With power in short supply, Cubs searching for competitive advantage

With power in short supply, Cubs searching for competitive advantage
November 25, 2013, 12:30 am
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Tony Andracki

This isn't your older brother's Major League Baseball. Not anymore.

Gone are the days in the late 1990s and early 2000s where players seemingly broke some home-run record every season.

As Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan pointed out earlier this month, only 13 players hit 30 homers in 2013. That's a far cry from the 44 players who hit 30-plus dingers in 1999 and 2000, and even a ways behind the 27 players who slugged 30 or more in 2012.

Teams are no longer waiting for that big three-run homer as the key to the offense. Today, it's all about pitching. Of course, the league cracking down on PEDs has undoubtedly played a huge role in diminishing homer totals.

[RELATED: Cubs hope hitting coach Bill Mueller can be a difference-maker]

With power at a premium, the Cubs took note of the market inefficiency and have stockpiled power-hitting prospects.

The Cubs have a dearth of impact pitching prospects in their farm system, but instead of taking potential frontline starter Jonathan Gray in the 2013 Amateur Draft, Theo Epstein's front office opted to select Kris Bryant, the best collegiate hitter who dominated Division-I with 31 homers.

Bryant joined a Cubs system that already included Cuban slugger Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, who clubbed 37 homers in 130 minor-league games last season. Add in major-league first baseman Anthony Rizzo and minor-league masher Dan Vogelbach and the Cubs boast arguably the most impressive stable of young power hitters in the game.

With 46 homers in 2013 between college, 36 minor-league contests and 21 Arizona Fall League games, Bryant understands just how important power is in this day and age. It's something that has been ingrained in him from an early age.

[RELATED -- Cubs send message to Kris Bryant: Keep dominating]

Mike Bryant, Kris' father, works as a hitting coach and has been in Kris' ear his entire life preaching power. As a player, Mike came up through the Red Sox system when Ted Williams was around and absorbed an integral aspect of hitting.

"Basically, you gotta swing up a little bit," Mike Bryant said after Kris was announced at Wrigley Field in July. "A pitcher's on a mound, throwing downhill. So I told Kris at a very young age, 'Hit the ball in the air. Hit the ball in the air.'

"The lift and carry results in home runs. You're never going to change the game of baseball. It's always been about the mighty Casey and it's always been about the home runs. No matter what they do, home run hitters are sought after."

That's never been more true than it is today.

Marlon Byrd is 36 years old and played in just 47 games in 2012 after serving a 50-game suspension for PEDs, but still earned a two-year, $16 million deal with the Mets after he generated 24 homers and 88 RBI in 2013.

After averaging 40 homers a season from 2007-11, Prince Fielder inked a $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers. He was deemed expendable after just two years -- the last of which was considered a "disappointment" to the Detroit fanbase despite 25 homers and 106 RBI -- and dealt to the Texas Rangers in a surprise deal last week.

[RELATED: Rangers GM makes blockbuster deal with Tigers after win-now trades with Cubs]

Cuban slugger Jose Abreu has yet to see an MLB pitch, but that didn't stop the White Sox from handing him a six-year, $68 million deal in October.

The lack of power -- only 30 players hit 25 or more homers in 2013, the lowest total since 1992 -- is also why Vogelbach has been ranked on the Cubs' top prospect lists from Day 1. Despite doubts about his weight and defense, the Cubs thought enough of Vogelbach's light-tower power to draft him in the second round in 2011 and his name has popped up as an ideal designated hitter candidate if the National League ever adopts the DH.

"He's a guy that has always been a bat-first player," Cubs senior VP of player development Jason McLeod said of Vogelbach in September. "That's what got him drafted where he went. He's someone that we feel down the road will be hitting in a major-league lineup. Left-handed with power and can control the strike zone.

"The frame and the defense are always going to be something he has to work on every day...but we're really excited about the bat and what the future holds for him."

[MORE -- Blue Jays GM on Samardzija rumors: 'Nothing is imminent']

The Cubs ranked near the bottom of the National League in almost every offensive category in 2013, but they were second with 172 homers, just nine behind the Atlanta Braves. A large portion of that came from a collection of journeymen -- Donnie Murphy, Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom -- who combined for 30 homers from third base.

While the Cubs are trying to corner the market on power, the front office is aware they can't out-slug their opponents every night and they know solo homers can only go so far.

As Epstein and Co. target impact pitching this offseason, they're hoping new hitting coach Bill Mueller can help change the approach at the plate.

"To have any chance, we need to add more pitching. To have any chance, we need to get on base a heck of a lot more," Epstein said earlier this month. "One thing we did really well [in 2013] was hit the ball out of the ballpark and we had extra-base production.

"But the other part is offense and getting on base with the depth and quality of our pitching staff. We need to improve those areas to have any chance."