to your guns. Especially if the decisions you’re making aren’t all that popular.
When Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod first came aboard with the Cubs, they were hailed as conquering heroes who could do no wrong and would soon (and inevitably) carry the organization to the promised land. The Chicago Sun-Times even ran a tongue-in-cheek image of Epstein walking on water.
The new baseball operations men quickly laid out their plan, set a clear course of action and got to work. Their stated goal was to hire the best people in the business, stockpile young talent and build a player-development machine to get that young talent on the fast track to Wrigley Field.
Once the brain trust started making their first moves, the fan base gave them the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone loved seeing favorites like Andrew Cashner, Ryan Dempster and Sean Marshall go, but people figured everything the front office touched would turn to gold. On the plus side, the Cubs picked up first baseman Anthony Rizzo, signed Cuban free agent Jorge Soler and drafted outfielder Albert Almora, among other, less-heralded moves. Despite finishing 2012 with 101 losses, baseball ops stayed the course.
By the time the 2013 campaign came to a close, the voices of dissent were growing louder. The Cubs traded Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano and fired manager Dale Sveum after a 96-loss season. Yet, the front office remained steadfast. While people grumbled, the team acquired players like Jake Arrieta, Corey Black, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop; drafted Kris Bryant; and locked up Starlin Castro and Rizzo with team-friendly long-term deals.
Though the win-loss record didn’t improve dramatically in 2014, the Cubs’ collection of young talent—augmented by players like Billy McKinney, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber—hit critical mass. Now it’s undeniable the Cubs are coming fast, and people around baseball are taking notice. National columnists, local pundits and sports pages across the country are lauding the organization’s elite system.
For the past several years, if you were unwilling to look beyond the team playing at Wrigley Field, it was hard to see what the Cubs were building. When the major league team was losing, the idea of “top prospects” was too nebulous to provide much comfort. But once those same prospects started arriving in the bigs, it was hard to deny their energy, enthusiasm and raw talent.
Not every call-up posted huge numbers, but they all made strong impressions. Kyle Hendricks was occasionally dazzling, Jorge Soler demonstrated impact potential, and guys like Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Eric Jokisch all showed flashes.
Through everything—all the losses, all the complaints, all the stories about the Cubs’ struggles—the front office never wavered from their plan, even when it would have been easier (and much better PR) to hold onto some of their veteran talent and/or throw money at risky free agents. Now that patience is starting to pay off.
I’m in no way saying the Commissioner’s Trophy should be on its way to Clark and Addison next season. Baseball is far too random to guarantee anything like that. But it’s undeniable the Cubs have built a formidable foundation of talent that is the envy of the baseball world.
In the October issue of Vine Line, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma examines the work the front office has been doing to assemble the top system in the game. We also give readers a sneak peek into a true baseball treasure, as we take a tour through the famous Wrigley Field manual scoreboard with the men who work inside. Finally, we go back to June 23, 1984, when Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg made the entire baseball world and a national TV audience take notice with two memorable home runs in the fabled Sandberg Game.
You can always find news on Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ storied past and the organization’s bright future in Vine Line and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And stay tuned this offseason—things are about to get fun.