Big Changes In Year One Of Theo Epstein's Tenure With The Chicago Cubs

Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

A year ago, new Cubs President Theo Epstein vowed that he would win a championship "the right way" through player development and a strong farm system. He and Jed Hoyer have planted the seeds down on the farm, but harvest is still a few years away.

I wrote an article back in January that guessed at what changes new Cubs President Theo Epstein would bring to the Cubs player development system. I tried to sum up his philosophy to building a baseball team in one word: "More." So now that we're approaching one year into Epstein's tenure, it's time to look at what changes he and his team have brought to the Cubs scouting and player development system.

One point I made back in January was that Theo Epstein was going to have a much bigger front office than Jim Hendry had run. If you look at the current Front Office Directory at Cubs.com and compare it to one that I found archived on the internet from just before Jim Hendry was fired, you can see that there are a lot more names on the masthead today than there was back in July of 2011. Hendry liked to run a tight ship, but Epstein believes that a larger pool of voices makes him better prepared to make a decision rather than just being more confusing.

Nowhere is that desire to have more voices more evident in his decision to hire Jed Hoyer as Cubs GM. Hoyer had been the top young general manager candidate in the game before San Diego hired him to pilot their ship. While in San Diego, he received mostly positive reviews for turning that small-market organization around, improving their record by 15 games in this first season there. Yes, there was some major regression in his second season, but much of that was a result of dealing his best player, Adrian Gonzalez, whom the small-market Padres couldn't afford, to Boston for Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly and Reymond Fuentes.

That Hoyer would leave San Diego where he was running the show to work under Theo Epstein indicates to me that Epstein's collaborative approach to baseball operations gives a great deal of authority to his new General Manager; so much so that we've come to refer to the Cubs brain trust as "TheoJed" around here. Former acting GM Randy Bush was retained as an Assistant GM and Shiraz Rehman was promoted to the same position, giving the Cubs two AGMs. In addition, Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken was promoted to being Epstein's and Hoyer's Special Assistant and his former job was split among two different people, Joe Bohringer and Jaron Madison. The Cubs seem to have also added a second National Crosschecker, which just goes into the idea that a bigger front office is a better front office. Epstein is confident in his own ability to understand and process all that extra information and opinions.

Now there needs to be some caveats when looking at these mastheads. There have been some people let go. Gary Hughes and Greg Maddux left along with Hendry last season, and most notably Oneri Fleita was fired in August. A week later, the Cubs canned six more scouts, some of whom had been in the Cubs organization for close to two decades. Most of those empty scouting positions are expected to be filled this off-season, however. Additionally, the Cubs fired Manager of Baseball Information Chuck Wasserstrom. The Manager of Statistical Analysis under Hendry, Ari Kaplan, was let go from his full-time job with the team but hired as an independent consultant.

Despite these dismissals, there has actually been a lot of continuation from the Hendry Administration. Some of the people showing up on the current Cubs front office roster are holdovers who either got promoted or got new job titles that put them on the masthead. So while there has been a big expansion of the front office, it might not be quite as radical a change as it might look from the on-line scorecard. In my piece in January, I warned that we shouldn't be trapped into thinking Hendry and Epstein's approach to the game can be summed up as a dichotomous "old school/new school" divide. Are there a lot of differences? There sure are. But baseball is never so cut and dried as that.

Turning to the farm system, the biggest and most controversial change around here is changing the Cubs Single-A farm club affiliation from Peoria to Kane County. This issue has been debated on these pages quite a bit, but this move was not made to hurt the feelings of any Cub fans in Central Illinois. You're not going to hear me say anything bad about the Peoria Chiefs and the job they do down there. They were a great affiliate for many years. But Kane County could offer the Cubs something that Peoria couldn't: "more," as in more access for the front office. With the Cubs affiliate in Geneva, it's going to be possible for Epstein, Hoyer or anyone else in the front office to watch a day game at Wrigley and make it out to Geneva for the first pitch of a night game. Peoria just couldn't offer that. With the Cougars, Epstein will be able to make it out to see the players many more times without neglecting his duties with the major league team. It all comes down to more looks and more eyeballs on the team. In Peoria, they had the manager, the two coaches and maybe a scout, if he wasn't needed at another game. Once in a while, Peoria would get seen by a travelling coordinator. But in Kane County, the front office can get someone at any home game they want with only a few hours notice. The Red Sox had two minor league affiliates less than an hour away from Fenway Park and another one about two hours away. The geography of the minor leagues doesn't make that possible for the Cubs, but getting the Cubs into Kane County (along with the Des Moines) is as close as they're going to get.

The Cubs also installed cameras in the minor league parks that didn't already have them, which were Daytona, Peoria (now Kane County) and the Arizona Rookie League team. With this, the front office could check out what was going on in every home game at least from their offices in Chicago. Maybe not a great look and certainly nothing that would replace having a eyes on the ground, but it is a way of being able to track all six minor league teams at all times.

There are three ways to improve a farm system and the Cubs tried all three. The first, and probably hardest way, is to get the current players in the system to improve. I can't pretend that I understand the mechanics of coaching, but I do know some of the players in the Cubs upper minors did take a step forward this year. The Cubs said that they were emphasizing being selective at the plate: looking for your pitch and if it doesn't come, taking the walk. Two players for the Tennessee Smokies in particular took this advice to heart: Outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha and second baseman Logan Watkins. Ha drew 50 walks in 529 plate appearances this season after having drawn 39 in his previous three years in the minors combined. Watkins had been a reasonably selective in the past, but he took a big step forward with a career-high 76 walks and .383 OBP. Both are better prospects today than they were a year ago.

As disappointing as Josh Vitters' major league season was, he did take a big step forward in Triple-A Iowa. His thirty walks for the I-Cubs may not sound like much, but it was easily a career high for him. Chiefs second baseman Zeke DeVoss led the Midwest League in walks, although he's always been a patient hitter.

A second way to improve the farm system is through the draft and international free agents. The new CBA severely limited the way that Epstein built up the farm system in Boston. There he was able to grab players who had dropped in the draft because of bonus demands and pay overslot bonuses. Additionally, Boston allowed many players to leave via free agency and they loaded up on compensation draft picks. Among the players acquired with these extra draft picks are Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie and Daniel Bard. Not all of these extra draft picks panned out, of course, but the more picks a team has, the more chances they have to get a quality major league player. Those options are mostly closed now.

One area in which the Cubs were actually ahead of the Red Sox was in Latin American scouting. The only real major league player that the Red Sox signed out of Latin America under Epstein was Felix Doubront, although Boston signed shortstop Xander Bogaerts out of Aruba for $410,000 and he looks like he could be an All-Star one day. The Red Sox did spend big on Daisuke Matsuzaka and Cuban defector Jose Iglesias.

Although the new rules mostly prevented Epstein, Hoyer and Tim Wilken from grabbing players who had fallen because of draft demands and paying them overslot bonuses, the Cubs did spend right up to the limit where they would have to forfeit a draft pick. Most of that money went to first-round pick Albert Almora. But the front office did identify a weakness in the system and attacked it with a vengeance on draft day. Looking at the dearth of pitching prospects in the system, the Cubs drafted six straight pitchers after Almora and then took six more pitchers with their next eleven picks. While it's way too early to have any judgement on the wisdom, Pierce Johnson has looked good in limited action.

But the biggest place the Cubs made a splash was with international signings. The Cubs signed two high-profile Cubans, outfielder Jorge Soler and pitcher Gerardo Concepcion. Both signings came before the new limits on signing bonuses went into effect and in the case of Soler, essentially gave the Cubs that extra first round draft pick that Epstein loved so much in Boston. (In the case of Concepcion, let's just say it's an extra draft pick from a much lower round so far.)

In the Dominican Republic, the Cubs retained their top scout Jose Serra, who has worked for the Cubs since 1995 and signed current Cubs players Starlin Castro, Carlos Marmol, Welington Castillo and Rafael Dolis. They made a pretty traditional signing when they inked shortstop Frandy De La Rosa for $700,000. But then the Cubs went completely off-the-board by giving right-handed pitcher Juan Paniagua a $1.5 million bonus, after he had been suspended twice for false documentation. While Paniagua only pitched 3.2 innings in the regular season and one appearance in the the playoffs, the early reports on his stuff have been outstanding.

Without question the draft and international signings of Soler and Paniagua would have greatly improved the Cubs system just by themselves. But the front office took a third approach to building the system, which is through trades. In a sense, Epstein and Hoyer used free agency to grab their biggest haul, getting Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman from the Braves for Paul Maholm, whom they had signed as a free agent last off season. (Holdover Reed Johnson also went to Atlanta in the deal.) Vizcaino entered the season as the Braves #2 prospect according to Baseball America before he underwent Tommy John Surgery at the beginning of the year. There is definitely some risk involved because while Tommy John Surgery has an excellent recovery rate, it's not 100% assured that he'll return to what he was before going under the knife. But had he been healthy, the Braves would never have parted with him. But essentially, Epstein and Hoyer made a low-profile free agent acquisition and flipped him for someone who is now the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system.

The other big prospect to come over to the Cubs by trade came from Texas in the Ryan Dempster deal. The details of that deal are well-known and have been much-discussed around here and I have no desire to rehash them again. But in the end, the Cubs got a top ten prospect in Christian Villanueva. In his short time in the Cubs system, Villanueva demonstrated that he's got a slick glove, a solid bat with a decent eye and moderate power.

Even though Villanueva is a good third base prospect that the Cubs got for two months of Dempster, there's been some teeth-gnashing among the Cubs fan base over him, because he plays the same position as his Daytona teammate Javier Baez , or at least the same position that they have projected for him in the majors. (If Baez sticks at shortstop, then he runs into Starlin Castro.) Similarly, there's been a lot of questions, and not just around here, about Dan Vogelbach moving to a different position because he's "blocked" by Anthony Rizzo. This isn't something unique to Epstein, but these are not things he's worrying about. Third base has been a problem for the Cubs, and the more options they have there, the better. Not all prospects pan out and if both Baez and Villanueva do, and the Cubs don't want to move Castro to second base, then one of them will make a tasty trade treat. Similarly, Vogelbach is at least three years away. Rizzo could get hurt or he just fail to develop any further. Vogelbach could turn out to be the next Brian Dopirak. Someone can get moved if they both develop into great ballplayers.

Instead of worrying that the Cubs have too many corner infielders, start worrying that they don't have "more" corner infielders. Having two good prospects there is good. Having three is better.

The Cubs system got a huge influx of talent the past season. By my count, six of the Cubs top ten prospects have been acquired since Epstein was hired: Almora, Soler, Vizcaino, Paniagua, Villanueva and Johnson. It is true that there is normally a lot of turnover in a top ten prospects list, but the number of players who were not in the organization a year ago is remarkable.

Looking forward, I'm expecting "more" of the same. Players like Soler and Paniagua aren't available every year, but when they do pop up, I'm expecting Epstein to find creative ways to sign them despite the international spending cap. The Cubs have the second pick in the draft next season. I fully expect them to take one of the three big pitchers (Appel, Stanek or Manaea), as pitching is still a weak spot in the system and the draft is expected to be strongest in college pitching. (Of course, these things are subject to change.) It will be interesting to see if they try to see who would sign for under slot, which would allow them to spend more money on later picks. I would expect that if all three are roughly equal in their eyes, they will go with the one willing to take the least amount of money to give them more flexibility later. If one is clearly stronger than the other two (or one if Houston grabs a pitcher), I don't think they'll hesitate to take him and pay the maximum bonus allowed, like they did with Almora this season.

Unfortunately, there are no soon-to-be free agents on the Cubs that would give the Cubs and extra draft pick if they were to sign elsewhere.

Epstein will certainly be looking to deal more players for more young prospects, with Matt Garza being the most likely possibility, but David DeJesus and Carlos Marmol might also bring back top prospects.. All three will be eligible for free agency after next season. I would also look for a Paul Maholm-type free agent signing that could be flipped for even more prospects.

Unfortunately, none of this bodes well for next season. Not to rehash the debate in Al's post yesterday, but the Cubs do not have a core that can compete for a world championship yet. By my estimation, there are three players currently in the majors that can be a major part of the next Cubs Championship: Starlin Castro, Jeff Samardzija and Anthony Rizzo. The jury is still out on Brett Jackson, Welington Castillo and Josh Vitters.

But the bulk of the talent right now is in the low minors. Epstein said after the season that the Boise Hawks team was able to start a legitimate prospect at all ten positions for their final game of the year and that's rare. It's also true. The Boise Hawks were loaded with talent. The same cannot be said of the Iowa Cubs or the Tennessee Smokies, unfortunately. Realistically, the bulk of that Boise talent won't be in the majors until 2016, although some of it could be traded before then for more immediate contributors if the situation called for it. Hopefully the Cubs will be able to compete before 2016 and if they do, then this Boise talent could put the team over the top through trades.

Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs front office have undertaken a massive overhaul of the whole system of player acquisition and minor league development. It's actually quite impressive how far they've come in only one short year in turning the system around. But this isn't a quick fix for the major league team. Rather, it's the seed from which the major league team grows. While I know that no one around here wants to hear the word "patience," unfortunately that's the only answer to the Cubs woes right now.

But make no mistake: the seeds have been planted in fertile soil.

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