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Cubs pipeline alchemy: Kris Bryant, pre-arbitration excellence and player development

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Teams are getting better players at younger ages by the season, it seems.

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Recently, quite a few Cubs-related articles seem to be about Kris Bryant, in one fashion or another. Usually, they come from either an emotional starting point (KB has been great, resign him for whatever length) or a logical one (numbers, numbers, blurgh). Either way tends to be dismissive/disrespectful of the opposite side of the emotion/numbers spectrum. I've been thinking about this for months, and have a few recent "Eurekas." My thoughts might not be "a glass of 7-Up to settle your stomach," but it's an article nobody else is writing.

My first nod is to people who are purely emotional in their responses. I get where you're coming from. I really do. Bryant had a fantastic four years of development, entirely earned his MVP, and recorded the assist on the most important 5-3 play in Cubs history. Anyone speaking dismissively of his past performance is disrespectful beyond belief. If you think he's worth eight years at whatever per year, I understand why. We grow attached to players, and that attachment is normally well-earned when it exists.

On the other hand, the logic types want to treat an extension with the giddiness of an actuarial table study. Is the however many years at however many dollars going to be more Jon Lester or Jason Heyward? Can the $30 million per annum be better spent elsewhere? The two mindsets are entirely different languages, almost as if created to annoy the other side. I needed a third language that neither side preferred, but both would at least look at and acknowledge. The Kris Bryant extension is a player development issue.

Ever since Ron Santo left the Cubs, third base has been a bit hit-or-miss for the Cubs, save for a few years of Aramis Ramirez. Third base has been a bit difficult league-wide, as third basemen are less often enshrined in Cooperstown than other slots. While Santo, Brooks Robinson, George Brett and Mike Schmidt made it, Graig Nettles, Scott Rolen and scads of others haven't.

Third basemen need to be quick enough to move a step-and-half in either direction, and big/strong enough to get the throw effectively from foul territory to first. Historically, that's been a tough asset to locate with regularity. With weight training, nutrition advances, and swing coaches, it's an easier achievement than before. Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, and Matt Chapman seem highly capable defensively, can get first-to-third on a single, and can mash 410 to the opposite field. So can Bryant. Toss in Alex Bregman, Josh Donaldson, Jose Ramirez, Rafael Devers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whichever player the Padres select between Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., and South Sider Yoan Moncada, MLB is currently a veritable smorgasbord of quality third basemen.

None of which dismisses Bryant. If healthy, he's better than some or many I listed. Even if a bit hobbled, he's still very useful. However, having a useful third baseman is becoming more expected than pie-in-the-sky.

Over the weekend, I came up with a list of 10 players who, since 2015, had a 3 WAR season with a World Champion while earning less than $1 million in that season. Bryant, Bregman Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Correa, Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Yordano Ventura turned the trick according to Baseball-Reference.com. As contracts like Heyward's hamstring the Cubs offseason (grumble grumble), the value of pre-arbitration excellence seems far underplayed. What can be expected? What should be expected? Nico Hoerner could be a 3 WAR player pre-arbitration. Perhaps Ian Happ. However, hanging those hopes on either/both seems a heavy burden.

Last season, the Dodgers received 3-plus WAR from Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger, while Walker Buehler provided "only" 2.2 in pre-arbitration value. Good teams getting good value/production from good players isn't going away. Not all the Top 100 prospects will provide 3+ WAR seasons, but for the teams that receive those campaigns, it will help immensely. Regardless what they invest per annum in salaries, those seasons will be welcomed.

The Cubs of many generations were star-based: Root for Ryno or Sammy as the Cubs finish in fourth. That became the normal. With new ownership, winning by whatever means are available became the expectation. Theo Epstein invested heavily in names like Bryant, Jorge Soler, Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres while letting Ramirez leave. It worked. It didn't work as well as hoped, for many.

*****

Just before last June's draft, I wrote this draft piece on college third base option Kody Hoese. Part of the reason Hoese fascinated me at the time was that I expected rancor in the Bryant extension negotiations. Having a third baseman already partway up the ladder might calm a few nerves. Hoese went to the Dodgers two picks before the Cubs selected, and performed fairly well in the Midwest League in July and August. Hoese is a 6-4, 200 pounder from Tulane in New Orleans, by way of Cubs Country in Indiana.

A very valid question that very rarely gets asked is, how good are the third basemen in college? Are Rendon, Chapman, and Arenado flukes? Arenado was a second-rounder from El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California. If you're going in the top two rounds, you're a known entity. Rendon went sixth overall, getting selected before Baez, from Rice University in Houston. Chapman went to Cal State-Fullerton, and was selected 25th in 2014. Again, teams had information on him, and should have known he should be at least adequate.

College teams used to hide third basemen in their lineups. It used to be difficult to find a college kid who could field third base and hit a bit. Now, third basemen at schools dotted across the country can do both. San Diego (Bryant), Fullerton (Chapman), and Rice (Rendon) aren't even in the so-called power conferences.

To know how likely it is a team can locate a useful third baseman in the first two rounds (Arenado went in the second), a rudimentary knowledge of "who's going to be available" is useful. Organizations need to develop pre-arbitration excellence at multiple positions, or watch as teams with multiple 3+ WAR younger players eat their lunch in three game series. If the SEC, ACC, Big 12, and PAC 12 are sending out stone-cold beasts, regardless the positions, teams that miss out can blame their scouting and development departments. The talent is there, both in the draft and international arenas. The third basemen du juor in four years will have quite a bit of turnover from the current lists, regardless how much we like any specific players.

Baseball changes. It's entirely understandable and encouraged to appreciate entertainers that bring us joy. In a baseball business environment, the coaches with the parent club are about keeping the familiar players good. The scouts are about finding "the next." Minor league coaches are about developing those "next men up." All three categories are different people. Executives deciding which methods might work best are a bit of baseball's fourth estate. The best organizations are astute at locating, developing, and refining at the MLB level. To dismiss any of the groups as unimportant is absurd. Such to the extent that players are developed into "coin-flip" or "likely" to become 3+WAR in pre-arbitration seasons, the club is allowed more options than if that talent wasn't there.

Perhaps the Cubs would be better off giving Bryant a lengthy extension. Perhaps not. Maybe a trade would be wise, but it might be foolish, depending on the specifics of any swap. As long as ownership would prefer to stay under $225 million per season or so, adding players who will be able to be useful players earning less than a million would be helpful. Which isn't to push one player or another out the door, or hate on any key player on the team now. Teams are getting better players at younger ages by the season, it seems. Adapt or lose to those that do.