Cubs System Sonogram Says Hey

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As promised, this week's Sonogram is about Willie Mays.

In 1965, among a string of years with leagues-wide pitching dominance, Willie Mays had one last really good season. His OPS was over 1.0. He played in 157 games and clouted 52 homers. Two things would begin to happen over the next eight years or so. One is completely obvious from looking at his statistical page, the other, not so much. Mays would begin the slow decline from superstardom to player who was finished. Curiously, the Giants wouldn't miss him in the outfield as much as you might think.

You don't watch the decline of one of the best players of all time and not miss him. The team would have loved his double-digit WAR rating for the next 40 years, obviously. However, there was something going on in the training of outfielders in their system at the time. Starting shortly after 1965, the Giants would trot out not one or two legitimate outfielders, but six over the next string of years. All of them are guys that made their marks in the major leagues.

First up was Bobby Bonds. Known by many as Barry's dad, Bonds was a very good player in his own right. Though completely comfortable in center field, he was better in right. A classic hitter that Texas would love to have now, he didn't let strikeout numbers get in the way of a bunch of homers. He twice was in the top four in the MVP race. As with many, he eventually ended up with the Cubs after time had eroded his skills, but was a solid outfield choice in San Francisco until 1974.

The third option into the early seventies for the Giants was Ken Henderson. While he had a bit of a look-see in 1965-8, he became a full-fledged starter in 1969. A bit miscast as a left fielder, he was more of a center fielder. However, that spot was largely taken. Henderson would scoot over when Mays needed (more in later days) time off. Dealt to the White Sox before the 1973 season for pitching, he received MVP votes the next season. Never really flashy, he was still better than almost any center fielder the Cubs have had since then. Eventually, a veteran Henderson played for the Cubs.

As the 1970s kicked in, Dave Kingman was becoming a part-time caddy for Mays and fellow Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. In 1972, Kingman earned MVP votes while hitting .225. As the outfield shifted, Kingman took over in left, and Mays departed to New York. As with the rest, Kingman played later with the Cubs.

In 1972, Garry Maddox started taking over in center, greasing the skids for the Mays trade. Maddox was as good of a defensive center fielder as there was at the time. For four years, he roamed center in Candlestick, earning a Gold Glove in the fourth season. In his fifth year with the Giants, he was in a horrid batting slump, and he was (foolishly?) dealt to the Phillies for Willie Montanez. The easier to terrorize the Cubs with, I guess.

Around the same time, Gary Matthews brought his game to the bay. He was a left fielder who, in case you didn't know (or guess) would later come to the Cubs. Mainly an offensive force, Matthews could run as a youngster, even if he was never a top-flight defender. (Maddox covered for him.)

Despite the steady stream of outfielders, the team made but one postseason appearance in the discussed stretch. They lacked pitching. And infielders. And they weren't as good as the Dodgers or Reds most years. Having a run on outfielders guarantees nothing, except that.

Those of you who are math majors are going into a rage now. "You said six. That's only five." You are correct.

The one post-season taste the Giants had in this run was in 1971. In that season, Chris Speier (another future Cub) was the Giants' shortstop. He was a rookie, and hit a rough patch. His numbers in mid-May looked good, but that was helped by an 8-for-19 series against Chicago. Desperate for a fill-in, they traded for Cincinnati's Frank Duffy, who would never be a Cub, but was adequate once dispatched to Cleveland. With Gaylord Perry for Sam McDowell. (One terrible trade by the Giants.) The trade that brought him to San Francisco? Duffy with Vern Geishert for George Foster. (Two brutal trades in less than a year involving Frank Duffy. Typhoid Mary to the Giants.)

There you have it. Six perfectly solid outfielders, most who played some non-accidental center field in the big leagues, to one team in a stretch of eight years or so. Shortly after that, Jack Clark showed up. A team can produce volumes of home-grown talent. They have to commit to being good at it, though.

****

There is good and bad news on the 'scouting the system' perspective. For most people, the good will outweigh the bad. The annual price has jumped from just under $40 to just under $50 for the year. (The horror.) On the other hand (and this has been known to change either way until the last possible moment), Quad City appears to be in. Not only does that mean that three of the four full-season affiliates (look to) have their season opener on MiLB.TV, but in the chance that Kane County reaches the playoffs, Wisconsin (Brewers) and Quad City (Astros) are division rivals that might air Cougar post-season tilts.

This year, it does seem there are more new players to get accustomed to. Walter Ibarra is a name that was new to me this spring, and he figures to have a utility role in the offing. Danny Canela is a 'big dude' first baseman that appears in line to play in Kane County, though big doesn't necessarily mean tall. He is a workout devotee, and has power that will be worth watching.

Many players have been tweeting their destinations. It's a fun time of year, made bittersweet by players being released. There's good and bad in everything.

I plan to set aside time for one game per night this season. As Daytona will never be aired, they might get ignored in 'the circle' of affiliate followers. I might listen to them more than I ought. If I were going for current answers to key prospects, I'd play computer roulette, bouncing between Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Albert Almora at-bats. But then, I'd miss out on the pitchers too much. Since I fully expect a few trades for "High-A level pitchers" come July, I might have an idea for myself which pitchers need to be 'pushed'.

I'm looking forward to the minor league season very much, and if any of you ever want to listen to for free (or pay to watch) affiliate games, let me know which one you're interested in checking out. I have a bias for all the system's announcers. Perhaps, this year, I'll even listen to a few Iowa games. I haven't had reason to before.

With Baez, Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara and company perhaps the Cubs can put together a mini-hitter prospect run. It can be done.

Ask a Giants fans from the late 1960s/early 1970s.

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