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James Norwood wasn’t on the prospect radar. Why did everyone miss his talent?

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The newest Cubs reliever wasn’t a guy anyone was expecting to be in the big leagues this year.

Stephen Green/Chicago Cubs

Earlier this week the Cubs added James Norwood to the MLB roster. A bit of an unexpected call-up, it’s a valid question to ask why prospect types “missed” on Norwood. Beware, though. The answer to why Norwood was missed has a few levels to it.

A seventh-round Cubs draft choice from St. Louis University in 2014, Norwood became the first Billikens MLBer since Ken Sanders in 1976. Sanders had a nice stretch of success in the early seventies, and I’d take a third of that success for Norwood.

A hiccup with tossing all the minor league followers into the same kettle drum is that not all are running the same routine. The national writers often follow the top prospects, and track the others they run into. Some Cubs types follow the parent club principally, and run “stock searches” on prospects in the after hours. For instance, they might check line drive percentages or other specifically crunched numbers.

What I tend to do is “wrong.” I do something very old-timey. I listen to games. Which infuriates some people. No, really it does.

“How can you learn anything from listening to a game?”

I’ll watch stuff now and again. However, I’m usually hacking away on Twitter to this grand multi-tiered opera I consider baseball to be. If I’m watching Tennessee’s game, I can’t be tweeting what just happened in South Bend. So, usually, I pick a game’s audio stream and learn what I can. If that ceases to be informative, I go elsewhere. Sometimes, I listen while I nap. No, seriously.

Video serves a purpose, and I check on that, as well. But, for much of the time, it’s as if I’m listening to Pat Hughes or Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau. Even if it’s regarding an Appalachian League or Florida State League game with no Cubs involvement. Assess, prioritize, and learn. Every game. Checking on names I’m unfamiliar with, which is nearly impossible if I’m watching.

***

Most people want to know who is going to be next. Their definition of next may, or may not, be included. Norwood wasn’t “next” on anyone’s list until quite recently. In an odd comp, Norwood was very Javier Baez. The first time he met a level, he often struggled mightily. Then, he got better the next try. And struggled the next step. In 2017, he was very good in Myrtle Beach, and was stopped by Double-A Tennessee’s foes. As rankings are rarely updated after January until next January, Norwood “had struggled at Tennessee.”

The natural assumption could have been: He’ll do well in Tennessee, then struggle in Iowa. Some would also wonder if the 24-year-old was “too old.” Which numbs my brain, but whatever.

Norwood hit Iowa, and didn’t stop. He made very quick work of the Pacific Coast League, and his call-up took him out of likely consideration for the 2018 Rule 5 Draft. Which would have been a consideration for a reliever that can gas it up at 97-99 miles per hour. He had hit 100 last summer.

Now, for the next three or so seasons, the Cubs have a reliever they can use in Chicago, hide in Iowa, or trade for another need. Which is the farthest outside hope for a seventh-round pick

***

Back to why Norwood slipped between the cracks. People like to think that a pipeline has a finite number of resources, and that number should be 30. While the first half of the premise is accurate, the second isn’t.

While sometimes dehumanizing terms are used in referencing players in general (asset, organizational guy, for instance), players in a good system are drafted for a reason. Part of that should always be that “they are good at baseball.” Even when a team adds 30 players who are good at baseball, eventually, they likely hit a level that is forever better than they are.

The goal is to get as many players as far along as possible before that “eventually” hits. With Norwood, and many others in the Cubs pipeline, that level gets pushed farther and farther along. Which aids in the system depth, though not necessarily the Top 30 rankings by the touting service. (Those rankings are generally about the players who almost never struggle.)

In 2014, Norwood struggled in the Northwest League. People who watched or listened to him that year had a valid reason to discount him from much further likely success. In 2015, South Bend served as a struggle. In 2016, he fared fairly well in Myrtle Beach after figuring out the Midwest League. Tennessee was the struggle the next season.

To assess players properly, it’s necessary to determine, based on incomplete information, to which level a player will reach before the struggles become permanent. Which requires tracking games in a pipeline regularly. With Norwood, that level never existed. Even though it looked like almost every level was that level. I’m perfectly good with declaring James Norwood’s Law that a player is a pipeline “is a threat until he no longer is.”

Did “we” miss on Norwood? Probably. Which, for my case, is fine. As long as I learned something in the process. For you, you might be less forgiving. In my world, I learn as I go, and try to get better at answering questions. However, sometimes, it might be better to change the questions.

In the future, I’m trying to adjust the questions to the following. “Who hasn’t yet run into a level that’s better than he is?” It brings about a lengthier, clunkier answer. With quite a few players who aren’t throwing in the high nineties. However, if a player is a threat until he isn’t, I am somewhat demanding more leeway.