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The Cubs have many ‘self-governing’ players. Is this the best way to build a roster?

Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and others have been the core of the Cubs’ winning seasons. Can they keep going this way with the draft?

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

As the Cubs rebuild began, the front office went with a bit of an alternate gameplan. They knew the types of players they wanted. Part of this was a bit evident, early on. Anthony Rizzo was an early acquisition. Albert Almora Jr. was their first draft selection. The Cubs wanted, what I’m calling, self-governors. To an extent, scouts were to “not bother” with question marks. The plan worked well, until it hasn’t. Have the Cubs created an intriguing problem with their addiction to self-governors?

Two specific players who were not drafted by the team ended up as key contributors to the 2017 World Championship side. Whatever you think of Addison Russell or Aroldis Chapman, their off-field pasts are checkered. When the team is making a trade acquisition, instead of a draft selection, the prism for selection seems a bit different. When selecting players for their initial contracts, only self-governors seem acceptable. Trades tend toward “upside.”

Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber were central casting for the prevailing mindset. Both were good, on and off the field. Both expect themselves to be better than before. Schwarber’s return from injury in 2016 was both legendary and a bit typical for the sort being drafted. That he was willing to rehab so aggressively helped make the parade possible. They serve as exhibits for what is desired.

However, the pitching side of baseball is somehow different than the offensive side. As fun as the rise to notoriety for Kyle Hendricks has been, the Cubs have struggled to get pitchers from their initial contract to MLB relevance. Is self-governance a useful way to determine pitching draft selections?

Much of my writing is deliberately a bit on the fringe. The draft process, and international signings, are front-and-center for any organization. Botch those, and the entire organization is pushed into catch-up mode. If players in the initial processes strengthen and nourish the parent club at regular intervals, everything is going swimmingly. However, if a part of the program is misfiring, fans don’t know why, only whether, and don’t normally care about “behind the curtain” chicanery.

The Cubs pitching pipeline has more quality than its been in my time following, the last decade or so. A person could argue that it was better in the early-2000’s or the late-1980’s, and I’d have no valid ammunition with which to argue. The Cubs have more minor league pitching talent than roster spots.

That talent isn’t six-foot four guys throwing 97 + gas with put-away secondary pitches. Largely, it’s guys who, off-the-field, are like Rizzo and Bryant. They’re good dudes, who few people should ever want to wish evil on. That doesn’t, though, presage MLB excellence. When I’m tracking college games, I’m tracking “positive vibe” guys. For instance, Nico Hoerner was a good guy on the scouting trail. He was talked about in the Arizona Fall League as a great team player.

“Good guy succeeds” stories seem what this front office is about. Can a “collection of good guys” necessarily be a top-level pitching staff? It worked in 2017, with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta heading the ticket. Splash in some “You go; we go” from Dexter Fowler, and it was fantastic. From late in the first round, can that be replicated?

It’s getting more obvious that free agency isn’t any more useful under Epstein than much of anyone else. Lester worked. The reality is, so far, the Cubs method of selecting high-quality arms in the draft has lagged a bit, for whatever reasons.

If current upper-minors pitching options like Keegan Thompson, Michael Rucker, and so many others shine this year, this could be much ado about nothing. Perhaps, drafting quality people can translate into a useful MLB pitching staff. Until such point as it produces, the jury remains very much out.

Which brings us to today, in early April 2019. The Cubs are unlikely to make any major alterations to the roster. Like it or not, budgetary limits are in place, and “have hamstrung” the team this season. A number of big-money deals haven’t produced yet, and might not. The “do something, anything” crowd will likely be upset, at least until the 2019 expiring contracts lapse. That seems reality.

To “fix” anything this season is internal. Teams are locking down their top end talent, as players (rightfully) are skeptical about free agency. The fixes would seem to need to be internal sources. Can the current Triple-A arms be trusted. Will they be adequately replaced from Double-A, or elsewhere, when the time comes. More and more, though, the “initial contract phase” is both unknown and essential.

If the Cubs can’t locate a second- or third-starter in free agency, the options to acquire become trades or the draft/international portals. The Cubs have about as few top-end pieces (required in high-end acquisitions) as any organization, but most of those available will run through a fence for a coach. At best, initial contracts take years to produce success. Can the Cubs current method of siphoning talent be trusted to locate “95 to the black, with two or three MLB quality secondaries”?

I’m not going to be able to resolve this today. This will, or won’t, be partially resolved in fields in seven different levels this minor league season. Players added in June? Is it useful to demand self-governance in pitching? Scads of teams pay far less heed to character flags. They get draft picks to market. Conversely, if the Cubs pipeline was riddled with less likable players, tracking the team would be less enjoyable on a personal side.

Should the Cubs continue to immediately dismiss some of the best arms in the draft class? (Just because a player isn’t Rizzo Junior off-the-field doesn’t mean he’d be a distraction.) Should they continue to prioritize hitters, who can be more easily/safely molded into MLB talent? If they wait until (for instance) the third round to select available arms, they’ll have ignored some of the best pitching options. If they leap pitching early, an injury or standard misfire rate costs a quality bat that could have been safely chosen.

I’ve laid out my case. I have no solution. I can argue many different sides. In five years, Cubs fans will hope that some of the players selected in June by the team will start to become common names in discussions, much like Schwarber and Bryant have. Just like they hope recent choices produce rather soon. Do you think the Cubs over-emphasize self-governance in draft choices?


Should the Cubs continue to prioritize "self-governance" in draft selections?

This poll is closed

  • 44%
    Yes. I want quality people in the Cubs system.
    (119 votes)
  • 23%
    Absolutely not. Get the best players. Talent wins.
    (63 votes)
  • 30%
    Give leeway toward pitchers with upside. Even if I’m uncomfortable saying that.
    (81 votes)
  • 2%
    Other. Please summarize below.
    (6 votes)
269 votes total Vote Now