Don’t Worry About a Cubs Crowd that Doesn’t Exist

Based on the chats that we host, these things seem to go in waves. This past spring training, it felt like one of every two questions asked about teams trading for Nick Franklin. Once the season got underway, everybody was wondering when the Pirates would finally call up Gregory Polanco. And now there’s a new and different question of the moment: what are the Cubs going to do with all of their prospects? The situation appeared to be a little bit crowded even before the organization added Addison Russell and, less notably, Billy McKinney. Now there are people wondering when the Cubs are going to diversify.

I’ve dealt with this in a few consecutive chats. I think Dave has also done the same. But it seems like a topic worthy of a dedicated post. If all the players were to stay where they are, and if they all were to develop well, then the Cubs would have quite the crowd on their hands. At the moment, though, it’s a crowd that doesn’t exist. It’s a crowd that exists only in theory, in some possible future out of infinite possible futures, and therefore the Cubs aren’t facing any kind of urgency.

For a quick overview, the Cubs have Starlin Castro embedded at shortstop, and he’s had a bounceback season. He’s 24, and he’s got a 2020 team option, so he could be around through the decade. The Cubs are fond of the player he’s become. Then there’s the incredible crop of prospects:

And you can throw in Billy McKinney, who just last summer was a first-round draft pick and who owns a minor-league OBP of .358. He’s played center and right field, and he turns just 20 in a month. The Cubs have other good prospects as well, but they’re either catchers or pitchers and so they don’t factor in to this perception of over-crowdedness. This looks like a complicated situation. This looks like a team that needs to make a move to clear out some space, given the positional overlap.

But the Cubs don’t need to hurry to do anything, and you can get to that conclusion in two different ways. Maybe you think about how prospects aren’t guarantees to succeed. Maybe you think about how prospects can change positions. Either path leads to the same place, and both approaches are valid. The Cubs are smart enough to keep both things in mind, and that’s why they’re not the least bit anxious. That’s why they’re presumably rather pleased with themselves, current wins and losses at the big-league level aside.

Not a single one of you needs another reminder that prospects can up and bust in a hurry, but, here we are. Let’s look at Baseball America lists from 2000, 2005, and 2010, for funsies. Let’s look at each list’s top ten position players. The list from 2000 included Ruben Mateo, Sean Burroughs, Dee Brown, and Corey Patterson. The list from 2005 included Delmon Young, Ian Stewart, Joel Guzman, Casey Kotchman, Andy Marte, Lastings Milledge, and Dallas McPherson. The list from 2010 included Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, and Justin Smoak. Also, Alcides Escobar, who’s flirted with being a defensive specialist. The three Mariners might still work out, but to this point they’ve been just about nothing. They look like three individually spectacular busts.

The benefit of collecting a bunch of prospects isn’t that all of the prospects will work out. It’s that more of your prospects will work out than you’re seeing in other, thinner organizations. You can take it straight from Theo Epstein:

“We’re realistic about the fact that not all prospects work out,” Epstein said.

Let’s look at the players the Cubs have. They’re all, obviously, phenomenal talents. But let’s look for some potential blemishes, just because we know they’re not perfect. In Triple-A, Baez has a 62% contact rate. That’s tied for the lowest in the league, and it’s lower than what we saw from George Springer. Baez swings hard and doesn’t walk, and if he doesn’t develop, this could very easily be why. Bryant, in Triple-A, has a 63% contact rate, albeit with better contact than Baez has. Bryant feels like more of a sure thing, but still, he’s not flawless.

Russell has barely played above Single-A. The same goes for Soler. Almora’s still in Single-A and he hasn’t performed like someone as polished as his reputation has previously asserted. His OPS right now is south of .700. McKinney isn’t thought of as a top prospect, and Alcantara could stand to refine his approach. Though he’s taken steps forward in 2014, he has yet to dominate any level, which is something some evaluators look for.

For the sake of fun and simplicity, let’s look at just the Cubs’ top four prospects right now. Let’s say each one has an 80% chance of developing into a good big-league regular. Then there would be just a 41% chance that all four players develop well, meaning there’d be a 59% chance of at least one flaming out for whatever reason or reasons. That’s too simple, and each player doesn’t have an 80% chance, but it’s meant to drive home a familiar message: this crop isn’t collectively going to achieve its ceiling. It’s a virtual guarantee that for one or more of these players, things will go wrong.

How about the other approach? The Cubs have a lot of good players currently playing similar positions. A neat thing about defensive positions is that they aren’t genetic. They aren’t programmed into a player; everything is flexible, negotiable. Jim Thome was drafted as a shortstop. B.J. Upton used to play shortstop. Kenley Jansen used to play catcher. Chris Young used to play basketball. It might be one thing if the Cubs had a stockpile of quality young first basemen, but having too many good athletes gives them a lot of ways they can go.

Epstein, from the article linked above:

“You can never have too many shortstops,” Epstein said. “They end up all over the field.”
“The good thing is these guys can all fit on the field together, and that would be a very impact group,” Epstein said.

Castro, right now, is a shortstop. As he gets older, maybe he moves to his left or his right. Baez, right now, is a shortstop, but some see him as a second baseman, and he could even shift to the outfield. Russell, right now, is a shortstop, but there’s thought he might grow too big as he matures. Bryant’s a third baseman who might end up in right field. Alcantara’s already shown his flexibility, and Almora’s a center fielder while Soler looks like a right fielder. McKinney, should he develop well, seems to have left field in his future.

Not every player can fit on the same field at once, that much is true, given that Anthony Rizzo is locked in at first base and none of these guys are backstops. But some of these guys are closer than others, and some of these guys might not be able to make it, and all the flexibility means holes can be filled as they need to be filled. The most pressing question people have is what the Cubs will do at shortstop, but short is the most demanding position on the field, and a decent shortstop has the skills to be a decent anything.

Here’s a table of Fan Scouting Report results from 2013. These capture overall league averages.

Position Instincts First Step Speed Hands Release Arm Strength Arm Accuracy Overall
2B 55 55 53 53 54 46 56 53
SS 60 61 59 58 59 60 57 59
3B 55 50 46 54 54 56 53 53
LF 44 51 54 44 44 45 46 47
CF 56 66 70 56 51 44 48 56
RF 50 53 55 50 50 54 53 52

Shortstops have the highest rating in Instincts, Hands, Release, Arm Strength, Arm Accuracy, and Overall. They’re second in First Step and Speed. If a player has demonstrated that he has the ability to play a competent short, then his tools should translate to other positions, given a bit of seasoning. An enormous number of current big-league non-shortstops are converted shortstops. Even if the Cubs elected to move a good defensive shortstop to another position, chances are that player would be even better at the new spot, relative to the rest of the league.

As JD Sussman recently said:

Positional adjustments will be important to determine whether the Cubs can get more value in a trade for one of their infielders than the value they would get from one’s performance boost at a lesser position. However, the notion that, shifting these talents down the defensive spectrum hurts their value to the Cubs isn’t beyond reproach. With the amount of infield talent the Cubs have, another trade is expected, but hardly necessary.

A year ago, people weren’t sure what the Rangers would do about their infield logjam. Despite regularly starting Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler, they managed to give more than 300 plate appearances to Jurickson Profar. Over the winter, Kinsler was moved in part to make some roster space. But Profar’s been hurt and hasn’t played, and Andrus hasn’t done anything to bounce back at the plate, owning a 77 wRC+ since the start of last season. The point being, things happen. Injuries can happen. Disappointments can happen. Regressions can happen. Sometimes you can see a crowded situation coming, but crowded situations result from a number of players simultaneously doing well, and we just can’t count on that as much as we’d like to. Not sustainably, not for very long.

Maybe, down the road, the Cubs will have something of a crowd in the infield and the outfield. Should they get there, it’ll be because they’ve really excelled with their player development. The probability right now is that they’ll have more than enough room for the players who continue to get better. The temptation is to see prospects as the best things they could become, but that hardly ever comes true. So the Cubs should be more than content to sit back and see where these talented players go. They don’t need to rush to diversify, because they don’t have too much of the same things. They might eventually have too much of the same things, but that’s not the same dilemma, and in fact it’s not a dilemma at all. If anything, it’s a blessing. You don’t draft for need because you don’t know what your needs will be by the time the draft pick is ready. And you don’t preemptively make a point of trading from system depth, because system depth and actual depth are two distinctly different things.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

Castillo C, Rizzo 1B, Castro 2B, Russell SS, Baez 3B, Bryant RF, Soler LF, Alcantara CF. That’s what the Cubs should be looking at by the end of next season with all these guys listed at AA or higher.

That leaves Almora, Scwarber (most likely not a catcher), McKinney, Villanueva, Vogelbach, etc. as trade bait, or replacement options.

8 years ago

Yes, and as this article proved, all of those prospects will reach their potential. So, your scenario seems likely.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jake

He still makes a good point – that list can be looked at as a best case scenario. Recognizing that likely won’t work out, the other players are listed as replacement options for one that doesn’t work out, or trade bait. Having more means more will pan out. And the team can spend money to fill spots where prospects don’t work out.

Wil Myers
8 years ago
Reply to  John

And the Cubs will need trade bait to get the pitching they need to complement their core of young hitters.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jake

My point was there’s no logjam at all.

Those players at AA or higher that I mentioned will all be at the major leagues next year barring injuries or something going massively wrong. Are they all going to pan out? Not a chance, but they can all play together and they all will get a shot at the major league level.

So the Cubs don’t need to do anything with their so called logjam… because they can all fit together for now, and when some don’t pan out, there’s replacement options coming right after.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jake

He said that’s what they should be looking at by the end of next season, not for the next 10 years.

Castillo, Rizzo, Castro and Alcantara are already in the majors. Baez and Bryant are knocking at the door. Soler is tearing up AA (small sample size) and has a contract where it doesn’t make sense to keep him in the minors, Russell will start the year in AAA most likely. Regardless of whether they make it at the major league level, they are all in a position where it seems very likely they will all see the majors, so if they flame out it will be at that level.

8 years ago

Clearly, the article was too long for some readers

Chuck P
8 years ago

Castro stays at short, no brainer. So far I only see Bryant and
possibly Alcantara as so called sure things for 2015. The rest need more seasoning and possibly position changes.

8 years ago
Reply to  Chuck P

I think it’s a no brainer that Russell takes over SS and Castro moves to second or is traded for pitching.

Puig's Translator
8 years ago

Great Article. It is somewhat similar to the “Problem” the Dodgers had going into this year. Everyone was going nuts because of how many Outfielders we have. But having a lot of talented players is not really a problem, even when they are not prospects because of injury,slumps, etc. Oh no! Van Slyke is amazing and Joc Pederson is dominating AAA, what are the Dodgers going to do? Ha ha

8 years ago

The Cubs will fill in the failures and pitching thru a combination of trades and money. Don’t forget the Cubs are stockpiling tons of cash and when the Wrigley renovation and new contract are done they will be flush with cash too. that’s a great position to be in…although they clearly have to convert it to have it be ruled successful