Cubs Front Office Has Come Full Circle in Player Development

Nico Hoerner, South Bend Cubs - photo credit Rikk Carlson, @rikkcarl10 on Twitter

In October of 2011, Theo Epstein was named President of the Chicago Cubs, who brought along Jed Hoyer as General Manager. At the time of their hiring, observers were saying that the Cubs as an organization was barren of talent. While the major league roster was aging, it did have some promising young players in Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija. They also inherited a minor league system that included Javier Baez, Justin Bour, Jeimer Candelario, Welington Castillo, Willson Contreras, Marwin Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu, and Daniel Vogelbach.

There were times that under the previous administration of GM Jim Hendry that observers would shake their heads in disbelief. There were things done with contracts and services time that were beyond belief. The minor league system consisted of shabby facilities and poor organization. Promotions from the minors seemed to play favorites rather than having players earn their way onto a roster.  And there were concerns that the front office was more interested in bringing in players that the fans recognized than in developing their own talent.

But Epstein and Hoyer were supposed to remedy that. There was an influx of cash into minor league scouting and instruction. It started by bringing in new minor league affiliates with better facilities. Also instituted was a “Cubs Handbook” in which all players coming into the organization would learn how to play the “Cubs Way”.

Ian Happ in 2015 (photo by Tom Usiak)

With the lack of success by the parent club, the talent started flowing in. The initial 1st round selection was Albert Almora Jr. in 2012, followed by Kris Bryant in 2013; Kyle Schwarber in 2014; and Ian Happ in 2015. However, there were cracks showing in the armor, for those willing to look.

Throughout 2012 to 2016, management continued to bring in “AAAA” players and aging veterans into the system at the expense of younger players. Development for players selected beyond the third round, or highly regarded international free agent players, was non-existent. It also appeared that the front office picked “favorites”. These favorites would receive promotions over other deserving prospects. The Cubs also tried to manipulate service time with Bryant in 2015. It would be something that Bryant would never forget.

There is a saying that winning is a great deodorant. With the fortunes of the parent club improving, fans and scribes alike were willing to turn a blind eye. Then came an age-old problem for the Cubs: dealing long-term assets for short-term gains.

Gleyber Torres as a Cubs prospect (photo by Tom Usiak)

In the beginning, it didn’t seem too big of a deal of the Cubs dealing Castro. Even though the return wasn’t the best, the Cubs had plenty of shortstops. But swapping Gleyber Torres and Billy McKinney for a two-month rental was next. Outfielder Donnie Dewees was the next to go, followed by Jorge Soler. The following season was the two blockbuster deals in which the Cubs gave up Candelario, Isaac Paredes, Dylan Cease, and Eloy Jimenez.

To make matters worse, the Cubs were not even close to developing a pitching prospect.

While the Cubs were still a contending team, they were slipping further and further away from being one of baseball’s elite.

It was at that point the inability to develop both pitching and middle-to-late round draft selections began to show. The Cubs were solely relying on that first wave of prospects. The players became tired, and injuries were starting to creep in. The lack of depth was hurting production. And the dearth of pitching prospects meant depending on a lot of mediocrity on the major league staff.

The Cubs tried rectifying their deficits. First, it was the pitching-heavy 2016 and 2017 drafts. Then, it was the mixture of highly touted high school players and seasoned college stars in 2018 and 2019.  But two consistent problems were continuing: dealing for short-term gains and balking on player development.

Despite not bringing up a pitching prospect solely developed by their system, the Cubs ended up trading highly regarded pitchers Tom Hatch and Alex Lange. And when some prospects seemed ready to contribute, it was the Cubs that were not ready to give them the chance they earned.

Nico Hoerner by Rikk Carlson

The Cubs have several cases in point this season. The most glaring is 2018 1st round selection Nico Hoerner. Although the middle infielder had some minor injuries in 2018 and 2019, operational needs brought him to the big leagues in September of 2019. In the epidemic-shortened 2020 season, Hoerner remained a part of the parent club. His play in the field earned Hoerner a Gold Glove nomination. Hoerner was playing well in the spring, slashing .364/.396/.659/1.055 with 2 homers, 11 RBI, and 3 stolen bases. Even that inspired play wasn’t good enough; the Cubs were leaving Hoerner at the alternative training site. Rumors of service time manipulation spread. Now, Hoerner is back up and playing like he never wants to go back down.

With Contreras thoroughly entrenched as the starting catcher, the opportunity to bring someone young to play behind him was present. The Cubs have the perfect player in PJ Higgins. A former infielder, Higgins has established himself as a top-notch defensive catcher. Yet, the Cubs continued obsessing for a veteran backup. Bringing in Tony Wolters, Jose Lobaton, and Austin  Romine, the Cubs ended up snubbing their own prospect.

And lastly, the Cubs are continuing to play around with the only pitching prospect they have brought to the majors: Adbert Alzolay. The young right-hander actually made the opening roster in this talent-challenged staff. But Adzolay has been given the quick-hook, both in games and in his roster spot.

Altogether, it is a familiar look to the Cubs. For those willing to see.

Born and raised on Chicago's Northwest side, Tom is entering his tenth year covering the Cubs minor league system, writing for prestigious sites such as Chicago Cubs Online, Locked On Cubs, and Cubs Den. Over that period, Tom has published interviews with top prospects such as Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, Willson Contreras, Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, Ian Happ, Eloy Jimenez, Cole Roederer, and Gleyber Torres.

Known as "Tom U" across the internet, Tom also has a close working relationship with the front offices of all four of the Cubs' full season minor league teams. A frequent guest of the South Bend Cubs on WSBT radio, Tom has also written monthly articles for the South Bend Cubs' stadium program.

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