How teams might copy Cubs Way blueprint in MLB draft

How teams might copy Cubs Way blueprint in MLB draft

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.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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