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The Tyler Chatwood lesson nobody wants to learn

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A look at free agency and how and why to sign pitchers like Tyler Chatwood.

Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

The internet is a mish-mash of ideas. Many of them are wrong. Some push the problem in the wrong direction. Many show a lack of grasp of the problem at hand. As the topic of the day is Tyler Chatwood and his struggles, the same comedy and frustration apply. My favorite was to trade Chatwood to a last-place team, and make them send him to Double-A. (As if pistol-whipping a league executive into a trade makes violating the MLBPA agreements on service time more acceptable.) A lesson should be being learned from the Chatwod signing. By and large, that lesson is still lost on most people.

More of my articles are being written for a readership that isn’t the everyday Bleed Cubbie Blue contributor. As such, this article might not be specifically about you. Nonetheless, I expect you can learn a thing or two, either way. I apologize if none of this is new ground for you.

The Cubs and Chatwood agreed to the three-year contract. The contract will be paid in full. Many fans seem to think that if they pound enough on their personal pulpit, Chatwood’s contract will go away. It won’t, except by trade, and nobody else will want him, until he pitches better. And, if he pitches better, the Cubs have less need to unload the contract.

“Don’t get Chatwood. Get the guy who’s going to be goooooooooood.” As if extending the length of “good” makes it easier to read a crystal ball. Free agent contracts are often bad business for the team, whether the player is historically “good” or not. Only in free agency can a player shop for a contract among all 30 teams. This will often inflate his financial numbers, making the contract less team-friendly.

“So, if free-agent deals aren’t reliable, what about trades?” Trades can makes sense to add pitching. However, teams rarely want to part with quality cost-controlled pitching. Nor do they want to trade for massive, unproductive contracts. Two of the Cubs better trades recently have revolved around trading pitchers who were desired at the time. That is how the Cubs added Anthony Rizzo (Andrew Cashner) and Kyle Hendricks (Ryan Dempster).

As you realize what hasn’t worked, it’s time to jump back in the time machine. Jim Hendry has recently been fired. Theo Epstein has recently taken over. Rizzo will be traded in early January. However, the Cubs are trying to satisfy the unrest among the fans. They want this front office to make a big move. The popular one would be Prince Fielder, a known entity that would “show” the front office is interested in contending right away.

Fielder isn’t acquired, in part, because his name is a misnomer. He’s a hitter, only. He would be a bad choice at first base. He might briefly live up to his contract. However, over the long-haul, his would be a very bad contract. And it would be a very long haul.

The Cubs stay far, far away from Fielder, instead trading for the inexperienced and somewhat unsuccessful (to that point) Rizzo. Eventually, it would become a cornerstone trade.

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What is my solution? And why that?

It’s based on answering two primary questions. Which players are likely to live up to their contracts? How to better develop a minor league system?

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I get pushed a bit on “Epstein can’t draft/develop pitching.” Usually, after about six questions, the goal posts are moved. It rather quickly switches from “The Cubs under Epstein can’t develop pitching” to “Well, yeah, but I still want the Cubs to develop an ace.” It’s true that Duane Underwood Jr., Trevor Clifton, Alex Lange, and others haven’t been highly successful MLB starters, yet.

However, if you’re watching the upper levels of the minors, names like those above are being joined by Matt Swarmer, Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, Keegan Thompson, Michael Rucker, The organization is “giving away” fewer starts than before with guys with no viable MLB pathway. At some point soon, the Cubs will have more rotational arms in Iowa than rotational spots in Iowa. If you can point to a historical time when that ever happened, you have a more acute memory than I do.

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The reason so few Cubs fans refuse to acknowledge “build from within” as a pitching option is that they have so little as far as historical precedent. However, the Braves have done it for most of the time since the late eighties. And, once they tended to do it so well, established pitchers wanted to come to Atlanta. Which made recruiting easier. The Cardinals and Dodgers lived there for decades.

The default for the Cubs has been, look at the list of available established veterans for a free agency class, and pick one or two. After all, with our collective knowledge of the important statistics (be that wins and losses, strikeouts per nine, or spin rate), we can figure out who will do well. And cheer for them. Or curse their signings, and come up with not-so-subtle names to passive-aggressively type into our keyboards, like Walkwood or Chatwalk.

The problem with caring about the minor league talent, even though it seems the logical call, is that it isn’t a very social thing to do. You’ll be wrong over fifty percent of the time with any choice from the pipeline. You end up being taken as “wrong” if Clifton (signing bonus of $375,000) or Swarmer (signing bonus of under $100,000) don’t succeed, if they are the names you tout.

However, if neither make a pitch for the parent club, the most the team is “out” is under half a million dollars. As opposed to the deal a free agent signs for. The “develop from within” idea, after all, is an investment basket. You’re gambling on eight or ten arms, all approaching MLB-readiness. None were early first-rounders, like Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber. As such, the whiff rate will be much bigger. However, it should allow for some quality to sneak through.

I have two more nuggets on the way out the door. As the Cubs have talent like Hatch, Robinson, and the others, some other teams will be interested in those specific players. Two-for-one or three-for-one options might become available, though not for the bigger names in the league. If a team has two pitchers in their fifth full season of “usable” MLB quality, they might send one for two from the Cubs stable. (Similar to, but different from, the Ricky Tyler Thomas-for-Jesse Chavez trade.)

Also, if you think the Cubs absolutely, absolutely need to invest in a free agent arm next season, think outside the box. The general response was “Who?” or snickers when St. Louis signed Miles Mikolas over the off-season. Mikolas has been fantastic with the Cardinals, at a much lower cost than Chatwood. Perhaps pitchers like Mikolas who struggle in MLB, then gain their footing overseas, should be considered valid options.

Old habits are hard to break. Unwillingness to break old disproven habits aren’t a good sign. Yet, they tend to be very comfortable. And wrong. Use your baseball research time as you wish. Rail against obvious mistakes. Or, become more conversant in terms that can be useful improvement workarounds. Learn more about the pipeline options. Learn more about pitchers like Mikolas. Or continue to toss around disrespectful terms about players on your own team. Two of those three things make you a better baseball fan.