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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.