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What ideas do you have for improving Cubs player development?

Here’s one involving extended spring training.

Al Yellon

Baseball operations, or Ops for most of the time from here on, is a rather irregularly revolving concept. For instance, years ago, weight training in baseball was a no-no. Many teams were very late to the “newer statistics” revolution. Bullpens have grown in numbers with added concern and activism toward keeping pitchers healthy. Can you think of anything that might be a positive for a baseball Ops program to consider?

A decade ago, Mental Skills programs were considered unnecessary. After all, if a player was having concentration or confidence issues, he should “suck it up” and be better about it. Eventually, teams began to stream toward valuing the mental aspect of the game. Almost all teams now have a Mental Skills program, and I’d guess the worst one now is better than the premiere ones eight years ago.

This article encourages you to think of something in your world that, however slightly, could belong in a baseball Ops department. Perhaps you’re in pre-teen learning, and there’s a new corporate term that seems more valid, and less mumbo-jumbo, than most. Maybe there’s a medical mindset that seems to be breaking through regarding health and wellness. Possibly, a new cross-fit exercise or regimen ought to be being considered.

My two ideas today run the gamut from very new to quite old, from my thoughts. My first one was from a tweet recently. Tom Griffin (@catchblockthrow) noted the benefits of training boxing to players:

It might be absolute rubbish, but I’d imagine that, for some players, adding the sweet science of pugilism could help with getting muscles to “twitch” better (or whatever the accepted term is. I’m far from a boxing guy). No, you wouldn’t want grueling boxing tournaments in spring training. If boxing could add 10 feet in length, and shave a few feet in height, from an opposite field liner, it could help.

One of mine I’ve been in favor of for a few years is playing more games in extended spring training. Historically a repository for injured players returning to health, Extended Spring Training (XST) has become a chance for players to gradually get ready for a June placement, whatever that placement is. XST has players from spring training that weren’t released or assigned to a full-season squad.

Spring training sees the Cubs with (in the range of) 300 players in the organization at the time. Some make the parent club. Others will be assigned to one of four full-season affiliates. A few, often veterans of numerous spring training camps before, will be released. A handful might, to use a term, disappear. (Perhaps they decide to retire. Some might merely consider it.) Either way, quite a few players will remain in the Mesa area, pushing to be assigned somewhere, sooner than later.

Imagine you have a number of players wanting to play baseball in a somewhat organized fashion, numerous times per week. Winning the game is less of a priority than getting better. The goal, it would seem, would be to get everyone involved in four or five games per week, with the better players getting in five, and the lesser players four.

The number of games you can play collectively should be determined by the number of pitchers and catchers. If you have pitchers who can account for 30 games per week, but only catchers for 25 games per week, you would seem to have two primary options. Play 25 games, or find five games per week more catchers.

I figure a team that drafts and signs internationally as many middle infielders as the Cubs do, finding enough bats to play more extended spring games shouldn’t be any sort of a problem. In XST, the goal with pitchers is to start the starting pitchers at two (or possibly three) innings per start, and finish off the session with an inning or two per reliever. The relievers rest one to three days in-between outings, and the starters wait five or six days to pitch again, and likely get some side throwing sessions in addition.

In general, extended spring training is fairly well mapped out. The Cubs go to the Brewers ballpark, or maybe the Giants squad comes to Mesa. Some teams take XST more seriously than others. As the Brewers have added a second AZL squad for their 2019 plans, they will want to play more XST games than last year.

The current standard is one game or two games per day, based on which pitchers need how many innings. In other words, the Cubs are highly unlikely to play more than 14 games in XST per week. These games are ideal for development practices, for a few reasons. The primary reason being, nobody cares much what the final score is. Yes, a team would prefer “win 7-2” than “lose 5-1”. When development is the key, though, the development is what you’re after.

For instance, imagine a team brings in a right fielder for the last four innings of a game. At the plate, he’s facing the first time is a rather ordinary pitcher at the XST level. He isn’t considered the type likely to get a bump to full-season ball if an injury occurs. The hitter fans on four pitches, including a loopy curve that would generously be graded out at 40 on the 20/80 scale. What is learned from this at-bat? The hitter appears less advanced than the pitcher.

That’s all. Nothing more major than that. The hitter doesn’t need to be released. He’s merely “less than” regarding that pitcher, for today. As it happens, the game has an extra inning tacked on at the end. Not because of a tie, but both teams had a pitcher ready to go another inning. The last hitter is the same hitter from before. He’s facing a pitcher likely to be returned to the Dominican League in 18 days. Running up an 0-2 count on the hitter, the pitcher goes “high and hard’ above the zone. High is only 87, but the swinger misses. His offensive day is seven pitches, and two strikeouts. He might be less advanced than a DSL-bound pitcher.

By having enough players, a team ought to be able to play more than 18 innings per day. They ought to be able to play more than fourteen games per week. If the number of games and innings can be increased, more hitters can get chances to play in extended spring training. Some, like the hitter above, will be shown as “not ready yet.” If he is a college veteran, and can’t catch up with middling pitching in extended spring training, he might be released after the draft. If he’s a 17-year-old who will be in the Dominican League himself in a month, he might be seeing the best pitching he’s ever seen. This could be an upgrade in his learning curve.

More games won’t always be better for every player. If more games are played, more players might get injured. Injuries are rarely sought out and requested. The players left in Mesa in April through June continue to practice, and play in games. The pitchers extend their distance to three, four, and five innings. Those pitchers will be asked to take similar roles in Eugene or with one of the two Arizona League sides.

The Cubs ought to team with a forward-looking organization in the Cactus League (the Indians and Dodgers might be the best options) to play an extra game a day, six days a week. With this added “burden” the team might need to add a few pitchers or catchers to complete their daily line-ups. (I wouldn’t want a catcher playing any more than four “half games” per week in extended spring training.) Locating talent that can represent defensively in XST would be a great reason to draft a catcher or two extra per June draft. Perhaps, sign another one or two after the draft, instead, or as well. These players are as much about “allowing the teams to play more games” than them ever being expected to reach Double-A.

As a reminder, the Cubs concluded last season with two teams in the Arizona League, and one in the Northwest League. A couple from Arizona might reach full-season ball in April. About half of the low-thirties of players from Eugene might go to full-season ball. As such, you’re looking at about 80 players looking for a game to play in.

Now, add in however many players are summoned from the Dominican League squad. About 30 are likely to be added for Instructional Ball in January. Some may be returned before XST. I’d prefer to keep any able-bodied option north, and add a few, if needed. If you’re looking at 100 players or so in XST, the Cubs ought to be able to play three or even four games most days, regardless any pitch limits.

Down-time in camp is helpful. However, my guess is that a developing hitter/fielder could probably benefit from four or five games (or half games) per week, regardless how good they are. The player who can field his position, but lags hitting, displays how well how well he is (or isn’t) advancing every day.

Playing more games should help players in the development stage, develop. It would seem, getting more at-bats for a player likely to be in the Arizona League come June, adding another game or two in April through June would help baseball Ops. I have another idea I’ve poached from a better mind than mine. That will wait for next time. Until then, is there anything in your world that you think might help pro players get better at playing baseball, regardless the level? That would be the Ops umbrella.