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Kyler Murray, his NFL decision, and a 1967 Cubs draft pick tell a story about MLB today

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Alec Distaso was chosen by the Cubs in the first round in 1967. He made two big-league appearances.

You won’t see this anymore, as Kyler Murray has chosen to play pro football
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Monday, Kyler Murray, who signed for a large bonus for the Oakland Athletics last draft cycle, announced he plans to play football professionally. To that end, he returned most of his signing bonus, and won’t receive future payments from Oakland. The up-front finances for a Heisman Trophy winner are more attainable than for a baseball player. For many people, the sizable bonus would be enough to retire on. Conversely, the competitive athlete mindset tends to be “to reach higher.” This article looks at the current state of baseball, and looks back 50 years, as well.

Also Monday, I read what I consider a must-read baseball article from Maury Brown in Forbes. It discusses the finances from both sides, and has some interesting quotes. From it, I’m taking a line from Commissioner Rob Manfred that owners and executive are interested now, more than before, in “the zero-to-six year service time players.” Those are the cost-controlled seasons. They are the seasons nobody else can take a player from another team without permission. As much as baseball fans want to “keep Kyle Schwarber” or “retain Kris Bryant”, that is only guaranteed through years 0-6. That’s in my lexicon now. If you read the Brown piece, you’ll likely see this stuff isn’t fabricated from nothing.

Baseball wasn’t always that way. If we quickly meander back half a century, teams tried to sprint players to MLB. I’m analyzing a Cubs player I was entirely unaware of. He was a first-round draft pick. Comparing and contrasting how early draft choices were developed, and why, gives a bit of scope on why what is done now, is done now. Today’s look is at former Cubs pitching prospect Alec Distaso.

Selected in the January draft (MLB used to have two amateur drafts, one in January as well as the current June draft), Distaso was selected before Carlton Fisk and Ken Singleton in January 1967, both of whom signed. Listed at 6-2, 200, that was very good size in an era before constant weight-room work and current nutritional advice. I don’t have any scout-speak for him from back then, but he was likely well respected out of high school (Wilson High School in Los Angeles) if he was taken first.

The minor leagues were different then. Player development was different then. Teams had the control of players forever, then. That would change within ten years, but that wasn’t a given, yet. In general, teams would rush players through to the majors. The mindset from then hangs quite popularly now, among many baseball fans. Habits are hard to break.

“Get him to Wrigley as quickly as possible. If he’s healthy for 10 or 12 years, there’s no point burning four or five of them in the bushes.” That was a popular mindset then. It lingers today, and is difficult to bust if it’s held. The goal with Distaso was to move him through as quickly as possible. His first full pro season, equivalent to a Kohl Franklin in 2019, if you track the Cubs pipeline. Distaso tossed 47 innings for Caldwell in the Pioneer League in 1967, akin to the team’s Northwest League team currently in Eugene, Oregon.

“That’s not a terrible workload. It’s a bit heavy, but not ridiculous.”

The problem is, that wasn’t all the pitching he did. He also made five starts for Quincy in the Midwest League, and ten more for Lodi in the California League. After those two stops, they moved him back down to the Rookie League level, once short-season ball resumed. As a first-year professional, Distaso threw 124 innings of pro ball, in what would have been his first college season. Yeah, that’s a fast-track.

In 1968, he returned to Quincy in the Midwest League, and pitched much better. Over 31 appearances and 25 starts, his ERA was 3.30. Simply off the looks of that, he was in the process of figuring out how to pitch. However, that wasn’t how things were done, then. He added three appearances in Triple-A in 1968, walking nine in 13 innings.

The Cubs, in their wisdom, had him on the opening day roster in 1969. He pitched twice in the early season for the Cubs, pitching in a modified Rule 5 pitcher role. Before May started, he was returned to the minors, never to return to MLB. He was still able to pitch effectively in the Midwest League, but struggled at any higher level. A Wikipedia post notes Distaso “had elbow troubles”. Those were likely unfixable for another seven or eight years, if my hunches are correct.

This hasn’t been about saying the Cubs were foolish in selecting or developing Distaso. This hasn’t been about complaining about a lack of off-season movement, or praising the same as “best business practices”. Nor has it been about ridiculing or praising Kyler Murray. In my mind, at least, the three are linked, today.

A baseball executive retains his job by earning the trust and respect of his boss, the owner. The owner has a spectrum he looks at the world through, and that spectrum is different from mine. Or, likely, yours. Ownership across the league, for whatever reasons, make specific business decisions for specific reasons. Their thoughts are what they are, and were what they were.

In the 1960’s, getting Distaso to MLB quickly was the goal. Now, keeping the younger arms healthy seems the priority, since teams have a limited number of viable arms that could viable MLB starters. You might prefer the business choices now, then, or somewhere in-between. For now, though, the Commissioner of the 30 MLB bosses considers Years 0-6 important. He considers limiting signing bonuses, even if it means losing talent to the NFL, important.

In the current MLB, some things are hidden, and complete transparency isn’t really an option. Owners and executives are doing things differently than 20 years ago, or 50 years ago. Some decisions, I wish were different. They won’t be, until the landscape changes. Getting “the best available talent to MLB, and quickly” seems to be taking a back seat to “cost control and prioritizing development.” On Tuesday, pitchers and catchers report. At least that’s good.