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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: The DominiCubs return

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The youngest players in the Cubs system play in the Dominican Summer League. Among others, Willson Contreras began his pro career there.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

This Saturday, June 2, the Cubs two Dominican squads begin their 2018 campaigns. It’s very possible you really don’t care. Which is absolutely fine. I am, however, thrilled. When players are representing the Cubs in the pipeline, the less I know about the players, the more value the box score provides. Whether you’re buying it or not, international talent is currently the Cubs’ best bargain going.

As the Cubs have been on “probation” for most of the last two years, the players rolling for the pair of squads were almost all signed for a bonus of $300,000 or less. As such, if one of them is entirely horrific at the lower level or misses time due to a Stanozolol suspension, what of it?

Yeah, when players don’t contribute, they fade away. And many will. However, when people hear the stories (and signing bonuses) of players like Jose Altuve, Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, and others, the importance of international scouts get justifiably magnified. The evaluators are noting 14- to 18-year-old players, many of whom aren’t highly regarded, and looking for that “something.”

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Being sent to the Dominican Summer League isn’t any sort of condemnation. Some players require two or three years to escape, and still have major-league careers. As much as over-reactions are silly at the higher levels, DSL over-reactions are especially comical. Many of these kids have never played against this level of talent before. Some of the pitchers are tossing in the mid-80s. Condemnation isn’t particularly applicable at this level.

The Cubs, as noted, field two teams. It’s very possible that either or both are sub-.500 squads this season. Development matters more than wins and losses in the pipeline. This level is really more like a football coach watching a free-agent scrimmage, trying to find eight decent guys to add for training camp. Sometimes, there are only three. Other times, two dozen are worth a longer look.

The novelty is, there’s virtually no publicly available scouting on some of these players. As such, you’re welcomed to look at the box scores (which appear well after the game concludes) to find what’s there. Batting averages still rule the box scores, but a click on the player’s name can give you added details. However, part of the joy is the anonymity.

“Gonzalez has three starts, 14 innings pitched, and only one walk. Call him up.”

“The youngest guy on the team has an OPS over .700. Cool.”

“Five errors in a game? Yikes.”

Take what you find in the DSL with a grain of salt. These are the equivalents of high school juniors getting better. However, a few days ago, I saw a Vine of the players at the Nationals facility going bonkers over a Juan Soto homer. Priceless reactions from kids who have played with the Nats rookie.

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Since so many will be “no accounts” at the upper levels, the temptation to ignore them might be very tempting. However, this is the purest form of baseball. No Kars-For-Kids ads on the cable broadcast, because there is no broadcast. No audio streaming, either. It’s a bunch of kids, trying to get better at a game we love. And some are wearing Cubs jerseys, proctored by Cubs coaches.

Nonetheless, I haven’t gone with a “why” for you being interested in two games on most days for the next few months. Whatever I write, I doubt I will resonate with some. Excelling at seven or eight levels of the minor leagues will resonate. After that, they’ve earned their keep. For as long as they do well.

The further I push the “other side of the” envelope, the more I realize how important familiarity and immediacy are to most baseball fans. If someone is already being discussed on baseball highlights shows, or having articles written about him by major publications and/or blogs, he’s viable.

However, a 17-year-old who’s never been to the States? “We’ll wait until he’s a more likely and immediate MLB factor.” I get that, and such as you’re satisfied with it, roll with it.

For me, though, it’s about the “basket of investments” that the international players provide that is fascinating. Years ago, the argument could be that any one is “too remote” to worry about. However, with Willson Contreras at the big league level now, his $850,000 signing bonus looks rather a good pounce right now.

The upper-minors have plenty of players signed internationally by the Cubs. They are ironing out their games, and positioning for the next call-up.

As I assess international classes as a whole (as well as specific players individually), The Eloy Jimenez/Gleyber Torres class was worth the investment. When an “investment class” seems “more likely” than “less likely” to be worth the amount spent, I tend to get “more interested” than “less interested” in the investment class as a whole. The reverse applies, as well.

No, it clearly isn’t “my money.” However, as a method of acquisition lives up to and beyond its expectations, my fascination increases. When something similar flutters and falls more often than I prefer, I tend to be less interested.

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This off-season, the question will be “Manny Machado or Bryce Harper?” I’m officially skittish on big-money deals. From Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to others, I’m growing fatigued of reading excuses about why “(insert player here) should be doing better, but isn’t.”

I’m more interested in learning things about baseball. How far should a player with a .900 OPS from the Atlantic Coast Conference advance in a pipeline? How well should a good Big Ten Friday night starter do as a professional? If a hitter in the Dominican Summer League has an .835 OPS, how does that translate to the Northwest League?

You might think you can accurately peg how well Harper will hold up as he ages. I doubt you can with much real confidence. As the expensive free agents can cut into the amount of money that can be spent internationally, that could be considered “my money”.

On occasion, free agents are necessary. Some will be expensive, and require lengthy contracts. However, I’ve had fun following Albert Almora Jr. in his time as a Cubs investment. Javier Baez has been both maddening and a joy. The players the Cubs initially sign from the ranks of being an amateur have brought me quite a bit of joy. Whether through the draft, or international ranks.

The Cubs will sign some players for seven-figure bonuses from “overseas” starting on July 2, and quite a few for far less. They will all require a cultivation period. While that is a deterrent for many, I’m a student of the game. Of the process.

How many of the more than 30 players the Cubs have signed in the still-current international cycle will reach the states? How many will play in full-season ball? Is the added emphasis in Mexico a net positive? Will adding Steve Janssen bring more quality talent under the flag of the Netherlands? (He joined the Cubs after being a coach for their national team.)

These are questions that fascinate me. You’re welcomed to run Fangraphs numbers on which big-money names will make the most sense over the next off-season. However, if the club’s signings trim too heavily into the best investment going, your short-term interest and my long-term view are in conflict.

International talent is oftentimes very inexpensive. when an MLB free-agent addition takes $500,000 or more from the best asset allocation going, my default will often be, “Why does that make long-term sense?” On occasion, certainly. However, the more players that I see on “guaranteed long-term deals” struggle, the more I want scouts to maximize the results from international development. Over the long haul, I’m more sold on $40,000 signing bonuses for 17-year-olds than middle-eight-figure five-year contracts for players who can’t be optioned to Iowa.

The Cubs will spend somewhere between $5 million and $8 million on international talent bonuses this upcoming cycle. I’m quite confident the value the Cubs get on that spending money will be a far better dollar-for-dollar investment than the big-money name the Cubs add in the off-season. Big money free-agents fail to live up to expectations about half the time. I’m reasonably confident the Cubs international investments will fare far better dollar-for-dollar than the big-money names.

And my season resumes on Saturday. As a language guy, I’m referring to the DSL-1 Cubs as the Cachorros (Cubs), and the DSL-2 Cubs as the Potros (Colts). I’m thrilled for more data to sort, and refer to.