The Cubs’ Off-Season Player Development Decision

A funny thing happened to the Cubs’ minor league organization on its way to being a perennial National League contender. A system that was painstakingly built from 2012 to have “position redundancy” was suddenly finding itself lacking in talent. While the graduation to the major leagues of first round draft picks Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ had a little something to do with the decline, trades of highly rated prospects Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney, Dan Vogelbach, Donnie Dewees, Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Jeimer Candelario, and Isaac Parades contributed.

But the roots of the current state of the Cubs minor leagues run deeper than promotions and trades. From the beginning, the Cubs’ front office failed to get any significant returns on players such as DJ LeMahieu, Ryan Flaherty, Marwin Gonzalez, Justin Bour, Marco Hernandez, and Welington Castillo. The international free agent buying binge of 2014 that netted Torres and Jimenez among others got the Cubs slapped with a three year signing restriction that they are just coming out from under. In addition, the Cubs lost their first two picks of the 2016 draft for signing Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. The 2016 draft was also the first time since 2010 that the Cubs did not have a top ten selection.

All this has led to, depending on who you read, the Cubs minor league system lacking in any impact players or having a very raw prospect base. So it is very curious as to why a franchise that has averaged 30 prospects participating in the winter leagues over the last seven seasons had only 18 playing currently, and saw them pull back in participation in the Fall Instructional League.

Following the end of the 2017 season, the Cubs decided to shake up their major league coaching staff. They parted ways with pitching coach Chris Bosio, hitting coach John Mallee, assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, and third base coach Gary Jones; they have been replaced by Jim Hickey, Chili Davis, Andy Haines, and Brian Butterfield. Teams usually make announcements concerning their minor league coaching staffs following the winter meetings. However, the Cubs have yet to make any statements concerning their minor league coaches for 2018. It is not certain as to whether this has effected any decision making over direction of player development.

It is unclear as to whether the major leagues decided not to field an “advanced instructional” league this past fall, or the Cubs chose not to participate. What is clear is that the Cubs did choose to become more insular with their own instructional players, not scrimmaging against anyone outside the organization and holding only one intra-squad game. The instructional league is usually a very loose affair, with teams often setting up parameters prior to a game in order to maximize the best experience for prospects. The Fall Instructional League is usually when international signees get their first experience in Mesa. It is also where players are moved around in order to find out what they “can” do, as opposed to “want” to be.

The winter leagues have long been a place where players can go to improve their games in a relaxed, but still competitive setting. The biggest advantage of the winter league is the diversity of rosters. Winter league rosters include not only up-and-coming prospects, but current and former major-leaguers along with local favorites. The exposure to a wide range of players on both sides of the field as well as the competition often has an accelerating effect on prospects.  The Cubs have seen at firsthand how this can benefit players with the following two recent examples.

Marwin Gonzalez went from unknown infielder to a highly regarded prospect in 2011/ Scott Jontes - MiLB

Marwin Gonzalez went from unknown infielder to a highly regarded prospect in 2011/ Scott Jontes - MiLB

Following the 2010 minor league season, Marwin Gonzalez was a 21 year old utility infielder with a career batting average of .243 before playing for Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League. Gonzalez would go on to hit .324 with 38 RBI in 59 games for the Leones and carried that momentum over to the next minor league season. Gonzalez was a combined .288 for Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa before being plucked from the Cubs organization in the Rule 5 draft. Gonzalez went on to be a vital cog for the Houston Astros in 2017, contributing heavily to their World Series Championship.

In 2014, Willson Contreras had only a career .253 batting average over six minor league seasons and was considered a “four corners” back-up type of player who had recently added catching to his skills, and had already been exposed to the Rule 5 draft. While hitting only .273 in 26 games for Aragua in the VWL, Contreras was able to benefit from the experience of catching major league pitchers Freddy Garcia, Wil Ledezma, and Chris Smith along with the guidance of veteran catcher Gustavo Molina. That set the stage for Contreras’ 2015 season, in which he was the breakout prospect for all of baseball. Contreras captured the Southern League batting title with a .333 average and was named the top catching prospect by nearly every publication.

While there is debate about the overall current talent level for the Cubs’ minor league system, there is no doubt that there are players that could have benefited from the experience winter baseball brings. Emerging sluggers such as outfielder Eddie Julio Martinez and catcher/first baseman Tyler Alamo could have prepared to make the big jump to Double-A ball next season, while athletic players such as outfielders Luis Ayala and Chris Pieters, along with infielders Andrew Monasterio and Yeiler Peguero could have used more experience. The Cubs also had several pitchers coming off of injury-plagued seasons such as David Berg, Jose Rosario, and Rob Zastryzny who could have used extra innings. And following some tough times in 2017, pitchers like Zach Hedges and Ryan McNeil could have used a potential boost in confidence. In addition, the Cubs could have seen just how far 2017 minor league bright spots such as reliever Dakota Mekkes, swingman Michael Rucker, and infielders Zack Short and Austin Upshaw have progressed.

However, there are some risks involved with some of these off season activities, particularly the winter leagues. In the past decade, the leagues have grown to become a little more parochial, and less inviting to “non-native” players. In an ugly 2012 situation, Cubs prospect Bryan LaHair was blowing the VWL competition away during the first five weeks before being harassed by a local Venezuelan reporter calling himself “Pepi Beisbal”. LaHair left Magallanes for a short period of time before being coaxed back by the team, and suffered from harsh fan reaction every time he stepped on the field for the rest of the season. Yet, LaHair was able lead the VWL in home runs and was named Winter League MVP by several outlets, and went on to be a major league All-Star the following season. Also in 2012, Ranger farmhand and future Cubs prospect Mike Olt was off to a good start in the Dominican Republic before being beaned, effecting his vision for the rest of his life. After being ranked in the top 25 of all baseball prospects prior to the incident, Olt has played only 135 major league games to date.

There are also other risks. For the most part, the places where the winter leagues are held are not the safest places on earth. Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico this past September and wiped out the Roberto Clemente League for this year. There has been ongoing political unrest in Venezuela and drug violence in Mexico. And there have been many incidents car crashes leading to injuries and even deaths in the Dominican Republic. One such incident particularly struck close to home as four Cubs prospects had to be pulled out of a fiery car crash in 2014 that resulted in ending the baseball careers of pitcher Jose Zapata and 2013 Northwest League batting champion Kevin Encarnacion.

But the apparent risks are the same each ballplayer takes whenever they show up at the park. And while there is no guarantee that a player will become a Gonzalez or Contreras, the opportunity is real. With the Cubs essentially sitting out this off season’s opportunities, it will be interesting to see the effects on the organization and its players.

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  • A thank you to Jared Wyllys and Michael Ernst for their assistance on this article.

  • Tom, the Roberto Clemente Puerto Rican winter league is not cancelled. They will have a protracted 18 game, 4 team season this year. It was announced back in November.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Also, MLB did not cancel Instructional games, the Cubs simply did not participate in them feeling that their time was better spent coaching up their players and that little value was derived from the competition.

  • And I usually don't do this but I feel compelled to comment on how you described the regions in which the winter leagues are played as unsafe and parochial. I'm bothered by an apparent lack of perspective and working off of isolated incidents and generalities to draw your conclusions. It smacks of the outsiders point of view. It's uneducated and judgmental.

    How easy would it be for an outsider to look at the reports of Chicago's gang violence and murder rate and conclude that it's not safe to be a baseball player there? But we know the truth because we've spent time actually living there. Have you ever lived in the areas where the winter leagues are happening?

    And MLB has had it's "parochial" moments in recent years as well. Racial epithets being yelled at players. Dramatic bat flips and other exuberance being booed. Heck, a player openly mocked another player's Asian heritage and appearance during the freaking World Series last year.

    Careful, brother. Those are dangerous generalities you are throwing out there...

  • In reply to Quedub:

    My guess is that more people were killed by gun violence last year in Las Vegas alone than in all of these countries combined.

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    That guess would be very wrong, and I think this isn't a course of conversation that leads to anything productive. Quedub made his point, which is valid, and there are questions regarding players' security is less than secure areas of the world than we enjoy here in the U.S. We can debate that without diverging into other agendas.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    No cute song?

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    A little tension here? I could drop some socially significant rhymes, but I'd rather diffuse the situation with a little Steve Winwood. Talk about a genius, and in his prime:

    "Don't worry too much,
    It will happen to you.
    We were children once,
    Playing with toys."

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Good choice of artist. I would have picked High Ground for your message:

    People keep on learnin'
    Soldiers keep on warrin'
    World keep on turnin'
    'Cause it won't be too long

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    Thanks. I have lived and experienced the baseball trade in South Florida. Watching these kids come over with state-sponsored steroid abuse is frightening. The way some of these players families are held hostage for ransom is sickening. The "agents" that represent these kids are in fact human traffickers. There are so many occurrences of kidnapping and ransom. You may hate the American political process, but Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo's family were not held for ransom. There is a point of debate here, it is about the security and lawfullness of other cultures, and I don't like seeing everyone bash America. We are the greatest country in the world, and anyone who disagrees hasn't lived elsewhere.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Hate the American political system? I tend to agree with Winston Churchill, and I paraphrase: The U.S. has the worst political system in the world. Expect for all the others.

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    In reply to Cubswin09:

    Says Mr. Pulitzer Prize winner.

  • Always with the personal attacks.

    Sad.

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    In reply to Cubswin09:

    I think the auto-correct was at it again--except instead of "expect."

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    Over all painting bround stroke is bad. But there is one country I won't want ball players in

    But as far a Venezuela league, I would be concerned that is a dangerous county.

    We have friends that moved to the US last year from Venezuela. It is estimated that in 2016 that there was about 30,000 murders.

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    That might be the most misinformed opinion I've ever seen posted on the Internet.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    In no way do I place racial epithets and being booed for "dramatic bat flips" in the same category. I don't yell racial epithets, but I'll reserve my right to boo a bat-flippin' show off if I want to.

  • Thank you for your views here, very interesting. One small thing I will note is that we did not receive a 3 year signing restriction for the Eloy/Gleyber class. We received a one year restriction, after which we signed the class with Albertos and others. That class netted us with a two year restriction that ends in time for the Cubs to sign players in the upcoming 2018-19 international signing season.

  • In reply to springs:

    So many factual errors in this one.

  • In reply to springs:

    Also the Eloy/Gleyber class was 2013 and not 2014.

  • In reply to John57:

    Yeesh. Well everyone's allowed a bad day every now and then...

  • In reply to John57:

    That draft pick we lost for Justin Heyward hurts the most!

  • The development of our very young prospects is very important.
    Getting the right instructors is also very important

  • That list in one place of the highly rated prospects traded was an eye opener.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Yeah, like most new regimes they moved out a lot of the previous FO's prospects and rebuilt the system in their own image with their own guys. I really wish this FO (and all new regimes really) were more patient with such things, but unfortunately this is SOP for some reason. You do have to give them some credit for hanging on to and developing Baez and Contreras so they didn't throw everyone out.

  • I wander if Marwin would see much playing time if he was still with us? It would kind of be nice to still have Marco.

  • Did I miss something or is our Bench Coach position still vacant? Latest rumors on who (m) it might be?

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Brandon Hyde will be the bench coach. Will Venable will take his place a first base coach.

  • I'd like to see some discussion on the main point of the article - have the Cubs changed or neglected the development process for prospects? What's different, and what results should we expect?

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    The idea that the Cubs have neglected the developmental process for prospects is absurd. So, no, they haven't. Did they change how they develop players? Yes, and they are all the time. Tweaking, updating, learning.

    Basically this entire article from conception to execution was poorly done.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Not only is it not absurd but it is factually accurate particularly in the lack of talent received for value given. The trade of LeMathieu to CO should go down as one of the all time boots--bordering on the Brock disaster. They have made a multitude of other mistakes as were specifically pointed out in the article. Long story short, the front office has not been all that accurate in evaluating talent. The total lack of pitching and subsequent development is critical--not in a good way. If you think living in the Dominican, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and much of Mexico is better than living in the US, be my guest.

  • In reply to veteran:

    Hey veteran, try reading. Wow...

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Hey, Quedub. I've missed you and am glad to see you back. You are incredibly knowledgeable and I enjoy your insight. But the comments you are making seem a little petty, like there may be some personal envy. I look forward to all of your knowledge, but not the denigration. Authors do have a bad day or a bad piece, but there is no reason to rub it in. We all read and debate each other, and I don't feel the need to put down others, no matter how juvenile my own views may be.

  • In reply to veteran:

    Lemahieu wasn't very highly rated when he was traded (Ian Stewart had some upside though), and he's not a very good player now.
    One day, people will learn to understand park factor. Lemahieu would not start on the current Cubs.

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    That's true Kramerica20. The year before the Cubs got Stewart he hit .156. There was nowhere to go but up in that hitter friendly Coors park. That was just a bad trade.

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    Sure...He was just a 2nd round slug, fast tracking his way through the Cubs system... got himself to Wrigley at the old age of 22...

    It’s not about playing on this team. They could have gotten more for him & guys like Gonzalez etc... instead of injury plagued guys who would never pan out... or just let a guy go in rule 5. It’s the collective.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    How much could they have gotten for him? It's not like they even traded away a talented player. He's had exactly 1 good year. If he didn't play 81 games/season in Colorado no one would even remember his name. Lemahieu is average. He's the definition of average. The Rockies won the trade because he is still around, but the Cubs didn't get pantsed like everyone insinuates. Lemahieu is incredibly overrated.

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    Last 3 years .319/.383/.430. I'd say he has had 3 very good years from 2015-2017. I'll give you his home vs away games is better but not by as much as one would think.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    His wRC+ in those years is 91, 134, 94. He's slugged .430 in the best hitters park in history, despite carrying a .300 average. This highlights my point perfectly. Do you know how hard it is to .ISO less than .100 in Colorado? In 2017 Lemahieu was 15th in baseball in wRC+ for 2B. Guys directly ahead of him: Yolmer Sanchez and Javy Baez. Oh, and 2017 was his 2nd best career offensive season.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    I don't remember him even being highly rated. He was a batting average hitter in the minors with no walks or power. He's Ryan Theriot with a better glove. I'd say he compares to Chesney Young but Chesney Young actually draws BB.

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    He was. I paid attention back then, not as much as I do now... How many 22 yr olds get their 1st call- up? There was some talk of possibly 3B or 2B as to where he’d play. No one claimed him HoF, but he had a very good prospect status. I was thinking at the time Stewart better be good for the price. And coming off a wrist injury, “what are they doing?”... That pitcher we laughed at & knew was not gonna be good.

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    I still don't think that (at the time) the trade for Stewart was a bad idea, it just didn't work out, and LeMahieu ended up developing far more/better than the Cubs management had thought.

    At that time LeMahieu was generally thought of as a guy who was probably going to be a decent UT-IF, and the Cubs needed a 3B guy after letting ARam go. Stewart seemed like a guy who might be a decent, low-price, change of scenery guy. In hindsight - that was a mistake on both ends of the trade.

    But nobody gets everything right. On average, they've made solid moves AND they have built a team that has made it to the National League Championship series 3 seasons in a row. Not to mention that WS title.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Stewart was also a good 3rd baseman for a team that was tanking. All part of the bigger picture. ;)

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Exactly. Stewart was a high-upside bat who hadn't lived up to his potential (probably partly because he turned out to be huge jerk, but that's neither here nor there). Regarding what Lemahieu was thought of... he WOULD be a highly-rated utility IF on any other team in baseball. The Cubs traded him to the one place where he would be a .300 hitter.
    Complaining about the moves the Cubs have missed on is nothing but purposely looking for a reason to complain. This FO turned a 100 loss dumpster fire into a champion and perennial NL contender over a 4 year span. They turned prospect busts into dominant pitchers, turned middling prospects into dominant position players, hit well on every 1st round draft pick, and did very well in FA (obviously missed on E Jacskon and Heyward). What is there to complain about?

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    And even Heyward as a Free Agent hire hasn't been a total misfire,.... just far more expensive than a great glove-first outfielder should cost.

    If the worst 'mistakes' that management has made that can be pointed at are trading a suspected UT-IF for Stewart, a not unreasonable FA contract for E. Jackson who picked those seasons to lose his (limited) mojo, and an overpay for GG OF Heyward - then they have done pretty well for themselves.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    I agree. The contracts to Jackson and Heyward look bad in hindsight, but at the time they were very reasonable, if not good moves.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Heyward's contract was wrong from the day the Cubs offered it to him. Way to much money for a corner outfielder with no power. But he will always be remembered by me for his speech in the rain delay just before the Cubs won the world series.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    2016 Cubs,
    I don't agree. He was 26 years old coming off a 6 WAR season, and had been an all-star caliber hitter for 6 seasons. They gave him an AAV of $23M. At the time, $/WAR on the open market was something like $6.5 or $7M. So they paid him like a 3.5ish WAR player. His average fWAR going into FA was 4.6. There was no reason to think he couldn't be a 4-win guy, and that was conservative.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    He's hit over .280 once. Has hit more then 20 homers once. Those are not all star numbers in my opinion. He is a below average hitter but a great defensive player. Not worth $23M a year for 8 years. We will just have to agree to disagree i guess.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Batting average and HR are not the most telling statistics. He wasn't a classic slugging RFer but he carried a good OBP (north of .350) and BB rate, had decent power (ISO north of .150), and was typically a 120 wRC+ guy (or 20% better than the league average hitter).

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Good point....
    Wade Davis for Jorge Soler......that was a good deal.....

    Sometimes they work out sometimes....not

  • In reply to Quedub:

    By "neglected," I only meant that the Cubs FO could have been focused on other priorities. All teams have a developmental process, including the Cubs during their worst years. I don't have an issue with fans debating that process, especially since there isn't a set formula. I still think the Cubs FO gets it right more often than they get it wrong, but I acknowledge that mistakes are made, even among the best.

  • the hot stove season from h*ll continues into the 2nd week of january

    unbelievable

  • In reply to bolla:

    Come on, the Tigers just signed Brayan Pena. That should open the flood gates. Ha ha.

  • Can believe that the 3 pitchers have not made up their mind.
    The GM'S be going nuts. Can't make a trade unless you know
    if you signed a FA

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    Interesting read - the article and the conversation that followed.

  • This FA winter has actually been interesting. Im most impressed with the fact that the majority of the clubs have appeared to have actually come to their senses and won’t overpay for what is available.
    There are good players out there but not for what they want......
    The longer this goes on the lower the prices will be.

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    ... and the more the word "collusion" will be thrown around.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    I don't think that it is anything close to collusion. Organizations have figured out that these long term contracts in years never work out. Agents and players willing to settle for the shorter term get big money per year. There several variables as to why which have been discussed here. It's the new normal.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I don't think it's collusion, either, but I'll bet we'll be hearing that word from agents and some of the press.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Yes & there are shorter offers to these guys. If there weren’t then the agents would have a stance. But Davis got good money, Chatwood, & others...

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    There is no question that a correction was necessary but I'm not sure that this "cold stove" season hasn't gone too far. Part of the issue is that teams more or less set a precedent with these long deals as a way to balance value. They weren't paying a guy thinking that he would be the same player at 38 that he was at 31, they were stretching out the cost of the deal knowing full well that the contract would hurt on the back end. They did this hoping that the front of the deal would help them win. These were really only terrible contracts when the players didn't perform on the front end, Jason Heyward and David Price come to mind. Now teams have decided they don't want to play that game anymore, value they're prospects more and pay guys more but for less years. This isn't going to work with the Machado and Harper contracts though because if you value WAR at $8 mil you can't be paying 6.5 WAR players $54 mil AAV, it's not going to work. So instead you're going to be valuing the second tier players less and it's going to result in a bloodbath in the next CBA negotiations. Again, I'm not saying the new fiscally responsible approach is wrong, I'm saying it's problematic to just flip a switch like this.

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    Have to believe that there will be some movement before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

  • A very interesting story. The minor league approach to winter ball is curious. The Cubs minors under Theo have been the weakest part of the organization. If the player wasn't drafted in the Top 10, we've largely had no luck "developing" them -- the PR advantages of the vaunted "Cubs Way" not withstanding.

    I don't blame them on Marwin Gonzalez. It took him essentially four years to develop into a ML quality offensive player after the Cubs lost him in Rule 5. It's hard to pick which light hitting utility player is finally going to learn which box of Wheaties to eat to take his Slugging Percentage from .400 and less to over .500.

    LeMahieu is a different story. A career .300 hitter in the minors, it wasn't until his 4th season he became a ML .300 hitter. But the organization should have seen the defense. That said at the time, Tyler Colvin was seen as the better trade piece than LeMahieu. Yes, Ian Stewart was a flop, but the Cubs took in a number reclamation projects that worked. Arrieta worked. Strop's value was low after a horrible first half, and then there were the three rehabbing one-year pitcher deals with Maholm, Feldman and Hammels.that worked out quite well.

    But I agree there has been something amiss with the Cubs draft (aside from Top 10 picks) and minor league development system.

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