I alternately catch grief and appreciation for minding the Cubs pipeline over the parent club. I doubt I could add much knowledge on a day-to-day role regarding the parent club. By listening to or watching the pipeline, sometimes I learn about baseball, and myself. Baseball is, for me, a vignette cauldron. If you want to intrigue me in regards to a player, stories are more useful, often, than numbers. Here's a memory of mine from a player recently added to the 40-man roster.
What were you doing in early August, 2018? The South Bend Cubs were trying for an elusive playoff bid they wouldn't earn. South Bend was a bit below .500, and Jeff Passantino had turned in a gem of a start. He'd fanned nine through six scoreless innings. Reliever Garrett Kelly tossed two on top of that. The bullpen had been taxed the nights before, and getting through the game with three arms only would be a godsend. Manuel Rodriguez was summoned with a 5-0 lead, needing only three outs to preserve a shutout win.
More on what happened in a moment.
Rodriguez was recently added to the Cubs’ 40-man roster. Noah Cloonan is the Myrtle Beach Pelicans announcer, and noted Rodriguez is ridiculously strong. The 5-11, 205-pound righthander is among four long-time chums that played for Myrtle Beach last season. Rodriguez, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, and Carlos Sepulveda have known each other since before signing with the Cubs. Support systems are very useful.
In Myrtle Beach in 2019, Rodriguez (who turns 24 in August) fanned 67 in 45 innings (12.4 per nine innings). He allowed about a hit an inning, just one home run all year, and had a decent walk rate (3.3 per nine). Rule 5 selections are about the future, not next May. If the Cubs see enough in Rodriguez, he's likely worth a relatively low-end gamble to keep instead of exposing him to the Rule 5 draft.
Back to my story from 2018. Rodriguez struggled that August evening. Mightily. Pitchers have rugged outings, but in minor league ball, it's different than in Wrigley. It's about getting players plenty of looks to see if they're ready. And, some of the outings are spectacularly horrible. Rodriguez walked two and gave up four hits, including a homer. He retired (checks notes) nobody, and the game went extra innings, which was the last thing the team needed at the time. Burning through multiple pitchers didn't help.
As the bullpen was trying to get ready, I felt for Rodriguez. Regardless the level, failure is never the goal. As the Commissioner wants to tell me how many spots an organization should have for arms like Rodriguez, it disgusts me. On that night, he wasn't MiLB good. On other nights, he was much better.
I'm not dancing on his outing that night. Bad games happen for every player. The minor leagues are about learning the lessons needed for when the time is right. The popular thing is to watch the big club sink or swim. For me, the fun is watching players get good enough to outplay one level. Then the next. And fighting through five run/no out appearances.
When I heard Rodriguez had joined far-more-expected names Miguel Amaya, Tyson Miller, and Zack Short on the 40 man roster, I needed to find that game's box score. Major league games might be about overreacting. The pipeline is about progress, which is often behind the scenes. Welcome to the 40-man roster, everyone who is finally getting paid, a bit. Even as a person with a rather long leash on patience, the game that night had me worrying for Rodriguez’ future. That isn’t how minor league baseball works.
Every player has a story. Every player building up their story has an opportunity, despite what Commissioner Rob Manfred says. If the player can’t hack advancing far enough to become significant, the realistic opportunity still exists. The next time the Cubs are playing uninspired ball, you’re welcomed to spend a night listening to games in the pipeline. You might hear about one of the next players to become "sudden breakout" after years of development. That few of you will doesn't diminish the offer, or the amount I enjoy hearing players like Rodriguez succeed at a level, or get a significant pay hike, despite a bad night now and again.