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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: Where and how to position talent in the system

Some thoughts on where players fit at different levels in the Cubs minor-league system.

PK Park, home of the Eugene Emeralds
Dustin Smith/Eugene Emeralds

Sometimes, to look intently at a target, you have to focus elsewhere. Perhaps, for a bit of perspective. I’ve noticed a few subtle adjustments the Cubs are doing that aren’t necessarily league-wide. Today’s Pipeline Alchemy focuses elsewhere, to point out what the Cubs are doing differently than some specific other sides.

As I started writing this Sunday, the Boise Hawks are beating the Cubs-affiliated Eugene Emeralds in PK Park, the Emeralds home ballpark. Here’s an assessment of the starting lineups for Sunday’s game. (NDFA: Non-drafted free agent)

Boise Hawks lineup

Player How acquired Draft year Round
Player How acquired Draft year Round
Terrin Vavra Draft 2018 3
Cade Harris Draft 2018 10
Daniel Jipping Draft 2017 22
Danny Edgeworth Draft 2017 23
Luis Castro NDFA -- --
LJ Hatch NDFA -- --
Luke Morgan Draft 2018 20
Hidekel Gonzalez NDFA -- --
Matt Hearn MiLB FA 2016 24
Frederis Parra NDFA --

Eugene Emeralds lineup

Player How acquired Draft year Round
Player How acquired Draft year Round
Fernando Kelli NDFA -- --
Christopher Morel NDFA -- --
Jonathan Sierra NDFA -- --
Gustavo Polanco NDFA -- --
Nelson Velazquez Draft 2017 5
Jonathan Soto NDFA -- --
Ramsey Romano Draft 2017 31
Kwang-Min Kwan NDFA -- --
Luis Vazquez Draft 2017 14
Brailyn Marquez NDFA --

***

Most of the Emeralds participants in that lineup weren’t drafted. Most of the Hawks (Rockies) were. The Rockies have only one DSL squad, and the Cubs have two. Two of the Cubs draft picks (Velazquez and Vazquez) were drafted from Puerto Rico. I could note that the Cubs treat the Northwest League as a bit of a “cultural assimilation” post, leave it there, and you might have learned something.

However, that wasn’t my point.

The Cubs seem to have a specific plan for most of their draft choices. Much of that seems to involve some of the draft picks staying in Mesa for an extended period. (Some of the 2018 choices will run through Eugene. The lack of selections there now is as much due to a lack of recent hitters selected, as anything else.) To explain the plan, I refer to Delvin Zinn.

The Cubs selected Zinn in successive drafts. After being chosen in Round 28 of the 2015 draft, he went to college. He was picked again in Round 23 the next year, and signed. Zinn was regarded as a defense-first infielder, and the opinion hasn’t changed much.

He spent 2016 and 2017 in Mesa, learning to hit. He struggled both campaigns, combining for a .278 OBP between the seasons in the Arizona League. Zinn didn’t get sent to Eugene. His coaching was in Arizona.

This month, Zinn was bumped directly to South Bend, skipping Eugene entirely. He was hitless today for South Bend, but he’s the closest thing they have to a healthy shortstop. He’s had hits in six of his nine games, and doesn’t seem outclassed. As long as Zinn can fill in across the full-season levels as a mid-third-day pick, he’s doing his job. Regardless of the level.

***

The Cubs have a personal plan for each of their prospects. Sometimes, that will involve a portion of a season in Eugene. Other times, that isn’t as important. Cubs draft picks seem selected to specifically assist with the full-season clubs. That also applies for some of the non-drafted free-agents.

Signed post-draft, Oregon State’s Christian Donahue went from being signed after the draft in August 2017 to South Bend in early April. He was toggled to Iowa in June. Each player has their own flight plan.

For some organizations, it’s perfectly useful and logical to have a 23rd-round draft choice (Edgeworth, above, for the Rockies) start 56 games in short-season ball in his draft season, roll up a .303 batting average, then return him to the same place the next year.

For the Cubs, it seems the Eugene squad is more for international teens over the long haul. Draft picks seem more selected for full-season ball. When a bunch of 22-year-olds play a bunch of teenagers, expect the older guys to win. They certainly did in the series in Oregon, with the Emeralds losing 9-4 and 5-1.

***

Dalton Geekie gets the last look. A 6-5 draft choice of the Braves out of Georgia Highlands College in the 22nd round in 2015, Geekie checks quite a few boxes regarding “how the Braves draft.” They draft smaller schools rather aggressively. They draft hard-throwers rather aggressively. As a hard-thrower, it comes as little surprise that “injury issues” followed a degree of “wildness.”

Which leads to another question. Why would the Braves release him in the spring as he is fighting back from surgery? I can’t definitively answer the question for you. However, I can go quite a ways up the path. The Braves like hard throwers. 95. 97. 99 is even better. The Braves prioritize velocity in their system.

On the other hand, from listening to Braves pipeline games recently in the Carolina and Southern Leagues, they seem to have less interest in a reliever “chucking 92 or 93.” Even with a bit of a repertoire. When you look at their contemporary bullpen, it’s hard-throwers, which is fine. However, if “scouting the radar gun” is a large bit of what you do, a player who lacks velocity can get flicked aside on occasion, as unwanted. Not what is desired.

My hunch with Geekie is that, in this spring, his velocity was down a bit. As the Braves tend to prioritize velocity, when he “velo-ed up” in their Disney Resort facility, his velocity was still lacking. And, as he was pushed to throw harder, his command wavered. Since he, perhaps, couldn’t throw hard with command, he was released.

After he had a short stint in Independent Ball with the Lake Erie Crushers, the Cubs saw something they liked. They liked a recovering arm without that many miles on it. They also liked something the Braves might not appreciate as much as the Cubs do. Geekie has a repertoire.

In a recent save chance against Hillsboro, Geekie entered with a one-run lead. His first pitch was a change-up. He also mixes in a slider, with a fastball in the 92-93 range. Sometimes, he changes speeds on the slider.

Here is the point where you have two options, principally. You can note that a 23-year-old who has already pitched in full-season ball ought to carve up short-season guys. which is largely accurate. That would be the Braves’ view. They wanted nothing further to do with him.

Or, you can take the view of the Cubs. He’s a still reasonably young arm who might have some upside. And, being signed from indy ball, he came likely rather inexpensively. He’s showing early to be better than the level where he is presently spotted, which is a good thing for the Cubs.

Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, the Cubs will be making a number of trades starting in very early July. For varying reasons. As talent goes out of the system, for whatever reason, it’s helpful to have talent being promoted on merit, as well. Some of the transactions will be to add big-league talent for prospects. Others will send minor-league players for international spending space. Having players like Geekie ready to move to South Bend, in an organization that promotes pitch location and varying speeds on a near-equal with high-velocity, might pay eventual dividends.

Eventually. Or, perhaps not. However, the downside to adding Geekie is so minuscule as to be about invisible.