On Thursday morning, I was invited to join an ESPN conference call with Kiley McDaniel. I've long valued his opinion, and he was the first person that I knew of to recommend greatly expanding Dominican Summer League participation. While employed by MLB teams, he recommended they have four DSL teams. No club has as many as three. Getting the chance to ask McDaniel a question about player development was an honor, and a challenge.
I knew the call was about the draft, but I'd consider it a waste of a chance to ask him who the Cubs would draft first on June 10 (they select 16th). His intel might be quite accurate, but anything is a stab in the dark until the first dozen names are announced. I wanted the question, and answer, to be of value in two weeks or two months. I decided to pivot to player development instead of the selection process.
Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times opened the door. He asked if a team like the Rays, who have taken rather well to talent development, would be more negatively hurt by the reduction in the size of the draft next week. McDaniel agreed that teams like the Rays, Dodgers, and Yankees are atop the list regarding player development, and that they might well lose more than others from the reduction.
If a question wasn't about the draft, and even sometimes if it was, the Dodgers', Yankees', and Rays' superiority in player development crept into the answer. As my name was called, I wanted to know which teams were on the up escalator. McDaniel mentioned a few team names, but he noted something far more important: How to be included in the upper crust.
Teams in, or near, the upper crust have a type of player or two that they seem to get better results from than expected. I don't know if Chris Taylor, Kiké Hernandez, and Max Muncy are completely similar, but the Dodgers seem to get the most possible out of multi-positional guys with a degree of pop. If you want the Cubs to get anywhere near the Dodgers, the Cubs had best get about evening out the development differences.
McDaniel gave credit to the quickly-improving Tigers, whose development system used to be comically bad. NL West rivals the Diamondbacks and Padres each earned plaudits, as well. Nods also went to the Braves and Twins. I'm surprised the Indians weren't singled out.
When I became a feature writer here, I talked rather often about “winning the division, developmentally.” When the Cubs developed Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and others, they won the division. It seems the Cubs’ ability to develop plateaued a bit, and Milwaukee caromed back with Keston Hiura, and St. Louis with Jack Flaherty. By 2023, the division will be being slated away by different names. Perhaps Nolan Gorman of St. Louis, or maybe Brennen Davis and Miguel Amaya of the Cubs. Regardless our desires, I doubt many teams will aggressively overhaul with scads of veteran free agents. After all, 70 percent of the revenue comes from tickets and concessions. (If you're buying that.)
The final postscript is as follows. Once players are signed (or not signed), look for another round of reductions. Fifteen players here. Eight scouts there. Four executives purged silently. The Rays, Dodgers, and Yankees not only have effective people to aid in player development, they also have quite a few. If a team allows a good scout or developer to leave, an upper-crust team may well find a spot for them, somewhere, further expanding their advantage.
The upper-crust teams have a system in place. They took what the Cubs were doing three to five years ago, and have expanded from there. With many ownership groups in an austerity state of mind, a few groups are prioritizing winning from the roots up. A part of player development is getting the right players on draft day. A bigger part is having a structure in place to develop the players selected, whether the right players fell to the right spot or not. The Cubs have no magical development elixir. If they get more from Davis, Nico Hoerner or Brailyn Marquez, they'll be fine. The players they get next week will be useful, if properly developed. As it was 10 or 70 years ago, development is king. As it will be, as long as the league continues.