We are all quite aware the Cubs would like to improve their pitching and their OBP numbers. In today's market, that is easier said than done. Pitching has always been a valued commodity and OBP is no longer the market inefficiency it was during the Moneyball days. Yes, OBP still is and always will be very important, but the problem is that just about everyone knows that now. You can't just find a David Ortiz or even a Chris Denorfia laying around on the scrap heap anymore. The current top position player on the market is Shin-Soo Choo, who is highly valued and will be highly compensated, but it's not for the traditional reasons -- he doesn't have the power to hit 30 HRs, the speed to steal 30 bases, or the ability to win batting titles or even win a Gold Glove. He's highly valued for one primary reason: He gets on base at an absurdly high rate. In fact, his value is so high that he felt confident enough to rejected a reported 7 year, $140M offer.
So much for that market inefficiency.
In absence of being able to easily and cheaply find the OBP commodity on the open market, the focus has to turn inward. The Cubs have to develop those kinds of players in house. Players like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Jeimer Candelario, Dan Vogelbach, and Mike Olt all have the potential to provide OBP skills at cost-controlled rates over the next 5-10 years. It's something the Cubs haven't seen in their system since the days of Mark Grace, Rafael Palmeiro, and...Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith. I mention the last two to point out that not everyone will work out long term, but at least the right idea was in place. We remember Walton for his rookie year and 30 game winning streak, but few are aware that Walton walked 91 times and put up a .452 OBP in Class A ball just two years prior to that MLB debut.
I think most -- if not all -- of you knew that increasing the Cubs OBP skills was and will always be a big part of the plan, so I don't think we need to rehash that again.
But I also think the Cubs are moving in a positive direction on another front -- increasing the overall speed and athleticism of the team. A sort of negative connotation has developed when we say "athletic" or "toolsy" since those Moneyball days when Billy Beane eschewed such players for lumbering, somewhat un-athletic guys who were cheap but could get on base. He was right and still is to some degree. That was a time when athleticism was way overvalued, to the point where teams believed they could take raw athletes and turn them into ballplayers. Many of you may remember former Cubs "phenom" Earl Cunningham, who was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive -- and completely unable to hit a breaking ball. You can't really be baseball's Superman if just about every professional pitcher possesses the kryptonite to render you powerless. So...so much for that.
But I'm not talking about that kind of athlete. I'm talking about baseball athleticism. That is the direction the game is moving and even Beane knows this, having acquired athletic players like Coco Crisp, Yoennis Cespedes and Josh Reddick in the last couple of years. The good news is that the Cubs are ahead of the curve when it comes to acquiring those kinds of players, though most of them are still a couple of years away. There is plenty of baseball athleticism in their system -- and many of them are the same prospects we mentioned earlier.
Albert Almora is one player I would describe as having great baseball athleticism. He may have average speed, but his ability to read the bat off the ball makes him an outstanding defender with great range. He doesn't possess a Junior Lake like bazooka for an arm but a quick release and great accuracy make that arm a legit weapon for him. He is not physically imposing but outstanding timing, hand-eye coordination and a fluid swing with good plane allow him to make hard contact consistently.
But it's not just Almora.
Alcantara's speed, instincts, and ability to read pitchers makes him a more efficient base stealer than his raw speed would indicate-- and he has the pitch recognition skills to take pitches and get on base to utilize that weapon. Javier Baez's tremendously quick hands and wrists give him as much in-game power as the mighty Cunningham could only show in batting practice.
We could go on, of course, but I think you get the idea by now. Athleticism in baseball is more complicated than just raw strength and speed. It also involves a high level of kinesthetic intelligence, timing, hand-eye coordination, and more nuanced natural abilities and strengths. It also takes players who are willing to devote a lot of time, focus, and effort transforming tools into baseball skills -- and the staff to guide them there.
So while the Cubs have focused on developing a better approach, they've also been focused on taking better athletes. Rather than focus on specific positions, they are focusing on just getting the best athlete with the best approach to the game. At times it seems, this seems like it has resulted in a glut of infielders and CF'ers -- but the other thing you get with good baseball athleticism is versatility and as you move from the center of the field to the corners, the infield to the outfield, and from the infield to catcher, you not only fill organizational needs, but you increase the value of that player's athleticism.
Kris Bryant may not be a top shelf athlete as a 3B, but if you have to move him, his solid speed and strong arm potentially make him a very good corner outfielder. Baez may not be as fluid at SS as Francisco Lindor, but put those same abilities at 3B and you have yourself an above average athlete at the position. Arismendy Alcantara may not have the footwork to play SS, but his quickness, range, and arm are all plus assets at 2B. Further down the ladder, the Cubs are moving Mark Malave, who was athletic enough to have played every infield position, to catcher where he is an above average athlete. Wilson Contreras went from a 3B and outfielder with average to above average athletic skills to a catcher with great athletic skills. We have already seen how Welington Castillo's athleticism as a former infielder translates into his tremendous agility behind the plate, making him among the best in the game at blocking pitches.
What the Cubs may wind up with is a team that has athletes all over the field, which can help their range and overall defense as well as their ability to occasionally take an extra base and creating runs where a slower team may run station to station and require that one extra hit to score, better base-running could help the Cubs score more efficiently. Athleticism even extends to the pitchers, not just because they have to bat and run the bases in the NL, but it also helps when it comes to things such as repeating their delivery and developing consistent command.
So while I'm not into creating future lineups, this does make me think of what the most baseball specific athletic lineup the team could put together with the current players in the organization.
So here goes...
- Arismendy Alcantra, 2B
- Albert Almora, CF
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B
- Kris Bryant, RF
- Javier Baez, 3B
- Jorge Soler, LF
- Starlin Castro, SS
- Welington Castillo, C
Bench: Junior Lake, Logan Watkins, Mike Olt, Willson Contreras, Marco Hernandez -- all players who could play multiple positions.
- Jeff Samardzija
- Pierce Johnson
- C.J. Edwards
- Travis Wood
- Edwin Jackson/Paul Blackburn
I'm not even going to get into the athletic guys that could wind up in the bullpen because there are so, so many, but guys like Dillon Maples, Arodys Vizcaino, and Duane Underwood would probably top the list.
Combined with a good approach, good baseball-specific athleticism is rapidly becoming a more valuable commodity in today's game. It affords the team flexibility and the ability to create and save runs efficiently on the bases, at the plate, on the mound, and in the field.
And it won't be long before you see these kinds of players all over the Cubs roster.
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