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A few thoughts about analytics, scouting and Willson Contreras’ future

All of these are key factors in where the Chicago Cubs are heading.

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Monday, this article by Patrick Mooney appeared in The Athletic.

It’s mostly about the relationship between Willson Contreras and Christopher Morel, and how the Cubs catcher has become a mentor for the Cubs’ rookie sensation.

But this article isn’t about that. It’s about this passage in Mooney’s article that speaks to the future of the Chicago Cubs:

The only remote scenarios in which Contreras doesn’t get traded this summer involve an unpredictable injury at the wrong time or the kind of unreal 17-game winning streak that the Cardinals put together late last season.

There’s a narrow possibility the Cubs could seriously consider Contreras as a free agent this offseason, though that pursuit wouldn’t be driven by intangibles, as this front office has adopted an analytical, unemotional philosophy toward team-building.

Let me repeat the key part of that quote and add emphasis: “this front office has adopted an analytical, unemotional philosophy toward team-building.”

I’m here to tell you that I think such a philosophy is a mistake.

Now, let me make this clear: I am not here to criticize analytics or say they’re not a key part of modern baseball management. They are, absolutely. Granted and stipulated, it’s absolutely important to have all the data you can amass about your players and others and use those numbers to guide you in putting a team together.

But if Jed Hoyer really is leading the Chicago Cubs this way, he didn’t learn anything from his own mentor, Theo Epstein. While Theo absolutely did drag a behind-the-times Cubs front office into modern days by building a great analytics team, he also knew the value of scouting. It’s good scouting, for example, that brought Jake Arrieta to the Cubs. At the time Arrieta was acquired, he had posted a 7.23 ERA for the Orioles and had been sent to Triple-A, at age 27 an apparent washout. If the Cubs had simply looked at Arrieta by the numbers, they’d never have traded for him. But a Cubs scout saw him and told Theo he thought the Cubs could fix what was wrong with Jake. The rest, as they say, is history.

What does all this have to do with Willson Contreras?

I’m absolutely not saying the Cubs should sign Contreras to a multi-year deal because of intangibles, although Willson certainly brings many of those to the Cubs. I’m saying they should do it because he’s likely the best catcher in the National League right now and if Jed Hoyer is truly building the “Next Great Cubs Team,” why wouldn’t you want to have that player on your team?

If the Cubs do trade Contreras this July, they will go into 2023 with Yan Gomes on the final year of a two-year deal at age 35, and P.J. Higgins as his backup. While those men have performed well for the Cubs this year, they’re not Willson Contreras. If the Cubs do plan to begin trying to return to contention in 2023, letting Contreras walk would be a step in the wrong direction.

Again, I’ll repeat: There’s certainly nothing wrong with using analytics to help in team-building. But there’s more to doing that than numbers and data, because to build a strong team takes melding of a couple of dozen different personalities. In the end, baseball is about its people. Jed Hoyer ought to listen more to his scouts and use that information along with the data his analytics guys produce for him. Solid analytics work and good scouting are BOTH necessary to build a winning team, in my view.

Extend Willson, please. It’s the right thing to do for both analytical and intangible reasons.