The 2015 and 2016 drafts mark the transition of the Cubs from an organization in full rebuild mode to one looking to sustain their competitiveness. By June of 2015, the front office doubtlessly knew they had the core of very good team already playing in Chicago. The farm system had been built up into arguably the single best collection of minor league talent in the modern era of baseball, and that talent had already flooded into Chicago. The job was not finished, but the framework for the eventual World Series winner was in place.
By June 2016, the Cubs were the undisputed best team in baseball. Even though we did not know then just how awesome October and November would be, we knew the Cubs were good. They were also without a draft pick prior to the third round that year’s draft thanks to free agent signings, and that greatly limited what the Cubs were able to do.
It is too early to grade these drafts based on the results. The Cubs do not have any players in the majors from 2015 or 2016 yet (nor would I expect them to), and, outside of 2015 first round pick Ian Happ, it still a little tough to estimate which players from those drafts even have a good shot of getting to the majors at all.
That said, there are some commonalities between these drafts that should set our expectations for drafts going forward. Baseball being baseball, depending on how the 2017 draft sets up, these commonalities could evaporate before the Cubs make their first pick. For now, then, consider this an outsider’s take on the Cubs’ Draft Playbook for Sustained Success based on the 2015 and 2016 drafts.
If The Only Way To Get Impact Talent Is To Gamble, Then Gamble
It should be a long, long time before the Cubs are again in a position to draft at the top of the first round and find a relatively safe, high-ceiling talent like Kris Bryant. It really should be several years before we are looking at the team picking inside the top ten, so you can scratch other elite talents like Happ and Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez and Albert Almora off the chart of possibilities as well. The organization will still need to draft new impact talent, though. Being awesome at the Major League level simply means finding that impact talent will be more difficult, and in order to find it, the Cubs are going to have to absorb a potentially high amount of risk.
For example, the first pitcher drafted by the Cubs in 2015 was Bryan Hudson (3rd round), a towering high school lefty with a fantastic curveball, a promising fastball, very messy mechanics, and a whole lot of tallness (6’8″ to be exact). Hudson has the potential to be a front of the rotation kind of guy, but only if he can overcome so many risk factors. It can be tough for high school pitchers and tall pitchers to polish their mechanics, and even minor mechanical issues can lead to problems with pitchers who rely on great stuff (see: Jake Arrieta in Baltimore vs Jake Arrieta in Chicago). Hudson could be an impact guy, but he has a lot of work to do to get there.
Just after Hudson the Cubs drafted outfielder D.J. Wilson (4th, 2015). Wilson has great speed and underrated/developing power, but his risk lies in the opposite direction of Hudson – Wilson is only 5’8″. There are some very good hitters in baseball that size, but generally, undersized players are viewed as higher risk prospects than their bigger, more projectable counterparts. Wilson could put up 10+ home runs and 30+ steals a year while playing excellent center field defense one day, but he comes with risk that could be avoided with higher draft picks.
This “gamble for impact” mentality comes through in the 2016 draft, as well. The Cubs did not pick until overall pick number 104; by that point in any draft, the pickings for impact types are going to be slim. The Cubs may have found high-ceiling talent anyway, though, by drafting a guy with some history of arm problems. Thomas Hatch (3rd, 2016), a college right-hander taken with their first pick, missed time earlier in his college career due to an elbow strain. In the fourth round, the Cubs took Bailey Clark, a healthy pitcher, but one with significant control problems. In the tenth round, they drafted one of 2016’s best college closers in Dakota Mekkes, but, again, control issues and questions about how his delivery will play in pro ball came along for the ride. Any one of those three guys could turn into a good Major League pitcher, but in every case there will be a lot of risk.
Draft Out Of College Very, Very Frequently
In the 2015 and 2016 drafts combined, the Cubs took exactly three high school players prior to the 20th round. All three were in 2015, and the only two who signed we’ve already discussed: Hudson and Wilson. If the right player is there, I think the Cubs will draft a high school player, but the general trend for the Cubs has become overwhelming in favor of collegiate players.
There are a number of potential reasons for this, but I suspect in the end it really comes down to (1) risk management and (2) trying find players, pitchers in particular, who can move through the system quickly so as to be ready to reinforce the Major League team should the need arise. A team in more of a pure rebuilding mode would probably slant more heavily towards drafting very risky but high ceiling high school players and hoping for a few breakouts. The Cubs still take their risks, as noted above, but for the most part, it is all college all the time.
When I am looking over potential 2017 Cubs’ draft picks, I do take a look at high school players, but I spend much more time studying potential college players. At this point I would be very surprised if the Cubs went high school early and often in 2017, even in a draft believed to be deep in that respect.
Defense Might Be Enough
The ideal prospect would excel in multiple areas of the game. He would have great defense and great power (like Kris Bryant), or would play great defense and have amazing bat speed (like Javy Baez), or would play great defense and have a very high contact rate (like Albert Almora), or would play great defense and … noticing a trend? The Cubs do draft players who do not feature excellent defense (Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ come to mind), but they do show a clear preference for taking defense when they can find it.
And typically when they do not draft for defense, they are drafting a player with high expectations at the plate (again, Schwarber and Happ). Most of the questions surrounding Happ at this point revolve around the glove – what position will he play, and will he be able to hold that position on a regular basis in an already loaded Cubs’ lineup? His patient, powerful, switch-hitting bat is considered relatively safe by comparison.
If great defense or strong offensive potential are not on the board, then aim for versatility. The Cubs are routinely turning not-catchers into catchers these days; one of the latest players to attempt his transformation is P.J. Higgins (12th, 2015). Drafted as a middle infielder, he moved behind the plate almost full-time last season and has emerged as one of the Cubs’ better catching prospects. I suspect going forward the Cubs will continue to look for players who may be able to convert to a new position where they may have a higher chance of success than the one they are currently playing.
We are probably a year away from being able to grade the 2015 draft in any meaningful way, and this will be the first year we get a really good look at the army of pitchers the Cubs drafted in 2016. But we can start to apply the lessons of these drafts.
If you want to look for potential first round picks for the Cubs in 2017, I would start by studying college position players with at least one tool that grades at 60 or higher, or college pitchers with at least one pitch that grades out at 60 or higher and projects to start. The Cubs have not taken a high school draftee in the first round since Albert Almora; given the way they appear to be approaching the farm system now that the rebuild is complete, you shouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t change in 2017.