Cubs need to figure out how to make most of improved minor leagues

Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer told an interesting story about his exit interview with Pete Crow-Armstrong.

The team's top prospect made his major-league debut on Sept. 11 and produced some nice defensive plays in center field, but he finished the year 0-for-14 at the plate.

"I told him this, 'I actually believe that will end up being the single best thing to happen to him,'" Hoyer said.

The reasoning is Hoyer equated Crow-Armstrong's debut to Anthony Rizzo's first run in MLB. Playing for San Diego in 2011, Rizzo hit .141 over 49 games.

After that season, Hoyer left his role as a Padres executive to join longtime friend Theo Epstein with the Cubs. One of their first moves was acquiring that .141-hitting first baseman, and the rest is sports history.

"He came up to the Padres and looked terrible," Hoyer said of rookie Rizzo. "We sat him down at the end of the year and said, 'OK, you saw what it's about, you have to go make real changes.'

"He showed up in (Cubs) spring training the next year and he had totally altered his swing. He realized there were certain pitches he couldn't get to and needed to make some adjustment and he made those changes. There's no way he makes those changes if he doesn't struggle."

Obviously, the Cubs are hoping Crow-Armstrong learns from his hitting failures, comes back next year and wins NL Rookie of the Year.

The bigger question, though, is how the Cubs utilize their top-five ranked farm system to become World Series contenders. They had a nice year with homegrown pitching, as Justin Steele, Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks had success as starters, while Adbert Alzolay stepped into the closer role.

Position players were a different story. Christopher Morel started the season in Iowa, returned to hit 26 home runs in just 107 games, but still lacks a position. Nelson Velazquez got a brief look before being traded to Kansas City, where he hit 14 home runs in 40 games.

Matt Mervis hit .167 in 27 games, Jared Young hit .186 in 16 games, Alexander Canario showed some potential but got just 17 at-bats. Looking forward, outfielder Owen Caissie and 2023 first-rounder Matt Shaw did well in Double-A, and the Cubs named catcher Moises Ballesteros their Minor League Player of the Year.

Can any of those players become stars with the Cubs? Will they ever get a chance to try? Should they try to package some prospects in a monster trade this winter?

"That's a good problem to have, but it's a challenge nonetheless," Hoyer said. "At some point you're going to have to break those players in. There's no way to be a really great organization if you're not willing to give those at-bats and those innings to young players. Some are going to thrive and some won't.

"But if you don't allow them that opportunity, you're going to watch them thrive in other cities, which is the most painful thing. So that's a real challenge for us."

For better or worse, the Cubs are relatively locked in at four positions and are hoping to make it five if they can re-sign Cody Bellinger. They feel pretty good about Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner in the infield. Corner outfielders Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki are both signed for three more years. Suzuki's strong finish this season provided some hope. Happ, though, produced his second-lowest slugging percentage in seven seasons.

The Cubs have a couple position players - 6-foot-6 outfielder Kevin Alcantara and infielder James Triantos - being showcased in the Arizona Fall League. Are those the players they could put into a theoretical trade for Pete Alonso or Juan Soto? Or would that be a huge mistake?

A number of MLB teams showed strong improvement with a young lineup this season, starting with the Orioles, who won 100 games and have the top-ranked farm system by MLB Pipeline. The rest of the top five minor-league systems are all in the NL Central, with the Brewers, Pirates and Reds joining the Cubs.

"I'd love nothing more than to build a young, athletic team that's built from within," Hoyer said. "It's a great challenge for us because there's been times we've had a ton of young talent, there's been times when the minor-league system became barren. That's the worst place to be."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Cubs' top 10 prospects

per MLB Pipeline

Player '23 level Cubs in '24?

1. CF Pete Crow-Armstrong AAA/majors 99%

2. RHP Cade Horton AA 50%

3. OF Owen Caissie AA 25%

4. OF Kevin Alcantara AA 10%

5. RHP Ben Brown AAA 90%

6. INF Matt Shaw AA 25%

7. C Moises Ballesteros AA 25%

8. LHP Jackson Ferris A 1%

9. James Triantos AA 5%

10. SS Jefferson Rojas A 1%

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