Light-tower power

The table below purports to show everybody in baseball last season who was 22 or younger; who showed some pop, with a minimum of nine or ten home runs*; and who started the season at double-A or higher. Twenty-two seems to be the age by which players who are on a fast track get their first exposure to the big leagues, and so a player in that age cohort with any sort of power profile, if he began the season at AA or AAA, made it to the show in 2014, with the lone exception of Kris Bryant. (But don’t tell his agent.) Bryant is the only player in the table who did not play a game in the majors. That doesn’t mean I waved him in, just that there was no one else like him. A couple of high-profile, very young sluggers didn’t make the list–I’m thinking of Joey Gallo (TEX) and Corey Seager (LAD)–but they began their seasons in high-A ball.

I thought three columns for three levels of ball was enough, especially since I was planning to aggregate the numbers. (The values under the MLB, AAA and AA column headers are the number of games played at a level.) Aggregating numbers from different minor-league levels in the same season is done all the time by Baseball Reference, but I may be the first person ever given a spreadsheet tool to play with who thinks it’s a good idea to merge ML and high-minors numbers. I simply don’t know a way to look at these players side by side in one place, unless via the numbers that we have. All the rest is hype. Players who are the same age are not launched on their major-league journeys on the same day. Finding a spot on the field for a given 22-year-old is a very contingent affair. Bryant is a good example, but even those players who managed to produce some major-league numbers in 2014 started earlier or later in the season, depending on external circumstances. Since luck may determine that Player A has a body of major-league work that Player B lacks, I chose not to privilege Player A’s numbers.

So that’s my disclaimer: I crunched some numbers that don’t usually get crunched. The numbers that you are about to see, you are unlikely to see anywhere else. Take them for what they are.

(The order in the table above is by birth date.)

I highlight Arismendy Alcantara’s row in the table because I think he deserves more notice than he often gets. The prospect rankings prior to the 2014 season had him at 100 (Baseball America), 89 (MLB.com) and 83 (BaseballProspectus.com). Those are the highest numbers, and thus the lowest rankings, of any player on the table who made any of the three top-100 lists. (Note the rank column, which contains the latest rankings, which might be earlier than 2014. Baseball Reference prints these rankings on each minor-league player page.) Nineteen of the twenty-one other players on the table have a better ranking than Alcantara.

This might be a good moment to pause and consider what Alcantara and also Baez and Soler accomplished last season. Apart from Bryant, Soler has the highest OPS in the table. Baez’s 32 home runs, 9 with the Cubs, trail only Bryant’s 43 (at AA and AAA), Trout’s 36 and Pederson’s 33 (all at AAA). In this collection of current and future stars, Alcantara is fifth in hits, third in doubles, first in triples, seventh in home runs and fourth in stolen bases. Alcantara had 69 extra-base hits in 2014. In this gathering, only Bryant with 78 and Trout with 84 had more.

Alcantara was a shortstop who, last season, moved to center field to escape the logjam at middle infield. Since then, people seem to want to emphasize his versatility, as though he’ll need a collection of fielder’s gloves to fulfill his destiny as a supersub. I prefer to see him as a small guy with explosive power, a bat you want in the lineup. Alcantara is more than versatile: he can hit enough to play left field now that center belongs to Dexter Fowler (a valuable on-base guy). Many fans will remember the bomb Alcantara hit into the Pepsi Porch (upper deck) at Citi Field in the Futures game in 2013. Then there was this one off of the light tower in Colorado Springs last year just prior to his call-up to the Cubs. If Alcantara wants a model for a player with smallish stature but with speed and power that translates into a successful career, I can think of a few, like Jimmy Wynn or Ron Gant or Jimmy Rollins or even Alfonso Soriano. Another slender fellow, Lou Brock, in his first year with the Cubs in 1962, hit one over the wall in straightaway center (475 feet) against the Mets when they still played at the Polo Grounds.

Alcantara could evolve into a base thief. (Here’s some video evidence of that.) Early in his career a player figures out what he can be and wants to be, but not at twenty-two.

* Chris Owings had only six home runs. I don’t remember why he made the cut, but note his relatively small number of games.

Confessions of a Cubby boomer

There are a lot of Americans my age. They’re called Baby Boomers. It was a post-World-War-II phenomenon, when our servicemen overseas came home, beat their swords into ploughshares, started an economic revival and produced babies. I was born in late 1948. We lived in Chicago on the south side, and I should have been a Sox fan, like my dad; but when I was at an age when boys become imprinted onto teams, Ernie Banks had begun his spectacular early career with the north-side team. Banks made me a Cub fan. I suspect that there are many aging Chicagoans who were swept into the Cubs’ orbit by Banks just as I was.

At home with my kids, I observed a similar dynamic. At a susceptible age they latch on to this or that prominent sports hero and associated team. Thus I have two sons who, growing up far from Chicago, became Cub fans simply because of Sammy Sosa, day baseball, WGN cable channel, and arithmetic: subtract 1987 or 1990 from 1998 (the year of the McGwire-Sosa home run duel), and you get a baseball-impressionable age. Look around our laundry room and you are bound to find relics of Jordan-worship and Favre-idolization. (I never get used to the green-and-gold.)

While I can’t pinpoint the moment, or even the season, I switched from the Sox to the Cubs, it must have happened between June 27, 1958, when I was nine, and September 22, 1959, more than a year later. On that first date, I was listening to the radio in my bedroom when Billy Pierce, a stylish, hard-throwing lefty Sox pitcher, retired the first 26 Baltimore Orioles that he faced. Everybody in Chicago who was baseball-aware at the time, and is still around today, remembers that game. I remember crying when the 27th Oriole, pinch hitter Ed Fitzgerald, swung late and hit a double just inside the right-field line. I must have been a Sox fan to be crying for Billy Pierce.

The Billy Pierce episode reminds me that I had to give up something when I exchanged my Sox allegiance for the thrill of rooting for Ernie Banks. The Sox were a much better team, generally the second or third best team in the AL in a day when only the top team (invariably the Yankees) went to the playoffs–i.e., the World Series. When would the Cubs ever have as good a lefty as Pierce? Ken Holtzman was a possibility, although he mainly flowered with the A’s. Maybe Jon Lester’s first start will be a sign that Cubby boomers can now begin to recoup what they lost when they packed up their loyalties and followed Ernie Banks to Wrigley.

On that second date, 9/22/59, the White Sox won the AL pennant, and air-raid sirens blasted late in the evening in our neighborhood on the south side; but I was unmoved. I was an ex-fan at that point. Nor was I much interested in the World Series, in which the Sox lost to the Dodgers (speaking of teams with newly loyal fans).

Without a specific memory of a conversion experience, I would say that my early Sox fanhood could not withstand the steady pressure of what was going on with the Cubs in ’58 and ’59, the two anni mirabiles (“wonder years”) of Ernie Banks’s career, his back-to-back MVP years. In the table below, I list a dozen MVPs beginning with Willie Mays in 1954, and ending with Mays again in 1965. So take a look a the NL MVPs during the Mays era: there’s something very interesting about those two Banks years.

Notice the Cubs’ two fifth place finishes and two losing seasons. With a couple of exceptions that prove the rule, all of those dozen MVPs apart from Banks, in order to earn the award, were required to take their teams to the NL pennant. The two exceptions are Maury Wills and Mays; but Wills’s Dodger team won 102 games while finishing a game behind the Giants, and Mays’s Giants finished just two games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers. Both Wills’s team and Mays’s 1965 team plus all the other teams–except the Cubs–won at least 93 games. Wills himself stole 104 bases, breaking one of baseball’s unbreakables, Ty Cobbs’s record of 96 steals that had stood for forty-seven years. And Mays was Mays, the consensus best player in the game for this entire period, who would be the automatic MVP any season the Giants won or came very close. Since they only won once and came close once, Mays won two MVPs, same as Banks. Aaron won only a single MVP.

So why didn’t Banks’s team have to win or come close? The answer is simple if we look at his numbers and also focus on the position he played. In his MVP seasons, Banks hit 47 and 45 home runs. He was an efficient shortstop with limited range who won a Gold Glove in 1960. When you play SS and bat cleanup and hit for that kind of power, you add extra value to a team, because you have freed up one of the power positions (left field, right field, first base, third base) for other power hitters. You’ve given your team an extra slugger. The fact that the Cubs couldn’t find other sluggers for those positions, and win more games, is not Ernie Banks’s fault, and he wasn’t penalized for it in the MVP voting. It seems clear that Banks was given extra points for his value-add as a shortstop.

The oft-cited Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic includes a positional adjustment that favors key defensive positions like catcher and shortstop, and I think this adjustment is similar to the rough one that MVP voters made in Banks’s favor. Out of curiosity–sometimes you feel like looking behind the curtain of these complicated statistics–I did a spreadsheet of the WARs of all the starting shortstops, centerfielders and rightfielders in the National League in 1958 and 1959. Then I averaged the numbers at each position, with the assumption that the WAR should be the same at each position, since they purport to already compensate for the different offensive expectations at, say, shortstop and right field. I chose SS, CF and RF because that’s where Banks, Mays and Aaron played, and those are the three that I was most interested in comparing, and making sure they were being measured fairly given the positions they played. And, rightly or wrongly, I left their own WARs off the spreadsheet, since I didn’t consider them replacements for themselves. If I went in with the expectation that the bonus points given to shortstops would not be enough for them to catch up with outfielders, that’s what the results in the tables below seem to show, especially in 1958. The discrepancy was smaller in 1959. Overall, I think WAR makes an honest attempt to boost the value of a shortstop like Banks who can hit.

One slight disclaimer: Baseball Reference gives one starting lineup for every historical (annual) team, and those are the names and the WARs I used, even though a player might not have played every game, but only the most games, at a position. I’m sure BR is more meticulous about calculating WAR at each position, but I did the best I could, and don’t see why my shortcut would have skewed up or down, in favor of one position versus another.

For the record, Banks’s highest WAR was 10.2 in 1959. For Mays, it was 11.2 in 1965, and for Aaron, 9.4 in 1961.

Just in terms of the numbers that we found on the back of our baseball cards: apart from Alex Rodriguez, Banks is the only shortstop ever to hit 40 home runs, and he did it five times. In all of those five seasons, Banks played shortstop exclusively. When he no longer could play shortstop, it was because his legs were going, and his offensive numbers declined steeply. No one ever said he was durable. He was inferior to Mays and Aaron and Frank Robinson and others in terms of durability. Koufax was not durable, either. Both he and Banks were first-ballot Hall of Famers; but a pitcher cannot pitch with a sore elbow, while a hitter can function with a sore knee. Koufax ended his career abruptly, while Banks soldiered on long past his sell-by date, and his numbers were diluted, and so now people look at his career numbers and place him lower than he deserves. Banks was slender–slight, even. In 2006, Jim Hendry referred to Alfonso Soriano as a greyhound. That describes Banks also. That’s how skinny he was, the skinniest power hitter ever. Soriano is the only player I can think of who sometimes reminded me of Banks when he swung. Soriano’s rapid decline in his early thirties is another reminder of Banks.

Banks was the most approachable of famous athletes, and if you hung around Wrigley in the late fifties and early sixties, as I did, you probably had a personal encounter with him. I had a memorable one. My eighth-grade friend Richie Friedman, when we approached Banks in the players’ parking lot after a game, asked, “Going south, Ern?” and our idol responded with an invitation for the two of us to “hop in.” We did, and so Richie and I had Ernie Banks to ourselves for the next forty-five minutes. All I remember about the conversation is that at one point we were discussing Ken Hubbs and I mentioned to Banks that Hubbs was a Mormon, and Banks said he hadn’t heard that.

This would probably have been 1962, Hubbs’s first year, when he was Rookie of the Year and Gold Glove second baseman. Billy Williams had been ROY the year before. Like Hubbs, Lou Brock was a rookie in ’62. Santo was in this third year, at age 22. Let’s see, that’s four hall of famers, counting Banks, before we even trade for Fergie Jenkins. If we could just twist the dials of fate so that Brock stays around, and we keep Hubbs out of that accursed private plane in the snowstorm in Utah, and (in spite of having twisted the dials) we still pull off the Jenkins deal, maybe we overcome our nagging organizational deficiencies and do something in the next few years. Maybe we wouldn’t still be counting back to 1908.

Banks dropped us off near his house and we hopped an eastbound bus on 79th street to get the rest of our way home.

So thanks for the ride, Ernie–no, not that ride in particular, I mean the five-and-a-half-decade romance with a baseball team that continues with me to this day. And thanks for not leaving us before the Cubs got busy and got serious about building an organization, finally, that was worthy of your enthusiasm, your elegance and your power.

Rooting for laundry

There must be something to uniform numbers, since Baseball Reference shows a sketch of the back of the jersey for every major-league team-and-number combo on every player’s page. Jon Lester looks good wearing #31 (that is, he looks like Jon Lester) and probably won’t recognize himself in the shirt he dons this afternoon at his introductory press conference with the Cubs. It’s not the Cubby blue that will be jarring, or the strange logo (strange to Lester) on the front of the shirt, so much as the view from the back.

Can’t Jenkins and Maddux lend him their jersey? It’s not like either of them owns the shirt outright. I can almost imagine a little ruse where the Cubs tell Jenkins that Maddux has the jersey, while Maddux thinks that Jenkins is using it, and they go back and forth like this for six or seven years, with Lester wearing the coveted article of clothing all the while.

Realistically, I know that’s not possible. After looking around a bit, especially at the Yankees, who hire people at Lester’s level on a regular basis, I’ve concluded that the best way to hold onto a number that you like is to stay where you are.

Roger Clemens wore #21 proudly for fifteen seasons before being blocked by Paul O’Neill in New York. Clemens tried #12 briefly (a common practice: remember Piniella reversing the numbers on his preferred #14 shirt?) but settled on #22. Randy Johnson favored #51 but, as luck would have it, so did Bernie Williams, so Johnson became another misnumbered Yankee for two seasons. (He chose #41.) Carlos Beltran liked #15 but Furcal already had it with the Cardinals, so Beltran wore #3. Neither number was available with the Yankees. (#3 is self-explanatory, while #15 had been retired immediately after Thurman Munson’s death in a plane crash in 1979.) Beltran switched to #36. It’s hard to find the right number when you’re wearing pinstripes.

Reggie Jackson solved the dilemma by having his #9 retired by the A’s and #44 retired by the Yankees. (Maris, also a former A, had dibs on #9.) Win us a World Series, Jon, and we’ll retire whatever number you wear this afternoon. At some point, a kinder, gentler Red Sox organization will want to do the same with regard to number 31.

Note on 12/16/2014, the day after the press conference: Lester chose #34. (Let the Christmas ordering begin!) He said he always liked that number, and had phoned Kerry Wood to get his okay (not that it’s a retired number). So now everybody is happy, Lester, Wood, Jenkins, Maddux and David Ortiz, who grabbed #34 off the rack in Boston in 2003, three years ahead of Lester.

road not taken

Geez, why couldn’t the Royals’ hitters lay off that high fastball? Who’s their hitting coach?

And speaking of people engaged in something perhaps more gratifying than managing the Cubs, Bochy was a strong contender for the Cubs’ managerial post when they hired Piniella in 2006. Piniella and Bochy were in play both in San Francisco and Chicago.

From the San Diego Union-Trib in October, 2006:

Cubs GM Jim Hendry said Thursday he was expecting to meet with Bochy soon, but according to Chicago sources, he shifted yesterday after being told by upper management he can’t go with Bochy because Piniella and Girardi, a former Cub, resonate more with the team’s fan base.

Fueling reports that he will become the Cubs manger, Piniella told San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean yesterday he is withdrawing from the Bay Area team’s managerial search.

Bochy said last night he wasn’t surprised to learn the Cubs appear as though they will hire either Piniella – a close friend of his – or Girardi. As for other would-be suitors, Bochy said, “I’ve got to think this through and digest it. I’ve got to do what’s best for myself and my family. That’s what I’m going to do the next couple of days.”

Bochy was destined for San Francisco later that month and ultimately, they’re saying, for Cooperstown, which is probably a lot better than the one-way ticket to Palookaville that the Cubs, in those bad old days, dangled in front of prospective hires.

Samardzija for Almora?

There’s a lot of excitement about the Cubs’ acquiring toolsy shortstop Addison Russell, who is at or near the top of a couple of major prospect lists; and while I’m excited along with everybody else, it still sticks in my mind that, not very long ago in 2012, when the new front office conducted its first June player draft on behalf of the Cubs, we drafted sixth, while Oakland took Russell at #11. We could have just picked Russell and not had to trade for him. Of course, we would have lost Almora to another team in that scenario. In effect, then, we traded Samardzija for Almora. Announced in that way, the deal would not have been as exciting.

I have to wonder whether the Cubs weren’t motivated to make the deal for Russell by the fact that they really liked him in 2012 but didn’t want to undercut Starlin Castro by selecting a shortstop as the first pick agreed upon by the new brain trust. Castro, after all, was the only player in the organization (with the possible exception of Samardzija) whom they considered a keeper. Russell and Almora were both drafted out of high school, and both hit well in their first full seasons in 2013, but Russell did it at A+, a level higher than Almora, and he also notched 17 homers and 21 SBs. Almora is not a base stealer; and while the Cubs believe he will develop more power as he matures, the same could be said for a kid who hit seventeen dingers in high-A at age nineteen.

In any event, if my hunch is correct that they preferred Russell on the day that they claimed Almora, the Cubs’ troika of Theo, Jed and Jason must have been kicking themselves over the past year, and must really have felt like putting a match to a few fireworks when they sealed the Samardzija-Russell deal on July fourth.

As to any worry about undermining Castro, they likely stopped caring about that when Javier Baez put up 16 homers and 24 SBs in 2012 at nineteen, and 37 HRs (with 20 SBs) in the following season at two levels including double A, without being asked to play an inning at second or third. Nor has Baez played anywhere but short this year at AAA. Even before the recent trade, the Cubs had two official shortstops of the future, with Baez’s future likely to win out if for no other reason than that he is a more instinctive defender. Aside from his glove, Baez’s power is such that fans, I among them, will pay to see him swing and miss. Fresh off his third all-star game appearance, Castro will bring a huge haul of pitching that might turn a group of upstart Cubs into contenders next year.

Throwing Russell into the mix means that they can trade Castro over the winter without having to worry much about Baez failing his first test in the majors. Since Baez is a Wilken pick with more swing-and-miss (or less “control of the strike zone,” as Jason McLeod likes to say) than they prefer, they may not quite trust him with a position that Castro would have handled satisfactorily for a decade. Russell is now insurance against a wrong decision about which shortstop-of-the-future to keep and which to shed. Assuming that Baez and Russell both fulfill their promise, a decision between those two shortstops can at least be deferred for a year or two. Believing as he does in the fungibility of baseball talent, Theo tends to avoid moving shortstops around to other positions, since they lose value in the shift, and as a result the value of the team’s total assets shrinks.

Today, in the aftermath of Samardzija-Russell, the players who emerge as the “keepers” from the group that was inherited by the new regime in late 2011 are likely to be Baez and Alcantara.

Kids doing fine

I buy into the current Cubs’ front-office’s promises to build a championship-caliber team in due course, and am on-board with their timetable for success, even if it means enduring another uncompetitive season. But as the proprietor of a blog that has followed the progress of Cub prospects for going on six years now, I recognize that I might possibly have some ‘splainin’ to do. Why was it necessary for Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod to rebuild a team that had been acquiring and developing decent prospects for six years? And if they weren’t decent prospects, what have I been talking about?

Actually, the kids are doing fine, as the following list will indicate. A coherent time frame for this compilation might begin in late 2005 when Tim Wilken came aboard as national scouting director, and end in late 2011 when Jason McLeod took over from Wilken. During these six years, Oneri Fleita was responsible for scouting and signing international players. If you take all the players whom the Cubs acquired as prospects during this period, the following twenty-one players were on major-league rosters on opening day 2014: Brandon Guyer and Chris Archer (Rays), Ryan Flaherty (O’s), Al Alburquerque (Tigers), Josh Donaldson (A’s), Marwin Gonzalez (Astros), Jim Adduci (Rangers), Ryan Buchter (Braves), Josh Harrison (Pirates), Jim Henderson (Brewers), Angel Pagan (Giants), D.J. LeMahieu (Rockies), Andrew Cashner (Padres), Tony Campana (D’backs) and Welington Castillo, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Junior Lake, Jeff Samardzija, James Russell and Brian Schlitter (Cubs).

That’s fourteen non-Cubs and seven Cubs. There are players who were prospects in this period–Robinson Chirinos (Rangers) and Sam Fuld (A’s), for example–who are major leaguers today but I didn’t count because they came to the Cubs earlier than 2006.

The number of major leaguers is bound to increase, since included in this time window are ten or twelve current prospects who, to varying degrees, still have a shot: Hak-Ju Lee, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Javier Baez, Zeke DeVoss, Shawon Dunston, Jr., Dan Vogelbach, Arismendy Alcantara, Rubi Silva, Zac Rosscup.

I think that’s a respectable haul, and I feel justified in having written about several of these players. I don’t see a murderer’s row here, but Donaldson, Baez, Castro and Lake were not a bad start to an offense. (Donaldson was fourth in MVP voting in the AL last season.) Colvin and Vitters may have been misses, but Vitters may still bloom late and in any case I’m convinced he will be a major leaguer. As for pitching, you could do worse than a starting threesome of Archer, Cashner and Samardzija.

Of course, the Cubs don’t have that starting threesome or that MVP-4, because it’s hard for a GM to hang onto his better young players. When your phone rings, people are mostly calling about your Donaldsons and Lees and Archers and Cashners. Hendry traded Donaldson for Ernie Broglio–I mean, Rich Harden–and Archer and Lee for Matt Garza, while Epstein exchanged Cashner for Anthony Rizzo. Epstein argued that Cashner’s balky shoulder made him a reliever and that a slugging 1B was a good return for a reliever (though probably not for the Padres’ starter on Opening Day).

After Donaldson, Archer and Cashner, the best Cub prospect to make the majors in our time frame might be Castro or it might be LeMahieu, a promising young second baseman for the Rockies. LeMahieu is a better hitter than Barney and almost as good a glove, with 3 errors in 750 innings at second compared to Barney’s 4 errors in 1237 innings. LeMahieu was something of a throw-in in an early Epstein deal, Colvin for Ian Stewart, in December 2011.

Like Colvin, LeMahieu was not an on-base guy and thus was a player McLeod would not have drafted, so he was considered expendable. I get that. The one issue I have with how they treated Wilken’s and Fleita’s prospects was that they tried to change them, to make them over, which I’m not sure can be done at this level. A former hitting coach, manager Dale Sveum has his fingerprints all over the declining offensive stats of Castro and Barney (and even of Brett Jackson–take at look at his Iowa numbers in 2011) over the last two seasons. They should have just played them, praised them and traded them if they didn’t like them, as I’m sure Theo and Jed and Jason would acknowledge (privately) by now.

Group of fifteen

A select group of prospects has been working out and hanging out in the Chicago area this week as part of the Cubs’ Rookie Development Program. Here they are by position:

Pitchers: Pierce Johnson, Kyle Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, Eric Jokisch, C.J. Edwards, Armando Rivero, Arodys Vizcaino
Outfielders: Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Rubi Silva
Infielders: Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Christian Villanueva, Mike Olt, Arismendy Alcantara

To me, this looks like a real organizational honor roll, not just a list of invitees to whatever Cub convention or caravan goes on in January. These names merit some attention and thought, not least because of the implicit promise that these fifteen guys will get a shot at the majors. For example, Rubi Silva might get called up this year, whereas Matt Szczur probably won’t, even though Szczur often appears on Cub top-fifteen lists, while Silva never does. Apparently the Cubs like Silva’s fifteen home runs better than Szczur’s fifty walks. It probably doesn’t hurt Silva’s chances that, with Baez, Bryant, Almora and Soler all expected to come on line in the not-too-distant future, the Cubs will be very right-handed.

Another group-of-fifteen member who does not figure prominently in the usual prospect rankings is Eric Jokisch. But teams are always looking for southpaw hurlers, and Jokisch is the only one in the team’s top fifteen today. Don’t be surprised if he gets fitted for a Cub uniform in 2014.

Hitting Prospects 2013

This is a ranking system that considers a base that is stolen to be as valid a unit of offensive production as a base that is attained any other way. It takes the sum of total bases + walks + SBs, adjusts it slightly, and divides by games played to arrive at a score, according to which the players are ranked. (Hitting prospects are starters, not pinch hitters or defensive replacements, so dividing by games is about as valid as dividing by at-bats or plate appearances.)

The adjustment represented by the “adj points” column is Points minus Games. This adjustment rests on the idea that one total base (or walk or SB) per game is a baseline, required to get you to zero.

Players included here are at Kane County (A ball) or higher. I include Boise numbers if a player has advanced to Kane County (KC) or above.

Notes:

8/5: Matt Szczur appears to be having a productive season leading off at Tennessee, but his “total offense” score has dropped from a robust 1.42 last year at Daytona and Tennessee to a pedestrian 0.99 at Tennessee this year. His total bases per game are down (due to fewer extra-base hits) and his steals are way down.

Based on this ranking, Zeke DeVoss–listed 7th among players who are 25 or younger–is a legitimate prospect. A team chronically in search of a leadoff man will notice DeVoss’s 66 walks compared to Szczur’s 37. DeVoss’s score is consistent with, and in fact identical to, his number last year.

Justin Bour is hitting home runs at twice the rate he hit them last year–once in every 16 at bats compared to every 34 at bats–and will almost certainly win the promotion to Iowa that eluded him this spring.

View from the Potomac*

My wife and daughter and I went to the Saturday and Sunday games at Nationals Park. Bryce Harper sat on Saturday (and the night before) with an ingrown toenail. Sunday he was oh for two with two walks. Feldman gave him one walk, Russell the other. Both pitchers have pinpoint control but had no intention of throwing Harper a strike on 3-2, a count where he was likely to swing. Feldman basically pitched around Harper and Desmond (who swings almost as hard as Harper) and challenged everyone else, including LaRoche, who had a single in four at-bats with two strikeouts. Usually he does more damage than that against us.

I haven’t spent much time watching the Cubs this season, largely because the prospects I’ve been touting for several years are not much in evidence. Instead, we’re given hand-me-down players like Cody Ransom and Ryan Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston. At times, though, I have been tempted to pay more attention to this team since, when it loses, it barely loses. It seems to have a certain composure and soundness to it. If you fixed an erratic bullpen–which they may have done already with a rejuvenated Gregg and a healthy Fujikawa–the Cubs could win more games than they lose this season.

On Saturday the Cubs had six extra-base hits, but Sunday they won with singles and bunts and by applying pressure to the other team’s defense: by playing small-ball, in other words, a game the Cubs have not traditionally done well at. Everyone in the field can catch, including the guy playing third on a given day. Third has been a defensive soft spot for the Cubs probably since Santo. Ryan Sweeney, in the minors as recently as last week, made a beautiful catch in right in the eighth inning Sunday while fighting off a determined David DeJesus, who had made a clutch diving catch to retire the previous hitter.

The managing and coaching are improved. Sveum sent Soriano to third on a steal attempt with the game tied at one in the ninth, and the Cubs took the lead when the catcher threw wildly past the bag. Replays showed the throw deflecting off the batter’s bat. Sounds like a lucky break; but Sveum said they draw it up like that. They teach their righty hitters to stand still and not lower their bat on a steal of third. Make the catcher take a few steps to get in a position to throw.

Let’s not forget that this is the coaching crew that made Soriano into a two-way player. Sometimes he almost seems to be getting his legs back! Trading a player is not always in your control but you can still manage him. This is more than just the old Soriano with new lipstick.

I found it all very watchable and in fact I was proud of the Cubs, prouder than I was three years ago when they came to Washington in late August and won all three games against a Washington team that was coming off two 100-loss seasons and had signed Harper just the previous week.

* Actually, the ballpark is on the Anacostia River.

Cub prospects at the ML level in 2013

The prospects we hear the most about these days have little relevance to a season-ticket holder at Wrigley this season, unless that fan also plans to take in games at Fifth Third Stadium in Geneva, IL, where the Kane County Cougars, the Cubs’ new Midwest League affiliate, will play their home games. Almora and Vogelbach and others will likely play in Kane County in 2013. (Soler and Baez have already left A-ball behind them.) Fans will enjoy following this heralded demographic as it moves through Daytona and Knoxville on the way to Des Moines and Chicago. In the meantime, there are several older prospects who are likely to play in Chicago as rookies this season, with or without much buzz.

It is a fact that the Cub system under Hendry-Fleita-Wilken had already shown an ability to produce competent and even talented major leaguers and had established a pipeline from which, statistically, a couple or three prospects emerge every year. Below is a list of current and former Cub prospects whose age in 2013 will fall between 19 and 28. The list is ordered roughly by age but more specifically by experience: that is, by the number of years in which the prospect has earned a minor-league stat line in Baseball Reference. Experience correlates with age, of course, but some players start pro ball right out of high school while others begin at 21 or 22. Pro experience trumps age, I would say. Starlin Castro left the minor leagues for good in 2010 at the improbable age of twenty, but what makes it less improbable is that it was already his fourth year as a pro.

Looking at the players on the list with six or seven years of experience, I count seven confirmed major leaguers: Samardzija, Colvin, Castillo, Barney, Donaldson, Castro and Russell, with others like Cabrera and Dolis (and Clevenger, perhaps?) still having a decent shot.

If six-to-seven years in pro ball launched seven players on major-league careers, shouldn’t the next group of prospects, representing four-to-five years’ experience, produce another half dozen big leaguers? In that group we already find Harrison, who played in over a hundred games last year, and LeMahieu, who saw action in 81 games last season (batting .297). Cashner is a major-league pitcher when he is healthy. Borderline major leaguers with comparable senority who are no longer in the organization would include Carpenter, Campana, Flaherty.

Drafted in 2009 and with four seasons under his belt, Brett Jackson is an obvious candidate for a rookie season in 2013, but there are players with more experience who may be ahead of him in line, simply because it is now or never for them. Logan Watkins and Jay Jackson signed with the Cubs in 2008, a year ahead of Brett Jackson. Vitters joined the team in ’07–as did Junior Lake! We think of Vitters and Lake as still young, but they aren’t really. They are mature in experience, which is what counts–and also counts against them.

As six-year veterans of pro baseball, Vitters and Lake are under real pressure to graduate to the majors early enough in 2013 to post respectable rookie numbers. They are nearly out of time, since players with seven or more years of minor-league experience seldom have successful rookie seasons (or rookie seasons at all). Below is a list of NL rookies in the last five years who garnered at least one point in the polling for Rookie of the Year. The Experience column at the right is simply their Rookie Age minus their Start Age, how old they were in their first year as a pro.

Of the forty-two rookies in the list, two are veterans of the Japanese Baseball League. These two players are difficult to compare with the other forty, who learned their trade in an up-or-out regime in a system of feeder leagues to the majors. Among the forty players with more normal backgrounds, the average number of years spent in the minors is 4.225. One player (guess who?) made the majors with a single year of pro experience. Three had two years. Eleven had three years. Nine of the rookies needed four years. Eight had five years to their names, while another eight have six years’ experience. Just two players graduated to the majors with more than six years of ball on their professional résumé. Geovany Soto’s rookie season came in his eighth year as a pro, while Garrett Jones waited until his eleventh season to make a splash in the majors. You can see the vertical bars for Jones and Soto at the far left of the graph below.

It is clear that prospecthood falls over a cliff at the end of a player’s seventh year. In the next offseason–assuming they haven’t already attained rookie status–Vitters and Lake will officially be failed prospects and will be traded or released accordingly.

How should a smart team deal with a situation where Vitters and Lake need urgently an opportunity, first of all, and then to seize it? A team should do what the Cubs have done by leaving third base muddied, with Stewart and Valbuena, a couple of lefty-swinging place-fillers, as the lead candidates going into the spring. Any rookie success achieved by Vitters or Lake will not make that player the Cubs’ third baseman of the future. That isn’t the point. The point is to add a major-league asset to the team’s pool, just as the Cubs did with Barney over the last two seasons. Nobody is sure whether Barney is the team’s 2B of the future, but he is certainly an asset with real value in a trade. An organization is built around the internal development of competent major leaguers at positions where blue-chippers have not yet materialized. Think of the Cardinals’ success in adding journeymen like Alan Craig and Jon Jay to their roster every year, while they wait for the next Pujols or Molina to come along. They’ve been waiting eight years for lightning to strike again, but meanwhile they usually have a solid, mostly home-grown roster.

Speaking of leaving a position muddied, the Cubs have acquired several righty starting pitchers this offseason but no lefties. It’s not that they love Travis Wood, whom they haven’t even declared a member of the starting rotation. They may just be keeping some space open for Rusin and Raley, both entering their fifth seasons as pros in 2013. The two were taken fairly early in the 2009 draft, Rusin in the 4th round and Raley in the 6th. Both lefties were called up pre-September in 2012. It is a well-kept secret, but both did pretty well in their respective half-dozen-or-so starts. Only in two instances were they allowed to pitch into the sixth inning, and Raley was shut down after he pitched his 155th inning of the season (minors and majors) on August 30 against the Brewers. A year-and-a-half older, Rusin was allowed to go 173 innings and was never closed down.

In five starts, Raley had a quality start against Cincinnati on 8/12, a win the following week at Cincinnati in which he gave up 5 hits and 3 earned runs in 5.1 innings, and another five-inning stint on 8/25 in which he yielded 5 hits and 2 runs. That’s one quality start and two near-quality starts under an innings ceiling that discouraged the manager from sending his starter to the mound in the sixth. A quality start requires six innings with fewer than three earned runs allowed.

Rusin never pitched into the sixth, but in seven starts he had four solid outings, three of them on the road. Any of these could have been a quality start if Rusin had not been pitching under a curfew of sorts.





In summary, Cub fans should expect to see several of the following players at the ball park in 2013, many of them for the first time: Vitters, Lake, Rusin, Raley, Watkins, J. Jackson, B. Jackson, Antigua, Sappelt, Rhee, Harris, Batista, Whitenack, McNutt, Struck, Kirk, Ha. The interesting prospects will not all be at Kane County and Daytona, after all!