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A Few Thoughts On Wasted Cubs System At-Bats

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Since most minor league players won't be major league stars, most minor league at-bats don't count, right?

This is Principal Park in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs. It doesn't really have anything to do with this article, but it's a pretty picture
This is Principal Park in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs. It doesn't really have anything to do with this article, but it's a pretty picture
Dylan Heuer

We all hate wasted at-bats. The hitter has runners on first and second with none out, and swings at the first pitch in the dirt, and ends up striking out or popping up on the infield. Or, maybe, he rolls over into a double play.  Even if the run does score, it could have been so much better. The other option is having a runner on third with less than two outs. Perhaps a grounder to second scores a run. It might take just a routine fly ball. Instead, the batter is retired and the runner remains at third. Except, that isn't the wasted at bat I'm talking about. The other type of wasted at-bat might be more frustrating over the long term.

I've been following the Cubs minor league system for almost long enough to start noticing trends. Next year, I will see the Low-A franchise represented in their third city, and I'm trying to make it a point to watch them a few times a year live. I'm an absolute sucker for MiLB.TV, and I really hope the rumors that the South Bend Cubs will be streamed are accurate. I recently linked to a Fangraphs review of the Cubs prospects, and was continually reminded how many major-league valid options are contained in the system.

It hasn't always been that way.

If you watched a game in the Cubs system a few years back, a number of players for Peoria (the Cubs affiliate in the Midwest League at the time) were simply doing time at the level until someone better took their job. A number of other players were playing out of position so the team could have five valid bats in the lineup. Last season, even with Victor Caratini and Will Remillard injured, the Kane County Cougars still had Cael Brockmeyer at catcher.

Until Jake Hannemann and Kyle Schwarber moved up to Daytona, Shawon Dunston Jr. or Trey Martin usually sat on the bench. Down the stretch, both were key players on the championship team. The rotation was a six-man variety, since the entire bench of hitters could hold their own. As needed, many of the relievers could start, or go four innings of relief without getting gassed.

This is the concept of wasted at-bats I'm talking about.

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When a lower-level minor-league team is trotting out regularly a few players who have no relative future in professional baseball, those are wasted at-bats. I'm not talking about guys who will fail to be major-league starters. It's a given that a kid taking swings in Eugene or South Bend is a relative longshot to be a big league regular. However, it should be a system-wide goal to limit the at-bats of players who won't ever be involved in trade talks.

My break-off point is Double-A. If a team is starting a player four or five times a week, and it's a mind-bending experience getting him to Double-A as at least a key reserve, the organization probably has a problem.

Midwest League teams have a roster of 25, as do big league squads. The standard is 13 pitchers and 12 hitters, though it can be reversed. The Cubs are very hesitant to trot out a reliever in successive games, so having an extra reliever comes in handy if two or three games go extras over a short stretch. Usually, wiggle room exists, as disabled-list stints are only for seven days. Often a team will plant a pitcher or two or a hitter or two on the DL to take roster spots for guys who really are injured. (They will usually stow guys who have no reason to be in extended spring training or short-season ball. Kids are benefited by the game action, but veterans might not be harmed by a few days or weeks of limited work.)

If a team has 14 valid hitters with no reason to be shredding short-season ball, and stealing at-bats from youngsters who need them, a player on his last legs might not mind limited batting practice. Otherwise, I suppose, he might ask to be released. However, after being around largely the same group of guys for three years, it might make sense to try for that one last valid shot. Especially since pulled muscles and the like happen often enough in baseball.

However, some teams have guys in their system who are simply hanging by a thread in two outfield slots and infield slots in the everyday order. It happens. I've seen it. While the "Four Horsemen Of The Mendoza Line" was a running gag in game threads last season, teams trot out sub-.220 hitters quite routinely in the low minors. Some of them are regular starters. Some of them have little power, or questionable defense.

I love seeing this happen -- for other systems. The Cubs brass knows what they are looking for. While they might not get a 30-something-th round pick signed, if they sign him, and he's a hitter, he might be dangerous. One of the better third-day hitters the Cubs have signed recently has been Bijan Rademacher. Nobody really expected him to steal at-bats from hitters all through the system. However, he has continued to do so. Still a fringe prospect, he might get called up at some point. Whether he does or not, he has gotten quite a bit of mileage for a 13th-round selection.

When a team routinely trots out a player with rather weak stats, they are generally admitting, "He is the best we have." Of course, some players, including in the Cubs system, will have terrible seasons. It happens. When a guy is supposed to hit, an organization will generally let him. However, sometimes, a system has a spot or two with no valid options. They send out a guy with very little upside, and think, "It's only one position on an A-Level team." However, if tolerating sub-standard players permeates an organization, bad things happen.

But then, you're Cubs fans.

In a few years, the Cubs will be drafting later than most of us are used to. This will be quite a bit of fun. With later picks will come less money to spend, and fewer shots at Top 50 talent. However, the Cubs have plenty of scouts stateside and internationally to remain relevant in development. Also, Eugene, South Bend, and Myrtle Beach sound to be step-ups from Boise, Kane County, and Daytona on the facilities side.

Part of the development process is the draft, part is coaching, and part is the player insisting on being the best he can be. Insisting on the best is a nice buzzphrase, but it sounds like Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein, and the rest are representing the premise. Not only in the minors, but in the Wrigley rebuild as well. (I never thought the Triangle Building would ever get started, much less finished.)

I doubt the Cubs affiliates will see many wasted at-bats next year. Or, frankly, innings pitched. While a few teams may have a few better prospects under the IP/AB limits, I'm very satisfied with how many legitimate options the system has on both sides of the ball. Nobody sounds satisfied yet, either.

While most of you won't take me seriously, I'll say it yet again. Don't be afraid to listen to a minor league game next season. I've heard bits and drabs of the Eugene and Myrtle Beach announcers, and both sound completely competent. I imagine by this time next year, I will be back to having a hard time ranking my favorites. And, of course, you know what makes a baseball announcer sound good, don't you?

Having a good team to broadcast, mostly. The Cubs system will have a number of those in 2015.

Postscript

As if to annoy my editor, this has been about completed for a few weeks. That said, it dovetails into some things I probably should add in the course of an article. The Cubs have recently lost six players to either the draft (Rule 5) or trades. The Zygote 50 has been updated to account for their departures.

Andrew McKirahan was selected by the Marlins in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft. As the Marlins may have a spot in their bullpen, this could be a great situation for McKirahan He had been listed among the top relievers on my system board. He may, or may not, be back.

Rock Shoulders and Luis Flores were selected in the minor league phase. They were not major pieces going forward, or they would have been protected. They will not be back, as the minor league portion doesn't have the bizarro rules the major league portion does.

Zack Godley was in the middle of my list of relievers. He might get a big league save, or he may never escape Double-A. Such is player development. He was shipped to the Diamondbacks in the Miguel Montero trade, along with right-handed pitcher Jeferson Mejia, who was unranked. That I thought there are 30 pitchers in the Cubs system more likely than Mejia to log 100 MLB innings isn't a knock on Mejia. It is a credit to the depth of the system.

Marco Hernandez will likely be the Red Sox Double-A shortstop this season. I'm not sure who will play that position at Tennessee, and it's been a while since one of the full-season teams had a question mark at short. No huge problem, though. If Felix Doubront pitches well in the spring, he will either survive and make the opening day roster, or get traded for someone as good or better than Hernandez.

Late Monday it was announceed that the Cubs obtained "cash considerations" to complete the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade with the Athletics. I'll be honest that I was hoping to have to get to know a new player. If the system weren't as strong as it is, a player could have been better than the cash.