Cubs farm system plugs some holes during rebuilding season
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org August 9, 2012 11:06PM
Brett Jackson is one of the Cubs’ prospects drafted by Tim Wilken. | Danny Moloshok~AP
Updated: September 11, 2012 1:42PM
Not even the guy who drafted most of these newly minted big leaguers in this Cub summer of sudden youth says they’re ready to be at this level.
“I don’t think ideally you would like as many young guys at a time,’’ said Tim Wilken, the Cubs’ holdover scouting director. “It’s a byproduct of not winning, and rebuilding. But you’ve got to get your feet wet somewhere.’’
That’s wet as in sink-or-swim for still-developing prospects such as Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters and Brooks Raley, all of whom made major-league debuts in the last five days.
While it’s tempting to suggest this points to the Cubs’ future — which they certainly hope it does — the extreme youth movement also points to the Cubs’ past, like it or not.
And while it’s become fashionable on the North Side to jump on the new regime’s criticism of the farm system to assume the cupboard was empty, these Cubs are getting a chance to prove that’s not true.
“These guys got all the tools that you want,’’ manager Dale Sveum said. “These guys can be impact players.’’
That hasn’t exactly been a message delivered by the new front office, with all the talk about restocking a farm system that was thinner in talent — particularly impact talent and especially on the pitching side — than originally thought.
The narrative has been amplified by local media in a worship-the-new, spit-on-the-old school of thought that seems to leave out a significant part of the organization-rebuilding process:
It started in 2006 when Wilken took over the scouting department and slowly began to bear fruit despite several internal obstacles.
It accelerated last year when Ricketts ownership committed a big budget to amateur signings for the first time, allowing Wilken’s staff to spent $12 million to acquire high-upside, tough-to-sign prospects deep in the draft — a practice used by many other organizations for much of the past decade.
Last year’s No. 9 overall pick, infielder Javy Baez, has already advanced two levels at age 19, to high-A Daytona, and is fast becoming one of baseball’s elite prospects.
So if this rough-and-stumble finish to the Cubs’ season amounts to a referendum on Wilken’s drafts, the guy who drafted Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter says he’s willing to let the results play out and speak for themselves.
And despite the criticism of the farm system, the front office doesn’t see it as a reflection of former GM Jim Hendry’s top scout.
“Tim is an outstanding evaluator,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He’s had a remarkable career, and he’s certainly one of the most respected guys in the scouting industry in this game. And we look forward to continuing a really good working relationship with him going forward.’’
Wilken, who is expected to remain a major part of Jason McLeod’s scouting department beyond this year’s contract, took over a department that drafted one big leaguer among its picks in the first five rounds the previous two seasons and whiffed on four consecutive first-rounders.
Since then, he’s had 20 players from his first four drafts make the big leagues — including three of his top four picks in 2006 despite having no picks between Tyler Colvin in the first round and Jeff Samardzija in the fifth.
Until last year, his draft budgets never came close to the top drafting teams in the majors, between the Tribune Co. prioritizing marketing over organization-building and the pressure on the baseball operations department to win-at-all-costs as the championship drought neared 100 years.
Exacerbating the budget issue was the fact the Cubs’ practice of signing free agents cost them enough picks through the compensation process that Wilken had only 28 total draft picks those first four years between rounds 1 and 5 — compared to 46 each for Toronto and San Diego.
“I think we’ve done a good job,’’ Wilken said. “Unfortunately, as you try to rebuild the system you’ve just got to remember the blank years before. It takes awhile.’’