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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: If at first you don't succeed...

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Some thoughts on how player value is perceived in the Cubs organization.

Tyler Durna
Eugene Emeralds

As people flow into and out of my articles, on occasion I need to restate the premise. Cubs Pipeline Alchemy articles are an attempt at merging "the draft" and "player development". Forty rounds seems like an absurdly high number, until you find that some players in the later phases help the organization. Pipeline Alchemy articles are about discussing how to turn second and third day selections into value beyond their perceived value.

As often happens, this voyage starts with a recent post by Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter. (Specifically, his response from the early morning on March 12.) His work is available to Cubs fans for the asking. By reading his comments, you get the undistilled knowledge of someone who is not only on-site in Mesa, but grasps what he's looking for and at. Recently, he reported on an intrasquad scrimmage, and it soaked enough value in the report to help educate the novice and veteran alike.

I begin with his note on Tyler Durna. A 2018 15th-round selection from the University Of California, San Diego, Durna’s advancement in the system until now has been as far as the Eugene Emeralds. Teasing anything substantial from his 105 pro plate appearances is a bit of a fantasy. His career has barely started, and the future figures to tell more than the past. However, as a 15th-round choice, you’re welcomed (and encouraged) to mentally place whatever level of expectation/value on him you wish.

My book on Durna is that he is a defense-first first baseman. He homered once for Eugene, and put together a .716 OPS as an age-appropriate hitter in the Northwest League. That doesn’t scream “jump a level, and go directly to Myrtle Beach, skipping over South Bend”, but that may be what is happening. Over the last few weeks and months, news and innuendos regarding the designated hitter and added roster sizes from April through September have increased the value for first basemen in baseball.

The Cubs have almost actively avoided first basemen recently. While the claim could be made that they have no reason to prioritize first baseman with Anthony Rizzo around, the Cubs have gone beyond that. The last first baseman they seemed to even bother with was Daniel Vogelbach. Justin Bour was made available for the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft in 2013. Their first basemen in many levels the last few years have often been catchers on a day off from wearing the extra gear.

That method has greatly improved the Cubs catching depth (Taylor Davis, Ian Rice, P.J. Higgins, Jhonny Pereda, Miguel Amaya, and others have benefited) through added repetitions, but the Cubs lack of “thumping bats” from first basemen is a bit disconcerting. As such, Durna might be given the first base job in Advanced-A with precious little competition. Looping this back into the draft, it would be rather easy for the Cubs to add another two or three first basemen to the pipeline without burning much in early draft selections.

To go with Durna, 2018 tenth-round heist Luke Reynolds might be largely a first baseman in South Bend. While the premise is to usually let the player stick at the most challenging position as long as possible, mind Reynolds deployment in the Midwest League. If the Cubs determine he is a first baseman, he become more about slugging, and less about finesse. From a tenth-rounder, if he can mash his way to Double-A or beyond, that works for me.

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Another edit the Cubs are running with is having certain starting pitchers dodge the Midwest League entirely. It started in 2017, with 2016 third-rounder Tom Hatch starting full-season ball at Myrtle Beach. Alex Lange, added as a compensatory pick for losing Dexter Fowler in the draft, jumped from Eugene in 2017 to Myrtle Beach last season. Keegan Thompson, a 2017 third-rounder from Auburn University, followed the same flight plan.

Per Arizona Phil, 2018 second-rounder Paul Richan (added as a compensatory pick for losing Jake Arrieta in free-agency) and 2018 14th Round selection Riley McCauley might be making the same jump. If a team runs contrary five times over three years in pitching development, at some point, it begins to sound like a bit of a trend.

McCauley poured almost twenty pro innings on top of a career-high 55 in his 2018 college campaign. The 6-1 right-hander was better in his limited pro stint than he was in East Lansing with Michigan State. His walks were a bit high at both stops, but he limited pros to less than a hit an inning, and fanned more than a batter and a half per nine innings more than when with the Spartans. To use my own parlance, McCauley sounds quite a bit like a 40 pitch reliever to me, if he develops.

Richan tossed just under 90 innings in college in 2018, and piled on nearly 30 more as a professional. In his time in Eugene, Richan had a WHIP of .809, fanning six times as many hitters as he walked. It isn’t surprising Richan is being considered for skipping the Midwest League. He had a few starts in Eugene where he seemed unchallenged.

This isn’t to guarantee future success for Richan or McCauley. It’s about assessing whether advanced arms can thrive after missing a level. I’m not sure yet, but I’ll be intrigued to see if the Midwest League is less-essential in the future for starting pitchers. More data points for-the-win.

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Andy Weber was a second-day choice from the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Virginia Cavaliers last June, in the fifth round. His OPS in Eugene in 2018 was .691, and he looks to be the guy in Myrtle Beach. The comment notes him as a second baseman, but the Cubs rarely break the edges that firmly. I expect Weber to get looks across the infield, much like when he played second, third, and short in Eugene. The mild surprise is that Levi Jordan, a 29th-round senior sign from the University of Washington, is making the same jump.

If I’m the only one thinking about a Trent Giambrone redux, I’m not doing my job very well. I’ve been saying for years that the Cubs have been doing well later in the draft. The assessment was questioned, as the picks hadn’t debuted in MLB. David Bote is now one. Giambrone has impressed in Mesa. Weber and Jordan, who were on-campus twelve months ago, have already had MLB camp cameos, and may be getting regular chances in Advanced-A, already.

Trends often begin to take shape in the minor leagues. This happens whether you’re paying heed, or not. If you want to have an idea of “what’s next,” an awareness of what’s continuing and changing in the pipeline is a step in the right direction. From whatever sources are available, Pipeline Alchemy will attempt to track the system’s trajectory.