Cubs could benefit from updating position-player development strategies – cubs insider

Cracks even appeared with the 2016 Cubs. That year, playoff opponents shut them out more times (4) than any World Series winner ever. In fact, no other World Series winner since the playoffs expanded to three round in 1995 were shut out more than once. Fortunately, the Cubs’ other superior facets (starting pitching, defense, Aroldis Chapman) provided enough advantage to overcome this boom-or-bust offensive tendency and prevail in seven games over Cleveland.

Interestingly, it was Epstein’s successor in Boston, Ben Cherington, who most successfully built on Epstein’s OPS innovation to create what I call “OPS 2.0.” The Red Sox won another title in 2018 behind the top OPS in baseball.

However this version ironed out all the boom-and-bust by lowering the offense’s K-rate to fifth-lowest and mixing in one of baseball’s best running games (125 steals, 80 percent success rate).

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ collective farm system keeps posting a high walk rate (9.0 percent), but also had the sixth-highest strikeout to hit rate (1.04 Ks per hit). To Epstein’s credit, he regularly speaks of the need for his young hitters to lower their K-rate by developing better two-strike approaches. He even brought in Chili Davis last year to help with that. But alas, the young hitters rejected Davis – and perhaps that approach – like a bad organ donation.

As they say, it’s hard to change a major league hitter’s DNA. But prospects should be different. So how curious no evidence exists of a strong two-strike approach being emphasized in the Cubs minor league system. Take the Cubs’ most recent position-player call-ups. Victor Caratini’s low power numbers do not justify his 21 percent K-rate with the Cubs last year. David Bote slugs more, but his 29 percent K-rate in the majors and 26 percent at Iowa last year are both too high.

Looking to the next set of position players closest to promotion, middle infielders Trent Giambrone and Zack Short – who our Todd Johnson is quite high on – both feature higher than preferred strikeout numbers. Short did post an impressive 16 percent walk rate at Double-A Tennessee, but also a 30 percent K-rate (136 Ks) against just 17 homers. And although Giambrone has valuable base-stealing skills (26 of 35 last year), his 20 percent K-rate is not ideal for a player with his modest power profile.

For instance, the Cubs last year boasted five prospects who stole more than 25 bases: Giambrone (AA), outfielder Wynton Bernard (AA/AAA), and A-ball outfielders Roberto Caro, Zach Davis, and Fernando Kelli. This put the Cubs in a tie for seventh-most such base stealers in the minors. Plus 2018 draft picks Nico Hoerner (11 steals in 21 Arizona Fall League games) and Cole Roederer (13 steals in 36 AFL games) both feature speed as parts of their games.

Hoerner may offer the best indication as to whether this development is intentional or fortuitous. For instance, will the Cubs encourage him to sacrifice speed to develop more bulk power, or will he remain a base-stealing threat. For my money, I have no problem if he became a speedier mini-Pedroia: 30-40 doubles, 15 homers, 30-40 steals. In other words, a younger version of Whit Merrifield.

But stealing bases gets harder as a player ascends the professional ladder. I don’t presume to know if fifth-year minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator Doug Dascenzo is adept at teaching advanced base-stealing technique. However, great technique was not his major league forté with his high in the big leagues of 15 steals and a career 65 percent success rate.

Plus, Epstein hired Dascenzo when the organization most valued general baserunning acumen over base stealing. This meant more focus on first-to-third technique, getting good secondary leads, and reading balls in the dirt. Given the Cubs stuck with nearly all the same minor league development staff, I wonder if the organization would benefit from a few new specialized coaches to better cultivate the greater offensive diversification needed.

It’s well chronicled that many defensive metrics rank the Cubs young catching tandem of Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini quite low. I first became curious about any connection to development approach after Caratini was demoted to Iowa last May. There he started just 19 of 32 games behind the plate, which seemed incredibly low given what an ideal opportunity it was to get catching reps and sharpen his defensive skills.

In closing, a quality development program should encompass many aspects. The Cubs are considered among the industry leaders for their investments in quality facilities, advanced technology, nutrition, and mental skills. But the time seems ripe for a deeper review and updating of development approaches to improve the position-player talent pipeline.