One of the interesting little subplots to the season has been the Cubs strategy as to the acquisition of amateur talent. If you want insight into what the current front office is thinking and how they intend to build a contender, then it's a good place to start.
When it comes to amateur talent and rebuilding the farm, the Cubs are going after impact talent first and foremost. When the new CBA was agreed upon, teams immediately began to look for ways to find an edge. The Cubs have decided to channel their energy and resources (and their faith) in scouting and development. They are asking scouts to find the best players possible and the Cubs will use whatever resources it takes to acquire them.
This even includes acquiring additional resources. The new CBA slots pool money according to a team's level of success and, sometimes, it's market size. There is no longer a limitless amount of money teams can spend. They are bound by their particular slots and punished heavily when they exceed those bounds.
However, the new CBA offers some flexibility in that you can trade for additional resources. You can now deal for competitive balance picks, some of which are between the first two rounds and some of which are in between rounds 2 and 3. Competitive balance picks are awarded based on teams' won-loss records and market size, so that teams that are struggling in terms of generating both wins and revenue are given additional picks to acquire talent.
The CBA also allows you to trade for a portion of another team's international free agent pool money. I mentioned this possibility recently and it appears that the Cubs consider this a legitimate option. One reader suggested that maybe the Cubs trade Michael Bowden for IFA pool money. I think that's an intriguing idea to say the least.
I want to take a brief look at the Cubs aggressive strategy and contrast it with that of the Houston Astros.
International Free Agent Pool
The Cubs strategy is one we can call the best player available strategy. Ben Badler writes that the Cubs will do whatever it takes to sign the consensus top two talents in the international free agent pool -- Venezuelan SS Gleyber Torres and Dominican athletic power hitting OF"er Eloy Jimenez. Most expect Jimenez to receive the highest bonus in this year's class while Torres is the most highly regarded Venezuelan player. This Cubs philosophy emphasizes acquiring impact talent and is trying to increase the odds of the team acquiring big difference makers. They will miss on many, but they only need to hit on a few.
There is only one team that can realistically stop them from doing this and that team is the Houston Astros, who have more money to spend. But Houston intends to spread that money among many players. In other words, this strategy reflects the one they used in the amateur draft last season. Instead of gambling on the top talent available, Houston is taking a different strategy than the Cubs. They are, in a way, hedging their bets by getting as many good players as possible rather than going after one or two high end players. We'll call this the diversified portfolio strategy. It's a more conservative strategy, one that concedes that scouting amateur talent is highly speculative and that you are better off acquiring as many good players as possible. It is designed to create a larger talent pool of players with a good chance to be big league players, though it may come at the expense of acquiring the most expensive and most highly regarded high risk/high reward talent.
An intriguing scenario for the Cubs is the possibility of looking to acquire additional pool money. If it happens, it can mean a couple of things. It could just mean they want to make absolutely sure they get their targeted players or it could mean they are trying to employ both strategies -- that is, to have their cake and eat it too. With additional money the Cubs may be able to get top tier talent and use the additional money to spread the money around and increase the size of their own talent pool.
I expect both the Cubs and Astros to employ these same strategies in the MLB amateur draft. I believe the Cubs will go for the player whom they believe is the best available, whether that be Mark Appel, Jonathan Gray, or Kris Bryant. I also think it's likely that they'll extend this philosophy into the 2nd and possibly 3rd round before beginning to put more emphasis on specific need.
It's also possible that the Cubs will try to acquire competitive balance picks in exchange for players before the draft. Time is running out in that pursuit, but I imagine that teams may wait until closer to the draft to make those kind of trades anyway. So stay tuned there.
The Astros, meanwhile, will likely take the same approach that they took in last year's draft and the one they are currently pursuing with this year's international free agent class. It seems there is a pattern and they believe in their strategy, so I see no reason for them to change it up before this year's amateur draft. As such, I think Houston will ultimately decide between two college players: RHP Jonathan Gray and 3B Colin Moran.
I expect them to shy away from Boras clients Appel and Bryant simply for the reason that Boras will not give sign early and give up his right to negotiate. That financial uncertainty that Boras creates will likely sway the Astros toward players they can sign early -- and cheaply. The feeling here is that Gray may take a deal because the Cubs seem to favor Appel and the Rockies may favor a hitter. It could cost him money if he slips to 4th. If the Astros cannot agree with Gray early, then I suspect they will go after Moran, who is the best pure hitter in the draft. If Moran doesn't go to the Astros, it's highly unlikely he goes before the 5th pick. He can make more money as a discounted #1 pick than he can at full slot value at #5.
That Houston strategy will potentially give them a shot at tough-sign talents like OF Ryan Boldt, RHP Connor Jones, or in their pipe dream scenario, a player like home state prep RHP Kohl Stewart tumbling down because of signability concerns.
But back to the Cubs. Remember, the philosophy is to try and acquire difference makers. They'll let the rest sort itself out over time -- either the Cubs will have some attrition where some prospects fail, so having multiple good players at a position will increase the odds that one of them will succeed -- or, if they are really lucky, they will end up with surplus at a position and the flexibility to trade prospect depth for help with the major league club -- or perhaps, swap prospect depth at one position for equally rated prospects that better fill areas of organizational need.
In essence, what the Cubs want to do is acquire impact talent regardless of position and will spend and/or acquire whatever resources they need to do that. The goal is to find 2 or 3 potential big impact players to build around, figuring it's much easier to acquire supporting role players, whether that is through free agency, trades, or within their own system. Finding supporting players is something the front office has already proven it can do consistently well. They know how to find value in the market. It's a matter now of getting those central, difference making players that good teams always seem to be able develop within their own organizations.
And when it comes to acquiring big impact talent, the Cubs find themselves in a unique position over the next couple of months to aggressively pursue those type of players. Whether they take a big step in the long term success of the organization will depend on large part on the success of that pursuit.