[picappgallerysingle id=”8491196″]Tom Ricketts has had a tough rookie year as Cubs owner. Almost everything he’s touched or vouched for has turned to stone.
He can’t even win unanimously for a noble venture like a eulogy for Ron Santo at the latter’s memorial service. Someone who does business with Ricketts’ organization wondered why the team chairman spoke rather than one of Santo’s five prominent teammates on hand — Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, longtime Santo roommate Glenn Beckert or Randy Hundley.
But on the issue that really, really counts — forget state revenue to re-do Wrigley Field, $81 bleacher tickets or noodle sculptures — Ricketts came through. Long advocating a better farm system and scouting department, he put his money where his mouth was.
The following action was out of sight, and definitely out of mind of media focusing in on the parent club’s troubles and the last days of Lou Piniella’s managerial tenure. Trouble is, Ricketts never beats his chest to advertise such steps forward.
Scouting director Tim Wilken, whose skills are depended upon to revive the perenially laggard Cubs player development system, was looking at young talent in the Cape Cod League in July when he got a summons to fly to Chicago for the day to meet the Ricketts family.
“(Tom) Ricketts asked what I needed for personnel,” Wilken said. “I said we need three more scouts, preferably on the pro side.”
In baseman layman’s terms, Wilken needed to boost scouting of other teams’ minor-league organizations by focusing scouts’ attention almost exclusively on those farm systems, and not shift amateur scouts to minor-league coverage once the June draft was completed.
The result was ownership increased Wilken’s budget by several hundred thousand dollars in salaries and benefits.
“Ricketts followed up,” he said. “True to their word, we got our three pro guys.”
Wilken actually shifted two prominent amateur scouts — Mark Adair and Billy Blitzer — and longtime Class A Daytona hitting coach Richie Zisk to pro scouting, replacing them with three new hires.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Wilken said. “This lets scouts on the amateur side see more players in the summer. It’s not so much guesswork. They feel more comfortable making the selection (for the draft). There are baby steps first, hopefully giants steps soon after.”
Wilken will oversee his sixth Cubs draft in 2011. His first draft netted No. 1 pick Tyler Colvin, now battling for a starting outfield job in Wrigley Field. Andrew Cashner, the No. 1 choice in 2008, is now established in the bullpen, possibly moving to the rotation. Other Wilken draftees have made their Cubs debuts or are getting close. But even more time will be needed to make the Cubs the first-class development organization that its big-market status suggests, Wilken added.
“If fully funded on the financial side and draft side, it takes a good five to seven years,” he said. “Generally it takes three to five years for guys to get to the big leagues. Before they become solifidied regulars, it takes another two. We’re not asking for more time, that’s just the way it works. We’re starting to see some of the fruits of what we done It takes every bit of seven.”
Baseball America’s Kevin Goldstein lauded the Cubs’ farm system for its increasing depth under Wilken. But they still lack an eye-popping “impact” player, the old Cubs bugaboo. No Albert Pujols and Jim Thome types yet in the pipeline. Remember, they might have the sorriest development record in history, not having produced a 30-homer, 100-RBI slugger who has put up those numbers (the Cubs did trade Joe Carter for Rick Sutcliffe in 1984) in Wrigley Field since Billy Williams stuck for good at the end of the 1960 season.
“They do have to be developed,” Wilken said of run producers. “They come from the earlier rounds. Sometimes it’s timing. They come from different spots, but generally never later than the 15th round. These guys are getting drafted earlier. Getting that middle-of-the-order guy is one of the tougher things of scouting. He’s got to be sitting in the middle of the draft. But the only slam-dunk one I’ve seen in my life is John Olerud. When I saw him on Day One, you knew he’d be an everyday player if he stayed healthy.”
Maybe with his three new pairs of eyes, ears and hearts, thanks to Ricketts spending the right way, Wilken finally will land that home-grown slugger and save his boss money in the first six years, taking the place of one free agent the Cubs GM won’t have to overpay.