Cubs Top Prospects List Allows You to See What You Want to See

With Friday’s release of FanGraphs’ top 31 Cubs prospects, I’m reminded of what fascinating Rorschach tests these rankings can be. Whether predisposed sour or sanguine, everyone can find something to seize onto. And for those just interested in teasing out some realistic takeaways, even this is possible with a little work.

That’s because the bones of any honest prospect list are informed speculation and weighted favoritism. The speculation comes from guessing how any particular skill set will play at higher levels, and mild favoritism is inevitable for variables like overall draft spot and power arms.

But the biggest challenge for fans of any one team is their limited comparative knowledge of rival farm systems. Take the Arizona Fall League performance of the Cubs’ 2018 first-round draft pick, Nico Hoerner (24th overall). Fans heard such a steady drumbeat of raves this fall about him you’d think he was among the top performers. But alas, he did not make the final all-AFL team.

This doesn’t mean Hoerner had a bad campaign. Given how little professional experience he had going in, perhaps the least of any AFL player this year, finishing among the top third of the league offensively was very respectable. However, most local coverage of Hoerner reported his numbers – nicely inflated by the hot, dry Arizona weather – without noting how much more inflated the numbers of many other hitters were as well.

So comparative context is always key. For instance, FanGraphs’ recent list only ranks Cubs prospects against each other, not – at this point at least – against other organizations. Thus to extract real optimism or pessimism from the evaluations requires a review of rival teams’ prospects and other factors.

This can be done to a limited degree. Consider that the Cubs have three players FanGraphs rates with a Future Value (FV) score of 50: Hoerner, Single-A catcher Miguel Amaya and high-A shortstop Aramis Ademan. What does this mean? Well, FanGraphs rates players on a 20-80 scouting scale across multiple skills, but no one ever scores a perfect 80. For instance, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez both rated 70.

So, no surprise, none of the Cubs current prospects are burgeoning Kris Bryants. But more significant is knowing the other NL Central teams have six prospects rated as either 55s or 60s, with 12 more rated as at least 50. This suggests the Cubs probably still have the weakest farm system in the division. However, the system now bursts with a bulky group of mid-level prospects (40-45 FV) who are at least good for packaging in volume for maybe one good major league piece.

And as with all things prospect, these lists aren’t gospel. A lot of appreciated hard work goes into them, but they remain informed speculation. For instance, consider some of my own ink-blot observations about the FanGraphs Cubs list:

  • Neither of the Cubs’ two 2018 minor league players of the year rank in the Top 31.
  • 21 of the 31 ranked Cubs prospects rate as 40’s. As a benchmark, this includes Alec Mills.
  • Kyle Hendricks never rated well despite consistently exemplary numbers. The winter before his 2014 major-league debut, FanGraphs even ranked him as just the fourth-best pitching prospect in a Cubs system famously thin on pitching talent. See that list here.
  • Hoerner’s FV rating of 50 is actually lower than Dan Vogelbach (55) in 2013 after the burly first baseman’s first full season of A-ball.
  • The system’s current frontrunner for homegrown fifth starter in 2020 didn’t make the list either. That is Duncan Robinson, who, like Hendricks, is an undervalued command pitcher.

None of this means anyone should dismiss the FanGraphs list. At the very least, it and others like it reflect to some degree each player’s relative trade value, which is largely based on each player’s remaining unrealized development ceiling. Thus a potential fifth starter at Triple-A usually has less trade value than a second-round all-potential pitcher from last year’s draft. 

Call it a “we can still dream” mark-up. All of baseball knows this. And like staring at ink blots, everyone is just making their best guesses at what each one really represents.

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