Cubs System Sonogram: Coach Of The Year

Darryl Norenberg-US PRESSWIRE

After some time off, the System Sonogram delves into coaching, among other things.

I haven't submitted anything here in a while, as you might have noticed. The last few weeks have been a bit odd. I usually create what I'm going to write in my mind, then start typing it out on the keyboard, ironing out some sort of moderately controversial topic as I complete it. If there's no controversy, there's not really much point in typing. While I haven't yet reached the Johannes Brahms level of restraint (reportedly, 90 percent of what he composed ended up in the furnace without an opus number), I have a few ideas that seemed complete that never got there. Some may be revisited. Some may be deleted. Then, there's the matter of how the parent club has been playing. Odd, indeed.

One of the debatable arguments about baseball is 'what makes a good coach'? While, obviously, the goal should be to improve the talent level of his players, there is very little coherent discussion of who the good coaches are, and why. Or, more specifically, who is wasting a uniform. For instance, Dave McKay (I ran into some old video on YouTube of him playing third for Toronto last week) is considered a good coach, as his teams usually did well, and he helped Alfonso Soriano turn into a decent/solid outfielder at an advanced age. He is also helping Junior Lake in center field, despite Lake's lack of prior experience there.

Chris Bosio, for instance, is a bit of a debate at pitching coach. He has helped Travis Wood move up the ladder, and the same can be argued for Jeff Samardzija when he's pitching well. However, some seem to look at some of the colossal blow-ups in the bullpen the last few years and blame him for that. I think Bosio is probably a pretty good coach, but that is a subjective toss. Which is why I feel good about writing it. It's obvious I have no idea what I'm talking about, which makes for some interesting discussion.

If you have a high school coach, is the better coach the guy who increases the level of everyone on the team, including the star? Or is the better coach the one that gets his star from a D-2 scholarship to a D-1 scholarship? Right here in the 815, Rockford Boylan had won two successive state titles in football when their football coach announced he was leaving the school. I figured he'd head into suburbia, or take a college gig. Instead, he opted to coach in town at Rockford Auburn, who had gone years without winning a single game.

Without any other knowledge, how do you think he/they did in their first year as a squad together? They went from 0-9 (or 0-36 if you prefer) to 5-4 with a berth in the state playoffs. They lost their only playoff game to close at 5-5, but that's a marked improvement nonetheless.

I get grief for paying more attention to the inner game than the telecast. Part of that comes from being an high school equipment manager on a football team that won about five games in my four high school years. I, pretty much, expect to lose. If the teams I had historically chosen to cheer for spent the last few weeks talking about 'resting the regulars more than usual for the playoff run', then that's what I would be familiar with. It isn't. I mentally treat sports as a negative sum game, where third or fourth place are the expected outcome. Anything else is gravy.

And I have spent time, in many sports, watching better teams come into my team's house and whoop us silly. And I wonder why it happens. It's how I'm hard-wired. The best example I have is from football. My dad stumbled into two tickets to watch the Bears re-open Soldier Field. My older brother went with him, and was getting ready the entire pre-season. Depth charts, injuries, weaknesses, the whole nine yards. Then, on game day, less than a minute in, Green Bay scored a touchdown in our home park, and the rout was on.

Why were the Packers always better on the field that the Bears. It wasn't just Favre. It was, well, something. Right?

When something is completely obvious, there is usually a rational reason for it. Why is the ride in a Benz more even and enjoyable than in a Yugo? I'll leave that as rhetorical. If something happens almost every single time, there's usually a non-emotional reason for it.

My baseball team has sent me away many times. There are entire stretches of which I, frankly, have no recall. Sometimes, I had another project dominating my time. Maybe I was monitoring the stock market more. Maybe I was, whatever the reason. A string of years ago, I was infuriated that it seemed the team would draft some virtual nobody in the 33rd round of the draft, send him off to Rookie Ball, and presume he would be a starter going up the system the next five years.

Whether that was the case or not, of course, I was sheerly guessing. However, when Jim Hendry was let go, I wanted to see what the new owner thought of my concerns. Other teams regularly had good minor league systems, regularly churning out All-Star talent. We had Felix Pie. If the decision would have been 'keep spending lots of money on old guys that underproduce their contracts, ignoring coaching the whole way', then I would have been gone. Again. I like baseball, but a hopeless case isn't worth my effort. Be it baseball, football, or civic activism, getting kicked in the shins too many times tends to turn one into a hermit.

Now, I try to pick a game of the night in the system to follow. Whether it's based on a starting pitcher I enjoy listening to, or if Tennessee is in a non-MiLBTV location, or whatever other reason. I try to catch one game in the system every night, and hope to learn something each time. Anything on MiLBTV could be watched later.

Yes, I feel for those of you who are hard-wired to only following the parent club. It really does suck to spend money and set aside three hours, fully expecting to lose. That is a terrible feeling. I don't think I could do it. If it weren't so easy to follow minor league ball now, I'd be tempted to find other problems to focus on, much like I did in the mid-2000s. However, in this one instance of all time, my favorite team's owner spent money and credibility to bring in a person in charge who asked the question, "Why are the Cubs so lousy so often?" and came up with an answer. Not only did he ask the question, he answered it nearly (by all appearances) the same way I would have. "Because our internally developed talent is abysmal, and that isn't acceptable."

Yeah, that's made 2012 and 2013 rather unwatchable in August and September. And there are no guarantees beyond that. However, as I look at my pending schedule in the system, both foreign affiliates (Venezuela and the Dominican) have qualified for the post-season. Daytona and Tennessee will soon. Boise is in a three-way coin flip, with their fate in their own hands.

I never remember having heard of five Cubs minor league post-season squads in the same year, though it may have happened. The guys getting plugged into the lineup in the future will come from these teams. Whatever happens in the future, even if Theo Epstein and crew are fired before their contracts are up, I hope the premise of 'a player has to earn his way to the next level' stays around for decades to come.

The reason other teams have been successful, and the Cubs have only had a few shots? To a large extent, I think it has boiled to organizational philosophy. That is an abstract. Most people's eyes glaze over. On the other hand, I become fascinated. I enjoy talking about why something that wasn't could have been something that was. 90 percent of the time, I'm probably wrong. However, there are perfectly valid reasons my team hasn't played four dozen meaningful games in my lifetime. Those are somehow verboten to discuss. And, no "the vines", "farm animals", and "too many day games" don't explain it all away.

To some extent, the players signed haven't been good enough, haven't been trained well enough, and have sometimes been dispatched to other locales too soon, for any number of different reasons. I think the drafting and coaching problems are being addressed. Yeah, a bit slowly, for most. But most of the reason I haven't written much recently is as follows. Saying "the guys in Daytona are doing really well, and I'm very happy about that" is a very unpopular sentiment in some Cubs circles right now.

***

I'm nominating three coaches in the pipeline for Coach Of The Year. Feel free to add on, or nominate someone else. My information is sketchy at best, and your perceptions are welcomed.

Desi Wilson, Hitting Coach, Tennessee (Double-A)

While his work with Javier Baez is all I would need for nomination, I have other reasons as well. The Smokies fought through first-half injuries and dicey pitching to finish second in the first half. While second place gets you nothing, they started to get talent back from injury in June and pounded their way to an apparent post-season berth. Arismendy Alcantara has had a solid offensive year, regardless which side he approaches second base from. John Andreoli has gone from an absolute afterthought to a guy who might play in the majors someday.

Wilson's work with the hitters (even to the extent of Javier Baez starting to think right-center on some outside pitches) has been especially important with a patchwork pitching rotation. The bullpen has trended toward 'horror show' far more than preferred. To win, which they usually have, the Smokies have had to hit. The adage has been: if you can play in Double-A, you might be able to play in the majors. As there is still Triple-A between Smokies Park and Wrigley, a decent chunk of the bats playing now, won't then. However, I hope Desi Wilson keeps his job for a few more years.

Storm Davis, Pitching Coach, Daytona (High-A)

A number of years ago, the Cubs made a mid-season trade, bringing over a pitcher who had done well in his prior organization. What happened? He fell flat. He never adjusted to the new system. Whether he was getting by on smoke-and-mirrors before, the catchers in the Cubs pipeline were abjectly terrible, the coach didn't 'relate' well, or the defense couldn't make a play to save his life, the pitcher advanced only one level more before entirely washing out.

This season, many of the July trades added to the pitching depth in Daytona. So far, Ivan Pineyro (from the Nationals for Scott Hairston), Corey Black (from the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano), and C.J. Edwards (from the Rangers in the Matt Garza trade) have all been added to the D-Cubs roster. While Daytona's season WHIP ranks 11th in a 12 team league, Edwards' WHIP in Daytona is 0.8, Pineyro's is 1.12, and Black's is a bit higher at 1.5, but he has gotten the win in three of four outings.

I don't have any idea what Storm Davis' philosophy of pitching is. I would imagine, since the roving instructor in the system is Derek Johnson, it's close to 'throw strikes, or you won't be able to survive at the better levels in baseball.' However, since he seems to have merged three arms into the system rather seamlessly, he gets a nomination as well.

Bill Buckner, Hitting Coach, Boise (Short Season)

When Kris Bryant arrived in Boise, he was out of game shape. In his few games in Mesa, he had been a butcher on defense, and hadn't hit as well as expected. Upon arriving in Boise, he still had a few kinks, but he got going rather quickly. A few of his flies to center found the warning track, instead of clearing the wall. However, when Bryant left for Daytona on a lengthy hitting streak, Buckner's Hawks had precious little as far as offensive cache.

Nonetheless, they kept hitting.

Sitting at my keyboard, a time zone away from Idaho, I'm guessing with you what Buckner does as a hitting coach. If I had a twenty-something year old baseball playing son, Billy Buck would be one of my top choices as a teacher. Buckner fought through injuries in his career to be a very respected hitter. In his younger years, he was a very good base runner. I had forgotten until recently how late into his career he was a serviceable outfielder.

Effort and professionalism were never a problem for Buckner the player. As a coach, he is teaching professional at bats in Boise. From Bryant, to Shawon Dunston, Jr., to the rest of the Boise offensive players, they are being taught the Bill Buckner version of a quality offensive background. Why do I think that?

Because I never saw anything else from Buckner on the field, from the Dodgers to the Cubs to the Red Sox. And, because a tailor of suits that probably over-value developing players kept him around for a second year.

My Cubs coach of the year is Desi Wilson. Mostly, though, I'm happy to have an organization that is teaching players in the system to hustle (or get yanked mid-game), respect the game (or, the same), and turning this into a system that fans of other teams in the future might be asking... "Even the Cubs are producing better players than we are now. What the ????"

My outgoing question, since managers coach third base in the minors, how does a coach get to be a good third base coach before the major leagues?

Needless to say, I'm in favor of the general trend of the franchise as a whole. Since, it seems, minor league coaches now have expectations (or get released).

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