Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

baez almora solerBaseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks is full of want.

That is to say, when it comes to the prospecting game, Parks is one of the best. He is the National Prospect and Player Development Writer for Baseball Prospectus, and the co-host of the Fringe Average podcast.

You probably already follow him on Twitter (@ProfessorParks), but, if you don’t, rectify that. It is because I do follow Jason on Twitter that we started chatting about a variety of things. That turned into a full-blown interview-type-thing, of which you will now be the benefactor. Jason was awesome enough to speak to me at length today about a wide range of Cubs-related topics.

After the usual pleasantries …

So, I know you’ve been taking in an Eastern League series at New Britain. Dare I assume there’s some Miguel Sano fawning going on? How far does having two elite prospects like Sano and Byron Buxton take a system? Like, let’s assume the Twins had absolutely nothing behind those two beside organizational filler. Still a top 15 system? Better?

Jason: You know what, it is for me. I lean heavy toward impact. That’s one reason I’ve been vocal about the Cubs’ system being as good as it is, despite what some people refer to as suspect depth, especially with arms. While it’s true that the Cubs don’t have the Cardinals’ or Padres’ depth, they have impact players, and baseball is about impact players. That’s the biggest commodity in the game. Impact. Whether you trade a minor leaguer for a big league player or let them develop into a cost-controlled big leaguer, the teams that win are the ones who have guys who can impact the game, not just play the game and be fringe average. So, with the Twins, you take those two monsters, and they alone make that system worthwhile. Think about what kind of player those guys could get right now if the Twins traded them. It’s always good to have depth, but in a system with two stars like the Twins, as it relates to the Cubs, well they have four guys I can think of right now that a top 30 type impact talents, and that doesn’t even count guys who are in top 100 consideration like Arismendy Alcantara or Dan Vogelbach. And Pierce Johnson’s not a slouch.

Speaking of the Twins’ system, you’ve mentioned recently that you see them as the top dog right now, with the Cubs/Cardinals/Astros/Pirates behind them somewhere in the top five. In a world where the Cubs unload heavily in the run up to the Trade Deadline, landing a top 50 prospect from a desperate team for Matt Garza (plus another lesser, but quality prospect), a top 100 prospect for Scott Feldman (because sometimes teams go crazy), and a smattering of organizational top 20 types for their other moveable pieces, and considering the upcoming international period, is it conceivable that the Cubs could slide into the top spot by August 1? 

Jason: It’s not.

[Momentary silence while I pick my shattered hopes and dreams up off of the ground, and Jason chuckles softly.]

Jason: That was a short answer. I just don’t believe that it is. First of all, I have a sense of what the trade market is going to be like for Garza, and I think a team is going to have to be in a pretty desperate situation to give up a top 50 guy for him, unless it happens to be a top 50 guy with a lot of question marks. Maybe that speaks more to my distrust of Garza.

What don’t you like about Garza?

Jason: No, I like him. I just think more teams are scared of trading prospects right now. A lot of teams, especially with the new CBA and with the way things are going, more teams are hesitant to unload youth. I really don’t believe a lot of the rumors out there. Maybe as we get closer to the deadline teams get more desperate. Maybe one team makes a move and it forces a division rival to get desperate and move a big prospect.

[Circling back to the Cubs’ system’s upward mobility this month.]

Jason: A team like the Pirates, I think they’re ranking might take a hit because they’re in a position to go out and get someone. That will affect their depth, but they’re really really loaded. The Twins, they’re not going to be buying players. I like what they did in the Draft. I really like Kohl Stewart. The Twins have a lot of depth, too.

The 2013-14 international signing period opens up, and the biggest name attached to the Cubs is 16-year-old Dominican player Eloy Jimenez who is rumored to be commanding a $2.5 to $2.7 million deal. You mentioned when we chatted on Twitter that there were some things you saw in his game that you didn’t love.

Jason: Well, he’s got a corner [outfield] profile, and it’s a lot of power, but it’s a sell-out, showcase power. Which is one of the things I don’t like about showcases, in general. Dominican kids aren’t playing in organized leagues, they learn how to showcase from a very early age. They know how to show the arm, they know how to hit for power. But they don’t know how to play in games, or on a team. They don’t know how to do fundamental things. Jimenez is a prototypical showcase talent. He’s a guy who can put on massive power in BP, but I thought he was terrible in games. Obviously he’s 16 and you’ve got to be careful with what you say when it comes to what’s happening now and what can happen in the future. Some teams must believe he can develop into a good hitter, but I personally don’t believe it. The guy can hit bombs. He got a standing ovation at a showcase because he was hitting bomb after bomb after bomb. I get it.

Some believe you can teach the other stuff, but you can’t teach the physical ability to have power.

Jason: Yeah, but I happen to believe the converse – good hitters can learn to hit for power, but you can’t teach a hitter how to hit. Neurologically, Jimenez is still young enough that he can develop the ball skills, but I also think that kind of stuff gets harder and harder the older you get. I get it from a physical standpoint. The guy is a specimen. But he’s a corner specimen, so he’s going to have to hit. He’s got a good arm. He looks the part. I totally get it. I get why he’s a seven figure guy. There’s not a lot of power in the market and there’s a lot of power in his bat. But three or four folks I talked to didn’t make him a seven figure guy because they didn’t think he could hit.

Together with Jimenez, the Cubs are rumored to be strongly in on Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres, another prospect who is expected to command a huge bonus. Those two, alone, could eat up a huge chunk of the Cubs’ international spending pool, assuming they don’t add a bunch of money via trades. You mentioned to me that you didn’t love that approach – going for two huge pieces, rather than spreading it out over quantity. 

Jason: I don’t like that approach, but I understand why the Cubs are doing it. The Cubs are in a different situation than most teams in baseball. The Cubs are similar to the big money teams – the prestige teams – in the sense that, eventually, this regime has to win at the major league level. They can’t be like the Royals and just stockpile prospects for five years and not win in the big leagues. They’re a team that doesn’t afford that kind of patience. So, instead of getting like 10 to 15 guys at $50,000 to $100,000 and then let them slowly become players down the line – survival of the fittest – the Cubs will go for the impact talent now. You can use that talent as currency sooner rather than later.

[Shifting into that idea of using minor league talent as currency to build the big league roster.]

Jason: Because the Cubs are going to need to get better at the Major League level within the next two to three years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Javier Baez is the first guy moved. Only because front offices like their toys. They like the guys that they get, not the guys they inherit. Even though Baez is an impact guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s moved because he wasn’t theirs. There are a lot of teams that would love Javier Baez. I’m not sold that he’s a ‘Cubs guy,’ if that makes sense. He’s a hell of a talent, and they’re not going to make a foolish decision.

Good points. This front office is smart enough to know the right way to build the organization, but is also smart enough to know they’re going to need to win in the next two or three years.

Jason: Sure. Because they could lose their own people. [VP of Scouting and Player Development] Jason McLeod is one of the brightest stars in baseball. And there are a lot of people who think that losing McLeod would be far worse than losing Theo Epstein. McLeod has so much respect among the scouting community.

Well there’s already an expectation among Cubs fans – at least Cubs fans who are into this kind of stuff – that he is going to be gone within a year or two when the right opening comes up. We’re bracing ourselves for the fact that he’s going to get poached.

Jason: Yeah, and that’s a problem. Because he’s a real talent. What happens when [Seattle Mariners GM] Jack Zduriencik gets fired? What other jobs are going to be open this year? I can’t think of one outside of the Mariners job.

Maybe Dayton Moore?

Jason: [The Royals] are playing all right. Maybe. Maybe Kansas City. If I had to pick a GM candidate right now, there’d be three guys on my list. They’d be Jason McLeod, John Coppolella with the Braves, and Damon Oppenheimer with the Yankees. Those are the three that I think are the biggest stars coming up right now.

It’s like a blessing and a curse for Cubs fans. You want the best surrounding the front office, but that’s what happens. Rising stars get opportunities.

Shifting abruptly back to the Cubs’ system, we all know that the high impact pieces in the Cubs’ farm system right now are all pretty solidly on the positional side. Is there any hope for a guy to emerge this year on the pitching side who could join the Big Four (Almora, Baez, Bryant (presumably) and Soler)? You mentioned Pierce Johnson earlier. Paul Blackburn, who is killing it at Boise right now? Dillon Maples if he ever harnesses the stuff? Juan Paniagua if he can ever make it to the States [Jason laughs and says nobody seems to know anything about his status, by the way]?

Jason: I don’t think so. I think it’s going to take more time than that. Those hitters are top tier guys. And I don’t see a guy in the Cubs’ system jumping into top 50 discussion right now. The good thing about the Cubs’ system is that they actually have some arms to work with. You mention Blackburn, and that’s a guy who’s taking a step forward now. There’s talent in that system that hasn’t been able to stay healthy or get going. Folks in the Cubs’ organization believe the talent is still there [on the pitching side]. They haven’t soured on any ceilings. The starts have been slow. That gives you hope for some of the younger guys, like you mentioned Dillon Maples. It’s erratic as hell, but he’s a young player. Sometimes it takes a long time to click. Whether it’s on-the-field maturity issues or off-the-field maturity issues. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s going on with a young player just like it’s hard to pinpoint what’s going on with a young person, in general. Especially when they’re dealing with failure early in careers. These guys are studs. They never failed at anything in their lives. They were the best player on their team since they were four years old. Then they get into short season ball, and they realize they aren’t where they need to be. You fail for the first time, you’re living away from home for the first time. These things compound. As you mature, you learn how to deal with failure. Sometimes it takes these young guys until they’re 20, 21, or sometimes it takes until they’re in another organization for the light to go on.

Hopefully with the new regime in place, and the development protocols that go along with that, maybe some of the stalling out with Cubs prospects that we’ve seen in recent years will go away – maybe that’s just a Cubs fan’s bias.

Jason: They’ve had combinations of bad luck and maybe some bad player development, but ultimately talent fails or succeeds because of talent. If you can acquire the right talent at the right time, it’s up to them. You can coax and help and guide them, but it comes down to the talent and whether they’re willing to work hard and have the skills to begin with. The failure, if anything, might just be not getting the right players to start with.

Sure. That, too, is hopefully something that’s turning around.

Jason: I think so, man. That Almora kid? Man, he’s awesome.

You’re as high on him as anybody. 

Jason: Well, he’s awesome, that’s why. I recognize what awesome looks like. And it’s him.

He’s going through his first little adjustment phase right now, maybe a cold week and a half stretch. I’m always nervous with super talented prospects that they’ll be able to kill too long at a level and swing at everything because they can hit everything at that level, and that becomes a habit as they move up the ladder. So I’m actually pleased to see Almora struggle a bit.

Jason: That’s a really excellent point, and I heard a variation of that from a scout about Almora who said that, yeah, some of the production is going down but I don’t think he’s challenged at the level. I think he’s just going out and playing baseball, and he happens to be really good at it. He’s going through a minor slump, but he’s not challenged by the level because he’s such an advanced baseball mind. The way he goes about playing in the field, his instincts are crazy. He’s always in the right spot. Sometimes a guy will struggle when he needs a challenge. I know that sounds like doublespeak, but sometimes when an advanced player struggles, he needs a challenge. Because they get complacent, and they make mistakes, and they’re giving away at bats. I don’t want to say it’s out of boredom, but some need a little more of a challenge so they can rise to the challenge.

And scene. A fantastic chat with a bright baseball mind. Thought you’d want to read it.

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