The Cubs were a bit more reactive in the market this year. To some degree, they reacted to the success of teams who won with great defense and contact rates. They also reacted to a lineup flaw exposed by the Mets. While it is obviously preferable to be ahead of the curve on such things and the Cubs were almost certainly aware of their shortcomings, their success came too quickly for them to address all of their needs at once. It is practically impossible to stay ahead of everything. They had to adapt. A good organizations should react quickly to patch up weaknesses, especially when they are this close to being a World Series contender. Under the circumstances, that is all we could ask for. The team is no longer in the position to wait on prospects.
But there is a problem when a team is reactive in that they can't jump the market. Players become costly, both in free agency and in the trade market. While the Royals, Pirates, and Rays were able to contend in recent seasons in large part due to cost-controlled run prevention, the Cubs had to go out and spend big to get Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. They did what they had to do and it is hard to argue both players aren't about as perfect a fit as we could reasonably expect to be available. Given the timing and opportunity, they had to pounce. And as we have said in the past, if you are going to spend big, spend it on great fits. Spend it on impact players. And spend when the opportunity to win is there. Last but not least, remember that unlike some of the teams mentioned, the Cubs can spend big. They have the wherewithal to do so. That is an advantage they have over many teams, so they would be foolish not to use it. They spent years preserving this kind of payroll flexibility for the right moment.
Now is the right moment.
Part of the need to shore up the defense is a byproduct of a high percentage strategy of investing in polished hitters in the amateur market. The Cubs beat everyone to the punch to three of the best young hitters in baseball in Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler. It came with a price, however. Those polished hitters had less polished defense, but their advanced bats carried them to the big leagues quickly and as unfinished products.
Schwarber had to essentially learn the OF on a fly. Soler showed he could make quick adjustments at the plate, succeeding at each level despite not playing a full season at any level. Soler made his MLB debut after just 155 minor league games since signing in 2012, 136 of them in RF -- and even that was after a long layoff after defecting from Cuba. That is about one season's worth of experience over the past 4 to 5 years. Kyle Schwarber played just 147 minor games -- and only 36 in LF. Kris Bryant is the elder statesman here with 167 minor league games at his current position and 181 overall. In some respects, at least when it comes to defense, the Cubs were victims of their own success when it came to scouting and signing hitters who could move through the system quickly.
Of the three, Kris Bryant is the most polished at his position and by some defensive metrics was an asset. The same is not true of Schwarber and Soler, both of whom will need to work to improve significantly on defense. That will likely be a focus of both players heading into 2016.
When it came to adding position players last year, the Cubs focused on bringing in experienced players who could change the culture, both in the clubhouse and at the plate. They wanted leaders and veterans to set an example by grinding out ABs, so they traded for Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero. That plan worked. But although Fowler's defense was better than advertised and Montero earned high marks for his framing and game management, neither was an asset on defense overall.
So the Cubs set out to fix that in free agency.
There wasn't much they could do about that. The rebuilding plan brought them great offense, 97 wins, and an NLCS berth earlier than anyone could have expected. Who can argue with that kind of sudden success? And looked at another way, the Cubs won't have to worry about having to pay big for power bats for the next 5 years.
The Cubs could not wait for their defensively oriented players to develop, nor did they have time for their offensively-oriented players to polish up their defensive skills. But the good news is that there is low, cost-controlled defensive help on the way.
Here are some players who could give the Cubs more efficient, cost-controlled defense and contact ability in the next year or so, perhaps as soon as this upcoming season...
Allmora has a good shot to start in AAA after a strong finish to his AA season. Almora has been rushed, in part due to injuries and in part because the Cubs may have overestimated how advanced he was at the plate. Almora had a career high 7.1% walk rate to go with a career low 10.4% K rate. Over his last 160 PAs, those rates improved to a 9.9% walk rate and a 9.3% K rate. Not coincidentally, Almora put up a .400 wOBA and a 148 RC+ in that stretch, both marks are well above average. Whether that represents small sample size noise or a genuine improvement in Almora's approach remains to be seen, but given that he finally had his first full healthy year at one level, there is at least some hope it is the latter and that it finally clicked for Almora.
Not many will question his defense, where he makes up for slightly above average speed with great reads and routes. Almora's right-handedness is less of a concern with Heyward, Zobrist (S). Rizzo, and Schwarber all likely to be here for at least the next 3 years.
Contreras may be ready just about the time when the Cubs veteran catchers are beginning to decline. He is not the framer or game manager that Montero, but he is far better at blocking balls in the dirt and throwing out baserunners, not to mention the athleticism he shows jumping out of his crouch to make plays on bunts and squibbers. He can still make mistakes from time to time -- often because he plays the position aggressively, but with more time at catcher in 2016, he should continue to improve quickly.
At the plate, Contreras has the discipline to wait for his pitches and hands that are quick enough to turn on good fastballs while also being strong enough to take the ball the other way with authority. That approach has led to a dramatic increase in his walk rate (10.9%) and steep decline in his K rate (11.9%). Those numbers held pretty steady during his injury shortened time in the AFL. Like Almora, Contreras has a shot to start at AAA.
Billy McKinney, OF
McKinney doesn't play a premium position but the signing of Heyward along with reports that they were outbid by three teams show that corner OF defense has become much more valuable in recent years. McKinney is a good athlete with a strong arm who has a chance to become an above average defender.
At Myrtle Beach this year, McKinney put up a 13.4% walk rate vs just a 10.4% K rate before those numbers dropped at AA to 8.8% and 15.4%, respectively. Still those numbers are very respectable who played most of the season as a 20 year old in one of the toughest pitchers' leagues (Carolina) and as one of the youngest players in AA. He could start there again, but has a chance to reach AAA, if not to start the season than certainly at some point in the year.
Jeimer Candelario, 3B
He's not a gold glover on defense but he is certainly not as bad as he was portrayed this fall. For one, it was a long season and nobody had issues giving AJ Reed or JP Crawford a pass for that and secondly, I was told that Candelario was really determined to make the 40 man roster and figured his hitting would speak louder than his defense in that pursuit, so focusing on his hitting made sense. On the other hand, we forgot the raves Candelario got on his defensive improvement from his coaches and teammates -- including Montero, who was on MLB rehab at Tennessee.
But while he has improved on defense, he won't be a plus defender there. The Cubs would probably settle for MLB average. Candelario's strength will always be his hitting and he began to turn that around before the fall. In 182 PAs at AA, Candelario put up a 12.1% walk rate and an 11.5% K rate -- the strikeout rate is one he sustained into the AFL.
Candelario's biggest obstacle is where he fits as his best positions on defense -- 3B and 1B -- are set for the foreseeable future. For now Candelario will provide depth at the upper minors, perhaps as high as AAA Iowa.
Gleyber Torres, SS
Torres is still more than a year away but has a shot to reach AA this coming season, putting him on the doorstep for 2017. Like Candelario, Torres is blocked at his primary position, but he could easily shift to 2B, where most scouts believe he can be an excellent defender.
Torres' K rate (21%) is not as impressive as the others on this list, but keep in mind he was hitting in a pitcher's league where the average player was 3 to 4 years older. His solid 9.4% walk rate gives some indication of his mature approach, as does his willingness to go to all fields. He more than held his own and just needs time and experience.
The Cubs were able to find success quickly with good pitching and a young, powerful, grind-it-out offense. That success shouldn't be confused with the Cubs fielding a complete team last season. They worked hard and paid handsomely to quickly correct that this offseason, but there is hope that the Cubs talent pipeline could continue to keep them balanced for the long term as well.
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