I have a friend named Jim that I've known in two civic contexts. In both cases, he served at one point as Chairman. I happily served as his Secretary for both times. Jim is an Engineer. He is guilty of many of the stereotypes of Engineers. He is detail oriented, very logical, and prefers quiet and reflection usually over the more social angles of life. Even when he spearheaded participation in an "Air Band" competition, he saw to it that his crew was meticulously prepared, making even the most contrived portion of the act look spontaneous. They came in second, but should have won. The one thing I have taken from Jim was his organizational catchphrase, "Get your ducks in a row."For those not familiar with the term, it indicates the importance of doing things in the proper order. A person with their ducks in a row would have a string of steps before buying a car. He would decide how much he can afford to spend, how much room he needs, and whether it will be new, used, or leased before determining car color or test-driving a new Lambo Convertible (or whatever). It isn't a specifically splashy way of doing things, but people of a certain mindset wouldn't do it in any other way. Curiously, Jim is a Cubs fan. No team has been less detail-oriented historically that I'm aware of. I will even finish with the most egregious example I know of bad planning by the Cubs.
Before I get there, I want to explain in another fashion why the (re-build/blowup/whatever you want to call it) really does have to progress until it's done. While the Cubs are playing some horrific baseball these days, it is a necessary evil. It really is. Regardless what it does to attendance or.... anything else.
To do this, I will reference what a 'mature system' does with their draft picks. By a 'mature system', I don't refer to an 'old team'. I mean, a team that has, generally, been doing the basics right, for decades. While I could use many teams as an example, I'll use St. Louis. They expect to be 'in the hunt' every year. They're usually close to the post-season, if not winning it all. In 2012, they selected college pitcher Michael Wacha with the 19th pick in the draft. Some people wanted the Cubs to grab Wacha with the Almora pick. Wacha has run quickly through the St. Louis system, and is already in AA. He will be facing the Cubs by 2014, probably. A solid, quick moving pitcher.
In 2011, they grabbed 2B Kolten Wong. Wong was a college veteran, selected 22nd, and is also in AA Ball. 2010 saw them take college veteran Zack Cox, a third baseman. In 2009, they took Shelby Miller, a HS pitcher who fell on signing concerns. Usually, they grab the best available on the board, leaning toward college guys, but usually with a couple HS risks.
Why does that make sense for them and not us? They have wisely used the draft for almost 50 years, while we have foolishly gambled on immature players and questionable talents. When we get good, which we aren't yet, we will draft more like St. Louis does now. Why? We won't have gaping holes to fill, and we won't be drafting so stinking early every round.
Nobody talks about the Cardinals having a legendarily bad farm system. Why not? Their system has produced. They've also effectively dealt their excess for other team's stars (see Durham, Leon). Whereas, when discussing the Cubs developmental futilities, you end up sounding like a bad version of Don Henley's "Johnny Can't Read"
"Is it the coaches fault? Oh, no.
Is it all scouting's fault? Oh no.
Is it the owner's fault? Oh no.
Is it the player's fault? Oh no."
To a large extent, most of them have been to blame. The way to change the history of sub-mediocre development is to develop better players. While the perception is that it will take the 20 years that it has taken Pittsburgh, that isn't a likely. The system has some solid enough bats at the lower levels, and some decent pitchers have been taken in the last few years as well. While most of the big league roster moves have seemed rather nebulous (another pitcher with an intimidatingly high ERA?), the recent trades have added some quality. A number of the holdovers have done better than before. I will use two examples.
Sheldon McDonald wasn't very impressive in limited duty in 2011. The 33rd Round Pick lefty reliever had a WHIP over 1.4 at two different 2011 stops. A velocity-impaired relief pitcher giving up a runner and a half per inning at Short Season ball usually doesn't last. This year, he's allowing less than a runner an inning in the Midwest League. That isn't to say we should hold a uniform for him in Wrigley, but he stepped up production after a step up in quality of opposition. I'm guessing that McDonald has received some decent coaching this year.
Jae-Hoon Ha was a fringy favorite after 2011. As pointed out on the board yesterday, he is walking better this year. How much better? In over 1100 at bats, Ha had walked 39 times coming in to 2012. Despite missing time with a concussion, he has walked 48 times in 2012 in 503 at bats.
I know most of you don't care to follow the minor leagues. That's fair. You want the big club to be good soon. I understand. It will be fun. However.
Throwing money at pricy veterans as Miami did doesn't guarantee success. Picking up everybody on waivers won't guarantee success for Los Angeles. To be honest, neither will claiming to upgrade the system in Chicago. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. In 2009, Boise had an entertaining team. Hak-Ju Lee and Logan Watkins were the double play combo. Jae-Hoon Ha was one of the outfielders. Brett Jackson stopped by for a bit. Justin Bour was the first baseman. How many homers do you think the team hit that year in 76 games? Keyed by Bobby Wagner's team-high five (?), the team 'clubbed' 21 homers.
Home runs will never be the deciding factor in whether a system is healthy or not, but this year's squad (with 3 games left) has hit 63. Six guys have matched or exceeded Wagner's five. Dan Vogelbach has ten. It's the same park, folks. And the team's offense averages under 20 years of age when the league average is over 21.
Why the added power? After years of trying to get enough middle infielders to no longer have to sign veterans like Aaron Miles, the Cubs are now drafting guys who can flat-out hit. Part of it is Theo, part of it is a system beginning to mature.
This year, the system has added hitters Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. In addition, the rest of the class added guys like Timothy Saunders, Stephen Bruno, Chad Krist, Carlos Escobar, and others that seem to get the premise of hitting. Trades have added Christian Villanueva, who was ranked as Baseball's 100th best prospect this spring.
The draft was pitching-heavy, and arms have been added through trades as well.
Yeah, this will take a while. That said, when we have a pipeline good enough to make us a franchise like the ones that aren't dysfunctional, the fans will return, presuming they will leave, which some will. But in two or three years, as long as Theo keeps his ducks in a row, things could get really fun in a hurry.
I threatened to 'highlight' the worst 'rush job' on a prospect in team history. I think I've found it. In 1969, Don Young is listed as the team's primary centerfielder. His previous big league time had been in 1965 when he had 2 hits in 35 at bats. While one was a homer, he spent 1966-1968 in the minors. He wasn't tearing up the leagues he was in. Nonetheless, Young was the opening day CF for the 1969 Cubs. He started the first 14 games. By early-May, with his batting average dipping toward .200, Adolfo Phillips started playing more. Four guys started in CF in 1969, with Jimmy Qualls and finally Oscar Gamble starting. A few more filled in late in games.
Gamble was a youngster, and Leo Durocher tired of Gamble really quickly. After hitting about the same as Young, Leo had Gamble and reliever Dick Selma (who might have come in handy the next year when the Cubs bullpen was hideous) sent to the Phillies for veteran outfielder Johnny Callison and a PTBNL (P Larry Colton). Callison hit fairly well in 1970, but was unable to play CF. Young had also been released. Phillips and Qualls were in Montreal. The Cubs primary CF in 1970 was Cleo James, a (wait for it) Rule 5 pickup that off-season.
Why do I consider this the worst Cubs rush-job ever? Gamble had been a 16th Round Pick in 1968. While he should have been learning to hit minor league pitching, Leo brought him up to fail (which he did) and trade him (which he did). By bringing him up so early, he began his series of minor league options far too early. If he had been allowed to develop in San Antonio (and wherever else the Cubs had minor league affiliates), he would have been ready for Wrigley in about 1973. Which is when he started to hit well anyway. Sadly, the Cubs had already dealt Gamble for a guy about 4-5 years too old to help them.
Theo doesn't care what I think. What he does care about is cultivating a quality system in Chicago. He won't rush it, like Leo Durocher did with Oscar Gamble. It's not about putting big bucks on a grab at a division crown. It isn't about sprinting to .500. With the current state of the Cubs system (a couple waves short of a pitching staff) in the current Collective Bargaining System (which lavishly rewards bad teams), it isn't about outbidding Los Angeles or New York on a specific pitcher. It's about getting players that might well outperform their contract. Catchers? Great. Outfielders? Marvelous. Pitchers? Awesome. As the young pups mature, many of the system holes will be filled through quality in-house additions. As the team begins to represent quality, players will likely come here without a "Because you guys are always mired in last place" surcharge.
But to overspend on a few players in a desperate effort to sell a hundred thousand more tickets? And win nine more games? All the way to 73? That's not keeping your ducks in a row.