At first glance, the Cubs should be an obvious player in the Roy Halladay sweepstakes. Selected by most to run away with the National League Central, they have instead been treading water this year, with a record consistently around the .500 mark week after week, yet the overall weakness in the division means they’ve remained within striking distance the entire time. Halladay could be the difference for any team in that division, but the dark cloud hanging over the Cubs’ ownership situation and a current owner spending significant time in bankruptcy court likely prevents them from taking on the Toronto ace’s contract. Still, even if everything was hunky-dory when it came to ownership, the failure of the organization in the middle years of the decide would keep the team out of contention in trade talks as it was, as the Cubs have done little to help itself when it comes to scouting and player development.
The Draft: Mistakes with Big Picks and Writing Big Checks
The Cubs’ farm system is poor, especially at the upper levels. That’s because from 2003-2006 the organization had some of the worst drafts around. Taking them one at at time:
2003: With the sixth overall selection in the draft, the Cubs took toolsy high school outfielder Ryan Harvey, who is now with Colorado’s Double-A team after never progressing as expected. Nobody questioned the pick at the time, it’s just one of those that don’t work out… or maybe there is some fault here, but we’ll get back to that in a bit. The only big leaguer they landed in the first five rounds is Jake Fox, who has become a nice bench bat, and they made a nice selection in the sixth-round with lefty Sean Marshall. The big story here is that their having an elite level pick that turned into nothing. The three players selected after Harvey? Nick Markakis, Paul Maholm, and John Danks.
2004: With no first-round pick, the Cubs used their second-round selection on Notre Dame righty Grant Johnson, and they gave him first-round money ($1.26 million) despite the fact that most teams had him as only a second-round talent to begin with. Rarely fully healthy, Johnson had a 4.53 ERA in the minors, and is now pitching in the independent leagues. The rest of the draft was just as big a failure, with no players making a significant impact in the big leagues, although 12th-round pick Sean Gallagher was used to acquire Rich Harden last summer.
2005: An even bigger disaster than 2004, as not a single player selected in 2005 has played in the big leagues for the Cubs, nor will they. Like the Harvey pick two years before, first-round pick Mark Pawelek seemed like a sound selection at the time, but injuries and a lack of effort saw him released this past spring after he had made only two appearances in full-season leagues.
2006: In what is still one of the more inexcusable moves in draft history, the Cubs pulled of a gambit in the 2006 draft that still has other teams scratching their heads. With no second-, third-, or fourth-round picks due to free-agent signings, the Cubs selected Tyler Colvin at 13th overall as a bit of a signability selection, and then put all of their eggs in one basket by taking Notre Dame righty Jeff Samardzija in the fifth. To take Samardzija was one thing, but to smash all draft records by handing him a draft-record $10 million package remains a puzzling move. Yes, he needed to be bought away from pursuing an NFL career, but as an athletic but raw power righty, he was no more than a late first-round player on pure talent, and the premium turned into eight times that. Three years later, he remains an unpolished product who shows flashes of ability, but he has never consistently dominated at any level. As for Colvin, his issues with plate discipline have him stagnating at Double-A. And the rest of the draft? It has produced zero big leaguers, and only a pair of fringy-at-best prospects in catcher Steve Clevenger and righty Chris Huseby, who also received a significantly over-slot first-round bonus, and interestingly enough, shared an agent with Samardzija.
Player Development: The Art of Taking A Pitch
In addition to poorly managed drafts, the Cubs themselves have failed when it comes to development, as four prospects whose tools created sizeable hype failed to live up to expectations. Nearly all of them have one identical issue: a lack of plate discipline.
To go back a bit, 1998 first-round pick Corey Patterson is the poster boy for these problems. One of the best athletes to ever play in the Cubs’ system, Patterson had a monster full-season debut in 1999, batting .320/.358/.592 for Low-A Lansing with 33 stolen bases, and his free-swinging ways were the only thing scouts could point at when it came to finding a weakness in his game. Instead of addressing the issue, the Cubs aggressively pushed Patterson up through the system; he reached the big leagues at the age of 20, was handed a full-time job two years later, and promptly walked all of 19 times in 153 games while recording 142 strikeouts. Things never get better for him from there, and now approaching 30, he’s playing in Triple-A for the Nationals.
Sadly, since then three other highly regarded prospects have followed suit. Ryan Harvey, noted above, initially drew comparisons to Dale Murphy when the Cubs selected him, and while he led the Midwest League in home runs during his full-season debut, his 137/25 K/BB ratio prevented him from hitting for average, and that imbalance was never corrected, leading to his release from the organization prior to the 2009 season. Colvin, the player picked to help set up the Samrdizija debacle, is another top-notch athlete, but he’s now in his fourth pro season, and has yet to draw his 100th career walk.
Finally, there is Felix Pie, once trumpeted as the top prospect in the system as an outstanding ceter fielder with a quick bat, plus-plus speed, and gap power that could project for a bit more down the road. Like Patterson before him, Pie never developed much of an approach, never learned to lay off of breaking balls outside of the strike zone, and pure athleticism alone hasn’t been enough for him to make any impact in the big leagues.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Things certainly are better of late, as scouting director Tim Wilken has brought some respectability back to the Cubs’ recent drafts. The international scouting department, under the direction of Paul Weaver, has made some big breakthroughs, especially in Asia, as the current team in Boise has a pair of Koreans generating significant buzz: shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha. Still, there’s a lot of work left to do to overcome the mistakes of the past, and it’s still not enough to allow them to be major players at the deadline, financial unrest or no… unless they are willing to throw top prospect Josh Vitters, their 2007 first-round selection, on the table, but he would be their only big bargaining chip, let alone their one blue-chip prospect.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .