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The upside of college games at Sloan Park

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The Cubs spring home hosted college baseball over the weekend.

Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

In 2014, the Cubs had the fourth overall selection in the June draft. Setting up a wide search of the country's available talent, they noted that the Indiana Hoosiers were playing a series in the Phoenix area in February. The Cubs brass set up an interview with Hoosiers catcher Kyle Schwarber, who crushed the interview. The Cubs selected Schwarber with that fourth pick that June. With that in mind, the Cubs should organize an annual four-team tournament in mid-February at Sloan Park.

As teams set up their pre-conference schedule in college baseball, protocol is having four weekends of games in February and March. Teams from Texas, southern California, Florida, and much of the deep south often use three of these weekends to invite northern teams south. By late March conference schedules, which are determined by the league, kick in. That opening weekend, though, serves as a glaring example of a scouting opportunity. Many reasonably good college sides are housed in climates where mid-February is too early to schedule a home game. Pro venues in Arizona or Florida are available, and hitters haven't even officially reported.

The upshot of a college tourney in February isn't to "draw an extra gate." Far from it. The reason to invite two or four teams to the spring site is to scout talent in a familiar climate. This past weekend, Northwestern and Brigham Young played three games at the Cubs’ Mesa home. In the process, the executive branch had an extended chance to better get to know two baseball teams. As far as prospects go, the Wildcats probably grade out as a C-minus squad, with the Cougars being more of a C-plus. Players from both sides will get drafted, and play pro ball. Probably, this season. This dry run, though, was to work out the kinks in the system, I hope.

The Cubs are likely quite familiar with the Wildcats baseball people, seeing as the Evanston campus isn’t far from Wrigleyville. Rightly or wrongly, BYU is often considered a rather clean baseball program, as well, with players expected to require a two-year service mission in their school years. In the future, what sorts of teams might be worth make sense?

Southern schools, the hallmark of the college baseball landscape, don't need trips to Arizona. Nor do non-competitive northern sides. Trips to a Sloan tournament would be most useful for schools that would like to get in three or four good games early. As Mesa is Pac-12 territory, inviting a western school would be a natural. Any northern Pac-12 school would make sense. Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, or Oregon State would be natural. Toss in Nevada, Montana, New Mexico, and New Mexico State (Yeah, the last two are awfully south. A wider net is better than a smaller net.), and you have nine options for one school.

I'm very good with including an in-state school. With the advances in technology brimming, the days of assuming Illinois schools sending out pitchers tossing 85-87 mile-per-hour fastballs with regularity is a bit outdated. At least, among the more major programs. Inviting Illinois, Illinois State, Bradley, or Southern Illinois would be applicable. Northwestern could be an occasional invite. In a year the Illini or Northwestern aren't invited, link in a Big Ten school to be the third. When the Big Ten is represented, search for a northern Big 12 school, like Kansas or Kansas State. Louisville would be a fantastic invite, as would be Kentucky, Tennessee, or Memphis. Poaching a northeastern school might work, depending on the year and talent distribution.

Aaaaaah, talent. Talent is why the idea makes sense. The college talent pool is wide and deep. While the "major conferences-only" mindset might have been valid in earlier seasons, that's by the boards, now. I'm as "SEC Baseball is the best" as anyone, but talent develops in all the Division One conferences these days. As a good coach is about "getting his players exposure", what could be better than three early games against quality foes in Arizona, while being scouted by MLB executives? Who should start recruiting teams for February of 2020? Who should get the first call?

If I had my druthers, I'd place a call to Louisville and Illinois as soon as possible. Fetching one or both for a mid-February tournament in either 2020 or 2021 would give the scouts a great chance to eye some talent early. If Illinois is out, a glance at the D-1 Big Ten rankings for the 2020 Draft class notes four of the top seven for next season are from the Wolverines program in Ann Arbor.

Baseball schedules in college, unlike football or basketball, are planned from year-to-year, not three to four seasons in advance. Baseball schedules are announced officially as late as January before a February opening. If a quality northern program is alerted that the Cubs venue is on the prowl for February visitors, a 2021 tournament line-up ought to be a bit impressive. By hosting six full-length games in the Cubs facility, and the run-up scrimmages, using Rapsodo and Driveline devices on their practices and games gives the Cubs data points from which to draft. Paired with the applicable player interviews, setting up a series seems a no-brainer.

My top 12 programs for a 2020 Sloan Park Tourney?

  1. Louisville
  2. Michigan
  3. Illinois (if not Michigan)
  4. Oregon State
  5. Stanford (if not Oregon State)
  6. Vanderbilt
  7. Kentucky (if not Vanderbilt)
  8. Oklahoma
  9. Oklahoma State (if not Oklahoma)
  10. East Carolina
  11. Tennessee (if no other SEC schools)
  12. Bradley, Illinois State, or Southern Illinois (if not Illinois)

Plug in any of those four, and the Cubs brass could have a nice pulse on the impending draft class. If that works well, contemplate doing something similar on the preceding weekend regarding four high-end NAIA schools. Their weather tends to be rather dicey in early February, as well. Talent is talent, and the Cubs executives tend to know what they’re seeking. If the playing field is ready, let some teams get some scouting looks with the new-fangled computers firing.