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Minor league baseball used to be about winning

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Developing players for big-league success is now more important.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball fans are a spectrum. Some just began following the sport in the last few years. With the exciting players the Cubs have, from Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber to Willson Contreras and Javier Baez, the Cubs figure to be getting their fair share of the pie. Some people became fans in the Sammy Sosa era, sent as a loose generalization. Some are more the Ryne Sandberg vintage, or the Williams/Santo/Banks timeframe. In general, people have a degree of bias for their generation. This article looks back, based on a line from South Bend Cubs play-by-play announcer Darin Pritchett.

Pritchett, who has been the primary on Cubs broadcasts in the Midwest League since they joined the Cubs family, was referencing a past discussion recently. Mark Haley had been the long-time manager of the South Bend Silver Hawks, when they were a part of the Diamondbacks chain. When the affiliations switched, Haley stayed in South Bend to work at the Cubs training facility.

The players coming through South Bend as hitters are likely somewhat familiar with Haley. However, that isn’t the angle for today. Haley is a minor league veteran. Arguably a lifer. Haley has seen the minor league game change quite a bit.

In his comment that spurred this article, Pritchett was noting how the minor league affiliates are about development. However, Haley noted somewhere along the line, it hasn’t always been that way.

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I knew that, but I hadn’t thought of it in quite a while. The current minor league setup is only possible with current technology. Think about it for a moment. The Cubs executives can watch, in real time, all the full-season minor league affiliates. From the warmth and comfort of their office or den, sipping Starbucks or a taste of their favorite adult beverage.

If a pitcher is struggling, a quick glance at the MiLB feed can answer some questions. Or cause more concerns. That wasn’t always possible. Smartphones make it possible, and even likely, to get quick remote views. Whether from a Dominican facility, the Mesa complex, or a college game. Questions can be asked and answered in seconds, or in minutes with video back-up. That wasn’t always the case.

Much of a manager’s job in the minor leagues is filling out and filing reports. Player-by-player, situation-by-situation. Decades ago, this information was all the front office knew. Unless the roving instructors were in town, the manager and his two (not three) assistants were the knowledge bank of information.

Back in those days, whichever days you wish to lay claim to, minor league games were different. Teams tried to win. Whether that is how the manager was assessed or not, was up to the organization. However, back in the 1970s, for instance, the starting pitcher was expected to go at least seven innings. After all, he had to be “toughened up” for a possible major league career. If he wasn’t seven-innings good, he likely wasn’t of much value.

Reserves would sit the bench routinely. The guys who were expected to be the stars were the regular six days per week. The other guys would pinch hit, or fill in when an injury was serious enough to require a day off. Players on the back-end of the roster weren’t given the shot when “match-ups would indicate success”. Players like David Bote would wither and fail on a bench, over lack of opportunities. Batting averages and RBIs were more important that OBP+ and exit velocity.

Relievers were in a similar boat. Being a reliever was considered a dismissive, anyway. Occasionally, teams would carve out room for a lefty-specialist on an affiliate. However, with looks from the brass a rarity, the numbers would have to speak for themselves. A pitcher off to a slow start in May in Double-A would get hidden in the bullpen like a Rule 5 selection. After all, the starter would pitch most of the game. The back-end reliever would have to resuscitate his season in blow-outs.

After the draft, top-end arms would be rushed to full-season affiliates. The better arms there, would then get moved up, and bad starts to seasons were terminal. Some fans might think that is a better way to run a system.

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Somewhere along the line, and with the aid of technology, MLB organizations decided they might be better off getting contributions more regularly from more of the 25 players on their roster. This was a slow turning. Teams eventually decided that using bullpen spots on pitchers who were useful for an inning or two in relief, was better than having the starter face the lineup a fourth time.

Or even a third time.

The minor leagues used to be about winning. Figure out your best four (or five) starting pitchers and nine or ten bats, and play them every day. It was protocol. Now, the pipeline is about developing talent. Of course, in the day, playing the regulars almost exclusively was considered development. Which, in a way, it was.

Old ways are hard to get rid of. An adage is that it’s seven times harder to unlearn something, than to learn it in the first place. The numbers might not be entirely accurate, but trends are hard to eliminate. Especially if you don’t want to get rid of them.

Due to technology and a different method of roster use, the minor league pipelines are different. Moving players along is more important than winning. Using players who are struggling is the new modus operandi. Ninety pitches is the general maximum in the Northwest League. Out with the old, and in with the new.

Part of the disregard of minor league baseball might be that winning is underplayed. Once I overcame that thought that I consider overplayed, I looked at the entire baseball landscape differently. Locating talent that can be useful into the future became far more important. How a player is likely to perform in three years had more importance than a June game. The draft and international arenas became a goldmine of value.

I knew this, already. However, thanks to Pritchett for the reminder, and Haley for his work with the Cubs hitters the last few seasons. Development wins. When the Cubs lagged on development, they rarely had good seasons. This is about all the historical reference i needed.