On Twitter and elsewhere, I often get asked a line of questioning regarding the draft. Will this draft be a point where the Cubs get back to a top-half pipeline? Won't it help that Cristian Hernandez, a likely international signing next month, is highly rated? Shouldn't he help, along with the internationals from the last cycle? As much as I'd like to agree and rev the Cubs pipeline hype train, the answer is a conditional "no."
The teams to attempt to catch up with are the ones that seemingly manufacture players other teams covet on the fly. The Dodgers and Rays have gotten good at it. The Padres and Braves are a bit shy of them, but not by much. If the Cubs are going to have an envied pipeline, the players they bring up ought to be the players fans of other teams want to acquire. Like when Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber and others arrived in a similar time frame.
The Cubs have very few offensive answers in the upper-minors. This applies even more if you consider Nico Hoerner a big league player. The pitching in Iowa looks rather good, but it must manifest more regularly at the big-league level for experts to buy in. Robel Garcia is a nice story, but the national talent assessors won't heed his efforts until he's getting 500 good at-bats per season. The same applies for David Bote.
Other teams are bringing solid regulars up from Triple-A. That's the expectation. The Braves send Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. at you in a series, and the Nationals Juan Soto and Victor Robles with regularity. The Mets show you Jeff McNeil and Pete Alonso. Do that, and your system gets credit.
The Cubs have eight or ten pitchers who "might." Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, and Pedro Martinez (not the pitcher, this guy) intrigue, but have no hits beyond the Midwest League, and Martinez hasn't played there.
For the Cubs to get into the top half of pipelines, they almost need to have players dominating at the top two affiliate levels. The Rays’ Double-A affiliate in Montgomery (the Biscuits) has toyed with the Tennessee Smokies for about the last decade. The Biscuits have been so much better for so long, it isn't a rivalry. Tampa Bay has players at all levels and all positions, looking to do damage. Meanwhile, Cubs fans are prone to the "but what about (insert player here)?" Having a player is useful, but the Rays usually have five or six guys well outperforming a level at each time.
The draft is always important. This one isn't any more or less than any other year. The Cubs ought to get a really good player at 16, but a dozen players will be "out of the gate" far better. The Cubs, to catch up to the to first 15 or top 12, have to out-execute other teams. Their incoming talent won't likely be "better enough" to leapfrog enough teams to merit a higher placement. Beating the Biscuits won't be enough.
To start to climb past the more talented systems, what has to happen is a transfiguration that took place at the big league level in 2015 and 2016. Fans of other systems, from the Rays to the Dodgers, and other good systems have to make the following assessment on their own without being nudged. "This Cubs system is filthy dangerous. They're going to be really good in a few years."
If pipeline assessors, or general fans of the other 29 pipelines start to say that, the Cubs are gaining. If they have glaring weaknesses in Iowa and Tennessee, that's unlikely to be said. After all, the upper minors is where the real prospects earn their shine.
Supporting a team is wonderful. Supporting the players on those teams is, as well. However, to make a valid case for a top-shelf placement, a degree of success, high-end and flashy success, helps immensely. Kris Bryant was obviously ready. So was Willson Contreras, and so was Javier Baez. When a player is ready to be given a chance, he screams it without saying a word. Kind of like Kyle Hendricks in Triple-A. Some are brought up to MLB because "Why not? We've got to try something." Those players are usually returned rather quickly.
If IFA signing Ronnier Quintero is better than his level, we'll know, perhaps next year. The same scenario applies for the pick at 16. However, the catching up starts when the pipeline starts mauling the opposition like in July and August 2014. Until then, the Cubs are likely a somewhat undervalued 21, or an adequately valued 19. Until the hounds are released, they're ordinary.