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2014 mlb draft featureThe MLB Draft is a game of calculated gambling. Teams know the odds are against them, that most of the players they draft will never make the majors. They know that most of the ones that do make the majors will not have an impact there. They know that outside of the top few picks the chances of finding stardom are slim.

But they also know that Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round (and we only go to forty rounds today). They know that Albert Pujols somehow slid to the 13th. They remember that Nolan Ryan came out of the 12th round, that Greg Maddux and Giancarlo Stanton were both a second rounders, that Ryne Sandberg went in the 20th, that Paul Goldschmidt went in the 8th round, and fairly recently that all world outfield Mike Trout somehow fell all the way to the 25th overall pick in the first before being drafted.

The odds are against any team finding one of those great later round picks in any given draft, but it does happen. And it only needs to happen once or twice to completely change the fortunes of a franchise. The draft, in other words, matters a great deal regardless of the long odds.

But because those odds exist, every team is trying to beat them. Every team is looking for that secret formula of scouting and strategy that will allow them to pick the most impact talent and find all those future stars that everyone else missed out on drafting. What is particularly interesting this year is that the strategy the Cubs chose to employ in the draft might just give us a clue as to the kind of team the Cubs are building at the major league level.

Before we get started, though, take a look at all the names. Get familiar with them. The Cubs drafted an impressive array of talent this past weekend, and even though not all will sign, some of these are names you are likely to hear a lot of over the next few years. Fans have every reason to be pretty happy.

There are some trends that emerged from the Cubs drafting this year, trends that I think are well worth surveying. And after that, we’ll dig into what those trends might have to say about the Cubs major league future.

Tall Pitchers

The Cubs drafted eight pitchers who stand 6’4″ or taller. I do not think that height is necessary for success as a starting pitcher, and based on some of their other moves I don’t think the Cubs feel that way either. It is inarguable, though, that tall pitchers do have a few potential advantages. Their height causes the ball to approach the plate on a steeper plane, for example, and that can make their pitches a little harder to track and to hit.

That height is not necessary for success, but unlike a good changeup it isn’t something that the Cubs teach a guy after the fact. A pitcher is tall, or he isn’t. If height can create an edge, and the Cubs want pitchers with all the edges they can get, then the Cubs will need to draft height. And draft height they did, to the tune of a full twenty percent of their picks.

Part Time Pitchers

The Cubs snagged a few collegiate pitchers who began their college careers as part time pitchers and part time players in the field, but who switched to pure pitching later on. As a result, these are pitchers with less wear on their arms and who have more upside to them than you expect from a college pitcher. Those are good things from the Cubs perspective.

The two biggest names who fall into this category are Jake Stinnett (Round 2) and Jordan Brink (Round 11). In both cases it looks like the Cubs found some excellent value.

More Power!

Do you know how to build the most impressive collection of power bats in the entire minor leagues? You concentrate on acquiring and developing power bats. And you don’t stop doing it.

The Cubs, already in possession of the most power-loaded farm system in baseball, drafted a lot more power hitters. Kyle Schwarber (Round 1) was the first of the new crop of sluggers to come off the board, but by the end of the draft he had been joined by such potential power guys as Kevonte Mitchell (Round 13), Joey Martarano (Round 22), Isiah Gilliam (Round 23), and Michael Cantu (Round 30).

Power is another one of those skills that can’t really be taught (although it can be improved to some degree). By loading up on another batch of potential sluggers, the Cubs have shown that they are continuing to remain committed to producing plenty of power from within their organization.

Ground Ball Pitchers

If you were watching video of the pitchers the Cubs drafted this weekend, you may have noticed a lot of sinking fastballs. Not every pitcher had the type of raw stuff that tends to generate grounders, but quite a few of them did. I would go so far as to suggest that the Cubs favored a good natural sink on a fastball over raw velocity. Add in the height factor and we find that the Cubs picked up an array of hurlers who throw ball into the bottom of the strike zone and often at a steeper downhill plane.

The Cubs almost certainly drafted that way in hopes that doing so would yield a higher rate of prospects reaching and succeeding in the majors, but I think their planning went beyond that. After all, the point of the draft is not to just find future major league talent, it is to find future major league for your team.

And that brings me to the matter of interpreting this draft within the context of the Cubs move more generally.

Reading the Draft

When we think of the NFL, we tend to think of systems. A particular coach or coordinator brings to a team his system of offense of defense, and players are acquired (via the draft or other means) who fit into that system. A team that is focused on running the ball is probably more likely to draft some offensive linemen than they are wide receivers, and a team that works to force turnovers will probably favor cornerbacks and safeties over a team whose defensive scheme is more to dominate the line of scrimmage. In the NFL that sort of thinking is par for the course and is a frequent topic of discussion during the draft.

But we don’t think that way in baseball. Most draft picks take four or five years to reach the majors, and in that time there is no telling what the major league team will look like. You can’t draft for the team you have, the thinking goes, so you just draft the best you can get and figure out where they all play later on.

I still agree with that thinking. And yet I am starting to suspect, strongly suspect, that the Cubs may be doing things a little differently. Perhaps because of the ground-up nature of the rebuild the Cubs chose to employ, or perhaps for some other reason, I am sympathetic to an argument that the Cubs are instilling an organizational system approach not too dissimilar from what we are used to seeing in the NFL, and that they are generally acquiring players who will fit into that system.

And the Cubs System, I think, is this:

  • Instead of going for the more conventional strikeout artists, load your pitching staff with excellent ground ball pitchers.
  • Support that pitching staff with the best infield defense you can realistically put on the field.
  • And pack as much power into your line up as you can.

There are some corollaries that emerge from this thinking, and I suspect they are just as important.

  • Speed on the basepaths is nice if you have it, but don’t go out of your way for it. Power (along with OBP) is the key to scoring runs in this system.
  • The outfield is a great place to stash good hitters who don’t play good enough infield defense, even if moving said hitter to the outfield hurts his apparent value.
  • Good infield defenders are sometimes not the best of hitters. When you find a guy who is both, grab him and lock him up (even if you could have found a better hitter at his position instead).
  • Good ground ball pitchers are often discarded by other teams because of their tendency to have fewer strikeouts and to allow more contact (and therefore more singles). This means you can sometimes build quality pitching staff fairly cheaply.

Not convinced? Well, neither am I to be honest.  Not yet.  But I wonder. Look what bats the Cubs have acquired via draft or trade in recent season (Olt, Bryant, Rizzo), for example. Look at the ground ball rates on some of the pitchers they have traded for (Hendricks, Arrieta). Look at the Cubs ability to produce some pretty good pitching staffs despite a high turnover rate on that staff year over year. Look at the types of players they are preferring in the draft.

It may very well be that a Cubs Systems is taking shape as we watch, a system that will produce a slugging team that relies on a ground ball-inducing rotation and a strong infield defense to keep their opponents off the board. I almost can’t wait to see if they continue this pattern through the 2014 trade season and into the 2015 draft.

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