Prospecting: Cubs see future in the system

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Prospecting: Cubs see future in the system

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011
Posted 6:18 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Cubs executives insist that every dollar of profit goes right back into baseball operations. Its a great talking point, especially when they dont have to make the same public disclosures that the Tribune Co. once did.

Its what the fans want to hear. Even if Cubs ownership isnt compelled to release quarterly financial reports anymore, this message from the Ricketts family has been consistent and transparent.

Building our organization is really the key to being a consistent winner over time, chairman Tom Ricketts said last month. The way you build an organization is to draft the right players, to train them the right way in the right facilities and bring them up so that you have a steady flow of talent for your major-league team.

So while the 2011 Opening Day payroll may drop some 10 million from the approximate 145 million mark it hit the year before, club officials publicly and privately insist that the overall baseball budget will essentially remain the same.

In broad terms, that means more money is directed toward: hiring scouts; creating a deeper bonus pool for the amateur draft; expanding international operations; and building a new facility in the Dominican Republic.

We have to find players, assistant general manager Randy Bush said. If that means flying people halfway around the world, were going to do that. Some teams dont have the capability to do that or expend the monetary effort, but we feel its worthwhile.

Nuanced explanations wont always play well on talk radio or the message boards. Jim Hendry had to give first baseman Carlos Pena a signing bonus and deferred money on a one-year deal, and the general manager lucked out when Kerry Wood took an extreme discount to return home.

But there were other signs of investment this winter, from the reported agreements with two players from Cuba, to convincing Villanovas Matt Szczur to withdraw from NFL draft preparations with a 1.5 million bonus. Baseball America graded Szczur as the organizations best athlete, fastest baserunner and centerfielder of the future.
With a nice signing bonus, the Cubs convinced Matt Szczur to stop preparing for the NFL Draft and focus solely on baseball. He's already considered one of the top prospects in the organization and could be a key part of the future in center field. (AP)
The Cubs will keep hyping the system on Sunday as pitchers and catchers report to Arizona. There four pitchers from the 2008 draft class Andrew Cashner, Casey Coleman, Jay Jackson and Chris Carpenter will be competing to secure jobs and position themselves for the near future.

The next wave will include outfielder Brett Jackson and pitcher Trey McNutt. MLB.com ranked Jackson, a first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley, as the games No. 46 overall prospect. After his first full year of professional baseball, McNutt has gone from the 32nd round of the 2009 draft to No. 66 on ESPN.coms top-prospect list.

Both are invited to major-league camp, and they will find a manager and a pitching coach conditioned to think about player development. Mike Quade managed 17 seasons in the minors and Mark Riggins spent the past 15 years as a minor-league pitching coordinator. Someone will open eyes across the next several weeks.

At this time last year, outfielder Tyler Colvin and pitcher James Russell werent expected to make the team. Russell surprised even himself by spending all but a few days with the major-league club in 2010. By reshaping his body last offseason, Colvin helped change the way Cubs prepare prospects.

As part of Camp Colvin, dozens of players have been working out in Mesa, where the former first-round pick made up for some of the time he lost to the Arizona Fall League, Team USA commitments and Tommy John surgery.

(Colvins) three years into his career and he really hasnt had any time to spend in the weight room and work on his agility, vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita recalled. Last year we were going to send him down to Mexico and we started talking. He says: Why dont we just go to Arizona and leave me with the strength coaches?

Lo and behold, he put on 20-25 pounds and you guys saw the results. I thoughtWow, were on to something here. It took me about 10 years to figure that one out, but its never too late.

Management envisions an athletic outfield of Colvin, Szczur and Jackson one day playing in front of the ivy. And by 2014 the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field that would be quite a narrative to sell.

But homegrown doesnt always work out that way. Its also about creating enough assets to flip to Tampa Bay for a high-end, established starter.

It cost what Baseball America judged to be three of the organizations top-10 prospects pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and outfielder Brandon Guyer to land Matt Garza. The Cubs are already on the clock.

We know what we have in front of us, scouting director Tim Wilken said. We lost four or five pretty good prospects. We can replenish the supply between our international and amateur departments. It does make a little bit of a hole, but we got some good prospects left in the system. And I think the future really bodes well.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping rookie Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch hitting. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

[RELATED: Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen]

“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”