The Cubs’ descent into baseball hell in the early 2010s and subsequent redemption in 2016 has become one of the iconic examples of “tanking” – the process of getting bad to get better. But Chicago was already pretty bad when Theo Epstein took over late in 2011, which made his tanking task easier.
The club was already bad, in part, because of a collection of largely unsuccessful first round draft picks over the previous decade. In the 10 years leading up to Epstein’s arrival, the Cubs made 14 first round picks (including four supplemental first-rounders). Let’s take a trip down this potholed memory lane to see how these picks may have inadvertently set the stage for the Cubs’ ultimate triumph.
The stats in this post all come from Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. Player stats in bold are for their major league careers. Note that while the main point of this post is to call into question the Cubs’ first-round draft decisions in the pre-Epstein period, it’s also worth remembering that some of these players pancaked simply because baseball is really, really hard and most people who try it fail.
Of the 14 first-rounders, seven made the majors and five of those had careers lasting at least three years. For some context, two-thirds of first round picks signed from 1996-2011 reached the majors, and just under half had a career of at least three years. So the Cubs’ performance wasn’t woeful, but it was below par.
Chicago Cubs endure a first round drought: 2002-2006
From 2002 through 2005, the Cubs would draft a total of six first-rounders, none of whom reached the majors. These included four college pitchers in 2002 (Bobby Brownlie, Luke Hagerty, Chadd Blasko and Matt Clanton). Of these, only Brownlie would ever appear in a prospect top-100 list; he was Baseball America‘s #92 prospect in 2004.
Brownlie was also the the only one of the four to reach Triple-A, where he would post a cumulative 5.34 ERA across three different organizations. Clanton would only throw four professional innings, but unlike the few hitters he faced, he went down swinging.
In 2003 the Cubs drafted Ryan Harvey, who hit a Florida State League record four homers in one game for the Daytona Cubs in 2006. That was four more homers than he would hit in the majors; his lengthy minor league career would top out at Double-A. He finished with a minor league career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.5 to 1.
The Cubs drafted high-school right-hander Mark Pawelek, in 2005. Pawelek is perhaps is most famous for this. Get outside kids: gaming kills. Even if Pawelek has pursued healthier habits, it’s unlikely he would have reached the majors. Wildness plagued his career; by the end he was putting the Dippin’ Dots vendors on base.