I've been spending the past few weeks trying to get a handle as what changes are coming to the Cubs method of player acquisition and development under the direction of new Cubs President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer. I've spent the time studying the Boston Red Sox drafts and minor league systems and the San Diego Padres system for the past two years. I think I've got a good handle as to how Theo Epstein ran the Red Sox and how Jed Hoyer went about implementing change in San Diego. Then along came the new collective bargaining agreement and that threw everything on its head.
To be honest, I don't really know exactly how the Cubs organization is going to change. But I can take a guess, and my guess is that the key word to remember is "more." Epstein and Hoyer are believers in "more." More prospects, more scouts, more front office people, more coaches and more information. If they make a mistake, they don't want it to be because they didn't work hard enough or didn't have enough information. When they do make a mistake (and don't worry, they will), they want to make sure they have a Plan B and Plan C ready to go.
I want to start with dispelling the myth that the Red Sox decided which players to acquire by sitting around a computer with a Jonah Hill clone which spit out a card like a penny fortune-telling machine. I also want to dismiss the idea that the Cubs signed their players by having them model jeans and calculating their batting averages on an ancient Chinese abacus. It just doesn't work that way. The Red Sox use of analytics might have been a little more advanced than the Cubs because they'd been at it longer, but people in the Cubs front office have been aware of advanced analytics for years. Likewise, the Red Sox employed many scouts who tried to project out a skinny kid's frame and looked for mechanical flaws in a pitcher's delivery. Neither one of them refused to draft a kid because his girlfriend was ugly. That's a joke that scouts tell each other.
The Red Sox approach to the draft over the past nine years can be summed up by more is better. The Red Sox notoriously hoarded draft picks by letting Type A and Type B free agents leave. In the nine amateur drafts since Epstein became the Red Sox GM after the 2002 season, the Red Sox have had a ridiculous 23 first round picks. Just to contrast, the Cubs had ten first round picks. That's a big reason right there that the Red Sox have had more success in the draft than the Cubs have had. Some of those draft picks, if you frame them as trades, would rank among the biggest steals of the decade: Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie for Orlando Cabrera, Clay Buchholz for Pedro Martinez and Daniel Bard for Johnny Damon.
The other thing the Red Sox did was pay top dollar for top talent. Whether it was in the amateur draft or in international signings, the Red Sox never shied away from spending that extra couple of hundred thousand to a million dollars to get top talent to come to Boston. They knew that while it might cost them an extra five to ten million each year, they'd save five times that in cost-controlled ballplayers for the first six years of their careers. If even a third of their elite prospects made the majors, they'd come out ahead financially. The Red Sox success rate with these overslot signings was probably closer to 40-50% too.
The new collective bargaining agreement has put an end to this strategy. Now extra picks will only go to the most elite players who get a qualifying offer of somewhere around $12 million a year (the actual number will float according to current salaries). Extra first round picks will go to bad teams and small market teams randomly chosen by lottery. And of course, teams that go over a spending cap in either draft or international signings will be severely punished by losing future draft picks.
By the way, as critical as I am over the bonus cap, the elimination of most compensation picks for losing free agents is a good thing, even if it hurts the Cubs down the road. No one is more responsible for getting that compensation eliminated than Theo Epstein, because MLB was upset that a team the rule was intended to restrict, the Boston Red Sox, were actually benefitting from it more than any other team. There's one other great change in that there is no more clearing house that MLB could sit on deals until the deadline. Now, once a player comes to terms and passes a physical, he can play the next day in the minors. This is great news for the Boise Hawks, who will now get the elite talent from that year's draft on the field.
So Epstein and Hoyer are just not going to be able to run things in Chicago like they did in Boston. There are several rules in place to prevent teams from getting around these limits such as no major league contracts, losing the cap money if you fail to sign a player and definitely no under-the-table deals. About the only way to have extra money to sign overslot players in later rounds is to do what is being called "Matt Bush-ing" the first round: finding some player you like that is willing to sign for well under slot and spending the savings later. Of course, "Matt Bush-ing" didn't work out so well for the Padres in the pre-Jed Hoyer days.
One thing that will change is that those extra lottery draft picks can be traded. I suspect that few, if any, of those picks will get traded, but I figure Epstein will be on any team who is willing to part with one.
So the new front office is not going to be able to radically spending for the Cubs in the draft. Where the biggest change is going to happen is how that information gets used and how decisions are made. Certainly the Cubs placed more emphasis on athleticism and raw skills. It's been mentioned that Jim Hendry is one of the nicest men in the baseball business and that he had friends everywhere. Hendry used his connections outside the organization in both the amateur and professional game to get personal information on players, and he valued that information a lot more than Epstein and Hoyer are going to value similar information they receive. They'll likely get less of it, too, but they won't care a lot. Such information is valuable, but it can also blind you to what other sources, including stats, are telling you.
One important way in which Epstein and Hoyer have embraced "more" is that they're adding, not replacing, the people in the front office. First of all, they came to Chicago together and are both replacing Jim Hendry, not just one of them. They kept most of the front office intact as well. Only Hendry loyalists Gary Hughes and Greg Maddux followed him out the door, and they both left of their own accord. Randy Bush, Oneri Fleita and Tim Wilken are still around, but now they have Jason MacLeod and Joe Bohringer to handle some of the duties. Epstein also brought along two more scouts from the Red Sox. I'd expect he will hire more scouts in the days to come, even if he's forbidden from raiding Boston for a few more years. For Hendry, it seemed like too many voices could be a problem. For Epstein and Hoyer, they're an opportunity and they trust their own ability to sort through them.
The Red Sox (and to a lesser extent, the Padres) took a different approach in the draft, although it was never so simple as to just look at a player's stats. They tried to get as much information as possible and then sort it out in a way that I haven't figured out yet and if I did, I could probably sell it to another team for a fortune. But if I had to classify it, I'd say that they tried to diversify their drafts. Sure, they get lots of high-ceiling guys with all those first round draft picks they get. But Hoyer also took Corey Spangenberg last June and I wouldn't call him a high-ceiling guy, although he could be a solid second baseman for many years. The year before, the Padres took a high-ceiling high school pitcher in Karsten Whitson, even if they didn't manage to sign him. But that's the type of diversity I expect to see. Both Epstein and Hoyer stay away from signing any one type of guy out of the amateur ranks.
But above all, both Epstein and Hoyer seem committed to rebuilding the Cubs through the farm system first. The free agent and major league trade acquisitions this off-season have all been stopgap players who won't block younger, cheaper players. Epstein in Boston also was much more likely to use that farm system to trade for a star player before free agency than get into an open bidding war for a player. That changed recently with John Lackey and Carl Crawford, neither of which turned out that well. I expect the Cubs to be very careful in the future giving out long-term free agent contracts. But like in Boston, I doubt the Cubs will eschew the market for top free agents entirely.
I've always said there is more than one way to build a winning ball club. It seems to me that in Boston, the Red Sox tried them all at the same time, figuring that at least one of them would work. It did. Let's hope it works again in Chicago and soon.