It’s not the first time I’ve said it. It might not be the last time. Locating and developing first basemen hasn’t been a Cubs priority in the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer years. Adding Anthony Rizzo was a very basic example of a bad baseball trade that worked out very well for the Cubs. Beyond that, committing to adding first basemen has been far from a priority. The Cubs have mildly been increasing the addition of first basemen, but until the team prioritizes adding talent in the July Draft, I’m not buying it.
Quite a bit has been made of “bad baseball trades” this off-season. The Yu Darvish trade in particular ramped up the discussion of the term. I’m not that much of a fan of any baseball term that doesn’t have a definition. When people soap-box about the sanctity of baseball transactions, the onus is on the pontificator. Yes, I grasp that people like their team to keep popular and good players, as it makes short-term success more likely. However, to roll with that, explaining how trading a somewhat-proven starter (Andrew Cashner) for a slumping prospect (Rizzo) is a good trade for baseball wasn’t an easy sell at the time that deal was made. Whether it was a trade that was good for baseball or not, it was better for the Cubs than feeding Prince Fielder a five- to eight-year deal.
As for first basemen in the Draft, the Cubs selected Kevin Freeman in the 17th Round in 2013 out of North Carolina A&T and Tyler Durna in the 15th Round in 2018 (California/San Diego) — and that’s it over the last several years. Not-so-coincidentally, neither developed as far as Dan Vogelbach did. Not that drafting a bat-only first baseman in the second round is necessarily a wise idea in a league not using the designated hitter, but ignoring a position almost entirely on draft day limits success at that spot in that range. The Cubs have even chosen to use backup catchers at first-base and DH and ignore first base pretty much completely. And, as Anthony Rizzo’s contract situation has become more of-concern, the Cubs have few internally developed options to seriously consider.
The team has moderately adjusted its stance in the last 15 months or so. Alfonso Rivas was acquired from the Athletics in the Tony Kemp trade. A 2018 4th Round choice in 2018, Rivas is the Cubs’ best first base prospect since Vogelbach, though is much better defensively. In the aftermath of the 2020 draft, the team added Matt Mervis, who was a pitcher/first baseman at Duke. On Sunday, the Cubs added Shendrick Apostel in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates for Duane Underwood Jr. Apostel was a first baseman for two years in the Dominican Summer League, and might be Mesa or Myrtle Beach ready this year.
First basemen drafted with good numbers from good college programs can help the team if they develop inside the pipeline. Until the Cubs grasp that, they’ll continue to lose “seconds every lap” to the organizations that grab better player pools each draft and international cycle. Since good college teams have first basemen who hit really well, adding one in the top six or eight rounds every other draft shouldn’t be that tough of a reach. Since owners give budget specifics to team executives, locating first basemen in a development scenario every year ought to be part of player development. Then, the ones that develop reach the upper minors, and the best of those can provide low-risk options if popular players leave for employment elsewhere.