Pierce Johnson is, by all accounts, a pretty good pitcher. Last year, Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 83rd best prospect in baseball. He was also the only pitcher the Cubs placed on that list (they had a total of seven players make the list in 2015).
And while that certainly means something (and I’m not here to pick on Johnson!), let’s put it into perspective by looking at the other players from last year’s list:
- Addison Russell (who was also part of that same 2012 draft class and was ranked the second-best prospect in all of baseball last year) is now the starting shortstop for the Cubs.
- Kris Bryant was drafted the year after Johnson, and he’s currently the starting third baseman.
- Next up was Jorge Soler (signed out of Cubs, also in 2012), who is the starting right fielder.
- Albert Almora followed him and while he’s still in the minors, the Cubs are very high on him (he’s actually the 83rd best prospect on this year’s list).
- Kyle Schwarber, who was drafted two years after Johnson, is the starting left fielder (and backup catcher).
- Billy McKinney was next on the list, and he climbed up from 81 last year to 74 this year.
- And finally we get to Johnson at number 83, who will likely start the season at triple-A.
Now let’s take a look at this year’s Top 101 list. As Nate Greabe wrote today, the Cubs placed six players on the list—an impressive feat considering they graduated four guys to the major leagues last year. And as Nate mentioned in his piece, there were exactly zero pitchers on that list.
Pierce Johnson’s stock, it appears, is falling. Though I’m here to tell you that it’s less about Johnson and more about the position he plays.
Because I’m not here to pick on Johnson. I’m hoping he continues to develop, maybe gets a spot start here and there, and sets himself up to compete for a spot in the rotation next year. After all, it would be nice to have a young, cost-controlled starter in the rotation instead of having to sign free agent after free agent or give up a bunch of prospects to do it (right, Arizona?). And while he did pitch well last season, injuries have limited his progress.
You see, the Cubs’ draft philosophy over the past few years has been to focus on bats that can climb quickly rather than taking pitchers and their propensity for injury (and just plain lack ineffectiveness).
This is not news. If you want an in-depth take on the Cubs’ strategy, give Rany Jazayerli’s classic piece a read. Batters don’t get hurt as often as pitchers do, and it’s much harder to project what a young pitcher will do versus a young hitter. In an era where offense is down, the Cubs are stockpiling some of the best bats in the world and de-emphasizing pitching prospects. It took Schwarber a year and six days from the day he signed to making his major-league debut—and that just doesn’t happen with pitchers (all you Mike Leake fans just settle down).
OK, so now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at what the 2016 list says about this strategy and if it’s still in effect. Major-league teams have to keep evolving and adapting, right? They can’t just put the same strategy in play year after year—can they?
First of all, only one team (the Rockies) placed more players on this list (seven) than the Cubs, who tied with the Braves, Dodgers, Phillies, and Pirates (all with six). What that tells you is that despite graduating all those quality players, the Cubs’ farm system is in great shape.
Among teams placing at least four prospects on the list, the Cubs are the only squad with zero pitchers. The Dodgers, by contrast, have four pitchers out of their six players listed. Times sure are different in L.A.
But never fear; notice, instead, how flexible the Cubs’ prospects are. Gleyber Torres is a shortstop, and as Russell, Starlin Castro, and Javier Baez have shown, shortstops are athletic enough to play anywhere if needed. Willson Contreras, who is very clearly going to be a catcher, is listed as a dual third-baseman/catcher. So if his framing never comes around and the front office doesn’t want him catching, he could potentially play elsewhere. Ian Happ played in the outfield last season but will apparently transition to second base on a full-time basis.
The Cubs seem to be particularly skilled at drafting, developing, and graduating very good position players that are capable of playing multiple positions, allowing for flexibility in both how fast they get to the Major Leagues and in what positions they ultimately wind up playing.
That last sentence is something you could’ve written last year as well, and it shows that this core philosophy is still in place today. And it still appears to be effective.
While we’ve heard about some of the high-upside pitchers in the lower minors (guys like Dylan Cease, Carson Sands, and Justin Steele), they’re still not good enough or advanced enough to break into the top 101. That might change next year as the front office alters their plan according to whatever talent is available and how other teams are valuing said talent, but for now they appear content stockpiling bats that can contribute sooner rather than later.
Now that the offensive side of the major-league roster appears set for the foreseeable future, they can use their surplus of offensive minor-league talent to trade for those talented pitching prospects that managed to blossom, avoid injury, and actually become major-league pitchers.
But those other teams can’t keep allowing the Cubs to exploit them like that, can they? We’ll find out when next year’s top 101 hits the wires.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports.