It seems pretty clear at this point that the Cubs will finish in the bottom 10 in wins for the fifth year running. In addition to the opportunity to add to their collection of impact players headlined by recent 1st rounder Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber, one of the big benefits to finishing this poorly is the ability to sign a free agent who has been given a qualifying offer and only surrender a second round pick instead of a first round pick. There is significant support among Cubs fans to take advantage of this and sign someone like James Shields or Max Scherzer. I think this is exactly the wrong thing to do, for several reasons.
First, I hate the phrase "it's only a second round pick." It's true, second round picks tend to not make the majors but it's also true that a lot of really talented players have come out of the second round. The 2009 second round, for example, yielded Billy Hamilton, Nolan Arenado, Jason Kipnis, and Patrick Corbin. The upside from second round picks is extremely high. That upside has value even if they never reach their full potential: the Tigers just traded second rounder Drew Smyly to the Rays as a major piece to acquire David Price. This is critical to us as, eventually, we will want to make a deadline deal to boost our chances in the playoffs. Having prospects with elite upside is a valuable commodity in today's game.
Looking just at Cubs second round picks since Theo has taken over, Duane Underwood, taken in the second round in 2012, was taken as a raw but athletic high schooler. Despite consistently being among the youngest guys in every league he's played in, he's starting to harness his loose delivery and plus fastball into consistent performances. His secondaries will determine whether he will be a top of the rotation starter or a reliever long term but he has a lot of value right now. 2013 and 2014 saw them use the pick to increase the depth of drafts. 2014, in particular, allowed them to take Dylan Cease, Carson Sands, and Justin Steele in the middle rounds. At least one of those pitchers would have been unsignable without the money from the second round pick.
Admittedly, this looks minor when compared to our system as a whole. Of the guys I've mentioned, only Underwood pokes his head out at the bottom of our Top 20. However, what's important to keep in mind is that the Cubs system is stacked right now precisely because we've been focusing on stacking it. Of the guys in mlb.com's mid-season Top 20, 8of them are the direct result of the decision to acquire prospects and draft picks at the cost of current wins:Addison Russell, C.J. Edwards, Billy McKinney, Arodyz Vizcaino, Pierce Johnson (acquired for not re-signing Aramis Ramirez), Victor Caratini, Kyle Hendricks, and Corey Black. This ignores recent graduates from the system Mike Olt and Neil Ramirez and Christian Villanueva, who fell off after an up and down first half. It also ignores the acquisition of high floor talent like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber through the strategy. While it is a good thing but this collection of talent is about to graduate from the Top 20, the talent will need to be replaced somehow. It will no longer be from deadline deals -- in fact, we're likely to reduce our minor league talent through deadline deals in the future. The next stream of talent will have to come from the draft and IFA signings. In this new world, second round picks are a critical means of bringing in talent and, indeed, picks acquired using either the pick or the money from the last 3 second rounds seem likely to be well represented on Cubs Top 20 lists in 2016 and beyond (Underwood, Hannemann, Zastryzny, Stinnett, Sands, Cease, and Steele).
In addition to this, there are reasons related to organizational behavior as to why I'm against giving up a draft pick to sign a free agent. If the Cubs had identified one of the players receiving a qualifying offer as a player the absolutely want, then I have no problem giving up a second round pick or even a first round pick for him. Just reading tea leaves, David Price seems to fit this bill. In this case, it really is a one time decision to give up a pick to add the crown jewel to your team. However, if an organization goes into every offseason and says, "We need to improve at position X. Player Y is the best X available and all he costs us is a draft pick." The issue becomes you can find an upgrade available every year.
Consider this scenario: Cubs sign Scherzer this year. Well, next year they sign Price because they wanted him all along. The next year Giancarlo Stanton is on the market and how can you NOT try to grab a sure fire Hall of Famer in his mid-20s? All of a sudden, you look up and you've given up picks for 3 years running. The talent coming into your system is going to suffer. The Cubs skewed heavily towards minor league talent acquisition for the last 3 years but, now that we've acquired talent, I'd argue it's a mistake to skew towards major league talent acquisition. Being balanced is going to leave us in position to make big deadline moves to make deep playoff runs year in and year out.
It's been a long road and we can finally see the end. That doesn't mean now is the time to abandon long term thinking just to acquire short term fixes. We've already seen the benefits of long term planning. Those benefits will continue to accrue, even if they take different forms.
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