Fans want to see Mike Olt play. I can understand that. He represents the future — a future that promises better days for the Cubs. Luis Valbuena, on the other hand, represents the painful part of the rebuild. He’s the guy who got dumped from another team, picked up on waivers, and found his way to the Cubs starting lineup. Cubs fans can’t wait to press the fast forward button and to some part of that means installing Olt at 3rd and relegating Valbuena to the bench. Rick Renteria’s refusal to do so has caused the wrath to come down on Valbuena as some sort of teacher’s pet that the manager plays irrationally.
I don’t agree — at least not with the part about sending Valbuena to the bench. That would be the irrational move. I understand wanting to see Olt in the lineup but Valbuena needs to play. A while back I suggested a solution where Olt plays at 3B while Valbuena moves to 2B and platoons there with Bonifacio, while Bonifacio plays the OF vs. RHP. The set-up would also allow the Cubs to still break in Olt at a pace they feel is appropriate, perhaps resting him vs. tough RHPs as Valbuena can always slide back over to 3B.
If you want to know the reasons why he should stay in the lineup, look no further than yesterday’s game where Valbuena grinded out AB after AB, facing a whopping 40 pitches in 5 ABs. Valbuena himself saw 3-4 innings worth of what the Cubs as a whole normally see in term of total pitches. Just as importantly, he got on base 3 times and each time he was directly involved in Cubs runs. His OBP right now is .423, second on the team to Anthony Rizzo.
Behind those two players, the Cubs rank 6th in the NL in OBP, a category in which the team normally finishes at or near the bottom of the league, including second to last in 2013 and dead last in 2012.
The importance of OBP and grinding out ABs cannot be underestimated. On the surface, more base runners directly correlates to scoring more runs. Beyond that, it allows hitters to get a better look at what the pitcher has in terms of stuff and what he’s bringing in terms of his approach on the mound. Then, of course, it chips away at the pitcher in terms of how long he can stay in the game by piling up his pitch count — so even if it doesn’t pay off early in the game, that tends to change as the game goes on as the pitcher tires and, eventually, the team has to go to it’s middle relief. Middle relievers are a weakness for most teams and getting them in the game can help you score even more runs.
That’s all well and good, you might say — but what about the future? What about “finding out what Mike Olt can do”?
First of all, the Cubs have a pretty good idea of what Mike Olt can do, they’ve been scouting him for the past 2+ years, which is why they wrestled with the decision to start him on the Opening Day roster instead of Iowa. It is also why they’re trying to put him in situations where he can succeed — something they’ve done a pretty job with so far. They know he still has some things to work on and they know there will certain situations where he’ll be over-matched — those are situations that do nothing for a player’s development and in fact, could harm it. Remember when Josh Vitters played sparingly and fans insisted on playing him everyday and seeing “what he can do”? What we find out was that he was over-matched when he played on an everyday basis and giving him that experience has brought him no closer to the big leagues today.
There seems to be a line of thinking that players can only develop if they play everyday regardless of circumstance or situation. We assume that every player thrives in a sink or swim situation. Where is that written? As a lifelong educator, that has not been my experience at all. I find that while there are exceptions, most students thrive when they’re built up to something until they can handle an entire assignment. Can we not consider the Cubs are taking this kind of approach with Olt, who is still learning the game? Is it not possible that a front office and manager who have a strong reputation for evaluating and developing talent might just know exactly what they’re doing here by not exposing Olt to situations they don’t feel he is yet equipped to handle?
It’s not like Olt hasn’t been playing. He’s tied for 6th in games played (same as Nate Schierholtz and one game less than Valbuena) and 8th in at-bats.. That’s pretty consistent playing time, which is what you really want to see. Olt has had consistent playing time in situations the Cubs feel he is ready to handle right no — I can live with that.
But let’s get back to Valbuena here. The key to the Cubs success in the future is larger than one single player or prospect. It depends a great deal on changing the Cubs philosophy and culture. It’s about changing an approach that used to be about who could get that big hit or that big RBI and re-focusing that to a more team-oriented approach where getting on base is paramount, even if it means letting the guy behind you in the lineup get the glory. It’s about wearing down a pitcher and taking a disciplined approach to every AB where you make the pitcher work and beat you instead of letting you get yourself out. Make your opponent beat you. And even if you don’t beat the pitcher in that particular AB, you still chip away and perhaps those gains come later. In short, it’s about looking at the bigger picture within an AB, within a game, within a season — and within the scope of what this organization is trying to accomplish overall. And whether you like it or not, few Cubs players embody this right now better than Luis Valbuena. The Cubs can preach their philosophy until the players ears start to bleed but nothing beats seeing it in practice from one of the most respected veterans on the team. Nothing bests seeing first hand what it can do for your offense — as the Cubs saw last night. How do we expect the Cubs to put such a player on the bench? What does that do for the Cubs credibility when they spend so much time talking about what they want to see in their players? Does it become just lip service when you bench a player who is doing exactly what the front office is asking everyone to do?
That is why you have to play Valbuena vs. RHP until he proves he’s no longer an asset in that role and the kids show they are ready to not just hit the occasional HR, but to grind it out and take the kind of approach at the plate that will help the team win ballgames. After all, that is what this is all about, right? Teaching players how to win ballgames? While the Cubs have been one of the worst teams in baseball the past two seasons, they’re still a major league team and the MLB is not a developmental league in the same way that the minor leagues are. Winning matters and even if you’re not good at it now, you can at least learn the process and the right approach to becoming a winning ballplayer and ballclub. And while he doesn’t have the talent of Mike Olt or any of the Cubs top prospects, few Cubs players do that better than Luis Vabuena right now. Yes, players like Olt need to play, but it doesn’t hurt them to watch and learn once in awhile too.