As we go into these meetings scouring for rumors about who is going to be traded, we should also think about what the Cubs should be getting in return.
Not long ago, that wasn't a difficult to question to answer. The Cubs needed just one thing: Impact talent. It didn't matter what position or what level, the system was completely bereft of potential impact players.
That is no longer the case. The Cubs have built a farm system that is among the best in the game. By most accounts it is a top 5 system and one could make an argument that it is the best system in baseball, or at least in the top two.
But there's still something missing. You've often heard me describe building the Cubs system as a process of building inventory and not so much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Just keep stockpiling assets. Get the best players you can and then let things sort themselves out. At that point you can more easily address organizational shortages with organizational surplus. The issue with that strategy is that it can leave your system a little unbalanced.
That is where the Cubs stand now.
As some of that top talent approaches the majors, things are indeed beginning to sort out and there are a couple of things that are clear. The Cubs have impact bats but have not built the kind of inventory of powers arms they would like, though they are making headway. As noted by many on this site, they could also use catching prospects but for this article, we will focus on the pitchers.
It's no coincidence that the Cubs have attacked this area with volume. Drafting and acquiring pitching prospects are risky, particularly when compared with position players. A lot of things can happen: injuries, they don't mature physically like you would hope, breaking pitches don't develop, command never gets where it needs to be, etc.
But this is exactly why you get as many of them as possible.
I've often read here where readers envy the Cardinals and their ability to develop pitchers. It seems like they hit on every pitcher no matter where they draft them. Now admittedly, the Cardinals are good at developing pitchers, but they're not that good. Nobody is that good. No team hits on every power pitcher.
So what is their secret?
What the Cardinals do is draft a lot of pitchers. They focus on pitchers who project as power arms and athletes. Why? Because those are two things that you can't create out of nothing. Some of that ability has to be present by the time a player is drafted. It gives you a point from which to start.
This is basically what the Cubs are doing now, though they've only been doing it for 2 years. The front office understands that you can find these kinds of athletic power pitchers anywhere in the draft.
Evaluating young draft eligible pitchers aren't easy. They are rarely near finished products the way Mark Appel was last year. It involves projection.
- Does the pitcher have a frame that will allow him to put on more weight and throw harder and/or allow him to pitch with stamina in the future?
- Is the pitcher athletic, which makes it easier for him to learn to repeat his delivery and thus develop command?
- Does he have or can he develop the grip strength to be able to sheer off the ball on breaking pitches?
- Are their subtle mechanical flaws that can be resolved?
- Mental make-up plays a role. Is the pitcher coachable? Does he have the work ethic needed to do what's needed to stay healthy and go from thrower to pitcher?
- Pitchability -- Does the pitcher understand the art of pitching and make the most of his stuff? Kyle Hendricks is an excellent example of a pitcher who does.
- Genetic profiles play roles in projecting pitchers. Is a pitcher susceptible to injury. For example, there is the rather common genetic pre-disposition to grow a lot of scar tissue after surgery. That can be a temporary inconvience for someone like me but for an athlete that can obviously be a big problem that could delay recovery or even require a second surgery.
It can be as much art as science and teams like the Cardinals are good at it. We are seeing the Cubs taking a similar approach. While some pitchers are ahead of others and put up more successful numbers, you can still find this type of skill set anywhere in the draft. That is why it can be a good idea to go with volume rather than gambling that you will get it exactly right with one arm at the top of the draft.
That said, in this upcoming draft we talked about 4 pitchers we like at the #4 spot: Carlos Rodon, Jeff Hoffman, Tyler Beede, and Sean Newcomb (L). It seems very likely the Cubs could reverse their recent trend of selecting position players in the first round. But I suspect that even if the Cubs do draft a pitcher at the top, they will still attack with volume later.
It's been the pattern so far. Here's a quick look at the inventory of potential power pitchers the Cubs have acquired since this front office took over during the 2011 offseason...
- Jake Arrieta
- C.J. Edwards
- Pedro Strop
- Justin Grimm
- Neil Ramirez
- Arodys Vizcaino
- Corey Black
- Armando Rivero
- Pierce Johnson
- Paul Blackburn
- Duane Underwood
- Ryan McNeil
- Josh Conway
- Juan Carlos Paniagua
- Zach Cates
- Hunter Cervenka
- Trey Lang
- Rob Zastryzny
- Tyler Skulina
- Trey Masek
- Scott Frazier
- Trevor Clifton
- Erling Moreno
- Jefferson Mejia
- Jen-Ho Tseng
That's 25 potential power arms in just two years and the oldest one in the group is Pedro Strop at 28. Obviously they aren't all going to turn out. But that's a lot of inventory.
And there is still work to do.
I expect the Cubs to add even more to their 28 and under power pitching inventory. The big prize this offseason is the 25 year old NPB star, RHP Masahiro Tanaka. They may also add to it if they do ultimately trade Samardzija (I would expect they get at least 2 pitchers back) as well as in the 2014 draft, quite possibly with their very first pick.
The Cubs still need to add pitchers who profile more as front of the rotation arms, but even a steady supply of power arms to fill the bullpen and the mid to back of the rotation would be a tremendous asset as the Cubs attempt to build a team that can compete year after year with waves and waves of talent. In the words of a scout I talked to,
At the end of the day, who cares if it's starter or bullpen with prospects? Any regular role is a bonus for a team that values cheap labor to offset the costs of getting guys on the second contracts.
By second contracts he means free agents and/or trades for players with larger contracts. In other words, if you have guys like Edwards, Vizcaino, Grimm, and Strop filling your bullpen spots (and/or mid to bottom rotation spots) cheaply, then you can re-allocate those saved financial resources to acquire that big name free agent to head your rotation.
That is why it's important to build those waves of power arms the way teams like the Rays and Cardinals have and for a team like the Cubs, they have the financial wherewithal to keep their best young arms and/or fill in the missing pieces. That's how you use your financial might. You don't use it to build your team. You use it to add pieces and sustain what you have built.
But building comes first and while the Cubs have come a long way, there's still a bit of work left to be done.