The Chicago Cubs plan, instituted by Theo Epstein, is getting a huge amount of love right now. The Cubs are quickly become the en vogue team to pick as an upstart playoff team over the next couple seasons and have people predicting World Series contender three years out. A great piece by Rany Jazayerli on Grantland illustrates the plan, the idea behind it, and how successful it has been so far.
But, with all due excitement, it’s always important to remember the downside and risks present. This isn’t meant to be the ever-popular internet article of being a contrarian and saying why everyone’s excitement is foolish because the downside tends to be more likely than the upside. Writing the contrarian article tends to be the safe bet to look “smart”.
Having said that, Epstein hasn’t built a contender yet.
This trade season may have been an indicator that teams valued prospects less than in previous years.1 True or not, there is risk inherent in prospects that must be addressed. The Cubs have an amazing top 10 list fraught with hitting talent to build the next Chicago contender.
- Javier Baez
- Kris Bryant
- Addison Russell
- Jorge Soler
- Kyle Schwarber
All five of those names are constants on top 50 prospect lists. Some of them will almost surely pan out. Some of them may very well fail.
Baez, while undoubtedly exciting and hope inspiring for the Wrigley faithful, is not a sure thing. Far from it in fact. His elite bat speed and up the middle defense viability makes him a lower risk than his number would otherwise indicate. A young player with a .236 batting average and just two walks would inspire fear in most modern fans. Walks are king after all.
This is precisely why Baez has been brought up. To struggle now and work on making adjustments in the offseason. We may see him try to shorten his swing by quieting his bat. Therein lies the risk. Change. Players don’t always succeed after changing. These adjustments to the immense differences from the minor leagues to the major leagues is exactly why failure occurs from players that once battered Triple-A pitchers or hitters over the majority of a season.
We’ll soon surely get another view of the situation when Soler gets the inevitable cup of coffee. This may strengthen the case that the Cubs have to rely on unproven, but high-ceiling talent, or it may be a detriment to the idea. Soler was certainly seen as one of the much riskier prospects over the last few years. Between his injuries, outbursts and intermittent success, some thought he would be the cautionary tale. That’s changed with his sustained success at Iowa, but the risk hasn’t disappeared.
The most popular point against the Cubs is their reliance on hitting prospects. I’ll keep this short as I don’t see it as a downside at all. It has nothing to do with the success rate of hitting prospects or the injury risk of pitching prospects; though both things should be taken into account. The reason this doesn’t worry me is because of something championed by many, but struck home, at least for me, by one person. Jason Parks constantly reminds readers that prospects are currency.
This is often taken to mean you need an unemotional view of prospecting. Parks is the biggest example against that case. They are both compatible. All it means is that the value derived from these players isn’t tied into their future success with the team that drafted them. They can always be used to acquire talent from other areas of the field. This is likely the reason that the Cubs have focused so strongly on up-the-middle batting talent, some of the most valuable talent in baseball.
In the end, the Cubs will compete or they will fail. Strangely, I’m not all that concerned with exactly what the outcome will be despite my Cubs fandom. I’m concerned with the process. I agree with this process. The risk needs to be remembered though. The Kansas City Royals are a noted cautionary tale of a great farm system never producing the promise that was suggested.
Taking the risk into account and recognizing the ability of it to go wrong helps hedge this bet, but it is still a bet. One that isn’t necessarily a better than 50-50 proposition. Neither is becoming a contender for a World Series. It doesn’t have to be better than 50-50 for it to be a worthwhile risk. The Cubs have a prospect problem, but that is only because they are still just prospects.