One of these days we'll be so busy talking about winning baseball and post-season expectations that we won't have time to worry about these kinds of things. But with the season winding down, it seems frustrations of yet another losing season are taking it's toll. Even the most optimistic of us are watching with more of an eye toward 2014 than the game to game season ending grind of 2013.
So I find my mind meandering at times to other subjects other than the wins and (mostly) losses on the field.
I find myself watching to see if Junior Lake can really be a long term factor or if his poor approach will catch up with him at some point. I find myself looking forward to the days when Jake Arrieta starts or when the Cubs will call up more potential 2014 players in September. I watch the minor leagues and see Tennessee and Daytona winning, not in a meaningless way with experienced organizational types, but with top level prospects, and I think to myself, "Soon, soon."
So Let's Root, Root, Root for....a Draft Pick?
There is also the MLB Draft to look forward to, the ultimate consolation prize of another lost season in terms of won-loss record. And so I also deal with the paradox of rooting for my favorite team to win and yet hoping the Cubs land themselves another top 5 pick. It's easy for me to reconcile this. I am a writer, but I am also a fan of the team. I do not root for them to lose. I want them to win every game I watch. It's part of the enjoyment of being a fan -- but as a fan, I have no bearing on whether they win or lose. My rooting interests have zero impact on when the Cubs draft, so why should I give up the day-to-day fun part of being a fan? The draft pick will take care of itself. It's completely out of my control. I just hope that, when all is said and done, the baseball gods grant us another premium pick to add another elite level talent to the organization.
Do things to please the fans and eventually you'll be sitting with them
Doubts are starting to creep in with the rebuilding process but I don't see anything that isn't really going according to plan. The farm system is brimming with talent. Even the team on the field has been interesting to watch although most of that was in the first 2-3 months of the season. The approach to focus on pitchers pound the lower part of the zone and supporting them with strong infield defense is a good one that has worked wonderfully at times. Approaches at the plate are slowly, painfully improving and the extra base power is starting to emerge.
There's some concern, however, about the performances of core players Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo -- and believe me, I share those concerns too. As fans, we have every right to be worried, angry, frustrated, and ready to give up on the process.
The front office can't afford to react in the same way as the average fan. They need to stick with the plan and a trusted process that they believe will be successful in time. They have to say even-keeled. We can't assume what we see of Rizzo and Castro right now is what we will see of them down the road any more than we should have believed what that the early 2012 Ryan Dempster had suddenly become an elite level starter at age 35 or that Scott Feldman's excellent start this season was much different than the Scott Feldman of years' past. It's hard to keep long-term, big picture perspective when there are so many short term highs and lows, but that's exactly what good organizations do.
An example I mentioned before is this: What do you with a talented young 23 year old who plays a premium defensive position and is now in his 3rd season -- but just finished a year in which he batted .216/.274/.321 with 6 HRs? Do you trade him? Do you look for his replacement in the minors? Or do you stay patient and trust your previous evaluations of the player?
That's exactly the decision the St. Louis Cardinals had to make in 2006 with a young catcher named Yadier Molina. I think it's safe to say they're a good organization and they made the right decision. Can we even doubt that if Molina was the Cubs catcher back then that we'd have some fans clamoring for a trade and an immediate replacement? He didn't even have the track record or the pedigree that Castro has, yet the Cards stuck with him. That's why they're good. They believe in their process and what they do well. They get it.
Now this is not to say that Castro and Molina will have the same fate, they are two different players -- but the thought process should be similar. Good organizations don't jettison process over short-term results. And while we may not quite be used to it yet, the Cubs are now a good organization.
And what of the manager's role in all this? I think evaluating his in-game moves with an undermanned roster is often an exercise in hindsight. It's not fair to judge Dale Sveum by how moves have or haven't worked out given the talent with which he has had to work. To illustrate what I mean, I was at the game Sunday when the Cubs brought Carlos Villanueva in to pitch. Solid choice at that stage in the game. Unfortunately, he quickly got into trouble that would have been even worse had it not been for a great defensive play by Castro. So... up comes lefty-hitting Jon Jay who, at this writing, is hitting .206/.300/.320 against LHPs. You've got a struggling RHP on the mound, so bring in your top lefty reliever, right?
Jay hits a 3-run HR to put the game out of reach.
The wisdom of in-game decisions are often perceived in relation to it's consequence. The problem inherent in that perception is that consequence isn't solely the result of the wisdom of those decisions. It's also affected by the talent you have to execute your plan and, whether or not we like to admit it -- plain, old-fashioned luck. Sometimes you make the "right" decision based on expected trends, but it just doesn't work. It happens -- but it will happen a lot less when there is better talent on the field with which to execute those plans.
What Sveum should ultimately be evaluated on is the development of his young core. When you are hired to manage a rebuilding team, the assumption is that your first job isn't to win 100 games or even 81 games, but to get the most out of your talent and help them reach a new level as ballplayers.
The jury is still out in that regard. The road to a young player's success will have some bumps in the road. With development comes growing pains and that is even more true at the MLB level.
If there is one team I have watched almost as much of the Cubs (and actually see them more often live), it's the Kane County Cougars. I have watched player development there with great interest and one of my favorites has been Dan Vogelbach. With Vogelbach, I've noted some changes in his approach -- his willingness to go with the pitch and take the ball the other way and to shorten up and even foul off pitcher's pitches with 2 strikes. The process here is excellent, but the results, as always lag behind. Vogelbach saw a signficant decrease in his power numbers at Kane County, yet the process in terms of good at-bats will help him down the road. I really liked the Vogelbach power display at Boise, but that pull-happy approach wasn't going to work against better pitchers in the long term. The power will always be there, but transforming that raw power into consistent, useful in-game power required a change in his approach. That change in his approach, in turn, resulted in a step back in his power numbers...for now.
The difference is that Vogelbach got the opportunity to make this change at the A ball level, which is much more forgiving, so the transition looks pretty smooth. It isn't nearly as easy making changes at the MLB level against the best in the game. So if the pitchers aren't going to be as forgiving and patient while the young Cubs core players try to adjust, then I'm willing to be...for now. But ultimately we will need to see that one step back turn into two steps forward.
So if you're going to judge Sveum, judge him on that -- but give him and his players some time first. If there was a year to take a step back, this was a good one. You hope it means those two steps forward come at a meaningful time when the Cubs field a team that's talented enough to win and make Sveum look like a much smarter manager.
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