The years 2012 through 2014 weren’t the first Cubs rebuild years. When the Cubs dealt Glenn Beckert, Ron Santo, and Fergie Jenkins after the 1973 season, it was because the team's decision-makers wanted to get competitive, and doubted their presence was required for that to eventually happen. Jerry Morales, Steve Stone, and Bill Madlock chipped in, somewhat, to a bit of contention in the later 1970s, though like their predecessors, they never won anything. This is a look at rebuilds, now and then.
Morales had played in parts of five different seasons for the Padres when added in a three-player swap in November 1973. Given an unquestioned chance to start in Chicago, he performed adequately. His OPS+ was generally in the high 90s or low 100s, though he fielded below average. That sufficed as adequate for a woefully outclassed Cubs side. Similarly, Stone and especially Madlock helped the moderate reboot.
Guessing which minor-league players from other organizations would excel at the MLB level wasn't a particular Cubs organizational strength back then. The pinnacle was when Dallas Green invaded a Phillies system where he had particular knowledge, as its former farm director.
By 2011, the Cubs needed a reboot, and had few quality assets to move elsewhere. Andrew Cashner brought Anthony Rizzo. Sean Marshall brought Travis Wood. DJ LeMahieu made Ian Stewart a bad punchline, and the rebuild was off and running.
Many trades brought back the proverbial "pitcher in A-Ball.” Why? Back in 2012-2014, the industry mindset was that a pitcher in A-Ball was still a massive gamble. An arm shredding Double-A pitching was too close to MLB for teams to surrender in trade. However, an arm in A-Ball? That was acceptable. Corey Black, Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Hendricks? A-Ball arms. As were Dylan Cease in 2017 and Sixto Sanchez in 2018. Sanchez went from the Phillies to the Marlins in the JT Realmuto trade.
Times change, sometimes. Teams began to more closely monitor pitch counts after top Mets prospects Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson shifted from “Generation K” to “DL Stints Aplenty.” Also, teams are re-assessing pipelines now. The discount used to come "below Double-A ball.” With computer tracking, spin rate and vertical break have replaced simply assessing velocities. Executives are less likely to cough up an arm in A-Ball with secondaries for a veteran too close to or far into arbitration. Where, then, can a team get a player on a discount?
This isn't news to most of you, but two major factors run players up or down prospect lists: Upside, and distance from MLB. When Cristian Hernandez signs with the Cubs tomorrow, his upside will be considered massive. His distance from playing in MLB games is significant. Hence, he might rank perhaps fourth or fifth in the pipeline. If he positively answers questions along the way, he will climbs to No. 1 in the pipeline.
Where, then, is the new cut-off point? Upside can be agreed upon, but a player with a 2024 arrival date will be ranked lower than a similar evaluated talent with a 2022 ETA? Where can a team still get a quality "pitcher in A-Ball" with upside 'at a discount"?
I was recently mid-podcast when talking about the subject.
The “pitcher in A-Ball" is no longer tossed off as useless, unless the talent is wobbly or exposed. To get a discount, a team almost has to go to the compound level. The computer numbers of a player in the Gulf Coast, Arizona, or Dominican League can still be dismissed due to age. However, the player with regular readings of exit velocity (and all the other secondary readings) are probably considered real in 2021 once a player reaches and displays in full-season ball.
When assessing the Mets pipeline for interesting prospects to prepare for Kris Bryant-to-the-Mets weekend, I scoured their MLB Pipeline Top 30 page. Based on what the Cubs received in the Yu Darvish trade, it seems they want multiple players with upside in dealing off star players. To find players with enough upside without needing to settle for a one-for-one, I needed to head outside the Top 10 of a somewhat ordinary Mets pipeline. I settled on Robert Dominguez, pitcher with high nineties velocity, and Alexander Ramirez, a two-way threat (bat and glove) in center field. Both are in the second 10, were 2019 signings, and have played no games with box scores. Anything higher seemed too highly valued to allow a second piece. Dominguez or Ramirez looked like I could possibly push for a second piece, provided the other piece was equally flawed enough to be situated slightly below them. And shy of full-season ball.
As such, the cheapest available talent might quit being inexpensive at the full-season level. Which is two full levels sooner than in 2012. Or 2017. Or in the Realmuto trade.
I'm still not sold on the Darvish return. If players stop being traded as "remote from MLB" at A-Ball instead of Double-A, loading up on players soon to play for a full-season squad might have some wisdom. Which doesn't mean they'll all or mostly pay at the cash-out window. You'll take a Black for the occasional Hendricks. If the Cubs get good at developing hitters, there could be hope. Fifty years have taught me there's no hope in baseball if development is substandard.