In a couple years the Cubs infield will include future stars like Hee Seop Choi, Bobby Hill and Brendan Harris. Sammy Sosa will be joined by Corey Patterson and David Kelton. Before long Nic Jackson will take over in CF while Patterson replaces Sosa. Future Hall of Famer Kerry Wood will be at the top of a rotation that includes Mark Prior, Juan Cruz, Angel Guzman and Carlos Zambrano.
This was a decade ago and it doesn't even seem like it was that long ago. The Cubs farm system was stacked. And I mean stacked.
Mark Prior was the number 2 prospect in all of baseball and Cruz was the 6th ranked prospect. He was a future top of the rotation starting pitcher who would help create the best rotation since Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz. It might even be better because the Cubs rotation was going to be 5 deep.
That future infield was going to be awesome. Choi ranked 22nd and was the long-term solution at 1st. Bobby Hill ranked 48th and although Brendan Harris was never ranked in the top 100, he was a highly regarded prospect coming off a .900+ OPS season in HIgh A and AA at the age of 21. He was going to be the 3rd baseman that finally filled that hole that had existed since Ron Santo retired.
Sammy Sosa was at his peak. Corey Patterson was the 2nd ranked prospect in all of baseball. Nic Jackson was going to man CF down the road and he was the 68th ranked prospect. Kelton ranked 45th and would play LF. I remember when Ryno and I first started blogging we'd talk about these guys almost every day. We'd come up with imaginary lineups. The Cubs had a top prospect at every single position they needed one from.
And that rotation? Wow. That was the best part. Kerry Wood had returned from injury. I'd never seen any player before get so much attention while playing college baseball than Mark Prior got. Juan Cruz may have been better than both of them. Angel Guzman was the 47th ranked prospect. I'm not sure if you remember, but during spring training 2003 some analyst said that Angel Guzman was the best starting pitcher in the Cubs organization. He was better than Wood. Better than Prior. Better than Cruz who was already better than the first two. That was the top 4 in the future Cubs rotation. Add Carlos Zambrano to the mix and you're talking about one of the most stacked farm systems we've seen.
That farm system was like being a Rays fan in recent years. Then they went down one by one. Hee Seop Choi didn't end up being nearly as good as they thought. The same was true with Bobby Hill, Brendan Harris and David Kelton. Nic Jackson suffered some injury and was never the same. Sammy Sosa continued to produce, but at a lower level. Juan Cruz didn't work out as a starting pitcher. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Angel Guzman were repeatedly on the disabled list. For different reasons, none of them lived up to the expectations placed on them with one exception: Carlos Zambrano. So out of all the ones who didn't it's only natural for Cubs fans to despise the one who did.
Anyone who was much of a Cubs fan a decade ago heard all these names. They heard them often. The scouting reports were impressive. They had the numbers to back it up. They were legitimately good prospects in the deepest and best farm system in baseball. It wasn't a question of whether or not the Cubs would win a World Series with these guys, but when? How quickly would it happen because for the first time it seemed inevitable. It's important to point out that it was Jim Hendry who built this farm system. He took the pathetic Cubs farm system and turned it into one of baseball's best.
Anyone who was much of a Cubs fan a decade ago knows to take prospects, their scouting reports and their numbers with a grain of salt. Some of us followed these guys more closely than others, but one by one they went from being top prospects to afterthoughts. Ryno and I spent so much time talking about these Cubs players and I learned a valuable lesson: prospects fail. Almost all of them fail. Teams have about 6 minor league teams. Some might have more. A few might even have less. If we included the Latin American teams they each have it's closer to 8. That's about 6000 players in minor league baseball. There are only 750 MLB jobs. 87.5% of those 6000 will fail. Of the 750 MLB jobs, there are only a few star players per team. Maybe another few who are average and some who are decent, but not regulars. The rest are interchangeable with players in the minor leagues.
Each step along the way talented players are weeded out. Even ones we thought would become stars get stuck in A ball or maybe they don't even get that far. For those who do progress, along the way starting pitchers become relievers and position players move to the right of the defensive spectrum. Players get injured. Some of them never play again. Some of them are never as good as they once were. Some of the players quit because they get sick of riding a bus. Some players simply don't have the necessary focus and their skills erode.
Once a prospect has proven himself one of the better ones in baseball, we often forget that it's a hell of a lot easier to move down the rankings than it is up. If you're ranked 45th, there just isn't much room to move up. Not to mention that prospects are always ranked with last season's stats being weighted most heavily. And we know from research that a player who performed well one year typically performs worse the following.
What is the point of all of this? The Cubs have currently begun to build a much more solid foundation of young talent. It's exciting in many ways and depressing too. I can't help but think of the early 2000s and how it all went to shit. The current farm system doesn't even compare to the one I've been discussing. Despite the Cubs improved farm system, they're still middle of the pack among all MLB teams. It's a step forward, which is what is important, but it's not an especially good system. It's not bad either. In a few years all of these top prospects will be replaced by other top prospects while most of the current ones are trying to re-establish themslves in the minor leagues.
That's just how it goes. Hopefully the Cubs get a little lucky and more prospects succeed than you'd expect. It would certainly be nice after watching last decade's prospect fail over and over. It's fun right now to think about how the Cubs may look with Anthony Rizzo at 1st and Brett Jackson in CF. An even younger and more established Starlin Castro at SS. That's a very nice and young core of talent to build around. It's even more fun to think about Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach and Shawon Dunston, Jr. joining them. The Cubs don't have much as far as front line starting pitching goes. Trey McNutt needs to rebound and there are some who view him more as a reliever anyway. The same is true for Dillon Maples. There's a lot we don't yet know about Gerardo Concepcion.
It's definitely fun thinking about how good the Cubs can be while also being quite young, but it's not realistic either. If one of Jackson or Rizzo has a decent MLB career that would be pretty good. Odds are they both aren't significant contributors. For that matter, odds are that both have relatively short and unimpressive careers. I'm as high on Brett Jackson as anyone and he undoubtedly has the potential to be a star, but he still has to prove he can do it at the MLB level and that's no easy task. Many far superior prospects have tried and failed.
Some of these guys are so far away it's difficult even imagining them wearing Cubs uniforms. Most of them will get stuck at some level and be forgotten about. Some of them will probably even be traded. That's one of the two major differences between the current farm system and the one a decade ago. The one in the early 2000s had significantly better talent. The other difference is that much of the Cubs minor league talent is years away. A decade ago those guys I mentioned weren't far away from the big leagues.
Patterson, Cruz, Zambrano, and Prior had already reached the big leagues. Kelton, Choi, Harris and Hill were in the high minors. Jackson was in HIgh A. Take Brett Jackson and Antony Rizzo and multiply them by 5 and that's what the Cubs farm system was a decade ago. They had impact talent ready to contribute at nearly every position. Sometimes I forget how exciting it was to follow the Cubs minor leaguers back then. I hope the Cubs can build something that even resembles that system. Hopefully that system will result in more successes than the one a decade ago did, but it's entirely possible (maybe even likely) that we see similar results.