There are some very good Cubs’ prospects off to some ridiculously good starts (and a few who are starting slowly), and I cannot wait to dive into those numbers and start exploring just how good they have been, how much of that success is sustainable, and what it might mean for the Cubs going forward.
But not yet.
The sample sizes become more significant with every passing game, but they are still small. We generally consider certain numbers, strikeout rate and walk rates for hitters in particular, to stabilize more quickly than other numbers and it is tempting to go ahead and starting breaking down those statistics, but I think it is too soon even for those cases.
So I will be patient. Once another ten or so games go by I should be able to take a look at these statistics with a lot more confidence. In the meantime, this seems like a good opportunity to take a look at the 2015 draft.
After we survey the system, of course.
Iowa : 7-9, 3rd place.
The new look Iowa Cubs have a vastly different infield from the one that started the season, and a greatly weakened offense as well. Even though they are under .500, though, they have played some pretty good baseball. I think this team has enough, once everyone is healthy and back at full capacity anyway, to stay close enough in the division that an injection of talent later in the season could set them up to challenge for the playoffs.
Tennessee : 9-5. 1st place.
The Smokies now hold a two game lead in the division, and they have built that lead by clobbering opponents with some huge offensive games. They scored seven times on the 18th, thirteen runs on the 22nd, nine on the 23rd, and sixteen more yesterday. The way Tennessee is playing right now their opponents probably feel like they need to score ten runs of their own to have a chance to win. And given the Smokies’ pitching staff, scoring ten times is not exactly an easy assignment.
Tennessee is currently hosting a Chattanooga team that boasts two of the best prospects in baseball: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. If you plan to watch any Smokies’ baseball at all this year, this is the series to be watching.
Myrtle Beach : 9-6, 1st place.
Myrtle Beach has continued to play good baseball and is still on top of their division by a game and a half. While there are plenty of good bats on this roster, the key for the Pelicans remains their starting rotation. That group of pitchers, including Duane Underwood, Jen-Ho Tseng, Paul Blackburn, Daury Torrez, Tyler Skulina, and Jonathan Martinez (that’s right, the Pelicans have used six starters this season, and all six have at least two starts), has kept the Pelicans in most games and has dominated more than a few. The bullpen has been pretty great too.
South Bend : 8-9, 4th place.
South Bend enjoyed a couple blowout wins of their in recent days, and they are starting to play better baseball in general. They are within one game of regaining the .500 mark and are now just three games behind division leading Lansing.
Cael Brockmeyer remains the force in the middle of the lineup for the Cubs, but Chesny Young has been very productive at second base while his double play partner Gleyber Torres has started to turn in some very good games of his own.
As in Myrtle Beach, though, it is the pitching that has defined this team so far. Jeremy Null and Ryan Williams have been just about as dominant as we could have asked for, and Trevor Clifton is not far behind them. The bullpen has been rocky in places, but lately that group has delivered some nice games as well. If the pitching continues to perform like this, the Cubs should be in the thick of the first half division race.
An Early Look At The 2015 Draft
To start with, let’s explode a couple of myths you are likely to hear a lot as we head into draft season.
Myth: The Cubs have no good pitching prospects, so they have to draft a pitcher with their first round pick.
People who do not follow the Cubs closely were preaching this when the Cubs drafted Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber, and yet, despite not drafting a pitcher in the first round in any of those years (not counting supplemental first), the Cubs have still managed to find a very deep crop of pitching prospects that features a lot of guys with very high upside.
What the Cubs do lack is impact starting pitching talent that could be ready to contribute this year or next. There are a couple of names we can maybe toss in that category, but only a couple and only maybe. Unfortunately, impact pitchers who can contribute immediately do not come along very often. If one is there when the Cubs pick at number nine they may take him, but they will not take a pitcher just because their young pitchers aren’t quite up to the same level of awesome as their young hitters.
Myth: The Cubs can’t draft another infielder because they have too many infielders on the roster already.
The day the Cubs front office lets the composition of the Major League roster define who they take with a top ten draft pick is the day I start campaigning for their replacement. Unlike the NFL or NBA drafts, players hardly ever come straight out of the draft and into the majors, and the one thing we can be dead certain of is that the Major League roster will change quite a bit before any player the Cubs drafts in 2015 gets to Wrigley. If the best player on the board when the Cubs make their pick is a shortstop, the Cubs will pick a shortstop.
There is another side of this myth that comes from the same thinking, so let’s turn it around.
Myth: The Cubs could really use a (insert position that is weak on the Major League roster here), so they’ll be sure to take one in the first round.
Things you do not do at the top of the first round in the baseball draft, Number One: Draft based on Major League need.
The player the Cubs take in June may not make it to the Major Leagues until 2017 at the earliest. It makes no sense to take a guy based on a roster need in June of 2015 who won’t actually be able to address that need (if he even pans out, which is no guarantee) until April of 2017 in an absolute best case scenario. Good front offices do not do that sort of thing, and the Cubs have a good front office.
Now that the most common of the myths are out of the way, let’s talk reality.
The Cubs will draft the best player on their draft boards.
That does not mean the Cubs will draft the best player on the media draft boards. A good example of this is Kyle Schwarber. Pretty much no draft experts had him ranked as even the fourth best prospect in the draft last year, but the Cubs had him ranked behind only Brady Aiken. The Cubs are not going to reveal all the criteria they use when ranking a player so we are not going to know exactly what their internal rankings look like, but you can be pretty certain that whoever they take in the first round will be a player they like a lot.
Position players are the safer picks at the top.
It would be easy to take this thinking too far and interpret it as “Never draft a pitcher in the first round,” but that would be a mistake. While all prospects come with a fair amount of risk, pitchers come with more. In fact, drafting a high school pitcher at the top of the first round is one of the riskiest things a team can do. The injury risk compounded on top of the uncertainties of pitcher development lead to a fairly high potential for that player to not perform quite as well the team would like. Despite that, sometimes a pitcher comes along that makes such a risk worthwhile. For example: Brady Aiken. (And even he then lived into the risk, later needing Tommy John surgery.)
The strategy that is more likely to yield a stronger return on investment for the drafting team is to take a good hitter. It seems like it is easier for teams to translate amateur success at the plate to professional capabilities than is the case for amateur success on the mound. And, of course, hitters simply have a lesser likelihood of devastating injury.
In general, the riskiness rankings look something like this (ordered from safest to least safe):
- College bat
- Junior college bat
- College pitcher
- High school bat
- Junior college pitcher
- High school pitcher
Of course if you asked three other people who follow the draft you may see that list organized three different ways. I strongly suspect, though, that all of them would leave college bats on top.
Candidates for the Cubs
So where does that leave the Cubs? Hard to say, really. The Cubs are picking ninth this year, and that means what they do will be greatly defined by what happens in the draft ahead of them. Taking an injured pitcher and signing him to a below slot deal so they can spend more money on more pitchers later in the draft is an oft speculated strategy given some high profile pitcher injuries this season (including Aiken), but it doesn’t exactly fit the Cubs’ pattern. It isn’t necessarily a bad plan, but it doesn’t smell like a Cubs’ plan to me.
I think the Cubs will simply go with the best player on their draft board. They will have a pretty good idea by draft day how much it will cost to sign any of the candidates, and they will let that first round pick’s price tag define what they are able to do later in the draft. If that means they can snag an underslot deal and load up on more high school arms later on, great. If not, that’s fine too provided they get a good player with that first round pick. If the best player on their board happens to be an injured pitcher, I think they will definitely look to pursue the underslot plan, but I don’t think they will target that as their strategy from the beginning of the draft. They’ll take the best player and adapt the rest of their strategy from there.
If you want to look over some candidates, start with MLB Pipeline’s list. Focus on the individual tool scouting grades. On the pitcher side, look for college arms who feature at least one (and hopefully two) pitches that grade out at 60 or higher and who have a control score of no lower than 50 (and really I’d hold out for a 55). You want to see similar numbers for high school pitchers, but keep in mind that there will be additional risk.
In addition to Aiken, Kolby Allard and Michael Matuella have also been sidelined with arm issues this spring. Allard (a high schooler) is interesting, but Matuella is probably my favorite pitcher in this class. Even with the arm surgery I doubt he falls to the Cubs.
One pitcher I keep coming back to is Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer. He is smaller than most teams like to see in a starter, and his arm action is not the prettiest thing to grace the mound, but he has one of the best fastballs in the draft and has been very effective as a college pitcher in a tough conference. I think he will be on the board when the Cubs pick, and while this path would make me nervous, it would be a choice that comes with a lot of potential upside.
For the hitters, high school or college, the hit score really needs to be 60 or higher to even be considered at the top of the first round. If the hit is 60 or higher and the power is 50 or higher, you could be looking at a good candidate for the Cubs. Brendan Rogers is the best high school hitter in the class, but he will certainly be gone well before the Cubs pick.
Ian Happ, a switch hitting outfielder with some experience at second, could be around though. He is one of the best college hitters in this draft class and we know that the Cubs like prospects to be able to play multiple positions. Good switch hitters are not all that common, and this one comes with the added bonus of walking quite a lot.
Alex Bregman and Danby Swanson are both college shortstops, and either of them could be a good fit. Both are patient right handed hitters who should hit for average. Bregman probably has a little more power, but Swanson is better the glove and a safer bet to stick at shortstop. At least one of them could still be on the board for the Cubs.
On the high school side, keep your eye on a quartet of outfielders: Nick Plummer, Trenton Clark, Daz Cameron, and Kyle Tucker. Figuring out which of those four is the best pick is not an easy task, but they look like the sort of player the Cubs are going to grade highly when the set up their final board.
If I had to choose right now, and factoring in who is likely to be on the board at number nine, I would probably waffle between gambling a little on Fulmer or taking the switch hitting Happ, but would almost certainly side with Happ.
To take a look at what the people who follow the draft scene much more closely than I do are thinking, head over to Through The Fence Baseball. Dan Kirby does a nice job with the mock drafts over there, and his second of the year just recently went up.
Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo have mocked up the first ten picks over at MLB Pipeline, and while they appear to fall into the ‘Cubs need pitching so they have to draft a pitcher’ trap, their takes are still well worth a read.