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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: First things first

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Tyler Durna has been a reliable hitter and fielder at South Bend. The Cubs need guys like this.

Tyler Durna
South Bend Cubs

Such to the extent that most baseball fans contemplate the June draft at all, it’s often about the first few rounds. The players at the top are (rightly) thought to be the most likely to dent a MLB roster. Since the parent club is almost the exclusive interest of fans, those are the primary concerns. Players down the ticket, though, can provide specific value to an organization. This piece looks at two positive trends along those lines from last June’s Cubs draft.

Many of the selections between Albert Almora Jr. (Theo Epstein’s first selection for the Cubs) and Edmond Americaan (35th round, 2018) have been to refurbish a Cubs pipeline that had been badly misused. In 2012, the hitting and pitching were well substandard at pretty much every level. It takes time to retool both sides of a pipeline. Even the well-regarded days with Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, and others banging away in the system, plenty of spots on both sides were far weaker than they should have been.

The plan has largely been to get hitters first, with pitchers in bulk later. The 2016 and 2017 selection classes were primarily pitchers, as pitching still lagged. Until the pitching staff and offense are both regularly contributing when needed, the system isn’t where it’s needed to be for a fully functioning system. The Dodgers and Cardinals are there, because they have generally drafted well the last five decades. It takes getting to the point where both halves are self-sustaining, and it takes proper maintenance afterward.

That has been a bit of a repeat, that I don’t think is made often enough. The Cubs pipeline has work to do still, because developing eight or nine good affiliates is hard to accomplish. As 29 other teams are trying to do the same, some years won’t work as well as others. One action the Cubs made in 2018 that has made the pipeline better is drafting a first baseman in June. No, really. The selection of Tyler Durna as a first baseman in round 15 of 2018 is the Cubs first designated first baseman signed in the draft since Kelvin Freeman in 2013 (round 17).

For some college squads, the first baseman is a heart of the order masher, as it goes for them. On other teams, a freshman plays first base, then moves to another spot the next season when a different position opens up. The Cubs have recently leaned toward having catchers or infielders fill in at first, leaving the position as tenuous as the occasional DH option. Durna has been a solid and reliable hitter for South Bend, early, and has saved runs/shortened innings. He’s also a rather smart baserunner, though not necessarily fast.

With minor league infielders still getting used to the speed of full-season ball, Durna has been quite useful at preventing errors for in South Bend. This gets pitchers off the mound sooner. That he’s among the leading hitters on the team upgrades the offense, as well. Where’s the downside?

By opting to go with Durna, the team opted out of a similar type of pitcher, or other position player. The goal is “the best draft class possible.” As other things are being upgraded every June, adding a valid first baseman every June seems a small step toward progress. Having a true first baseman with every affiliate would figure to upgrade the defense, and add a bat, as well. I remember reading once where Willie Mays noted first base, which he played some late in his career, isn’t easy to learn. It’s easier than center field, but many youngsters grow up playing their primary position and need eight or ten years to be good at it. The nuance of first base needs to be learned, which implies a learning curve.

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One other topic for the day is the South Bend Cubs outfield. While Cole Roederer was the primary name to watch, the Cubs have four outfielders in Michiana that are playing to the level of the league. Two regulars from last season’s team are no longer professional hitters. Chris Singleton was released, and Brandon Hughes is being converted to pitching. This time around, Cole Roederer, DJ Artis, Nelson Velazquez, and Jonathan Sierra have all provided offense and defense worthy of the league.

As usual, none are left-fielders by trade. Artis was a three-year college center fielder. Roederer was a compensation pick in last June’s second-round. Velazquez was selected in the fifth round in 2017 out of Puerto Rico. Jonathan Sierra has been a long-term international play since his signing in the 2015-2016 cycle.

Sierra has a hit in his first 11 full-season games. His first homer was the team’s first. Artis has 11 walks at a time when second place on the team is a tie at three. Roederer’s numbers lag the rest of the foursome, but he’s driven in seven runs while being two years younger than the pitchers he faces. Velazquez leads the squad in average, slugging, and (unsurprisingly) OPS. By adding four outfield bats in the first 10 rounds, the Cubs addressed a need in the draft.(Third rounder Jimmy Herron is in Advanced-A. Second rounder Brennen Davis is still in extended spring training.

Adding quality players from a variety of (styles and) positions in the early rounds of the draft, a team can balance out a draft class. 2018’s was as balanced as any in Epstein’s Cubs tenure — five pitchers, four outfielders, and three infielders. They won’t have twelve tries this time, but by attacking both offense and pitching in June, the Cubs could finally get where they should have been when the regime change happened. Few weak spots in the pipeline.