Cubs' bad crops on the farm

As the curtain begins to fallon his second year of ownership of the Chicago Cubs, team chairman Tom Ricketts has surely seen enough at Wrigley Field to know what he does not want this franchise to look like moving forward. So, while the Cubs took to the road and earned their first series sweep of the season against the suddenly struggling Pirates, Ricketts took the opportunity to take a road trip of his own.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday in Peoria, Ill., home of the Cubs’ Low-A affiliate, Ricketts outlined a future for the franchise that would rely heavily on developing players from within their system. He stated quite simply, “We want to be known as a team that drafts and develops players better than the other teams.”

On the surface, this announcement would appear to be good news for current general manager Jim Hendry. Hendry made a name for himself as the Cubs’ director of player personnel in the late ’90s when he built the team’s system into one of the best in baseball. However, in the decade since taking over as GM in July of 2002, the Cubs’ player development system has taken a dive. Few players brought into the organization in the past 10 years have made an impact at the big-league level.

When Hendry took the reins of the Cubs, the minor league organization that he had spent the previous seven years developing was heralded by Baseball America as the top system in all of baseball. The publication has been much less bullish in the time since. The Baseball America preseason rankings for the past 10 years show that a once-strong foundation has tumbled to middle of the pack, at best, during Hendry’s time as GM:

•2002: #1

•2003: #3

•2004: #7

•2005: #10

•2006: #15

•2007: #18

•2008: #20

•2009: #27

•2010: #15

•2011: #16

The decline reflected in the Cubs’ organizational rankings during Hendry’s run as GM has been mirrored by an inability to identify superstar talent at the top of the draft. From 2002 onward, the Cubs have drafted 13 players in the first round (including supplemental first-rounders). Each of the four players selected by the team in the first round of the 2002 draft are out of professional baseball.

Of Hendry’s more recent first-round selections, only Tyler Colvin (first round, ’06) and Andrew Cashner (first round, ’08) have made it to Chicago. Both made great impressions while seeing their first extended action in the bigs in 2010: Colvin hit .254/.316/.500 with 20 home runs in 358 at-bats, but has been awful in ’11 (.129/.190/.276). Cashner looked impressive at times a season ago, but pitched just 5 1/3 innings this season before being shut down with shoulder pain. Of the remaining top picks, the highlights are Josh Vitters (first round, ’07), who is still touted as the heir-apparent to Aramis Ramirez at third base but has yet to ascend past Double-A, and center fielder Brett Jackson (1st round, ’09) who has looked strong in his first 20 games in Triple-A.

Including Colvin, just nine home-grown players who entered the system since Hendry’s first season as GM are currently on the Cubs’ active 25-man roster. Of these players, only Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto and possibly Darwin Barney appear to have a starting position locked up for the foreseeable future.

In short, during Hendry’s tenure he has overseen a near complete erosion of the system that he was so instrumental in building up as the organization’s director of player personnel. If the Cubs are truly going to be a team that becomes successful through developing talent from within as Ricketts has declared, perhaps the owner’s best move would be to recall his GM back to the minors in a role where he’s best suited for success.

Dustin Godsey writes for the View From the Bleachers blog of the SweetSpot network.