The Cubs Are Looking Everywhere for an Edge

The Cubs, like all teams, are looking for an edge, for many edges.

The current front office began by focusing on position-player talent with premium draft picks, believing such prospects were safer bets to become impact major-league players. So far, so good.

When the world shifted three infielders to the right or left of second base, the Cubs started to shift lessand continue to do so. The result: one of the game’s most efficient defenses in recent history.

The club is interested in soft power, too. The Cubs have facilitated communication and collaboration between different departments — as have many other clubs — and better ways to facilitate cooperation. One way might be through the game’s only round clubhouse.

The Cubs, in brief, have exhibited a number of ways to get ahead.

July 2 marks the beginning of the hard-cap era for international signings. It also marks another opportunity for the Cubs to get ahead. This year, teams will no longer be allowed to lavishly outspend bonus-pool limits. Teams like the Cubs will now face a penalty for exceeding pool limits, losing the ability to extend anything greater than a $300,000 bonus to an international player. The Cubs have exhibited some creativity in recent years, however, in their attempt to work around pool limits. They’re likely to continue to do so.

Now the Cubs have perhaps found another edge in their pursuit of talent: Mexico.

In 2015, the Cubs signed Jose Albertos — currently their No. 5 prospect according to Eric Longenhagen’s preseason rankings — to a $1.5 million bonus. They signed their No. 17 prospect, Isaac Paredes, to an $800,000 bonus in 2015. The Cubs were hyperaggressive internationally in 2015-16

As Baseball America’s Ben Badler has noted, Mexican clubs typically keep the majority of a player’s bonus, generally around 75%. MLB only counts the dollars going to the player against the bonus. In the Cubs’ case, that is ideally equivalent to the $300,000 bonus limit. If a Mexican League club is keeping, say, 75% of the bonus, then the Cubs can offer a total bonus of $1.2 million and sign the player.

Badler reports that, in the upcoming signing period, the Cubs are expected to sign a Mexican pitcher, Florencio Serrano, for $1.2 million. Serrano ranks as one of the better July 2 prospects available according to As Luke Blaize of BleacherNation recently noted, signing players like Serrano allows the Cubs to continue to add premium talent while also abiding by bonus restrictions.

I spoke to Baseball America editor John Manuel this spring about the Cubs’ philosophy. I don’t know what the Cubs’ scouting presence in Mexico is like relative to other teams’, but Manuel said the Cubs have a greater focus there.

“They are creative. The Cubs are very active in Mexico,” Manuel said. “They are in the penalty box. They can’t give more than $300,000 to a player the last couple of years, but they have been aggressive in Mexico because the Mexican Leagues are different… They are able to [stretch] their final resources in Mexico… The mentality of the the Cubs is ‘We are going to be aggressive in Mexico where teams aren’t scouting as much.’”

Albertos was ranked as the No. 10 Cubs prospect in BA’s preseason list.

“In their minds, he could be a right-handed Julio Urias,” Manuel said.

At a time when many feel the Dominican Republic has become overscouted, when there will perhaps be more attention on the KBO and South Korea after the on-field success of players like Jung Ho Kang or expats like Eric Thames, perhaps the Cubs have carved out a short-term edge in Mexico.

Of course, it’s not as if the Cubs were the first or only team to take advantage of the Mexico League arrangement. Badler notes that, when the previous CBA gave each team a $2.9 million international bonus pool, teams immediately went in search of ways around the new rules. Teams like the Blue Jays and Pirates (the latter of which signed Luis Heredia) have also been aggressive in Mexico.

Said one international director to Badler five years ago:

“There are going to be loopholes everywhere. It’s my biggest fear working in this arena. You’re doing all this work to get it right, but in this arena, guys find loopholes and it just turns into a dumpster fire.”

What is true is that, any time restrictions are put in place, it creates the possibility of loopholes to be exploited — or, at the very least, creative workarounds to those restrictions. The Cubs’ work in Mexico is more evidence that they are as creative and tireless as any major-league club in looking for the next edge at the margins. It’s not just that the Cubs are the only team looking for an edge in Mexico — though they’re more focused there and elsewhere — it’s that the Cubs are looking everywhere. It’s more evidence of the league’s richest teams also becoming among the smartest and efficient. And that’s scary for everyone else.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Interesting piece, thanks Travis. I didn’t know about this type of…loophole.

Related, can he start @ Wrigley this week?