Albert Almora has had a great start to 2016, last night he blasted his first home run of the season. Just stay healthy, Albert.
It’s finally here, 2015 Spring Training, ignore the negative twenty-five wind chills outside, it’s baseball season. The talk over the last few years heading into spring training has been how good the Cubs prospects are, and eventually the Cubs will compete with said prospects. This year publications still love the Cubs when it comes to prospects (Kris Bryant was just named the number one prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America), but the major league team is finally ready to take the next step. But before we get too far into that I want to talk about a Cubs prospect that is one of my personal favorites, but doesn’t get too much pub yet, Paul Blackburn.
Blackburn is in the group that I would consider the second wave of prospects, which means one of two things. He either steps onto a Cubs team that is already competing (2017), or he is traded in a package to improve an already competitive team anywhere from this season through the 2016 off-season. Either way I think that Blackburn can, and will be an effective major league starter, I just hope it’s with the Cubs.
The Cubs drafted Blackburn in the 1st round (supplemental round) of the 2012 amateur draft, number 56 overall out of Heritage High School in Brentwood, CA. Wasting no time, the Cubs and Blackburn struck a deal, and Pauly was pitching in Arizona for the Cubs AZL team. It was the end of a long calendar year, but Blackburn handled himself quite well in an offensively heavy league. Blackburn tossed 20.2 innings, and finished the season with an ERA of 3.48, and a FIP of 5.39, obviously that last number is a little high. The following season with Boise was trying for Blackburn as his innings were limited, and his command disappeared. My guess is he was trying to miss too many bats, probably due to the fact that his BABIP was .313 in 2012, bad luck, so he tried to limit contact, just my opinion. On one hand the strikeouts escalated from 5.66 K/9 in 2012 to 7.43 K/9, but so did the walks, which was uncharacteristic. In 2012 Blackburn had a BB/9 rate of 3.05, that went all the way up to 5.67 BB/9 in his 46 innings of work in 2013. With all that happening his advanced stats got better, the BABIP went down to .288, and his FIP went down to 4.47, more strikeouts, more walks, but less long balls.
With only 65+ professional innings under his belt Blackburn took his talents to Kane County for the 2014 season, and broke out. Blackburn was a key cog in one of the best minor league teams that I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the best rotations. The command came roaring back, Blackburn could put the ball where he wanted without hesitation again. The strikeouts went back to 2012 levels, but the walk rate plummeted to 2.38 per nine innings, the FIP followed suit, dropping to 3.84, a career best. The most impressive thing about Blackburn was his ability to bounce back from a year in which he probably learned a lot about himself as a pitcher. As Jonathan Mayo points out in his 2015 prospect rankings (Blackburn 15th in Cubs system), Blackburn probably has the best combo of stuff and feel in the system. He knows how to pitch, kind of like Kyle Hendricks, and has the same type of ground ball stuff but with a little more consistent velocity. Expect Blackburn to get time at High-A Myrtle Beach this year, and possibly Double-A Tennessee. I’m excited about the type of pitcher, and person that Pauly is, you should be too.
When Theo Epstein came on board this off-season one story he told really stuck with me. It was when Theo was with Boston in 2011, and it was during the 2011 first year player draft. As the rounds flew by, Theo remarked in the war room that the Cubs finally “got it” in regards to the players that they were drafting. On one hand it’s a sobering statement considering I’ve been a fan of a team that was viewed by other teams as basically incompetent when it came to drafting and building a strong farm system. On the other hand it might have been the first time that Theo had the thought of joining the Cubs to see this process through. I didn’t like a lot of what Jim Hendry and company did here in Chicago, but there were some positives, and the 2011 draft class is one of them. That draft class signaled the change in philosophy for the Cubs, and Theo has assumed control and the responsibility of making sure that the organizational depth gets better each year.
The reason I’m writing about this today, or at least the article that prompted me to put my thoughts out here today, is from Jim Callis of Baseball America. If you don’t read Baseball America, or Jim’s work I highly suggest you do as he is a tremendous prospects resource. Any way, a couple of weeks back he published BA’s top 50 midesason prospects list which featured Javier Baez coming in at 25th overall (2011 1st round draft pick). Jim followed up that list with a new midseason prospect report that includes where some of the 2012 draft picks would be ranked. All any Cubs fan has to do is take a look at this list to see the impact of Theo Epstein so far.
#25 – Javier Baez (2011 – 1st Round Pick) – Hendry
#31-32 – Albert Almora (2012 – 2nd Round Pick) – Theo
#36-37 – Jorge Soler (2012 – FA Signing) – Theo
Just like that the Cubs have three players in the top 40, two of which have yet to pick up a bat in a game as a professional. By the end of the year these players could be higher, and there could be even more players on the list. This list doesn’t include Anthony Rizzo who was called up in late June, but he would have been a top 10, maybe top 5 prospect at this point. Instead he has stabilized a Cubs team that was in a free fall to the tune of a 12-4 record since June 25th.
The one thing that is clearly lacking from an improved Cubs system is not only pitching depth, but impact, power arms. Enter the trade deadline, and Theo’s next test. The Cubs have a countless number of players that can and most likely will be traded by July 31st. With these trades hopefully comes some of that pitching depth that has been absent from the Cubs system forever. The 2012 draft, which we will expand on very soon, brought in a number of quality, yet unproven arms, at least at a professional level. If just a couple of those pitchers take big steps and Theo hits big on the impending trades then we might be talking about a top 10, maybe even top 5 farm system by this time next year.
Thanks for reading,