With the offseason now in full swing, Al and I enjoyed what I can only describe as my ideal type of conversation: heated, passionate, informed, critical, and respectful. The topic: the Cubs prospects.
Avid BCB readers and Cubs fans have a sense of the 40-man roster as it stands today as well as a good feeling for the team's possibilities in free agency. There's lots of cash to spend, there are some big pitchers on the market, and the Russell Martin interest has hit the airwaves.
But before the offseason noise reaches a deafening level, let's take a moment to address what is a real pet peeve of mine. There is a general sense that most prospects fail. This is, of course, correct. The overwhelming majority of minor league players never get all that close to the majors, and even many first-round picks don't put on a big-league uniform.
As of this past summer, some folks have suggested that should the Cubs get two or three major leaguers out of their top prospects, they'd be doing just fine. The same argument suggests that the odds of the Cubs nabbing even one All-Star out of their prospect gaggle would be an excellent showing.
That's horse pucky, in my view.
To set the scene: in July 2014, the Cubs had seven prospects who could reasonably be considered to be among their group of "top prospects," however you want to define that term. In alphabetical order, we're talking about Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler.
I want to push back against the common notion that the Cubs shouldn't expect these players to make it and have meaningful careers. I think that Cubs fans should take the over on 6.5 of these players having MLB careers with Almora the only player who isn't a near-lock to "make it;" the dig on Almora is primarily my own knock on his future. I just don't believe in Albert's on-base ability, so I'm still waiting for him to prove me wrong.
Anyway, there are three different reasons for reasonably expecting a couple of All-Stars, something like three or four average regulars, and one or two players who scuffle through a few years of marginal, even replacement-level production despite impressive tools. The disconnect between the commonly accepted notions and my own thoughts comes from one simple problem: people who knock the prospect collection use the wrong peer group. It shouldn't be all prospects; it should be the actual peers of these prospects.
The Top Position Player from His Draft Class Almost Always Has a Meaningful Career
This category addresses Kris Bryant (2013) and Kyle Schwarber (2014), the top non-pitchers drafted in their respective draft classes. Baseball history is abundantly clear on the top position player from his draft class: from 1980-2012, the top position player from his draft class always makes it to the Show. Always. The last player who fits this criteria to spend fewer than five years playing in the majors was Al Chambers in 1979.
The careers for the top position player drafted in his class range from the generally useful careers of Shawon Dunston (1982), Tyler Houston (1989), and Phil Nevin (1992) to the Hall of Fame careers of Ken Griffey, Jr. (1987), Alex Rodriguez (1993 - whoops, 'roids), and Evan Longoria (2006).
For that matter, these players arrive very quickly. From 2003-2012, among the group of Rickie Weeks, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Evan Longoria, Matt Wieters, Pedro Alvarez, Dustin Ackley, Christian Colon, Anthony Rendon, and Mike Zunino, only Colon required more than 1,012 plate appearances between minor league games and the Arizona Fall League prior to sticking in the Majors. Kris Bryant is 180 plate appearances short of that mark; I think we'll all be surprised if Bryant surpasses 1,000 plate appearances before making it to Chicago.
Schwarber has 311 plate appearances thus far as a professional. If he requires about 1,000 plate appearances of development -- a reasonable number given his need to develop his defensive game -- Schwarber figures to arrive in Chicago in early 2016.
Regardless, either Bryant or Schwarber not having a multi-year big-league career would be a truly historic failure not just for the Cubs but for all of baseball. They won't necessarily evolve into stars: for every Gordon there's a Butler, for every Longoria there's an Ackley. They should be expected to spend the better part of a decade in the Majors because that's just what happens with this caliber of player.
Top-Ten Overall Prospects Have an Exceptionally High Rate of Turning Into Above-Average Regulars and Very, Very Rarely Bust Completely
Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell all found themselves in the top-ten of the Baseball Prospectus Midseason Top 50 this year. Position players ranked in the top ten of BP's list, well, I'll just show you the list over a selection of the past few years:
2008: Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Travis Snider, Colby Rasmus, and Cameron Maybin
2010: Jason Heyward, Jesus Montero, Giancarlo Stanton, Pedro Alvarez, Desmond Jennings, Carlos Santana, and Buster Posey
2012: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Jurickson Profar, Jesus Montero, and Manny Machado
Montero and Snider are easily the two worst players among those groups. Montero is a cautionary tale in that he ate himself out of relevance. Snider has been a bust...except that he's still just 26, he just finished a really solid .264/.338/.438 year for the Pirates and he has 1,706 major-league plate appearances under his belt. It goes without saying that Longoria, Heyward, Stanton, Posey, Harper, Trout, and Machado all have the superstar skill sets, and at least some of them have the MLB production to match. Regardless, these lists are full of MLB stars and regulars. That's about it. The future bodes well for Bryant, Baez, and Russell.
The Other Three Guys Are Hardly Scrubs
Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler aren't mid-round picks in the draft or 16-year-old Latin American prospects with a decade of development staring them in the face. Alcantara ranked 18th on the BP Midseason list, Soler ranked 45th on the preseason list (he was unranked at midseason primarily due to injury), and Almora ranked 25th preseason (18th preseason in 2013). These guys aren't ranked as top prospects in the Cubs system; they're ranked as top prospects in all of baseball. The success rate on top-50 prospects is, unsurprisingly, less secure than that of top-ten guys, but it is still overwhelmingly strong. The higher-level guys on top-50 lists almost exclusively spend many years in the majors and many stars are found among the group.
Additionally and very obviously, Alcantara and Soler have already made it to Chicago. Alcantara has 300 MLB plate appearances under his belt through his age-22 season while Soler has 97 of his own, also through his age-22 year. Both showed big-time flashes -- Alcantara with his glove and speed, Soler with his power and batting average -- even though both have plenty of development to go.
As I've noted, Almora is the one guy with a real shot to flame out before reaching the top level, although even his poor showing at Daytona and implausible 1.4% walk rate at Tennessee couldn't keep the folks at Fangraphs from slapping a 55 grade on him with only medium risk. Almora's glove will keep him relevant as he attempts to develop his offensive game. I was very impressed with his swing and his physicality last spring; hopefully that portends future success.
Look at the Collective
Alcantara, Baez, and Soler have all made it to Chicago already. The idea that the prospect core would produce only two big leaguers is already wrong. Bryant will be there a few weeks into 2015. The preceding 34 draft classes suggest that Schwarber will make it either late in 2015 or early in 2016. Russell is already done with Double-A through his age-20 season where he posted a monster .302/.355/.529 batting line with an excellent shortstop glove. Almora has a lot of work to do, although reaching Double-A as a 20-year-old combined with still-strong scouting reports suggest that he's more on track than his numbers might indicate.
No matter. The point is this: it isn't just that it's reasonable to expect the Cubs prospect core to produce more than a few major leaguers; it's actually unreasonable to expect anything less than five of these players to make it to the Majors and have meaningful careers. It's more reasonable to expect six of them to have such careers, and the odds of all seven spending at least a few years in the majors is very high given the history of comparable prospects.
For that matter, the odds suggest that a pair of these prospects will turn into All-Star players while at least three more will amass thousands of plate appearances as average regulars.
Things happen. If being a Cubs fan has taught us anything, it's that sometimes can't miss players miss. As Oscar Taveras heartbreakingly reminded us last month, life itself can pass in a moment. There are no guarantees.
Caveats aside, history is a strong guide. Most prospects amount to nothing. But most premium prospects amount to quite a bit in baseball, even if some part of their game prevents them from reaching an elite ceiling.
We've been burned so many times before. But it's okay to hope, believe, and even expect success from this group as a whole.
One other thing: these guys won't be added to a completely empty expansion roster. The Cubs happen to have a pair of 25-year-old All-Stars in the fold through the end of the decade too.
Expect the offensive juggernaut, Cubs fans. Baseball history tells us to do so.