The Cubs will employ an aggressive strategy under the new CBA

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.

MLB Draft

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.



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  • I like the Cubs' strategy better, at least for them. You can sign "non-impact" but competitive players in free agency, especially if you're a big market team like the Cubs. Stars, however, are getting harder and harder to pick up anywhere other than via trade (while giving up a bounty of other impact players).

  • In reply to Matt Mosconi:

    I like it too because I think it caters to their strengths -- which are big financial resources and the ability to find value role players to support stars. And like you say, there may be no better way to pick up stars right now than through the amateur channels.

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    This is one of your best articles to date John. Great job. More and more I am hearing that the Cubs' first choice is Appel, and he will be available for the Cubs when they pick. Do you see any arm problems with him down the road

  • In reply to Demarrer:

    Thanks DeMarrer. I don't see any real big problems. Kevin believes he's detected a small, but very fixable flaw that could lead to shoulder strain -- but nothing major that they can't fix or that will sway them away from him if they do indeed believe he's the best player.

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    I would think that teams trading for competitive balance picks will probably have a list of players targeted and only make a trade if one of those players is still available, like many teams do in the NFL draft.

  • In reply to Just Win:

    I agree, which makes sense that teams will wait until the draft to make those kinds of deals.

  • John, Awesome article!

    Time will tell which strategy is best. The reality is both us and the Astros may be doing what's best for each organization. They are so void of talent at every level, that they almost have to take the "safety in numbers" approach. Whereas, we already have a couple core pieces at the MLB level and a few others on the way. So it makes sense to want the next Machado/Harper/Trout, etc...

    I'd be all for trading some of our fringe 40-man guys (Bowden, etc) for more pool $money$, or picks. Let's hope they can wheel & deal to pick up another pick or two. We have invested heavily in scouting. It appears to be paying off (Rondon in the rule 5), (Johnson for our sandwich pick last year), etc... I was a bit worried about our International scouting efforts when we released Oneri Fleita. He was very well respected & connected in that area. But we needed to make that move so we could develop our youngsters.

    Anyways, so far so good...

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Thanks Hoosier and I agree that it's probably the best strategy for each team for a number of reasons. It'll be interesting to see the two organizations and how they progress over the next few years.

    I think the Cubs employed a more diversified approach in the past, though they didn't do it as well and with as much spending as the Astros have. We obviously know now it didn't work out for them as the system lacks impact talent. The Astros have a better chance to succeed because they've employed a similar strategy -- but they are still making the necessary financial investment to actually make it work.

  • I prefer Appel over Gray because of the higher floor. One red flag that I read yesterday (cannot remember if it was here or elsewhere) is of 4 scouts asked who they preferred 3 said they preferred Appel to Gray but 2 of the 4 cited possible makeup problems. I don't know much about it obviously aside from a few Appel starts I have watched on TV but assuming he doesn't have a lack of #Want he would be my choice. On the international front I just hope Cubs have the best scouts and do a great job.
    Thanks for article and nice work!

  • In reply to Tide23:

    I read that too. It was Jim Calis speaking with 4 "top-level scouting executives". What we don't know is what the 26 "top-level scouting executives" think of him? What concerns there possibly are about his "Make-up"? Kevin Gallo mentioned that as well, but I do not recall any specifics. Anyways, this could be pre-draft mis-information too.

  • In reply to Tide23:

    Thanks Tide. For what it's worth, I've heard and read very good things about Appel's makeup. One person I trust called it off-the-charts good. I've also heard very good things about Gray and Bryant.

    I think there is probably some residual concern over his not signing with Pittsburgh after he dropped but I see it more as a guy who believes in himself and knows his worth -- and felt he was not going to get it. It was a gamble, but it should pay off for him.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yes, HoosierDaddy is correct it was a Callis article. I think he made the right decision considering he will probably sign for around double what Pittsburgh would have conceivably been able to offer him at 9. I am not bothered by it if that is issue. He is a rich kid that didn't NEED the money, so was willing to gamble to be 1-1 in draft. The one thing I hate about his returning is Stanford among others likes to overuse pitchers (in my opinion)
    Regardless of the situation if the Astros back off and take Moran it leaves the Cubs the player the want, so whoever that is I will have faith in being a quality player.

  • In reply to Tide23:

    You always have to be worried about an extra year of college pitching -- especially if the team emphasizes winning to the point where they disregard the pitcher's future. To Stanford's credit, they've held his pitch count down this year to the same level as other prospects -- and even less than guys like Braden Shipley, who have been overused.

  • In reply to Tide23:

    You always have to be worried about an extra year of college pitching -- especially if the team emphasizes winning to the point where they disregard the pitcher's future. To Stanford's credit, they've held his pitch count down this year to the same level as other prospects -- and even less than guys like Braden Shipley, who have been overused.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I know this is going to come out wrong, but I'll just say it:

    Can anyone remember a Scott Boras client that was totally selfless?

    Maybe all Boras clients just get tagged with "makeup issues" - especially when they refuse to negotiate with the first team that drafts them. If a guy chooses and agent who acts so purely out of greed as Scott Boras does, what does that say about the client who chooses him over other, more reasonable agents. Boras certainly doesn't care about the teams, or about hometown discounts, that is for sure.

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    In reply to HackWilson09:

    Jason Veritek, for one, always had a spectacular reputation.

  • Trading players for IFA pool money was what was running thru my head when the Cubs made their two most recent minor trades that were described as for PTBNL or cash. Can that cash = IFA pool money or would it specifically have to say that?

  • In reply to Bill:

    Good question. That type of trade hasn't happened yet so the terminology is an unknown right now!

  • In reply to Bill:

    IFA pool money can't be dealt for until July 2, but I have no idea on postponing windows until that date.

  • In reply to Bill:

    I think IFA pool money is also traded in chunks from the pool what I have heard and the chunks don't break down small enough to make sense for some of the moves we have seen lately
    (IE: Alberto Gonzales to Yankees and other moves of that ilk)

  • In reply to Tide23:

    Thanks John & Tide23. It's such a learning curve all over again because of the latest CBA. I appreciate any help and insight I can get.

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    John, great article, and it just gave me an off the wall idea. Detroit doesn't really need a starter as much as they need a LHRP and a flex pitcher that will allow Drew Smyly to go back into the rotation. I love James Russell, and he is a long term asset right now, but like Sean Marshall, he is a luxury on a team that's not going to the playoffs. What about a deal that would send Russell and Villanueva to the Tigers for Rick Porcello, the 39th overall pick in the draft, and maybe Casey Crosby?

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Atlanta has now lost two LH RP's.... they WILL be in the market for some help and Russell could be the best available and the Cubs have no sense of urgency to move him so we may fetch plus value at the deadline.

    My only concern is who can step up and take his place as well as he took Marshall's? How many times can we roll that dice before we get snake eyes?.....

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    In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    The perfect storm is brewing here: both Atlanta and Washington need left handed help, and both have an incentive to keep the other from getting it, as well. That could lead to a bidding for the top guy -- which will almost certainly be Russell.

    It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    Of course, for anyone looking at making that big deadline deal, the Angels are "Exhibit A" in the risks of such.

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    In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Thank you my fellow Hoosier. I'd completely forgotten about that, and yes, replacing Russell concerns me as well, which is reason I thought about Crosby. Crosby has struggled as a starter the last two seasons. I wonder if his stuff would play better out of the pen. Porcello might just need a change of scenery. The raw stuff is still there.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    I'd take that deal in a heartbeat. Suspect Detroit might want more, though, than just better pitching staff flexibility. THey come up short on the talent end in that deal.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Hey, they need an outfielder too.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I live just outside of Detroit, thus have seen and not by choice Porcello's last 4 years. No thank you with him in that deal. He is a #5 starter at best, 4 ERA 1.50 WHIP type of guy who guarantees the pen to be used. His stuff is 93 tops with average type of pitches. Perhaps his sinker is above and all of that in a big park. I would much rather have the Atl/Wash bidding war for Russell.

    Also, speaking of change of scenery, Vitters and BJax might be best for them as I don't see much progress. Great article John and lets get Gray!

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    Moran to the Astros just seems like the kind of good luck we are unused to as Cub fans. The Cubs literally having their choice of the top 3. (Doubtless they'll still find a way to pick the only one who doesn't make the majors.)

    I do think, however, the difficulty in finding amateur talent the new CBA imposes on every team emphasizes the need for also-rans to take advantage of the trade deadline. Obviously, the Cubs signed guys like FELDMAN!!!!! with an eye to flipping them, thus looking to increase their take.

    Part of me wonders if, even when we reach the hoped for point where the Cubs are consistently winning, if they will sign fifth starters/swingmen like Villaneuva and Feldman with an eye to flipping them and using the waves and waves of pitching to replace them.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Why wouldn't we sign 5th starters with the intent/possibility of flipping them if they do well? It obviously brings us more long term assets/prospects. It helps a guy like Feldman who probably wasn't in contention for a lucrative FA contract until he puts together a full season of positive results as a starter. Plus he's guaranteed to not have draft pick compensation attached to him which would kill his FA value.... And uh oh yeah, we can NEVER have TOO MUCH pitching! lol

  • John, so do you think we won't see any trades for comp picks until a day or two before the draft? Who do you think the Cubs will deal for picks versus saving them for the trade deadline?

  • In reply to Holy Cattle:

    Only because that seems to be the pattern in sports when draft picks are traded. I don't have inside knowledge and it's new to everyone in baseball right now.

  • I know the international guys are usually younger but where would they rank along side the likes of Frazier and meadows?

  • In reply to Jrich730:

    Now that's an interesting question. I'd say that Jimenez ranks behind both of them because his baseball skills haven't caught up to his physical ability yet. He's a guy I wouldn't pick before the supplemental round, probably. A lot of projection left.

    On the other hand, I think Torres would rate favorably among this year's prep SS crop, possibly behind JP Crawford but ahead of guys like Andy McGuire -- and he might be worth a first round pick.even at his young age.

    I imagine by the time both players are 18 or so they'd rank even higher if they develop as hoped.

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    Great piece. Being in the newspaper business, it's sad that those publications are no longer producing work like this. To be honest, I'm not sure they never did.

    I like the Cubs' strategy in part because through all those years of failing to produce any impact position players under Oneri Fleita and before, the organization seemed to be thrilled at how well their minor league system was competing even though there didn't often appear to be a lot of potential impact talent on the way. I interviewed Fleita a few times during this time, and while he did some good things with the Cubs, it seemed like he was always trying to talk me into how good the system was when the data said otherwise.

    The reality is, guys who make it to the majors but can only perform at a mediocre level once they get there - which seems to be what often happens when you draft conservatively - have a limited shelf life and are only good as utility players.

    Once concern I have is that Jeff Luhnow, who helped build the current Cardinals juggernaut and seems to know what he is doing, is the Astros' GM. It's hard to go against his strategy, but it doesn't mean that both Houston and the Cubs can't succeed doing things their own way.

  • In reply to Gregory Shriver:

    While I don't disagree, I do think the Astros would much rather be in the Cubs position. However, regarding the Astros current position, it's not a bad strategy.

    In other news, I was sitting here trying to make some good puns on "Appel", such as his rotation mate "Orange", or not being a bad apple, but after 3 minutes I've ultimately failed. :)

  • In reply to givejonadollar:

    Haha! We do appreciate the effort, though.

  • In reply to givejonadollar:

    Jon and John:
    Appel will be a core player.
    Appel will be an a-peeling addition.
    Appel is ripe for the picking in this year's draft.
    Appel is no pie-in-the-sky prospect.
    Appel has a lot of polish.

  • In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    Ha! Well done!

  • In reply to Gregory Shriver:

    Thanks for the kind words, Greg. I'm a little old school when it comes to sports writing!

    Jeffrey Luhnow was very successful with the Cards and the only thing we can say is that this CBA is new to everyone and I think at some level everyone is experimenting. A lot of people like the Astros approach and it's easy to see how it makes sense given the difficulty of accurately projecting amateur talent.

    I've always liked the idea that you take the best player available, regardless of cost or need. The best chance to find a big leaguer, especially a start, is at the very top of the draft. Those opportunities don't come often, and when they do, you need to pick the guy you think has best shot of becoming a difference-maker.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    John, good point about the new CBA being foreign territory for Luhnow too.

    I do wonder if there are times Theo, Jed and McLeod are willing to deviate from the best-player-available strategy - such as this year, when there appears to be two "can't-miss" type starters available. This is not to say, of course, that Gray and Appel aren't the best two players available anyway.

  • First off, this article provides terrific analysis that reminds me how much this site has enhanced the experience of following Major League Baseball. I am very grateful for the insight I can find here.

    Second, I have to say that after vacillating between Appel and Gray, then having a brief flirtation with Bryant, I think I've finally locked into my official draft opinion: I want whomever our FO wants. That is, I trust our scouting department, for exactly the reasons that are listed in John's article. In a market where you can't overwhelm the competition with resources, a market that rewards efficiency in a way that it didn't 10 years ago, I think the best strategy is to build a first-class scouting department, and we've done that under Theo. They've earned the benefit of the doubt; so whereas in past years, I would stress out about the Cubs making a draft blunder (I may never recover from Vitters over Wieters), I'm happy this year to just trust the big fellas.

    The same goes for the international signings, and I'd like to echo that the Cubs' qualitative approach seems much smarter than the numbers game the Astros seem to be playing. This is how you eventually reach a player development plane where it's a matter of re-loading, not rebuilding.

  • In reply to Taft:

    Thanks Taft!

    And I like your decision ;) We do have to trust these guys. Very few of us, except for maybe Kevin, get a chance to see these players as much as our FO does -- and even if we did, we all lack the experience they do evaluating players.

    And I like the idea of emphasizing scouting at this level, especially scouting with a knowledge of metrics. Not that you'd ever use stats for amateurs, but in the sense that you may favor a guy for things such as a good eye or good pitch recognition or pitchers who throw strikes and have the kind of athleticism/delivery that lends to refining command over time. Those are things you can pick up on early.

  • Agree, great article. June and July are going to determine what
    Theo and Co. are made of. With the June draft, international
    signing and the trading period. I really believe they are going
    to suprise us with the talent they are going to acquire.

  • Cubs just picked up reliever Eduardo Sanchez from the Cardinals. Has several good years in the minors and a good one in the majors (2011). However, last year and this one have been pretty forgettable. Still young though, only 24 years old. What is the story here, was he injured last year?

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    In reply to Panama Cub:

    Great stuff, but he has had alot of arm problems the last 3 years. Apparently, he is very slightly built, so always concerns about durability.

    With Angel Guzman now out of the organization, we needed a replacement for our "Hard-throwing, oft-injured Venezuelan" role...

  • I hear the cubs just claimed eduardo sanchez from the cardinals.

  • In reply to seankl:

    Yes, they did. I'll include that in our game notes today.

  • In reply to seankl:

    Just decided to post a piece on it

  • Correct me if I'm wrong but we drop Bowden so we can add back Garza. Don't we need to make another move to add Sanchez?

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    In reply to Holy Cattle:

    We needed to DFA Bowden to make room on the 25-man roster; Garza was on 15-day DL, so he was already on the 40-man

    Bowden is out of options, so he cannot be sent down without a DFA first

    With Bowden off, we still have an open 40-man slot

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Gotcha! Thanks.

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    In reply to Holy Cattle:

    PS: I may have misunderstood.....Sanchez still has options. We have to add him to 40-man, but not to 25-man; he will report to Iowa

    Hope that helps

  • I don't like to make demands but if I had editorial power I would demand every article written about the new CBA, new international talent rules and what not, mention that cheatp, scumbarking bastard Jerry Reinsdorf and how he royally screwed the Cubs over because he didn't want to spend money.

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    Appels and oranges.

  • One more to the list.

  • John, I really like your analysis and the observation regarding the Cubs strategy under the new CBA. Assuming your perception of the Astros strategy is correct re: the 2013 draft, do you still think Appel is taken instead of Bryant? I know every draft guru has said MA is bound for Chicago if he's not taken first overall and I originally thought the same thing, but another area the Cubs are short on is impact power in the line-up. Even if he has to play the outfield, there's not many guys you'll ever have a chance to draft with his power and Appel isn't considered an ace by many scouts. There's definitely advantages to drafting either player and I won't be disappointed if we take either one.

  • In reply to Paulson:

    Thank you. From what I have been able to put together, the Cubs favor the pitchers and the fact that they've seen every start from Appel and Gray -- some of them with their heaviest hitters -- speaks volumes. I don't know of a scout who doesn't believe Appel has ace potential. He's almost the textbook definition with 3 plus pitches, plus command, and plus makeup.

    And while we might say the Cubs are short on power, we can expect the Cubs to draft the guy they feel is the best available player regardless of position. Need really isn't a factor in the first round -- unless maybe as a tie-breaker if you can't decide between two players. So to answer that question, they will draft Bryant if they feel he grades better than Appel or Gray -- and right now, with 2 weeks to go, I don't have an indication that they think that way.

  • Hmmm, I also see where Altuve just dumped Boras and is now being represented by Octagon- presumably to facilitate a new contract which would be tougher (if not impossible) to do with Boras as the agent. And Luhnow's comments didn't seem conducive to dealing with SB, so the likelihood of Houston taking Appel or Bryant might be minimal after all.

  • John - Any strong connection between the Cubs and Overton in the 2nd round or is that reaching more than they'd like to for a high-risk high-reward type? Also, any other bigger name first rounders have a chance at dropping to the 2nd for signability or injury issues? Kohl Stewart? I assume Manea's injury today isn't big enough to drop him much?

  • I've been following the Astros this season to see who they would pick at 1.

    They're going to pick Gray. They have no pitching depth in their system and Dominguez is actually swinging the bat well at 3B for them this season. The Astros don't have core pieces like Rizzo, Spellcheck and Castro. They have to "diversify their portfolio" as you wrote and hope they hit on a few players to build around.

    For what it's worth I hope the cubs take Appel and then Cody Thomas, the big LH bat, with the 41 pick

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