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Player development isn’t always linear

The recent play of the South Bend Cubs shows why.

Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs
Al Yellon

I flipped on the radio a while ago to hear the host gently scold Kris Bryant for not hitting enough homers. Before that, the in-vogue idea was to trade Willson Contreras, and ride Victor Caratini and Martin Maldonado down the stretch, which obviously would have been a bad thing. Bad talk radio is hideous radio. It's made even worse when my take is that the wrong villains are being sought out. If a problem exists, "cleaning up a few roster spots" is as backward as recommendations throughout the years. The problem, while fixable, seems more basic.

The Cubs Midwest League affiliate visited Lansing, Michigan a couple of weekends ago for what qualified as a reasonably important series in the Eastern Division. The Lansing Lugnuts held a one game lead on South Bend with roughly a month to go. By winning two of three, the Blue Jays affiliate could extend their lead for the final postseason spot. South Bend won the opener 6-0 behind Cam Sanders. From there, the scores became less baseball-like by the day at 13-4 and 17-8. South Bend had the two-game lead. Al has more details on these games here.

In the season's first half, four teams spent much of the first 70 games with winning percentages well over .550. The four teams at the top were affiliates of the Dodgers, the Rays, the Indians, and the Cubs in fourth. The Lugnuts were fifth. In the second half, the three best teams are the Dodgers, the Rays, and the Indians affiliates. The Cubs are over .500. The Lugnuts are fifth. The Padres, Tigers, and Reds are struggling. Still.

The Dodgers affiliate (Great Lakes) is awfully adept at working counts, and bashing home runs. Stunning. Their pitchers normally seem far better than average, whether familiar or not. Bowling Green (Tampa) seems very balanced. They thrived early with uber-prospect Wander Franco, a shortstop, in the first half. Without him, the beat goes on. Lake County (Indians) mashes in a smaller venue, without getting lit up much, in return. They seem regularly to be very good squads in the league, with the Cubs settling in fourth or fifth.

In years past, team could "game" the international market by going over the limit in one season, to have the maximum per player reduced the next year or two as a deterrent. The limits are now more stringent. The June and July phases are more balanced. It's turning to "who develops the best?"

In the other half of the league, the Astros lapped the field in the first half, despite only having three home games the first six weeks. This isn't a "Midwest League East" phenomenon, only. I haven't studied the South Atlantic League in comparison, but I'd imagine "teams that develop" are drubbing "teams that don't” there, as well.

Some good news for Cubs fans is that the Cardinals and Brewers don't seem particularly elite, either. You can quote me chapter and verse on Baseball America lists, but I'm leaning toward what I see and hear. A few teams are dusting most of the league in player development. If all things are equal (they aren't), the Cubs seem to be top-half, but barely. If they can get to a point where they can draft a few more hitters than pitchers in the top ten rounds, all the better.

Listening in to a bit of the back of the Lugnuts/Cubs series, the Cubs were solidly outperforming Lansing in pretty much every phase. Routes on fly balls. Extra bases on base hits. Limiting mistakes. South Bend was even working counts, which hasn’t been a strength, and churning out two out hits. The better team was playing better. Which also happens when the Cubs play (and usually lose) to the Loons (Dodgers). It’s how it seems to happen, across the Midwest League, which feeds everything above it.

Yes, making the playoffs in Chicago is more important than in South Bend. In the 1960's, the Cubs lagged much of the league for reasons. The same applied in the 1970's with marginally different reasons. The rebuild was necessary in 2012, because too many teams were too much better at some of the basics than the Cubs. In 2019, and looking to the future, the Dodgers appear better than the Cubs. In Great Lakes, and Chicago. You can add this piece or that piece, but if the Dodgers are better able to get more value from a first, third, or 22nd round draft pick, that seems the problem to fix.