How Theo Epstein’s front office invested in amateur hitters and calculated that young pitchers would be too volatile to build around became part of the biggest story in sports last year, which means other teams will try to steal from a Cubs Way blueprint.
“In our industry, there are a lot of copycat elements,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “By no means do we have this thing figured out. But that was the best angle for our organization in that moment in time when we were really trying to shift into building a robust and talented minor-league system to help in Wrigley, sooner than later.”
Kris Bryant earned a World Series ring, made two All-Star teams and won Rookie of the Year and MVP awards before Mark Appel threw a single pitch in The Show, the reverberations still being felt from the Houston Astros whiffing on the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Conventional wisdom framed the 2014 draft as the Cubs picking fourth from a class with three headliner pitchers. The Astros didn’t sign Brady Aiken, Tyler Kolek hasn’t pitched above the A-ball level or since 2015 for the Miami Marlins and both players already underwent Tommy John surgery. The White Sox are building around Carlos Rodon, though the lefty is currently on the disabled list with biceps bursitis.
Kyle Schwarber hasn’t lost the skills that made him a World Series legend before his 24th birthday, and two more college hitters from that first round have already made a splash, with Michael Conforto helping the New York Mets win the 2015 National League pennant and Trea Turner becoming a shortstop/energizer for the red-hot Washington Nationals.
Ian Happ’s fast track from ninth overall pick in 2015 to super-utility guy for the defending champs actually lines up with three college hitters drafted ahead of him that year – Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman and Andrew Benintendi.
“We’ve already seen it in the last couple drafts,” Dorey said, “where the nontraditional teams that usually shot predominantly for upside are definitely shifting to focusing their top-of-the-draft money on – I don’t want to say safer, because none of them are safe – the less-risky picks.
“I think we’re going to continue to see that this year. The teams at the top that are trying to rebuild – and put a young, talented core on the field – are going to really be shooting for that demographic of player.”
Those polished college hitters are hard to find in this class – especially when the Cubs have the 27th and 30th overall picks – but this could be a chance to zig while others zag. Those two first-round picks have created a bonus pool worth almost $7.5 million. Through the free-agent churn, the Cubs will own four selections within the first 105 picks – a year after not drafting until No. 104.
“The last thing that we want is just groupthink,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “Certainly, we have a philosophy in mind. But we also have a very talented scouting staff that works really hard and is out there pounding the road, giving us our full evaluations and doing these big, thorough background write-ups on guys to help us make the best decisions.
“I’m sure some clubs have looked at the success, whether it be us or some of the other (teams) that have gone college-heavy. I think they’re definitely taking a look at it. You always want to try to take from what some successful organizations are doing. I think that we probably have seen a little more of that in the past couple of years – and we’ll probably see it again more this year.
“Maybe you will see some college position players being taken a little higher than they normally would, which could create opportunities elsewhere for teams that could look for a little more upside.”
One scout joked the Cubs still can’t help themselves and will draft more hitters who don’t have an obvious path to Wrigleyville or a clear spot in a crowded lineup. McLeod didn’t quite go with the best-player-available cliché.
“Most impact available,” McLeod said. “We’re not going to try to invent a pitcher there. I’d love to be talking to you guys on Monday night and say: ‘Hey, we really got a pitcher that we’re excited about.’ But I don’t know if it’s going to fall that way.
“We’re going to take the two best players for the organization. And if one of them is a pitcher – or if both of them are pitchers – that will be great.”