We hope that his fate changes with the Diamondbacks, but the ultimate failure of Brett Jackson as a prospect in the Cubs organization highlights a significant difference between the current development staff and the one led by the Cubs past regime.
The examples are numerous. Jackson, Josh Vitters, Corey Patterson, and Felix Pie immediately come to mind. Starlin Castro's immense natural talent masked some flaws early in his career as well. He is just now beginning to overcome them.
But we'd also be making a mistake if we didn't acknowledge that the current Cubs staff isn't learning along the way too. They have acknowledged that they called up Anthony Rizzo too early when he was with San Diego. They likely called up Mike Olt before he was ready as well.
Now we are all watching Javier Baez and we can see that he isn't truly MLB ready, but that was by design. The Cubs expected this kind of inconsistency and felt he would be better served by having his flaws exposed now to give them a head start heading into 2015. Time will tell if that was the right decision but it seemed that Baez had AAA figured out already. He needed the challenge of MLB pitchers who were more capable of exploiting him than AAA pitchers were. At Iowa, Baez had adjusted to the point where he could feast on mistakes with regularity, but in order to take the next step as a ballplayer, the Cubs felt he needed to learn that even those adjustments won't be enough at the MLB level. There is still work to be done and there is no better way to tell him that than to let him experience it. In the end, it's a judgment call.
There is a difference between Baez and Jackson, however. Whereas the latter didn't have his flaws addressed properly until late in his career, Baez has made adjustments along the way. That is the difference between this development staff and the last one. With each new level, Baez faced better pitchers who could get him out early and often but he eventually adjusted each time. He has seen his walk rate rise from 3.8% (A) to 6.1% (A+) to 7.9% (AA). He held that percentage at AAA but it was trending upward at the time of his promotion. The Cubs have a development plan that was both consistent and tailored specifically for him. Baez knew what he had to do to get to the major leagues and he has worked hard at meeting those goals. The promotions were aggressive, but they were earned.
The Cubs are doing the same for other prospects, though their development plans are different.
The most frustrating example from a fan's point of view is that of Kris Bryant. In the end, we are fans and not in professional MLB development. It's fun but also a little hard for us to see Bryant cruise through the minors this year with a jaw-dropping line of .336/.431/.685 with 40 HRs between AA and AAA. The wOBA at AAA is .456 and the RC+ is at 175. Those are MVP type levels.
Behind the fun of watching him mash, the question nags: Why isn't he up yet?
Before I answer that we should address another player who was putting up ridiculous numbers at AAA three years ago. The line with that particular player was .331/.404/.652 with a .438 wOBA and an RC+ of 156. Not quite the same level but this player also had a much lower K rate: 21.5% to Bryant's 27.4%. He also had more experience both at AAA (413 PAs to Bryant's 230) and overall (1656 minor league PAs at the time to Bryant's 673). If anything this player, judging by the stat sheet and experience, was more ready for the big leagues then than Bryant is now.
But the catch is he wasn't ready. This player had some holes in his swing that MLB pitchers exploited without mercy. He hit .141/.281/.242 in his first 150 MLB ABs. And no, that player is not Mike Olt. That player was Anthony Rizzo. As we mentioned earlier, the front office admitted they made a mistake calling him up when they did. They should have first addressed holes that they knew he had.
That brings us back to Kris Bryant. The Cubs know he has holes. Bryant knows he has holes. And, most importantly, the league knows he has holes. They attack Kris Bryant in those spots all the time (i.e. up and in in the strike zone). Despite Bryant's gaudy numbers, AAA pitchers who had the stuff and command to execute those holes, did so frequently, getting Bryant to swing and miss quite often. In the majors, there will be many more pitchers who will be able to consistently execute that plan of attack against Bryant.
And while, yes, there are financial considerations involved, it isn't the only reason Bryant is still in AAA. Another poor season has afforded the Cubs a luxury -- that is the luxury of patience. There is no need for him to come up to the majors now and have MLB pitchers exploit a hole everyone knows he has. There is nothing to learn from that aspect at the MLB level, so why not shore up those holes now against a more appropriate level of competition? This is especially relevant since the Cubs don't need Bryant in the sense that they are not going to the playoffs, with or without him.
That is exactly what he is doing and Bryant has made progress in regard to closing up the holes in his swing, a frightening thought for pitchers at any level. In his last 25 games covering 108 PAs, Bryant has struck out 23% of the time. A significant drop from the 30% rate he had in his first 25 games at AAA. Some of that can be chalked up to making those adjustments now. From an observation standpoint, I have seen Bryant recently turn on an inside 97 mph fastball and hit it a mile just foul over the LF wall. Then on the next pitch he took a 95 mph pitch on the inner half and hit it out to left, that time fair for a HR. He has shown he can do it, now it's just a matter of doing it consistently. When Bryant comes up, I expect a very short learning curve as compared to the one Anthony Rizzo had. Could Bryant be productive at the MLB level right now? Absolutely. But if they get a more MLB ready from the get-go with Bryant next year (when it may actually mean something) -- and it also saves them money in the long run, then that's just icing on the cake.
Looking deeper down the system, we find Albert Almora, who is also struggling at AA after struggling early on at Daytona. In between those struggles, Almora seemed to have it figured out. Between the FSL all-star break and his promotion to AA, Almora hit .313/.340/.486 over a period of 44 games (188 PAs), so it is a rather significant sample size. He turned it up another notch in the couple of weeks preceding the promotion.
Almora has been making adjustments of his own. He is working on getting more pitches he can drive, something that has yet to pay off in terms of walk rate, but it is paying off in terms of his slugging prowess. What you don't realize until you see Almora live is not that just he makes contact frequently, as his low K rates imply (11% range before reaching AA), but he is capable of making loud, hard contact. I have seen (and heard) it in instructs and I have seen it in games, but Almora makes contact so easily sometimes that he settles for putting the bat on the ball rather than consistently looking to drive it. That is changing this season. Almora is making a lot of hard quality contact this year, though it admittedly has come sporadically. But the fact that Almora has struggled doesn't mean he isn't making progress. As we so often say here, good process precedes good results. The results will follow but it doesn't always show up right away. I have little doubts that it will with Almora once he settles in at AA. I look for him to have a strong season in 2015.
Lastly, I made an allusion to Olt earlier in the piece. One of our readers ("Jorge Soler") suggested there could be some parallels between Rizzo and Olt, so I decided to look into it a little bit. Olt's MLB numbers are surprisingly similar to Rizzo's early numbers. We gave you Rizzo's earlier in this piece (.141/.281/.242). Olt's career MLB numbers so far are similar, though with about 100 more PAs (.141/.226/.327). Olt, of course, is almost 5 years older than Rizzo was when he put up his numbers, so that must be taken into account.
Still, the early results are encouraging. Olt has become less pull-happy and has become willing to take the ball the other way. That has helped his contact rate (his K rate has dropped to 28%). Just as importantly it has enhanced the quality of his contact -- and by extension, his BABIP numbers. Yes, we know he won't sustain a .411 BABIP, but that's pretty obvious. Nobody is under the illusion that Olt is a .333 hitter. But what's important here is the quality of contact. We talked about Rizzo earlier and I think the parallels fit, at least from a statistical standpoint.
- In his first 23 games back after his MLB debut, Rizzo hit .374/.424/.637 with a, 268 ISO, .423 BABIP, and a 7.1% walk rate.
- In his first 23 games back at AAA, Olt has hit .333/.375/.667 with a .333 ISO, a .411 BABIP and a 6.3% walk rate.
I am not saying Olt will become Rizzo based on that rather small sample size, but the trends here are interesting. Less walks than their previous career minor league norms, more hard contact, and an equally unsustainable BABIP. Both players even made a similar adjustment -- and that is to consciously take the ball the other way when pitcher's work them outside. Rizzo was not and is not a .374 hitter. Olt is not a .333 hitter, so the BABIP concerns are valid in terms of the long term impact on their batting average. But if Olt shows a similar drop off in average with the accompanying increase in walk rate, he could still be a solid ballplayer, albeit more of 3-outcome type hitter. That is, he could be a player who will hit for a low average (.240ish?) with a lot of strikeouts, but who compensates for that with a lot of walks and HR power. I don't think that scenario is unrealistic for Olt and if he can do that with average to slightly above average 3B defense, that player still has value and a viable future in baseball.
The bottom line here is that we are looking at development when it comes to players like Baez, Olt, Almora, and Bryant and sometimes those numbers can be deceivingly good or bad. It's why, even at the upper levels, most modern front offices look at statistics as just half of the picture. Behind the scenes there is player development and each player has their own unique path to MLB success -- and sometimes that conflicts with what we see on the stat sheet.