Why Daytona's League Championship Matters

The Daytona Cubs recently won the Florida State League title. That might actually matter. Here's why.

For future predictive value, minor league titles don't matter. This applies especially at the lower levels, where the likelihood of transference to a future big-league season is very remote. Someone will win, a greater number of teams won't, and there it remains. Despite this, what happened this summer in Daytona might provide something predictive nonetheless.

If something is currently a trend, it will often be the prevailing attitude until it is a trend no longer. Whether in weather, stock market trends, or baseball success. a thing that's been happening for a stretch tends to be the expected future result. Until it isn't happening anymore. People expect gasoline prices to go up the weekend before a holiday. Why? Because they always do. People expect Aaron Rodgers of the Packers to have a good weekend in the NFL. Why? He always seems to. People expect Cubs prospects to fail at the major league level. Why? Cuz Felix Pie. The predictive value of the recent past is a tough argument to fight.

After all, last year's Northwest League runners-up Boise Hawks graduated in large part as one to Kane County this season. How did they do? Last place in their division. What about the team that beat them? Vancouver defeated them, and moved on to Lansing. The Lugnuts were a scant five games better than Kane County. So minor league titles don't translate. Why would Daytona be any different?

The common assessment is that the toughest adjustment in the minors is from High-A (Daytona) to Double-A (Tennessee), and that anything lower than Double-A fails the predictive ability test. Which is why it's far easier to trade for a decent prospect in A-Ball (either level) than in Double-A. The traditional thought processes are that stars in High-A wash out, and that Aaron Rodgers will do well against the Bears. Until it quits happening, that's what will be expected. It just is.

***

A bit about the Florida State League 2013 champions. Javier Baez started the season slumping almost as badly as he had in a disastrous 2012 stint. There were homers, but far too many strikeouts. And errors. Jorge Soler started out well enough, but far too often, the pitchers had trouble surviving the first few innings. Many games early were ugly losses. Dustin Geiger hit well early on, but put far too often into early holes, the offense wasn't good enough to escape. Soler was suspended for a week, then was injured near the midpoint for the season.

A disciplined team-wide hitting approach got the team close near the half-way mark, but they pulled up a bit short of qualifying early. The pitching improved, as the early laggers were returned to Kane County or Mesa. As the second half started, the offense's willingness to work the opposing pitcher's pitch counts up was making a difference. Then, Javier Baez went to Double-A, and Elliot Soto took over a shortstop. From there, the defense became a definite strength.

It started slowly. With the Scott Hairston trade, the Cubs added Ivan Pineyro, a minor prospect in the Washington Nationals system. Sporting a mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss change-up, Pineyro bookended the top of the D-Cubs rotation with Pierce Johnson, a Cubs pick (as Aramis Ramirez compensation) from 2012 added after the halfway mark. Johnson throws mid-90s with a video-game slider. The offense and defense continued to chug along, and C.J. Edwards joined the rotation in July, as well. Edwards throws mid-90s (tell me when you sense a trend here) with a cartoonish curve ball. Actually, two different curve balls. The rotation became better yet.

The Alfonso Soriano trade (his current WAR in New York is 1.4) added Corey Black, who throws mid-to-high 90s fastballs. He has an assortment of off-speed stuff, and it seems the Cubs had targeted him for a while. Then, a bit before the post-season started, Kris Bryant and Dan Vogelbach were added to the line-up, and the transition was complete. About the only thing that could derail the team was the weather. By going 40-20 in the second half, they were set for the postseason. The four starters above started all six playoff games. None surrendered any runs.

They combined to strike out over a hitter an inning and gave up less than half a hit an inning. They got early offensive support in every game, and the one game they lost had a late rain delay. But, as noted before, there is no predictive value in the Florida State League.

Or, is there?

After Corey Black came over from the other division in the FSL, to a smaller park, his WHIP dropped from 1.5 to under 1.3. His K/9 rate jumped .5, and his Walks/9 shrunk 1.3. Pierce Johnson had a better stretch in Daytona than at the lower Midwest League level. C.J. Edwards wasn't intimidated at the higher level, and Ivan Pineyro was better than advertised. Even BCB whipping boy Lendy Castillo was much better in Daytona than in Kane County.

****

This began as an effort to find a comp for the four pitchers. The closest I could come up with was the Daytona Cubs of 2000. Juan Cruz was the major prospect there. He had great strikeout and WHIP numbers, but surrendered five homers in eight games. Yikes. Aside from Cruz, the name I recognized was Ben Christensen. A very talented pitcher, Christensen was a first-round draft pick by the Cubs in 1999, but was in the same class of two-bit bad egg as Detroit Lions Ndamukong Suh. Theo Epstein would pass on an entire draft before picking Christensen first, I think.

After an injury, Christensen was pretty much done. Also on the team was Matt Bruback, who I have an autograph or two from. Steve Smyth and Michael Wuertz both made the majors. As to how the two rotations compare is largely an exercise in futility. That said, instead of one prospect in Cruz, the Cubs have two in Edwards and Johnson that will border on Top-100 prospects, and Pineyro and Black that aren't far behind.

But there's no predictive value in Daytona.

Last season, in the Ryan Dempster trade, Kyle Hendricks was added. He pitched a bit for Daytona last season, then dominated the Southern League in Tennessee. And did as well in Triple-A at Iowa. If Black, Edwards, Johnson, and Pineyro do well in Tennessee, at some point, the predictive-value argument loses steam.

****

If you've read enough of my stuff, you know I like numbers, even if I have to make them up. How about this? Let's assume that 30 percent of High-A prospects reach Double-A and remain prospecty. I don't know if it's true. I doubt you do either. So let's roll with it, and play 'What if?'

Since, in this game, 30 percent is the likelihood of retaining prospect status, I would imagine that would be an average. Be it mean, mode, or median, I have no idea. Some teams will out-perform. Some will under-perform. Cubs teams of the past may have been under 25 percent, especially on the hitter end. Other more attention-to-detail squads may have approached or exceeded 40 percent. Who knows?

As we look to the present and future, does it look like, to you alone, that Cubs prospect pitchers in High-A are doing better than the average. Not in 1974. Or 2000. Or 2005. Right now? Marcelo Carreno and Michael Jensen missed the season due to injury. Starling Peralta and a few others were rather bad this season. However, with Storm Davis as a pitching coach, Pierce Johnson got better. Corey Black got better. Ivan Pineyro got better. CJ Edwards only came out on pitch limits or rain delays. If these guys hold serve in Tennessee next year, it seems the Cubs are doing better than average at holding/improving value from High-A to Double-A. Much better than average.

****

Okay, so maybe the coaches are good in High-A. How does that change anything for the parent club? For now, not so much. If a pitcher does well at Double-A,the likelihood he can be a usable piece at the MLB level increases. With an already improving bullpen, if the Daytona arms perform well in Tennessee, there may be a clamor to bring them up to Wrigley within 20 months as well. Bur what about next year?

About 2014: I think there is a decent shot the Cubs could be a .500 team next April. I'm not taking out a second mortgage, mind you. Since this is a presumptive article, what if the Cubs get out of the gate at 15-12? Fans show up? A little bit of buzz created. Then they have a bad road trip, and are a few games under as June starts. A week or two later, Javier Baez gets called up. More buzz. More fans. But, what if the wins don't continue? The plunge to fourth, or fifth, continues. (Hopefully not, but follow me here.)

July rolls around. While improved, the Cubs, even with Baez, are worse than St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, and at least one other wild card team. With Iowa's rotation much better, Justin Grimm, Chris Rusin, and Neil Ramirez are valid call-ups from Triple-A. Guys from Tennessee replace them largely seamlessly.

When the pitcher the Cubs sign this off-season to a Paul Maholm/Scott Feldman contract gets rumored to be for trade (things remain a trend until they aren't trends anymore), what will BCB'er Kevin Aumiller and I start to wonder? Who do those teams have pitching in High-A? Or maybe in Low-A in need of a challenge?

There is still a trend toward letting A-Ball pitchers go in trade without much thought. They are too far away. They might get hurt. They might not adjust. They might, they might, they might. Or, if Storm Davis and the Cubs minor league instructors get them in one-on-one sessions, they might get better.

****

Al and I had a chit-chat off-site about the four aforementioned starters for Daytona. He noted (in a statistically likely comment) that it's doubtful more than one will have a significant major league career. At first blush, the guess is to agree. However, my current thought is as follows. Define significant.

I'll assume one blows out his arm, elbow, or shoulder. One has a 'significant' career. I ask rhetorically, what would be an apt MLB WAR over/under for the other two? Six? 10? 15? Three-tenths?

All of them have the arsenal to be dangerous. They all just finished their two best pro months. A trend is a trend, until it isn't a trend anymore.

The Cubs' pitching coach at High-A seems to be doing his job well. The pro scouts probably have a list of twenty or so pitching prospects they would like to acquire in trade from various teams. This wasn't the case before. Scouting our own players wasn't done much, much less players in other systems. Trends are trends, until they aren't trends anymore.

****

Will Ivan Pineyro or Corey Black ever pitch for the parent club? I have no idea. However, how many Cubs pitchers in the past have had moderate command of mid-90s fastballs to go with solid off-speed offerings? And been left in the minors as unwanted because of any reason? There is no guarantee that any of Black, Johnson, Edwards, or Pineyro will ever pitch for the Cubs. That said, all were better pitchers (and prospects) at the end of the season than they were only two months earlier. So was Lendy Castillo. So was Ben Wells.

A major league organization can never have too much good pitching. Daytona's coaching staff makes pitchers more effective. Daytona's coaches also seem to teach offensive patience. That is why Daytona matters.

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