In a recent article on player development, BCB reader Pretzel City asked what has changed in the Cubs draft preferences recently. Just below that, another poster wondered why Theo Epstein didn't start doing in 2011 what he's talking about doing now. The two dovetail only somewhat awkwardly into a recent history of the Cubs pipeline.
To start the process, a look to the state of the pipeline in late 2011 is about essential. The Cubs most recent No. 1 choices at that time, Javier Baez and Hayden Simpson, had begun to run the gamut. Many of the Cubs arms were overextended, at whatever level they were throwing.
Triple-A guys weren't ready to fill in at the MLB level. Jim Hendry was using the old-school method of "getting individual recommendations" to sign free agents. He didn't load up on low-cost available lapsed MLB players, like a Kyle Ryan, recently. Nor did he regularly do the basics to get extra draft picks. His chief strength, and his chief weakness, was loyalty.
As late as 2014, the Cubs were so short of available starting pitchers at the Advanced-A Level that recent high draft pick Rob Zastryzny was at a level beyond where he should have been. Nobody else was ready. For Advanced-A Ball. Fans didn't bat an eye at how backwards things were in the "new regime" period. They were too transfixed on the big league club to see that the pipeline had previously been constructed of quicksand.
Low-end arms were selected in bulk, early, because they were needed to pitch. Immediately. In games. Also, pitchers tossing 95 with three different MLB offerings don't normally hang around until the sixth round. Or even pick 18. The Cubs found guys in Round 14 and 18 that they could quickly get to the Midwest League, or further, by overloading on pitchers. By doing so, the current brass was negligent about getting bats outside of the first round. 2018 is the only draft since Epstein's arrival with more top 10 round bats than arms. The hitting depth, a key to any productive pipeline, didn’t exist.
Could the Cubs have selected "different" or "better" guys? Probably, but a draft board is based on draft day knowledge. Baseball fans are less versed in draft options than football fans about their process. Sixth or 22nd round talent are usually similar to players taken at similar times. Epstein has developed better than Hendry did.
I say that last sentence with confidence. Minor league teams held together by baling wire and masking tape were upgraded to a pipeline that has won at least one title every year since 2013. Titles were a rarity before. Now, one is almost expected every season.
Most have been at the lower levels. To get where the team ought to be, Double-A Tennessee should qualify every other year, instead of zero times since Chris Archer was traded. Iowa qualified for the first time in a decade. What draft changes, if any, have been made to upgrade the upper-portion of the pipeline?
To assess a draft class, having a reasonable assessment and reasonable expectation are both important. Where did he play? How did he do there? What do players who do that, there, usually end up producing? The Cubs have been quite adept in drafting good "people" in June. By doing that, they avoid needing Remedial Decency courses for draft picks. This goes back to the Hendry time. Trade pieces can be different.
Until 2017, the Cubs prioritized defensive-minded outfielders. Right or center field, almost exclusively. Or both. By having good defenders, the pitching staff is aided.
For instance, in 2017, the Cubs drafted Brandon Hughes and Chris Singleton as third-day outfielders. Both seem to be really good dudes on Twitter. Both are very gifted defensively. Neither hit at the full-season level. Hughes is now a pitcher. Singleton moved on to his next life phase. That the Cubs drafted outfielders that weren't that adept at hitting in 2017 or before isn't a surprise. It was a years-long trend to draft "glove first" outfielders on the third day, to aid pitchers, and hope the bat would develop.
Fast forward to last June. In about the same round the Cubs drafted Hughes in 2017, they drafted Zac Taylor in 2019. Fighting through injuries as a college senior, Taylor had ten homers and 23 steals in his draft season. Hughes notched five and 23. Similar speed. Less pop. No surprise.
Singleton played for Charleston Southern in the Big South Conference. His draft year OPS was .752. Only in his time in the Rookie Ball Arizona League did he notch higher numbers. In a similar round in 2019, the Cubs added Nelson Maldonado from Florida of the high-end SEC. Maldonado's defense wasn't highly regarded. However, his SEC draft year OPS was .983. You tell me. Who sounds the better baseball playing prospect: .993 at Florida, or .752 in the Big South. Maldonado drove in 17 runs with an OPS of .757 in South Bend after a full season in his draft year. Expect Maldonado in Myrtle Beach in April.
It's not that hard. Guys that hit in college tend to hit as pros, though not necessarily all the way up the ladder. If the Cubs are (finally) committed to drafting "enough" bats, that's a good thing. It would have been nice in 2014. Or 2008. Or 1972.
In round 20 last June, before Maldonado or Taylor, the Cubs selected Darius Hill from West Virginia in the Big Twelve. His draft year OPS was .897. Based on what you might guess about the Big Twelve in baseball (worse than the SEC, better than the Big South or Big Ten), what do his numbers declare? He should hit better than the 2017 choices, and perhaps Zac Taylor, but worse than Maldonado?
The Cubs are, if reluctantly, drafting bat-first players more often. On the mound, 2019 top pick Ryan Jensen has more velocity and less of a repertoire than Tom Hatch, Alex Lange, or Brendon Little. They're buying MPH, spin rate, and better-hitting outfielders. Is that enough to catch the Astros or Dodgers? No. But it's better than 2014. Or 2008. Or 1972.