When it comes to most Cubs front office changes beyond the top guy, I’m generally agnostic. Like with the coaching staff, outside observers usually lack a good line-of-sight into the relationships and key day-to-day decisions to intelligently judge Theo Epstein’s captains and lieutenants.
That includes even GM Jed Hoyer. How many of us really have any sense of how to separate Hoyer’s contributions to the organization from Epstein’s? For example, which one deserves more or less criticism for signing Tyler Chatwood over Miles Mikolas or Jhoulys Chacin?
Or take Evan Altman’s excellent scoop about assistant GM Shiraz Rehman moving onto Texas. I’ve seen Rehman’s name on the front office org chart, but knew little about him. I didn’t know he spent 1½ years as a commodities trader and analyst at Enron (which by itself should be grounds for public shunning). I also didn’t know his seven years with the Cubs “consisted largely of developing the team’s database and coordinating technological efforts to better evaluate players.”
So then can we at least partially blame Rehman for the Chatwood gamble? Beats me. But the one front office position beside Epstein’s about which we can develop a partially informed opinion is Jason McLeod as VP of player development and amateur scouting. Having overseen seven Cubs drafts, McLeod has specific actions and longevity for us to at least critique the results, if not his process. And based on this, I can sincerely say I hope McLeod gets the Giants GM job he interviewed for last week.
Now don’t expect me to argue any extremes here like #McLeodMustGo or claim that he’s Chicago’ worst disaster since Mrs. O’Leary killed the 19th century urban cow fad. To McLeod’s credit, he and the organization did not wildly miss on any of those Top 10 picks during early tanking years. But beyond Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ, the team’s draft results have been way below average even by mercurial draft standards. (For more on Cubs draft philosophy, see this April piece.)
So we can’t completely call the Cubs’ drafting and development under McLeod an “epic fail.” But beyond those four top picks (really just Bryant), I feel “The Big Meh” sounds like a fair description. Consider that outside that quartet, David Bote has been the most successful drafted position player of the Epstein era. On the pitching side, those dubious laurels go to Zack Godley, a 2013 second-round pick who has been decidedly up and down with Arizona since the Miguel Montero deal.
On the international front, Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez definitely count as successful signings, even if they seem nearly as injury-prone as Jorge Soler. But even including those three international acquisitions means McLeod’s unit has produced in seven years just five homegrown players of solid major-league talent outside those very high tanking picks. That’s some pretty thin gruel on which to sustain an organization.
Furthermore, whatever happened to that once super-hyped Dominican academy that opened in 2013 at great cost and with such lofty expectations? We’ve heard little about it since. Plus the Cubs system doesn’t draft and develop speed, contact hitters, or any great defenders, save Almora. In fact, Cubs prospects aren’t known for being especially better at any fundamentals other than working deep counts and maximizing launch angle.
Thus the once grandly touted “Cubs Way” now feels like empty corporate sloganeering. Agree or disagree there, most will acknowledge the Cubs’ minor leagues have fallen short of becoming that “scouting and player development machine” Epstein once promised. In some ways the most disappointing head-scratcher isn’t the lack of homegrown starting pitching or position players outside a top 10 pick. No, this dubious award really goes to the complete absence of quality homegrown relievers.
It’s an amazing absence, as most every organizations have at least a few hard-throwing failed starters who eventually feed into the major league bullpen. Consider the next wave of hard-throwing relievers developed by other contenders, like the Cardinals’ Jordan Hicks, the Brewers’ Josh Hader, the Yankees’ Dellin Bettances, and the Astros’ Josh James. Where’s any Cubs corollary? Nowhere to be found.
Prospect Dakota Mekkes may end up the team’s first true homegrown relief success since Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol debuted in 2006 and ’07. Mekkes (pronounced “meh-kehs”) is not a flame-thrower, but he does consistently post double-digit K rates. He finished the season at Triple-A Iowa with an impressive 1.44 ERA and 11.8 K/9 rate, but the Cubs want him to lower his walk rate (4.9/9 innings in 2018). With continued success, an early first-half call-up in 2019 is possible.
But back to McLeod. Is he the key culprit for this paucity of development success? Or does the “The Big Meh” have multiple sires, inclusive of Epstein and Hoyer? Either way, some new outside voices and energy can only be good at this point for the Cubs farm system. That’s why I applauded the Cubs hiring Jim Benedict from the Marlins after Hurricane Jeter roared through Miami. Since then, Benedict has overseen organizational pitching development as a special assistant to Epstein.
Why wasn’t Benedict simply added to McLeod’s shop? Should we wonder if Benedict is a successor-in-waiting once Epstein’s longtime pal McLeod moves on? We will see. But if the new watch phrase “Production Over Potential” has real meaning, it can only be a win-win for the farm system and major league team if McLeod gets the call to move onto the Giants’ GM gig.