When I was pitching ideas for this series to Al I was torn on the second day. I had an idea that was positive and one that was negative. I laughed and said it would depend on my mood.
Well, after yesterday’s absolute disaster of a trade (you can read my full thoughts here) I almost considered renaming the entire series The 12 Days of Grinchmas. It’s going to be a long winter folks, so let’s face it head on and talk about what led the Cubs to non-tender two of their best prospects and former first round draft picks: Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr.
Yesterday we celebrated the Theo Epstein regime that finally brought a World Series Championship to the North Side of Chicago, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also look at what that regime did not bring the Cubs. We were promised a sustainable championship window, waves of prospects who could be traded for future team needs, Schwarber and Almora were both first round draft picks who were supposed to be flipped for prospects or permanent fixtures on the North Side of Chicago - instead they were quietly let go — over less than $10 million.
I think three areas merit evaluation as to why Theo was unable to deliver the waves and waves of talent he promised Cubs fans, and some of them will likely impact future development and should be seriously re-evaluated.
International free agents
I remember looking at a list of Theo Epstein’s greatest moves once and being stunned at how good he was at making the old International Free Agency market work for him. The changes to that market dramatically impacted a place where the Cubs had an edge over other teams, and I really am not sure they ever got it back. This Bleacher Report piece from 2013 is instructive:
The biggest sent right-handed starter Scott Feldman and backup catcher Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for right-handers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. As a bonus, the Orioles threw in some international slot money.
The bonus money was what the day was all about. When the dust settled, Baseball America reported that the Cubs had added close to $1 million to their international bonus pool, increasing it from $4,557,200 to $5,520,300.
That gave them more money to spend on international prospects than any other team in baseball, all just in time for the opening of the international signing window.
They turned that slot money into Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jiménez — without a doubt the most successful players developed by the Theo Epstein regime this side of Kris Bryant. The changes to International Signing Rules impacted every team, but for the Cubs it took away one of their biggest advantages. From the looks of the farm system that’s something they haven’t yet recovered from.
Player development and coaching consistency
The thing about drafts and international free agents and the like is that it is not enough to get good players in your system, you have to be able to develop that talent. This is an area where I would have said the Cubs were excelling up to about three years ago, but I think there was a bit of a sleight of hand here. The Cubs have done a very good job of getting college-aged prospects who were close to MLB levels to the show before seeing them plateau relatively quickly.
I mean, it’s not unusual for players to come up, succeed and have a period of adjustment. But players of the caliber of Schwarber and Almora seemed poised to break through. They even had moments where it looked they had, and then the same old hitting problems would emerge. The Cubs almost lost Ian Happ to the same process, but an extended stay at Triple-A in 2019 seems like it may have actually helped him turn a corner over the long-term, we’ll know more when the season is longer than 60 games.
I am not a player development expert. Bleed Cubbie Blue has quite a few front page contributors who know a lot more about these processes than I do and I hope they share their thoughts in the comments. But I do know a fair amount about student development and coaching.
I’ve spent more than 15 years coaching students and I know how much time it takes to develop a program, establish routines, build confidence in that program and convince students, teachers and parents that you are on the right track. I think the Cubs undermined their player development by turning over their coaching staff back-to-back-to back years. There may be other issues as well (drafting similar hitting types with a lot of swing and miss in their game, missing on the prospects who were supposed to fill in the contact gaps, and trading away the wrong pieces could all also play a part) but I don’t know how you expect to develop a team when you change the coaching philosophy every year — particularly when it wasn’t broken in the first place.
Shifting financial priorities
I covered the Cubs finances in detail in my piece on the Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini trade that happened on Monday night, so I won’t rehash that. But I will make one observation I didn’t make in that post. I fundamentally believe if this were any other year Schwarber would still be a Cub and Almora would not. However, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations after the 2021 season have created a situation where the Cubs are behaving like a team that doesn’t have any intention of fielding a competitive team in 2022 (likely because they don’t think there will be a season) which has moved up the clock on selling all assets, acquiring as many players in the farm system as possible, and hoping they can start fresh in 2023 or 2024 with a new core.
I’ll be writing more about this in the coming days, but I don’t think it’s just the Cubs. Al posted this tweet highlighting the stunning projected WAR differences between the divisions and all five NL Central teams look like they are flat out punting on the 2021 season:
Projected fWAR of each division— Patrick Brennan (@paintingcorner) December 29, 2020
AL East: 164.1
AL Central: 160.3
AL West: 155.6
NL West: 153.6
NL East: 148.5
NL Central: 126.2
That looks like an entire division that is so uninterested in winning in the near-term that, well, $6-8 million for Kyle Schwarber is just too much to ask.
On the Second Day of Cubsmas my true love gave to me: Two first round draft picks non-tendered and One World Series ring in the Theo Epstein Era.