Cubs power-less to develop home-grown core
Trivia question No. 1 for incoming Cubs owner Tom Ricketts: When was the last time the team’s farm system developed a 30-homer, 100-RBI type who produced those kinds of numbers in Chicago?
If Ricketts answers “Billy Williams,” then he’s a much more avid fan than we’ve imagined.
It’s been that long, for the weakest player development operation in baseball history. And it’s at the root of the team’s problems that Ricketts will endeavor to fix in upcoming years.
Hall of Famer Williams came up to the Cubs to stay in September, 1960 — three months after another 30/100-archetype — Ron Santo. And since then, nobody. That forced a succession of general managers to trade and overpay for free agents to fill out the middle of the lineup. The lack of even one, let alone a core, of home-grown run producers is being felt in the nearly $250 million shelled out in free agency since late 2006 for the Cubs’ under-performing outfield of Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome and Milton Bradley. Develop your own big boppers, and you have a cost savings for at least the first few years of their careers. It makes both competitive and economic sense.
Since 1960, the Cubs developed Joe Carter, traded away out of necessity as a rookie for Rick Sutcliffe. Sure, Carter was a 30/100 guy for the Indians and Blue Jays. He was just one slugger in five decades.
In that time period, the farm system has produced three — count ‘em, three — players who hit as many as 20 homers in one season for the Cubs. They were catcher Rick Wilkins with 30 in 1993, outfielder Corey Patterson with 24 in 2004 and catcher Geovany Soto with 23 in 2008. Wilkins and Patterson were one-shot deals, the power numbers never coming close ever again. Soto, suffering the ol’ sophomore jinx, could come back in future years. He’d have to condition himself like never before, though.
None of the above trio were 30/100 types. Contrast that with a partial list around baseball of home-grown sluggers over the past two decades-plus.
Braves: Ron Gant, David Justice, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Andruw Jones. Jeff Francouer and Adam LaRoche were close to the 30/100 type. Atlanta also developed Jermaine Dye, traded away early in his career before he ran up 30/100 numbers down South.
Rockies: Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe.
Phillies: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell.
Blue Jays: Vernon Wells, Carlos Delgado.
Pirates: Barry Bonds, Jason Bay, Aramis Ramirez (given away to the Cubs via trade).
Astros: Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo (for a short time).
Reds: Adam Dunn.
Cardinals: Albert Pujols.
Part of the Cubs’ problem has simply been mediocre scouting and player development overall with position players. When Shawon Dunston came up to play shortstop in 1985, he was the first home-grown position play to grab a regular’s job for awhile at Wrigley Field since Don Kessinger in 1965. And when Ryan Theriot seized the shortstop’s job from Cesar Izturis in 2007, he was the first home-grown middle infielder to become a stable regular since Dunston!
Flawed strategy made matters worse. Deposed Cubs president Andy MacPhail mandated the farm system be flooded with pitching, with the projected excess dealt away to fill other needs. Problem is, too much of that pitching either got hurt or never panned out, leaving the system short of position players.
Developing a run producer is harder than grooming an ace pitcher, to be sure. Sluggers strike out more than line-drive hitters. Will a budding bopper cut down his strikeouts and make enough contact to transition from the average pitching of Triple-A to the real stuff in the majors? But as the above list shows, the transition has been done and not everyone coming up has a “slider-speed bat.”
Tim Wilken, the Cubs’ scouting director since 2006 who formerly helped stock a productive Blue Jays system, believes legitimate hitting prospects must be drafted in the first 20 rounds or thereabouts. Wilken does not feel any diamond-in-the-rough hitters can be found in the high 30’s rounds, as with pitchers like Mark Buehrle. Three of his first four top Cubs draftees have been hitters.
But Wilken and the player-development folks to whom he hands over signees must take care to dampen down the hype that accompanies any good-looking young hitter. So few have come through the chain that anyone showing promise is touted as the Cubs’ next savior. The focus always is on one promising prospect at a time, and it can get suffocating. That was the case with Patterson, outfielder Felix Pie of more recent vintage and mid-1990’s third baseman Kevin Orie. Over-eager fans called the Lansing, Mich. ballpark demanding that Patterson, then only 19, be called up directly from the Midwest League in 1999 just so he could play center at Wrigley Field, no matter if he flailed away helplessly at the plate. The hype already is building on third baseman Josh Vitters, still at Class A. But the only solution is to bring up several Vitters at around the same time and simply expect them to play — as the Braves, Twins and other top farm systems have long operated.
Ricketts must graduate from the trivia questions to undergo a diamond tutorial. He and his top aides must discover what the most productive farm systems are doing right in developing the musclemen, duplicate it and better it. Otherwise, the Cubs will be condemned to a baseball Ground Hog day: the overpayment of free agents, the inevitable failure, the cutting of losses and the process beginning anew as the years since a World Series title run up healthy three figures.