EDITOR’S NOTE: Though the big-league Cubs season has ended, there’s still Cubs-related baseball this year. Eight Cubs prospects will be playing for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. AFL games begin Tuesday, and Tim will be presenting profiles of all the Cubs players on the Solar Sox before game action begins.
Skeletons in the closet. Dirty little secrets. Everybody has them. To understand someone fully, you have to know their dirty little secrets. And appreciate them. Or, at least tolerate them. The Cubs have a dirty little secret in their development process. This becomes clear as you learn about D.J. Wilson.
Wilson was selected in the 4th round in 2015. Ian Happ topped that Cubs draft, and has already had over 800 plate appearances in MLB games. Meanwhile, as a high school selection, Wilson has never had more than 360 plate appearances in any season. Part of this is due to injuries. Some of it is because the Canton South High School graduate has struggled to hit.
Which is where the secret begins. When many fans think of outfielders, they think of slow, hulking dudes. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Cubs routinely had outfielders like Dave Kingman, Mike Vail, or Jim Hickman. Vail and Hickman weren’t as hulking as Kingman, for sure. They were, however, defensively inhibited.
While Wrigley Field is thought of as “small,” it’s actually a rather large playing surface in fair territory. The wall and vines, as opposed to a soft cushioned wall, force the outfielder to hunt down the ball. A defensively lurching outfielder is as useless in Wrigley as in any MLB venue. However, for years, that was the exact sort of outfielder the Cubs would draft. And start.
Now, the Cubs are much more about drafting up-the-middle types. As a reminder, Kyle Schwarber was selected as a catcher, not a left fielder. The outfielders the Cubs draft (or sign internationally) are almost exclusively center fielders or right fielders. The hope is that, for some of them, the bat will develop.
For Wilson, the bat hasn’t done that yet. With that, talent assessors who look exclusively at OPS when monitoring minor league talent, don’t tend to be fans of Wilson. His career OPS is below .700 as the 2018 season concludes.
“I want someone who hits better.”
This is an aspect of prospect tracking that punishes the Cubs pipeline. It isn’t that “journalist scouts” don’t like the Cubs. What they don’t like is the Cubs draft-reliance on smaller players in the pasture that lack offensive pop. When promoting outfielders as “of interest,” the active trend is to want to link to a ball being bashed over 425 feet. That isn’t Wilson’s game. Nor is it the modus operandi of Connor Myers, Zach Davis, or Chris Singleton. They are defense first options.
The Cubs draft outfielders who play defense, first and foremost. Their “ceiling” is only reached if they figure out how to hit Double-A and Triple-A pitching well enough to advance to a cup of coffee.
The masher types, though, that baste in the top 100 attention, usually exit the draft board rather early. Whether corner outfielders or first basemen, the Cubs avoid those types of players like the plague. When the Cubs were recently playing the New York Mets, a decent chunk of the fan derision of the Mets front office that week was an unwillingness to summon Peter Alonso, to the big club. Alonso, a first baseman, was a 2016 Mets second-rounder.
The Cubs avoid players like Alonso, who tend to hit rather well in the low minors. Alonso has hit the whole way up. However, the Mets are having a Dan Vogelbach moment with Alonso, who they don’t trust enough to give a proper look at the major league level, over defensive concerns. In September, when eliminated from the race.
The Cubs next (and first) selection after Alonso in the 2016 draft was Thomas Hatch, a pitcher the Cubs took with very little national concern. He was a “boring” pitcher, in that he didn’t throw 96. Hatch has advanced to Double-A, avoided much of the spotlight, and figures to be in Triple-A Ball in 2019, with no concerns about how his defense will translate at the MLB level. If Hatch is ever MLB-ready, he’ll be called up.
Wilson may, or may not, ever debut in MLB. The offensive concerns are valid. However, with the bat, the light either comes on eventually, or it doesn’t. That can’t be forced. The defense, though is solid, as always. While the hitter, from any generation, is particularly amusing one time in nine through his batting order, the defensive whiz can be useful any pitch when his team is in the field.
That is the skeleton in the Cubs developmental closet. For outfielders, they look for a combination of a good offensive approach, a quality person, and solid defense. Which helps pitchers from Boca Chica and Mesa, all the way through Des Moines and the Cubs schedule.
Wilson is a true center fielder. As he gets a chance to play in front of people, he will open a few eyes. Which will lead people to look at his OPS, because that’s how people roll. (Minor league statistics don’t come with Defensive Wins Above Replacement numbers.) It would be helpful if the bat responds. However, either way, he’ll still be a valued defender in the Cubs pipeline.
The Cubs will be panned for having a lousy pipeline, because their starting pitchers don’t shove in the upper 90s. Their outfielders won’t normally have an OPS over .800. Their infielders will be third-day guys from unfamiliar schools. None of these trends will engender positive vibes with prospect writers, and the Cubs will get panned. Meanwhile, the relievers and hitters summoned from Iowa will continue to help the team win.
Wilson is part of the plan. If the hitting improves, he becomes a bigger part of the plan. To find out if that happens, the best way is to check in periodically. My guess is that Wilson is the “taxi squad” player with the Solar Sox who gets to play twice per week. However, he’ll be able to take extra swings a full month. And track down fly balls. That’s what he does. That’s what he’ll continue to do. That’s why he was drafted, and is going to the Arizona Fall League.