We knew someone was going to have to head back to Triple-A Iowa when Seiya Suzuki returned this weekend, and it was almost certainly going to come down to Nelson Velazquez and Narciso Crook. A couple of powerful outfielders who could factor into the organization’s future plans, there was a fair argument for either to head down, but it was ultimately Crook who was selected.
Even as he had to head back to Iowa, and even as his future with the organization is unclear, I’m very interested in following Crook from here. Not only because he seems like such a fantastic guy, but also because the Cubs really may have unlocked something in the 26-year-old slugger.
Recall a few things on Crook: (1) he spent his entire career until this season in one organization; (2) he dealt with injuries early in his career that interrupted his development trajectory; (3) when he was healthy, he pretty much always hit; and (4) he struggled for a month in his new organization before erupting to an extreme level (he’s hitting .342/.427/.675/187 wRC+ since May 11).
Against that backdrop, consider this reveal from Sahadev Sharma’s reporting: the reason the Cubs targeting Crook at the very start of the offseason is because they already knew what adjustments they thought they could make to his swing and approach. So they got to work on those detailed changes over the course of the offseason, and as Crook got more and more comfortable with them, he exploded.
Now Crook is on the 40-man roster, and the Cubs will have the opportunity to keep him in the organization through the offseason, at which point he could compete for a bench job in the spring, or be an up-down contributor. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But the Cubs and Crook have given themselves a shot on the basis of a minor league signing. It’s what you want to see.
SPEAKING of which, here’s perhaps what stood out to me most from the deep dive in the Sharma article. It’s actually something from Cubs Director of Hitting Justin Stone, and the way it made me think about OTHER hitters the Cubs have had a lot of success with:
“The way we look at hitting and performance with the Cubs is what we call our three pillars,” Stone said. “That’s decision-making, the ability to make contact, and when a player does make contact, does he do damage. In two of those three pillars, Narciso was elite. He’s an elite decision-maker, and he does excessive damage when he hits the ball — just a really, really high exit velocity. Where he was lacking was the ability to make consistent contact.”
Sound familiar at all? A hitter who makes good swing decisions, who makes elite quality of contact, but who just needs to make a little more contact for the rest to play? Sound like … Patrick Wisdom, perhaps? Yup. Nelson Velazquez, too, who we sometimes compare to Wisdom in terms of these particular issues/skills.
And if Crook fits in this same bucket, you start to wonder … could the Cubs have a competitive advantage in targeting guys who make good swing decisions and hit the shit out of the ball, but have just a little too much swing and miss to have big league success? Remember, the Cubs figured out some secretive tweak in Velazquez’s game last year that took him to another level – you know, that whole secret sauce thing?
Because the player development overhaul didn’t happen until 2019, because the pandemic messed everything up in 2020, and because the Cubs went into rebuild in 2021-22, the only types the Cubs could really be deploying the secret sauce with are guys who were reclamation types or internal prospects (by the way, it’s not like Velazquez is the only guy who fits this profile, or the only guy who has seen a huge uptick in power). Are we going to see them able to improve guys who aren’t just seen as minor league signing types? Seems like that would be pretty important in the years ahead.
In the meantime, though, it does matter to be able to find these edge contributors, and take them to another level. You can’t necessarily count on completely transforming guys like Wisdom and Crook every year, but what if you have systems in place to consistently evaluate and target the right kinds of players, and then to help (most) of them improve at the margins?
Maybe. Maybe not. The sample right now is rather small, and you have to give far more of the credit to the players, themselves, than to the organization. But this is a thread that is worth tracking in the years ahead, as well as following Crook’s performance the rest of this season.
For much more on Crook and on the way he and the Cubs attacked his development, make sure to read Sharma’s piece.