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To compete with Cards, Cubs have to strike gold deep in the draft

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Updated: May 14, 2014 6:32AM



ST. LOUIS — The Cubs are not shy about pointing out how popular their farm system has become with the baseball trade publications.

Their system is ranked anywhere from second to fourth heading toward the 2014 draft, depending on the outlet.

But just how much of that is a reflection of the player-development “machine” team president Theo Epstein talked about building when he took over the baseball operations in the fall of 2011?

And how much of it is a function of having a $30 million Cuban free agent in the system and of being so bad in recent years that they’ve had single-digit overall picks in the last three drafts?

The short answer is it’s far too early to tell just how good the new regime is at player development. And how well Javy Baez and Kris Bryant eventually perform in the big leagues will tell only part of the story.

“Anybody can pick out a No. 1 selection and think that’s a great deal,” ex-Cubs general manager Dallas Green said during a recent conversation. “But you make 30 or 40 selections [in a draft], and three or four of those guys have gotta play. They’ve gotta be good players along the way. That’s what scouting is all about.

“You can’t take 40 or 50 kids [each draft] and not have the 30th selection be a good player somewhere along the line.”

That’s where a team such as the Cardinals will hold a decided edge on the Cubs until Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and their scouting and minor-league staffs prove they can hang with their division rivals and the other big boys on baseball’s player-development block.

And with so little money coming into the baseball department these days relative to the revenues and market size, it has never been more critical to the Cubs creating big-league success again.

And they know it.

“We always talk in the draft room about how you obviously can’t miss on your first-round picks,” Hoyer said. “You’ve got to really nail those because that’s where you get your impact talent. But the ability to get key contributors late in the draft, that’s really the mark of a good draft and of good scouting. The Cardinals obviously have done a great job of that.”

Baez, Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and C.J. Edwards are getting the attention, the pressure and the kinds of high marks that have elevated the Cubs in the farm-system rankings.

But until the Cubs develop an eighth-round All-Star (like the Cards’ Allen Craig), a 13th-round All-Star (Matt Carpenter), a 21st-round closer (Trevor Rosenthal) or a 23rd-round cleanup hitter (Matt Adams), the Epstein-Hoyer rebuilding job won’t be complete.

And it’ll be hard-pressed to catch up to an already well-oiled Cardinals development machine, which would again put the onus, as in years past, on significantly outspending their mid-market rivals to compete.

“The success of our system is that we have every-day major-league players [acquired in the middle and late rounds],” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. “That’s giving us the ability to really have more sustainability because of the fact that we’re not picking in that top 10 every year.”

The Cardinals haven’t had a single-digit overall draft pick in 16 years, and they’ve had only 10 in what will be 50 June drafts this year.

Yet they had the top-ranked farm system, according to most analysts, as recently as last season.

“You need to hit all over the place because all the [No.] 1s aren’t going to hit,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who became one of those first-round disappointments after being drafted ninth overall in 1975. “All the 3s aren’t going to hit. You’d like to think that all the $20 million players that you hire from the outside the organization [will succeed], but they don’t all hit. And you know that going in.”

That’s the reason Cubs brass always talks about volume in the minors. That’s why they’ll spend a lot more man hours on their 45th overall pick — and the 39 picks that come after that — than their fourth overall pick.

“To be an impact organization,” Hoyer said, “you have to hit on those [later] guys and develop them.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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