The Yankees got Aroldis Chapman for a song yesterday, with the Reds getting perhaps a couple of average MLB starters, a bullpen arm, and a utility infielder… at best. They certainly didn’t get the kind of impact prospect you would expect as a return for perhaps the most dominant pitcher in baseball.
Of course, that had a lot to do with the serious allegations against Chapman, which bring his mental makeup into question. I couldn’t help but think about how much things have changed as far as the type of person the Cubs try to bring into the organization, in part because the Yankees employ the Cubs old GM Jim Hendry in a key front office role. It was hard not to be reminded about some of the high profile players the Cubs invested in under his watch: Ben Christensen, Mark Pawelek, Carlos Zambrano, and of course, Milton Bradley. And that is just scratching the surface, the issues ran all the way down the organization, names I will not mention here, but suffice to say that mental makeup did not carry as much weight then as it does now.
The Cubs scouts do thorough background checks on their prospective high round draft picks and free agents. In the case of the draft picks, they talk to the players family, friends, even their teachers, to get an idea of what kind of person they are getting behind the ballplayer. We all know about Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. You’ve also heard me mention the work ethic, coachability, and maturity of young prospects such as Andrew Monasterio, Kwang-Min Kwon, Jonathan Sierra, Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, DJ Wilson, and more. The instructors down here in Arizona raved about the quality of people the Cubs scouting staff continue to bring into the organization.
It extends from the lowest levels of the minors all the way to the highest level free agents. It is no coincidence that in addition to being great players, recent big ticket signees such as Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist are noted as much for their quality as people off the field as well as their obvious quality on the field. When the Cubs make a big investment, they invest in the whole person, not just the player.
It is perhaps the most elusive evaluation in baseball. You can measure velocity (both pitcher velocity and batted balls exit velocity), run times and pop times, You can quantify strength. You can chart pitches and even objectively measure their movement. You can place a tangible value on catcher framing. Furthermore, you can set certain visual/kinesthetic standards for pitching and hitting mechanics. The list goes on and on.
But measuring a person’s work ethic, maturity, leadership potential, and other desirable personality traits tends to be highly subjective and anything but absolute. Is a player immature now and will outgrow that or is there an underlying issue that is likely to persist even as the player ages? Can a player develop into a leader over time? Will any given player fit into a clubhouse or is he potentially a disruptive personality — or even just a player who prefers to withdraw from others? Is a player willing to stay late and work on his deficiencies or is he satisfied with what got him here and is comfortable relying on his natural ability?
You have often heard me say that while mental makeup without talent means nothing, it’s makeup that helps the player make the best use of the talent he already has. It makes him more likely to reach his potential based on his physical skills, whatever they may be.
There are no set guidelines and there are always gray areas. It is not black and white. We can develop false perception from the outside, as many did with Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano. Similarly, the so-called good players don’t have halos over their head either — as good as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler may seem, they are just human. They will make mistakes as well. You just hope they’re small ones and that the good vastly outweighs the occasional indiscretion. An even more ambiguous case is that of John Lackey, who has some traits that may make him very unlikable, yet others that make him someone the Cubs consider a leader. Ballplayers tend to have alpha personalities and that can sometimes mean some characteristics that are less than endearing to some, but can actually work very well within the context of a major league clubhouse. Javier Baez is an example of a younger ballplayer who may sometimes rub opponents the wrong way, but the teammates I talked to had nothing but good things to say about him as a person.
When it comes to the allegations against Chapman, however, that goes beyond a trait that is simply “less endearing” and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Cubs were never seriously involved. It would seem the Cubs could easily have topped the Yankees offer considering how much deeper their farm system is. As much as they undoubtedly loved Chapman the pitcher, I can only assume they weren’t too keen on bringing Chapman the person into their young clubhouse, just as I would have trouble envisioning this front office ever signing Milton Bradley or drafting Ben Christensen.
For all the impact talent this front office has brought in — and it has been huge — it’s not just the scouting on the field. Don’t get me wrong, without question the biggest single reason for the organization’s turnaround into one of the strongest and healthiest in baseball has been the talent they have brought in over the past few years. But the Cubs have shown themselves to be quite adept at finding good people who can work well together as well as make the most of their own individual abilities. And perhaps that edge, as immeasurable as it may be, could end up being what tips the scales in the end.
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