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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: Sorting the outfielders

Which outfielders will play well enough to be moved up the chain?

Cubs second round 2019 pick Chase Strumpf
Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

The Eugene Emeralds won the Northwest League Championship last year after having the league's worst regular-season record. This season, they started a bit slowly again, especially on offense. With a batting average below .200 for much of the early season, the pitching staff had little margin for error. With the addition of some quality college outfield bats, the front office will be challenged to properly place the outfield bats.

Through June into early July, the 2019 draft selections remained in Mesa. Other teams were moving up their newly signed talent to full- or short-season ball. The Emeralds stuck with primarily a five-player outfield. Fernando Kelli, who tied for the league lead in steals in 2018, was the primary center fielder. Edmond Americaan usually had right field. The third outfield spot, and often the designated hitter slot were often populated by Brandon Vicens (. 423 OPS), Dalton Hurd (.216 OPS), and Yovanny Cuevas (.217 OPS). Eugene started off slowly.

With a recently completed five-game home stand, draft choices were sprinkled to the roster, and some of the under-performers were returned to Mesa or released. Chase Strumpf led the infield additions. Zac Taylor (Illinois), Nelson Maldonado (Florida), and Darius Hill (West Virginia) upgraded the outfield. Unfortunately, a sliding injury to Kelli will keep him shelved about a week. The new outfielders will get to play almost every game for seven days.

This past Sunday night, Maldonado had four hits. The offense seemed fixed, as Strumpf added four more. A wayward bullpen outing led to a loss, but the offense is hitting better than .200, at least. How should the Cubs front office decide who moves up, and when?

Maldonado and Taylor figure to be the most likely promotions. Senior draft choices, they ought to be advanced enough to account for Northwest League pitching. As long as Kelli is injured, the four-man rotation of Americaan, Hill, Taylor, and Maldonado seems a useful one. Five starts a week per seems about right. Whichever one performs best likely gets to South Bend first, with their production as justification.

South Bend has been alternating Brennen Davis and Cole Roederer in left and center, with Jonathan Sierra being the standard right fielder. If one of the trio of Hill, Maldonado, or Taylor are justified in a call-up, a four-man outfield should allow for plenty of tries as the younger Roederer, Davis, and Sierra might be benefited by a slight playing time pull-back late in the season. However, if two of the college guys force a callup, then one of the South bend trio might be pushed to Myrtle Beach to close out the season. Unless one of the college players seem the better call for the over-promotion.

Around this time of year, it’s probably best to have players hitting in the mid-range number area. If someone is far enough better than his level, move him up. Keep an eye on the Emeralds outfielders to see how many play their way out of Oregon over the next 10 days.

The postscript on the Eugene offense perking up is how absurd it is to think that only top-round selections can move quickly, or move much of the way up a ladder. While trying that method with pitchers is fraught with danger, running hitters up a ladder in July or August is how baseball is supposed to work. When Hill was selected in the 20th round (Big 12 senior year OPS of .897), Maldonado in the 21st (SEC OPS of .983 as a senior), and Taylor 25th (Big Ten OPS in 2019 of 1.017), the expectation wasn’t that they would sprint to MLB. They looked like reasonable values on the board at the time. How will they develop? How healthy will they remain? How will they adjust to better pitching? Those are questions to be assessed the next three to 10 years.

If the Cubs ever do get to the point where their pitching pipeline is adequate (that they drafted twelve relievers hints that isn’t the case yet), they will be freed up every June to draft more players like Hill, Maldonado, Taylor, Texas third baseman Ryan Reynolds, Clemson infielder Grayson Byrd, South Carolina infielder Jacob Olson, and East Carolina catcher Jake Washer. Not to specifically rush up to South Bend or Myrtle Beach, but to upgrade the competitiveness of the pipeline hitting at every level.

When players can continue to struggle at a minor league level without someone pushing to take their roster spot from a lower level, it’s a sign the pipeline doesn’t have enough hitting. Here’s to a draft soon with seven of the top 10 picks being hitters in a draft that (like this one) is hitter-heavy. The player that pushes through to MLB success is often the one who best adjusts to the struggles along the way. The team with hitters, both internationally and through the draft, that keep hitting push upside pressure throughout the pipeline, and that limits averages below .200.