When Geovany Soto parlayed a 2007 breakout season in Triple-A with the Rookie of the Year award in 2008, it appeared the Cubs tortured recent history with position prospects might be coming to an end. Soto (and to a lesser extent, Ryan Theriot) was destined as pay-back for the many disappointments: Corey Patterson, Felix Pie, Brian Dopirak, and more. But nothing comes easy to this organization, as Soto turned 3% of his line drives into ground balls from 2008 to 2009, and saw his BABIP drop 86 points as a result. Soto’s true value is probably somewhere in between, and even a sustained 3 WAR pace going forward would make him the Cubs best farm-produced player since Carlos Zambrano.
This bad streak is destined to change soon, as Cubs fans will soon see the benefits of employing revered scouting director Tim Wilken. The director made a controversial splash in his 2006 draft debut with the Cubs, “skimping” on Tyler Colvin in the first round to save money for Jeff Samardzija’s record-breaking fifth round bonus. But Wilken has been more by-the-book since, with first round picks Josh Vitters (2007), Andrew Cashner (2008) and Brett Jackson (2009) representing three of the team’s top five prospects. This consistency on the domestic front will blend well with an international scouting department responsible for producing Soto, Zambrano, Carlos Marmol, and now top prospect Starlin Castro. The success extends to the Asian rim, where Derrek Lee’s father has built a foundation that helped produce Castro’s potential future double play partner, Hak-Ju Lee.
The prospect of a homegrown left side is both very real and very exciting for Cubs fans, so much so that some have called for Castro’s Major League debut as early as Opening Day 2010. That won’t happen, but there have been indications that Jim Hendry has talked with Theriot about moving to the keystone eventually. Castro still has a ways to go to meet his potential, but scouts have commented positively on all five of his tools this offseason. As for Vitters, his timetable coincides nicely with that of Aramis Ramirez, who should not be counting on his 2012 team option to be picked up (the Cubs will use a one-year stopgap if Ramirez turns down his $14.6 player option for ’11). They’ll need the discount, however: Alfonso Soriano will be making $18 million through 2014.
Besides Soriano, most of the money the Cubs have committed will come off the books following the 2011 season. Ted Lilly will come off the books following this season, where he could be replaced by one of the Cubs three solid pitching prospects: Cashner, Jay Jackson and Chris Carpenter. Another should take over the fifth slot in the rotation — as early as this All-Star Break, in fact — so the Cubs threaten to open 2011 with four homegrown starters: Zambrano, Randy Wells and two prospects joining Ryan Dempster. This is a testament to Hendry’s recruitment of Wilken, a long-successful international scouting department, and an organization learning to lean on its farm system.