Questioning offseason baseball moves is nothing new, but what’s quite distinguished the Chicago Cubs this offseason are the endless questions about the team’s many non-moves. Not extending Joe Maddon. No major free agent signings. No significant trades.
Plus every time the front office tries answering these questions, it only raises more. We can recall all of their greatest hits: All answers are internal. We want to be part of the domestic violence solution. The budget is limited, but not by the luxury tax. And the eventual new Cubs network should really excite the fanbase.
For me, much the same happened when senior VP of player development and scouting Jason McLeod spoke during the recent Cubs Convention. For example, he suggested the team’s draft philosophy might have suffered from too much selection by “check box.” Eeks! He also shared his theory that overly conservative pitch-count management might explain poor velocity gains by the organization’s pitching prospects.
But let’s first give McLeod credit for voicing anything while his ownership family headed off to Dodge City. Yet for those of us trying to figure out why seven Cubs drafts under Theo Epstein have failed to produce any quality starting pitchers, starting position players, or solid relievers outside of high first-round picks, McLeod’s comments only raised more questions.
For instance, does McLeod honestly believe a pitch-count change here and there could have noticeably opened the organization’s pitching spigot? And did this over-reliance on draft “check boxes” mean the organization undervalued scouting appraisals in less tangible areas such as command, fortitude, baseball IQ, and coachability?
His comments also deepened my concern that this front office is just grasping at straws for simple fixes to a talent pipeline that was never properly constructed in the first place. Reluctant to admit this mistake, they look to be clinging tightly to some flawed core tenets. In other words, they fear by throwing out any bath water this will kill some precious philosophical babies.
Take McLeod’s pitch-count theory. Yes, development approaches can affect the pace of talent development. But short of them leading to a career-ending injury, quality cream usually rises. And if it doesn’t do so in a player’s first organization, it often will in his second. However, evidence is scant of this with no bevy of former Cubs draft picks excelling elsewhere.
Which brings us to the draft. McLeod suggested Cubs drafts had been hurt by overly conservative standards ruling out selection of possibly better available talent. This was fairly revelatory for me, but not in a good way. After all, outside the first round, so much of the baseball draft can be a crapshoot. Why go conservative when lower risk can often mean lower potential reward?
This partially explains why – except for the team’s four high first-round selections – the Cubs’ drafts in the Epstein era have so far proven among the least productive in baseball. Those four top-10 overall picks resulted in one megastar (Kris Bryant) and, at least to this point, three role players (Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ). Outside these picks, the most successful Cubs draftees have so far been pitchers Paul Blackburn and Zack Godley (both traded) and utility infielder David Bote.
I also took from McLeod’s comments that the front office may suffer from excessive faith in its Pygmalion powers to mold talent from any clay. Thus we get the sense that if they just adjust pitch counts and change the scheduling of instructs, along with some other esoteric tweaks, they can trigger the long-awaited talent gusher.
But before I blame McLeod too much for the Cubs’ amazingly thin drafts from 2012-15, let’s acknowledge the role luck plays. For example, the Cubs drafting Bryant second in 2013 required the Astros taking pitcher Mark Appel first overall, and even drafters with solid track records can hit a bad streak.
Take Epstein himself. Widely credited as an excellent talent evaluator, he really slumped in Boston from 2006 to 2010. Those five drafts resulted in just two players of any future significance: Anthony Rizzo (6th round, 2007) and Josh Reddick (17th round, 2006). But bookending this five-year dry spell were two of Epstein’s most productive drafts. In 2005, he signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buccholz and Jed Lowrie. Then in 2011 came the fantastic class of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Travis Shaw, Matt Barnes, and Blake Swihart.
So the Cubs’ first four years of poor drafting is not without precedent, even for a future Hall of Fame executive like Epstein. But if we look for any patterns in Epstein’s two major streaks of bad draft luck, McLeod jumps to the forefront. Let’s consider the 15 drafts McLeod has overseen in his career. The first six came in Boston, then two more when he moved to San Diego with Jed Hoyer. Last, add in seven more with the Cubs and counting.
His first two drafts in Boston were actually his best. In 2004, observers credit him for taking future MVP Dustin Pedroia in the second round. This was the only drafted player of note signed by Boston that year, but since they lacked a first-round pick, finding a future MVP and team leader 65th overall qualifies as a coup. That was followed by the above-mentioned 2005 crop.
From there, McLeod helmed four of those five uber-poor Boston drafts under Epstein. He then did the same for San Diego in 2010 and ’11, where his best draft selection by far was Jed Gyorko (10.9 career WAR). His next best signed pick was pitcher Joe Ross, who has posted a career 3.9 WAR.
Then came his four initial poor drafts with the Cubs. While the 2013 class did include future MVP Bryant, that pick was as big a no-brainer as they come. The rest of that draft was a disappointment, with the next-best pick being Godley and his career 4.41 ERA. Bottom line: Two initial good drafts, followed by 10 straight subpar drafts, with 2016, 2017 and 2018 too early to judge. Although if Duncan Robinson, Dakota Mekkes, and Trent Giambone all make it to the majors, the 2016 could prove McLeod’s first quality draft in more than a decade.
From the outside, it’s impossible to know for sure where to place any blame for these disappointing draft results. But what can certainly be said is it’s taken too long for them to effectively course-correct.
Of course, even as I say this, I would not want to wager on the 2016, 2017 and 2018 drafts being flops. The simple law of averages should eventually click in. And if anyone is due for some sheer blind luck, it would be McLeod and the Cubs.
At CubsCon, McLeod also reminded us that Epstein has made “urgency” the new organizational watch word. This seems quite apt given how Red Sox poor draft record from 2006-10 led directly to an over-reliance on long, expensive free agent contracts. The failure of those signings in turn led to Epstein’s teams not winning a single playoff game in his final three Boston seasons.
So in the absence of more urgent corrective actions, might history repeat itself for Epstein in Chicago? Well, count that as just one more question in an offseason already filled with so many.