New development plan stresses time, patience, and learning the Cubs way

New development plan stresses time, patience, and learning the Cubs way

Patience seems to be the buzz word when it comes to the Cubs this season.

It starts with a development plan that stresses time, patience, and learning the "Cubs Way" when it comes to prospects and young players -- at every level of the organization. Here are some examples of what I mean...

The Majors

We heard (or read) earlier on the Waddle and Silvy Show that Theo Epstein is preaching patience with Starlin Castro.  We sometimes seem to forget he's just 22, which is the age of a good AA prospect.  Castro worked hard in the offseason to improve his defensive fundamentals, particularly his footwoork on throws and charging grounders when appropriate.  The result? Epstein called his defense this season "outstanding". Patience at the plate? That's the next step.  Because of his youth, natural skills, desire to improve, and work ethic, I wouldn't bet against him improving that significantly as well.

AAA

The Cubs have resisted the pleas to bring up 1B prospect Anthony Rizzo.  Despite the great spring, the Cubs felt he had some things to work on and wanted to see him get a full season in AAA.  Even early in the season, when Rizzo was mashing at Iowa, the Cubs still wanted to make sure he made progress with shortening his swing, improving his at-bats against LHP, and increasing his lateral range on defense.  Check, check, and check.  Reports say that Rizzo has significantly improved the swing and his range, and he's hitting .355/.412/.742 against lefties. It's hard to tell with any degree of certainty when a player is ready to hit MLB pitching, but the Cubs made sure that Rizzo reached all of his pre-ordained goals before deciding to call him up.  We'll see him soon.

The same can be said of Brett Jackson.  Even though the Cubs have had a spot essentially waiting for him since they traded Marlon Byrd in April, the Cubs have kept Jackson in AAA.  Similar to Rizzo, the Cubs wanted to see him get a "full" season in AAA and work on his strikeouts.  Jackson now has 487 PAs at Iowa over 2 years, so he's closing in on that full season.  The team also wanted to see him hit lefties and work on cutting down his strikeouts.  The latter is still a work in progress, but Jackson has hit lefties to the tune of .329/.405/.700.

The Cubs called up Luis Valbuena today instead of 22 year old Josh Vitters to play 3B.  The reason? Vitters only has 2 1/2 months experience at AAA and still needs work on his defense and approach at the plate.  When I watch Vitters bat, I get the sense that the pitcher is controlling everything -- and Vitters relies on his natural skills at the plate to react to what the pitcher is doing.  Those natural skills are considerable, but when he gets to the majors, everybody has natural skills.  He's going to have to learn to use them better. There's been progress, but the Cubs would prefer to bring up a minor league veteran rather than stray from their development plan.

AA

Junior Lake started the season on the DL with what was described as a minor injury, yet spent the entire month of April in extended spring training.  Cautious with a top prospect? Maybe.  But it's also been suggested that the Cubs wanted some time with Lake to help him work on developing a more patient approach.  It worked -- at least for May - when Lake drew 10 walks in 104 PAs.  His 2 walks in June suggest that Lake still needs to learn consistency from month-to-month, week-to-week, and AB to AB.

High A

Matt Szczur is a player the Cubs invested a lot of time and money in when it came to drafting and signing him.  Then, instead of extending that effort into development, the old regime just sort of left him on his own and Szczur learned the default organizational philosophy of (in Sam Fuld's words) "Swing, swing, swing!".  But it wasn't just patience at the plate with Szczur, he had work to do in almost all phases of the game.  In the words of Szczur, "As far as my fielding in the outfield and my baserunning and hitting, I think I've made great strides and it's due to a lot of the coaching staff and the staff on the team, from the big leagues down to the minor leagues."  As for that "swing, swing, swing" philosophy that led him to a 2.7% walk rate last season at Daytona?  Szczur has improved that to 11% this season.  His OBP has gone from .283 to .359.  He's getting on base and he's using his improved his baserunning to wreak havoc once he gets there, stealing 19 bases and scoring 43 runs in 48 games.  So who gets credit for Szczur's much improved defense and baserunning?  Dave McKay, who has been the Cubs best under the radar hiring in recent memory. If you subscribe to Baseball America, check out this great article on Szczur.

Low A

Many were surprised when Cubs top pick Javier Baez didn't start the season in Peoria.  It seems obvious he'd have no problem hitting there from day one.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But the Cubs wanted to make sure. He still had much to learn, starting from his fundamentals.  The Cub felt that Baez tends to over-swing at times (still does), and wanted him to understand that he doesn't need to do that.  His tremendous bat speed alone is enough to hit the ball hard and far.  By relying on that bat speed instead of swinging from his heels, the Cubs felt he'd make better contact and develop more consistency at the plate.  Baez is also a guy who tends to be aggressive in his approach and the Cubs wanted to work on helping him work the count and waiting for his pitch.  Additionally, Baez has said he's been learning to work on using all fields.

With Baez, however, it was more than just fundamentals.  The Cubs considered everything.  No stone was left unturned.  From adjusting to the cold midwest weather in the spring  to the long bus rides that take time away from development and learning.

The Cubs wanted him to work on baseball without the other distractions.  In an article for MiLB.com, Fleita describes it best,

"He understands we have a process set up and that we'll follow it to the letter. Being in Arizona, in a controlled atmosphere, allowed him to get a good handle on what's expected every day from the organization, and it gave us a chance to get to know him. He also got a lot of extra work, and that allowed him to be prepared to join the Peoria Chiefs."

As for Baez,

"I'm still learning the game. My goal is to keep learning and [to] try to do my best."

That last line, as simple as it is, sums it all up.  And in "The Cubs Way", it's true whether you are in the major leagues or in the fertile learning grounds of Arizona.

Comments

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  • I think the top prospects should try to play a whole season at
    one level at a time. They have to develop and learn to
    play the game the right way (i.e., The New Cubs way)
    We have all seen prospects who went through a farm system
    very quickly and then failed. We have 2-3 years to have
    them develop at their own pace.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I'm not too sure on that one, E. Sometimes talent just rises to the surface and you need to keep challenging certain ballplayers. Learn the Cubs way early, and if you keep with it, get rewarded with promotions. I know the AAA level is one that Theo and Jed believe you must get a full year, but other than that, I wouldn't mind to see some players skip levels. Rizzo moved quickly, and I believe Baez and Almora could move quickly as well. Candelario just skipped a level too.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Your right, the top prospects should be rewarded because
    of their hard work. Two levels is alright. They can always
    start next year at the second level they reached if need be.
    With so many good prospects at some positions, it is a good
    problem to have.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Interesting that Vlad Guerrero was able to skip AAA altogether and was impressive from the get-go. How does a club guage ability, ego strength and temperament to know their not sacrificing a youngster by bringing him up prematurely? BTW, I do agree with patience being a virtue as practiced and preached by Theo, et al.

  • John,

    Even for your considerable everyday reporting and writing skills, this was one of your best efforts. Bravo. Any chance you'll be at the ballpark tomorrow? I'll be there, sweating.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Thanks Eddie!

    Always a chance. Sometimes I go last minute. If I go I'll let you know as soon as I can.

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    Hey John just read an article saying that Theo and Ryan were discussing trade options yesterday and i wanted to get your opinion on were he will go and for what. I was talking to a guy today and he said that we need to keep Dempster and pay him to mentor the young arms and to let Almora and Soler go since they are unproven and most likely won't be worth @#^%. I completely disagreed with him, and almost got into a fight over it. Do you think he was correct in his stupid opinion.

  • In reply to Larry:

    I completely disagree with that guy. Never understand why some people think that players sit around the dugout mentoring each other all the time. It's not school in there.

    As for Dempster, I think the Cubs can land a prospect who can be good enough to rank as a top 10 guy in their system, probably a top 100 guy, but maybe more near the bottom. It depends on what else they include, so they could get more than that.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    They can also sign some key veteran players who can help mentor some of the kids without paying the veterans $10-12-14 million per year. No knock on Dempster, he's been a very good pitcher and teammate, but at this stage, with us likely fielding a team of mostly kids who will certainly lose 90+ games next year, and more likely around 100 loses, it makes no sense to pay any veterans $10 million or more to be on a team like that.

    Go out and sign more players like Dejesus, who play the game the right way and are solid characters, too.

  • Thank you John for writing this article. Too many people have expected this new F.O. to turn this org. around basically overnight. Sure, they've all said that they understand this is gonna take some time. Then they call for the same remedies that got this org. into this quagmire. Please note that I am speaking in general of Cub fans not in particular to this site. This team was decimated from top to bottom organizationally. With no light at the end of the tunnel. This will take some(a lot) of time. It's not hopeless, but patience is key. Thanks again for reiterating this point.

  • In reply to Bill:

    You're welcome, Bill. I've been fascinated with recent articles I've read on how the Cubs approach development. There really seems to be an organized plan for a change.

    I think I get spoiled by the readers on this site and I begin to think all Cubs fans have patience with this plan :) Obviously that's not the case!

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I enjoy these articles the most.

    I'm also interested to see how much turnover the Cubs minor league coaches have this offseason. There didn't appear to be many changes for this season, likely because Theo and co. were hired somewhat late in the offseason, especially after all of the Hoyer/McLeod moves were finally official. That didn't give them much time to figure out who they wanted to hire, assuming anyone they wanted was even available that late in the offseason.

    This year there will likely be more coaches who fit their philosophy hired for the minor leagues.

  • John I agree with this article to the max. We will finnally be doin it the right way no matter our age.

  • In reply to Cubs26:

    That's the key. Do it the right way. You can always control the process. You can't always control results.

  • I've tried reading the "great article" on Sczur, but can't get past the paywall.

  • In reply to clarkaddison:

    Sorry, the quote in this article is about Szczur, as is the nugget that he credits Dave McKay. Talks a lot about the stuff we've talked about here regarding his tools, his mental makeup, how he's improving quickly -- and how because of all that, he's a good bet to make the majors.

  • Well if a prospect gets impatient the Cubs can always point to Rizzo and Bjax.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    That's true. And the Cubs seem to have made it a point to promote players with patient approaches...Adrian Cardenas, Luis Valbuena, Welington Castillo (at least this year)...next two will be Rizzo and BJax.

    I don't think that's a coincidence.

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    The type of philosophy this front office is trying to instill in the organization is really staying to take form and you can actually start to see it now. Very excited. I even think guys like Baez, Vitters, and szczur can adapt this approach because the coaching is that good and I like how Theo wants them to be "patiently aggressive" its genius imo.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Szczur has picked up on it the quickest of the group mentioned, but that's to be expected with him. I think the others will take more time and we'll see some ups and downs with their approach in the beginning.

  • I have been thinking for some time that ALL prospects, no matter their ceiling or projectability, will end up spending their first full year of organized baseball at extended ST - for at least some period of time. That includes Almora and Soler. This stay at ExST will be used to indoctrinate them on what the organization expects of their players, both on and off the field. Baez was simply the first obvious example of this philosophy.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    That would not surprise me in the least bit. Although the time spent there probably depends on the player and their ability.

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    I don't know if I totally agree with that Norway. I think ExST will be used for that, especially with players who can use the additional time for whatever reason, such as Baez. It will be interesting to see what they do with a mature kid like Almora. Not everyone will need the extended indoctrination.

    When teaching special ed, you develop an IEP - individual education plan. This is necessary because a lot of those kids have relatively unique challenges, so they don't fit into a standard educational progression. It sounds to me like Cubs management is creating IDP's (Individual Development Plans) for their top prospects at least. That way the kid knows exactly what he needs to work on in order to progress and the organization is clear about it's philosophy. ExST will be a great place to get to know a kid (like Soler) that the organization doesn't have as much info on so they can develop that plan. A more known quantity like Almora will probably move on more quickly. That's my guess anyway.

  • In reply to Kevin Heckman:

    Kevin ... that's a very interesting and insightful comparison. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if that is, indeed, part of the new "Cubs way."

  • Hey John, good article. Do you know what specifically they work on in Arizona? Like is it pitch recognition or do they do those exercises where they have players stand in the box and don't allow them to swing the bats. They're suppose to only watch the pitches, and then have to call out whether they think the pitch is a strike or a ball in mid-flight after the pitcher delivers the pitch?

    I'm trying to think of other exercises I've read about that promote patience and pitch recognition. Oh, there is also the exercise where you have the player start an AB with a count of 0-1 or 0-2, so they have to shorten their swing and learn to protect the strike zone and try to put a pitch in play (not necessarily for a hit, just put it in play to simulate driving in a player on 3rd base). I guess they teach that one in the instructional league.

  • In reply to I miss Ron Santo:

    Thanks Santo!

    It depends on the individual player. We heard with Baez, it was going the opposite way and curbing his tendency to overswing.

    I'm not aware of specific exercises. Most players at a young age need to improve pitch recognition skills, so I'd be willing to bet that they do the type of drill you're talking about -- or at least something similar. A lot of pitch recognition skill comes with experience, but obviously it helps if you teach it early on.

  • Nice to see McKay getting some love.

    Something I've wondered for awhile now - were the minor league coaching staffs revamped the same way the major league one was when Theo was hired? Or were they kept largely the same and are just being held to the standard of sticking to "The Cubs Way" book they put out.

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    In reply to Carne Harris:

    I don't think they made any changes to the minor league coaching last offseason. The new front office guys took over late in the offseason, most minor league coaches already had jobs, so it was too late to go looking for new blood. I think we'll see some turnover this year as they bring in a few guys who fit their philosophy better.

  • In reply to Just Win:

    Ah, thanks, JW. Be interesting to see who they bring in.

  • In reply to Just Win:

    Ha...I wish I would have read your response before I did mine. It would saved me some time :)

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    Mostly the same coaches. It was probably lower on the priority list with the shortage of time but perhaps more importantly, the Cubs wanted to evaluate and see who could adapt to their new philosophy. They can make more informed decisions this offseason.

  • Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue.

    Question: If and when the Cubs win the World Series, do you have any Sox and Cardinal's fans you would like to tell off? I do. Not all of them, only the really smarmy ones. This patience approach is good because it gives me a bit of time to gather my thoughts...

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    Haha. I don't think I have a Sox fan I'd like to tell off. My wife, two of my closest friends, including my oldest friend, and my father in law are big Sox fans -- and they're all very cool about their fandom, not the smarmy types :)

    As for Cardinals fans. I really don't know any well enough. Not many of those where I grew up or live now. I did go to undergrad in Peoria, but really haven't kept in touch with many of them -- and the ones I have kept in touch with aren't Cardinals fans.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    My youngest son's Godparents are die hard Sox fans. Even though I grew up on the Northside, my entire neighborhood outside of two houses were Sox fans. I also have a few Cardinal fans in my office, and I guess I just didn't like to see anyone celebrating when they won (even though I genuinely like themse people. I was a good sport about it though, if you can call rolling your eyes and staying in your office a good sport). It seems I may not have many enemies either. At the end of the day, I'll probably breath the deepest sigh of relief ever, go on a Cardinal's blog, type, "We won, you didn't." Or "Zero years." and call it a day.

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