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The Cubs, 2021 spring training, and player development

What does this year’s spring mean for the future of the organization?

Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

As time goes on, I’m getting a bit more set in my ways regarding baseball. Getting embroiled in debates on whether Tom Ricketts is cheap or not has become about useless. (Yes, he might be, but he’s still in the more aggressive half of owners as far as spending. If Ricketts is overly frugal, a few more severe cases are easily found in the league.)

I’m very willing to give a extra body blow in the direction of Rob Manfred, who still hasn’t set a path for whether the National League will have the designated hitter in a season that starts (checks notes) next week. And, I remain resolute that, whether the premise is properly understood (by me, at the very least.) or not, player development is huge in the diorama that is major league baseball. As the preseason draws to a close, this seems an apt time to assess how the Cubs have done regarding player development this spring.

A large problem with answering this question is a lack of sufficient information. Nonetheless, answering for what we have seen, and admitting to what we haven’t seen, is part of the “stumble through a cluttered room in the dark” that helps to get us there. Walking in with an answer (either Cubs-friendly or Cubs-belittling) is counter-productive. Assessing what has, or hasn’t, reached expectations is a part of assessing player development. Even while much of it is behind the curtain.

Three of my favorite player development questions involve the most nearby Cubs rivals. While these cases don’t directly involve the Cubs, each of the three is a player development question that people will eventually assess as having been done properly or not. These sorts of questions rarely provide an easy yes or no. For instance, have the White Sox used the proper path with Garrett Crochet? He was very useful down the stretch in September 2020 for the South Siders. Did he get over-used in a season in which his college coach only used him once in the college season? Does his overuse hinge on the extent of his injury in October? Or will it swing on if he’s healthy in 2021? Will he be able to develop his second and third pitches properly without using them in a minor league environment? Quite a few questions, and the answers are still up in the air.

Eloy Jimenez was injured playing left field earlier this week. His injury could be severe. Should he have even been playing left field? Does whether he should have been playing left field change on the severity of the injury? Were the Cubs a bit accurate in considering him a “DH-league player only” when they traded him? Was that a consideration? Again, more questions than easily obtained answers.

The Brewers have a fascinating question: Should Garrett Mitchell get a major-league call in 2021? Mitchell might be among their four best outfielders by July. He could be among their best five outfielders today. However, if he gets called up in 2021, he would very possibly get locked out in 2022, preventing him from getting any work with the organization in 2022. To avoid that angle of the discussion, with lockout a near likelihood, verges on irresponsibility.

Here’s’s Cubs top prospects list, and what we’ve learned about some key names on that list this spring. The numbers correspond to the ranking on the list.

1) Brailyn Márquez

Marquez hasn’t pitched at all this preseason. While it would have been nice to get him three to five brief outings this spring, that didn’t happen. Hard-throwing left-handed pitchers don’t get plugged in for use, like an iron or a vacuum cleaner. I doubt the Cubs did anything wrong, or brilliant, regarding Marquez recently. The lack of work didn’t help.

2) Brennen Davis

Davis has gotten rather regular late-game usage. His bat was largely behind the pitchers he’s been facing, but he’s responded with two hits recently. He’s likely on-track to be getting regular usage in spring training in 2022, whatever that entails. Calling Davis up to get at-bats over Michael Hermosiilo, Jake Marisnick, or any of a various number of other players (consider the Mitchell scenario, above) seems rather unnecessary. Pick a level in 2021, let him develop there, move him as far up as Iowa, and call it a year. The Cubs seem to have managed Davis rather well.

3) Miguel Amaya

Amaya is the purest Cubs player development case going. Some MLB-only types are growing impatient with Amaya. “Why isn’t he dominating?” is an unstated question I sense with the Cubs prospect catcher. Not everyone develops at the same rate that Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber did. Amaya hasn’t embarrassed himself, and some of the things he does best are the least visible. The reality is, Amaya being ready isn’t essential, nor is he ready yet. It would be cool if he were set to be the guy in 2021. That’s highly unlikely. When he is among the elite catchers in the Triple-A League he’s in, the reports figure to show it. Amaya’s fine.

7) Adbert Alzolay

How long does it take for a pitcher to be ready to contribute consistently at the MLB level? Since most pitchers don’t figure out the complete mastery of secondary pitches like Kyle Hendricks did, many Cubs fans are poor judges of that. I’m a poor judge of it. For some pitchers, the feel for secondary and tertiary offering takes a few years. For some, it never arrives. Being supportive of developing players is a good trait for a fan to have. That the Cubs will be able to send Alzolay back down another season is both helpful in his case, and instructive on the potential dangers of calling up future players in needless situations.

8) Christopher Morel

Morel has gotten to play about as much as Davis. Extra swings against quality opponents ought to help in his development, though they don’t guarantee future success. Having Morel available for a call-up when injuries hit will be useful. He’s shown a measure of defensive versatility this spring.

10) Chase Strumpf

I’m a fan of looking for familiarities between scenarios, and trying to remember them for the future. Strumpf hit relatively poorly in his draft year, but has rebounded as a professional to hit rather well. Milwaukee’s Mitchell is 10-for-26 this spring. Both were UCLA Bruins who were looked at dismissively on offense. Both are figuring out the pro hitting thing. Matt McLain is the current UCLA Bruin who isn’t hitting as well as expected. Based on Mitchell and Strumpf, I’d guess McLain will do fine as a pro hitter. I’m firmly in the “leave Strumpf in the minor leagues in 2021” camp, putting him more with Davis in the Mitchell scenario.

15) Keegan Thompson

Don’t over-assess his start on the day Hendricks took a side-start in the back fields.

17) Cory Abbott

Having pitchers like Abbott, Thompson, and Alzolay ready to go in Triple-A, whether needed as starters or relievers, is how it should be done. It’s how teams that are well-run have done things for decades.

18) Burl Carraway

Draft experts weren’t wrong in pegging Carraway as a potential “fast to MLB” candidate. It hasn’t happened, yet. Drafting a player because he is likely going to reach MLB quickly is a foolish reason to draft a player. That he’ll likely eventually be a really productive player is a much better reason.

30) Brendon Little

The last name on the list looks to be one of the best development scenarios. Eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this cycle, he wasn’t likely considered. His efforts this spring show he might need to be added in the next off-season to keep him around. It’s a long time until that November deadline, but getting players who have faded in their prospect status to re-emerge is a sign of a player development staff doing its job.