At the All-Star break last year, I had an article out looking at the Cubs chances for the rest of the season. The title was “Will the Cubs Run Out of Gas by the Playoffs?” You can Google it, but the link is dead. The website was closed as part of a merger acquisition.
The gist of the article addressed a poorly stocked minor league system. In reality, the Cubs had no one to promote to the big leagues or to trade. The Cubs had a killer schedule in the second half. An inordinate number of make-up games from earlier in the season compounded things. A weary Cubs roster sputtered down the stretch. They lost out on securing a division title, falling in a one game playoff. The Cubs then limped into the off-season and stumbled in the Wild Card game.
So, why is this important going into the 2019 season? The answer comes from how the Cubs have responded this off-season and a gaze at their top prospects.
A view of the 2018 season
Promotions and trades drained off almost all of the talent in the Cubs‘ system coming into last season. That situation became worse when top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay went down for the year with a lat strain. In the end, the Cubs would only get significant contributions from utility player David Bote and C/1B Victor Caratini. And while Bote’s walk-off grand slam in August made him somewhat of a legend, his .239/.319/.408/.727 slash line was less impressive. Meanwhile, Caratini was yo-yoed up and down from the minors, as well as in and out of the line-up. Because of that, Caratini never found any consistency.
But 2018 also saw some breakout performances in the minors from some rather unheralded prospects. Infielders Zack Short and Trent Giambrone burst on the scene. Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Duncan Robinson, Matt Swarmer, Keegan Thompson, Michael Rucker, Trevor Clifton, and lefty Justin Steele all out-performed more highly publicized prospects. The Cubs piggybacked on that with a very solid draft. Among the players brought in were infielders Nico Hoerner and Andy Weber. It also included outfielders Jimmy Herron, Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis, as well as pitchers Paul Richan, Zach Mort, and Riley Thompson.
However, instead of reveling in a rejuvenation of their main talent source, the Cubs reacted in a much different way. Since the end of the World Series, the Cubs have acquired more than 25 players 25-years old or older. These players have varying degrees of major league and Triple-A experience. A good number have been signed to a minor league contract or a split MLB/MiLB contract.
For most franchises, that would not be big news. Many front offices will metaphorically throw a lot against a wall in spring training to see what sticks. But after that, most baseball teams will move on, possibly retaining a few at their top level “just in case.” The Cubs, however, are different.
An analysis was made of Triple-A Iowa rosters from 2012 to present. That was the first full year the Cubs‘ present front office took charge. The numbers paint a different picture. Over the past seven years, the Cubs have averaged 16 players added from outside the organization 25 years-old or older on their Triple-A roster. These players averaged 29.58 of age, and started anywhere from 50% to 75% of the season. During that span, of the 112 total players signed, only utility player Chris Coghlan made any significant contribution at the major league level.
The situation takes a bleaker turn during the Cubs‘ “competitive window” from 2015 through last year. Over that time, the Triple-A roster has contained on average 18.75 players of that category. They averaged 29.09 years of age; no one received anything more than a “cup of coffee” in the majors.
What this means for 2019
Without delving deeply into contracts or salary cap concerns, it is easy to see that the Cubs are on a World Series or Bust course for 2019. It is clear that the Cubs feel at this point more comfortable with veterans rather than prospects. This is quite different from the plan that brought them a world championship in 2016. That year, a third of the Cubs roster was 24-years old or younger. The 2016 playoff roster included rookies Albert Almora and Willson Contreras playing key roles.
While all of the players signed won’t be with the team when camp breaks, evidence shows that most will be retained. That means less spots available at Triple-A for prospects, and less chance of promotion to the majors.
Among the players most affected are pitchers Adzolay, Mekkes, Robinson, and about a dozen others that were set to challenge for the Iowa roster. With seventeen pitchers signed, spots in the I-Cubs pitching staff will be hard to come by.
Infielders Short and Giambrone will have to turn a lot of heads in training camp to avoid repeating Double-A Tennessee. The Cubs have signed three veteran infielders, including two with major league experience. This does not include Daniel Descalso, who they signed as a free agent. They also signed two outfielder/first baseman types, further closing down roster options.
It is uncertain as to how many more prospects will be affected. Breakout performances happen, and the Cubs have a history of not being able to handle unexpected prospect development well. Hopefully, injuries do not sidetrack anyone’s future.
But for now, it might not be a good idea to invest in Cubs prospects making an impact in 2019.
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.