The Cubs Way: Arrested Development

Since signing on to lead the Cubs last fall, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod have been heralding their strategy to break the most famous losing tradition in professional sports. As Hoyer, the new general manager, put it, “The three of us believe in the same things. That’s going to be the key to this whole operation—building that scouting and player development machine.”

Forgive me, but I can’t help thinking of that famous Shel Silverstein cartoon of two men chained hopelessly to a prison wall and one says to the other, “Now here’s my plan.”

Perhaps my thoughts run because Hoyer’s words echo something said in 1996 by the last boy genius of baseball brought in to remake the Cubs, Andy MacPhail: “There’s only one way I know how to [get to the top] and that’s you build a solid foundation and good young players.” Before that there was Dallas Green (pictured below at right), who said almost the same thing on taking over in the early 1980s.

“Everybody always says that,” says Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America. “Nobody ever comes in as a GM [and says,] ‘I have no patience, we’re not going to build from within, we’re just going to go out and sign a bunch of free agents.’ Everybody talks about player development. They all read from the same playbook.”

Yet, that playbook has never worked for the Cubs. Why?

Why do other teams land a Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols, while the Cubs scuff along with, say, Brooks Kieschnick? My discussions with draft experts and close observers of the game may suggest a few explanations—think wind, impatience, and bad follow-through. But, by any account, Theo et al. are sailing a course that has dashed the plans of smart baseball men before them. Is there any reason to believe this time will be different?

In a moment, I’ll explore that question. But first a bit of context.

When baseball people talk about building a foundation, the construction project starts with the draft, the selection of amateur American (including Puerto Rico) and Canadian players started in 1965 and now held annually in June (international players can be signed as free agents). But picking future baseball stars is a remarkably inexact art. Callis, widely regarded as the dean of draft historians, says only about one in three first-round draft picks becomes a good major-league player. Overall, he estimates that only 40 or 50 drafted players have major-league careers of more than a few swings or pitches out of the 1,500 or so athletes taken each year. Like a number of observers, Callis thinks that sabermetrics—the computer-aided statistical-evaluation systems popularized through the book and movie Moneyball—haven’t advanced the art substantially.

So, it’s not easy to pick talent. But, at the same time, it’s not easy to pick as badly as the Cubs have picked.

“If you look at their history as far as being able to draft and develop everyday players—there are almost none,” says Kevin Goldstein, who covers scouting and player development for Baseball Prospectus and ESPN. “It’s amazing,” he adds. “A short list, an ugly, ugly list.”

That dismal record goes back to the founding of the draft in 1965. Don Zimmer once recalled riding on a team bus in the mid-1980s when he was a Cubs coach. Billy Connors, then the team’s pitching coach, was poring over a stat book and he asked Zimmer to take a look—a list of the top Cub draft choices over the past 20 years. “I think I remembered two of the names on the list,” Zimmer told me.

One long-time baseball insider who asked not to be identified because he doesn’t want to burn bridges puts it this way: “Eventually, if you throw enough darts at the dartboard, you probably will come out with some pretty good players. Except if you are the Chicago Cubs.”

I wondered if that explains at least some of the team’s appalling history. Has the team been doomed by its failure to draft and develop talent? It seems self-evident: Teams save money by signing young athletes to long-term contracts, leaving more cash to spend on key free agents. Indeed, promising players are the coin-of-the-realm in baseball, and teams—especially cash-strapped small-market teams—can use them to acquire established stars. But measurements are tricky, since players move around so much. Among other things, when a smart draft pick gets traded for another good player, that second player doesn’t count as “homegrown.” (For example, arguably the second best position player drafted by the Cubs since the system started was Joe Carter—taken in the first round in 1981—and the team traded him after 51 major-league at bats in a deal that landed Rick Sutcliffe.)

In one recent study, Scott McKinney of the website Beyond the Boxscore, culled statistics and found that teams with top-ranked minor league systems subsequently averaged almost four additional wins a year—a significant number in baseball. He went on to show that a willingness to spend and a good eye for free-agent talent also count, but having that homegrown core is a big advantage.

So, let’s take a look at those Cub drafts. As Callis points out, you win with stars, and in 46 years of drafting, the Cubs have yet to pick and sign a future Hall-of-Famer or MVP (unless someone is hiding in the last few years of selections). Beyond that, the number of even low-wattage stars who have stayed with the team is astonishingly low.

Using the measure of drafted and signed players who have gone on to make the All-Star team as a Cub, I count 12 over all those years since 1965, including only five position players: Shawon Dunston, Joe Girardi, Mark Grace, Rafael Palmeiro, and Geovany Soto. (Last year’s All-Star, Starlin Castro, was signed as an international free agent.) On close inspection, that list becomes even more anemic. Girardi’s selection as an All-Star in 2000 came as a last-minute replacement. Palmeiro put in one All-Star appearance as a Cub (in 1988) before being traded in a multi-player deal to Texas (Mitch Williams was the most notable return). Soto has also appeared just once, his rookie year of 2008, when he put up numbers he has yet to equal. In other words, if we look for reliably good everyday players—the kind who could be the nucleus of a winning team—we find two in 46 years of drafts, and neither Dunston nor Grace is anyone’s definition of a major star.

Even if we lower the bar and simply identify position players who made the Cubs starting line-up in their first two major-league years, the list grows only slightly. Doug Glanville. Corey Patterson. Ryan Theriot. Remember Scott Thompson?

And it’s not as if the team has drafted then traded hordes of future stars. Carter and Palmeiro (1985) are the best of that bunch. Mel Hall (1978) departed in that same Sutcliffe trade in 1984. Oscar Gamble (1968) went on to a decent, mostly American League career, but the Cubs unloaded him after 24 games for a fading Johnny Callison.

Given the team’s historically weak pitching, it came as a surprise that the Cubs have fared somewhat better drafting pitchers. Certainly, the grand prize came in 1984, with Greg Maddux, taken in the second round. In the draft’s early years, there were a few other choices who paid off: Ken Holtzman (1965), Rick Reuschel (1970), Burt Hooton (1971), Lee Smith (1975). Being generous: Ray Burris (1972) and Mike Krukow (1973). But since then (with the exception of ’84, which included Maddux and Jamie Moyer, who started to win consistently only long after leaving the Cubs), the top pitching choices have been mostly a collection of mistakes (Bobbie Brownlie in 2002 and Grant Johnson in 2004) and bad breaks (the injury-crossed Kerry Wood in 1995 and Mark Prior in 2001).

Am I being unfairly harsh? I haven’t dug deep into the draft records of other teams, but I have done some browsing. A friend who grew up in Cincinnati complains that until recently the Reds suffered an ignominious draft history. On the All-Star scale (those drafted and playing for the Reds), I count 13 since 1965, which is barely better than the Cubs. But the Reds’ list includes three MVPs (Barry Larkin, Joey Votto, and Johnny Bench, who won the award twice) and two Hall-of-Famers (Larkin and Bench).

What if we look at one of the National League’s most consistently successful franchise, the St. Louis Cardinals?

Surprise! By my count, St. Louis has drafted only 11 players who went on to become All-Stars as a Cardinal. Ah, but note the fine print. Those 11 include nine solid position players (Ted Simmons, Gary Templeton, Ray Lankford, and Yadier Molina among them) and two MVPs (Keith Hernandez and Albert Pujols, who won the award as a Card three times).

Still not convinced the Cubs underperform compared to other teams? J.P. Breen, who blogs for the website Disciples of Uecker, recently ranked teams on drafting and developing players since the 2002 draft; his rankings were based on the total WAR (Wins Above Replacement or the total number of wins added to a team by a player versus a league-average replacement) of each team’s homegrown major-leaguers. The Cubs came in fourth from the bottom—the average WAR for their homegrown players was 0.92. “[T]he Chicago Cubs have developed no one significant,” Breen said flatly. (One small consolation for North Siders: The Sox landed two rungs lower in the rankings, with an average WAR of 0.54.)

What explains the Cubs’ rotten record? As with the woeful performance of the team itself, failure has many fathers (see, “Give It Up, Cub Fans”).

Since 1965, the Cubs have been through three owners and a long roster of presidents, general managers, and scouting directors. Almost every new management team unveils its own turnaround plan.

Jim Callis points out that the team’s draft fortunes improved somewhat—as promised—in the three or so years after the arrival of Dallas Green (1981) and then Andy MacPhail (1994). But each uptick was followed by a fallow period. (Does the name Ty Griffin cause vague discomfort? The Cubs took him ninth overall in 1988 ahead of Robin Ventura, Tino Martinez, and Brian Jordan, among others.)

Because teams pick in reverse order of their records the year before, the reliably bad Cubs have enjoyed consistently high picks. Hasn’t helped. New president Theo Epstein has suggested that the club had a reputation for taking a cheap way out in the draft—picking less promising players who were likely to sign contracts without breaking the bank. But if that were once true, Callis says it hasn’t been the case for at least the last decade or so.

A more telling explanation probably lies in the team’s wretched history. Management gets impatient to win, too! Callis points out that most years the Cubs drafted someone who went on to a respectable major-league career—usually with another team, because the front office traded him in hopes of a quick fix (the latest examples perhaps being pitcher Chris Archer and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, who left in the Matt Garza trade and are now highly rated prospects for Tampa Bay).

The baseball insider I interviewed lays most of the blame—at least, over the last few decades—on the flawed assumptions of the men running the team: “They’ve never understood the ballpark,” he said. “Everybody claims to understand the ballpark, but they really don’t.” Example? “The wind blows in most of the time. Consequently, if you develop your team without any speed and without any real power and without a great deal of defense, you’re probably not going to win consistently.” The Cubs have notoriously lacked speed, and the defense has often been shaky at best. As for power, with the predominance of right-handed pitchers in the National League, the baseball insider says it’s shocking that the team could go almost three decades—since the drafting of Rafael Palmeiro—without developing a left-handed power hitter.

The baseball insider makes another key point: “Scouting and player development have to go hand in hand. If the scouts don’t get you good players, the player development people are useless. If the scouts get you good players and the player development people can’t develop them, then the whole minor-league system is useless.” As a case in point, he cites Corey Patterson (the team’s number one pick in 1998, third overall in the draft), who had glorious speed, but arrived in the major leagues without knowing how to bunt. “That’s player development,” the insider says.

OK, enough. It’s spring, a time of renewal. The season is off to a shaky start, but it’s early. Here’s the case for a little optimism—the grounds to hope that the new front office can succeed in “building a foundation,” the goal that eluded Dallas Green and Andy MacPhail.

The Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod troika compiled a strong record of spotting and nurturing talent in Boston. Under Epstein’s leadership, starting with the 2003 draft, the Red Sox landed four All-Stars (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, and Clay Buchholz) and one MVP (Pedroia). Hoyer/McLeod are said to have continued the success in San Diego, though their draft picks (2010, 2011) are too new to do anything but populate lists of top prospects.

McLeod, the Cubs’ new director of scouting and player development, seems to be the key performer here. “I think he’s one of the best,” says Callis.

In a phone interview, McLeod explained his approach: “I’m looking for the best player, and in that I’m process and information driven.” He likes computers, but he values field evaluations, too. Will he tune his draft selections for the peculiarities of Wrigley? Probably not so much, he says.

There is action on the player development front, too. The Cubs are in the process of building a 50-acre baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, a facility that the team hopes will be a center for signing and developing top-notch international talent. McLeod says the team is also in the process of introducing a new system of player development—with more video, more consistent evaluations, and greater emphasis on fundamentals.

Another promising sign: In the draft last June—when Epstein couldn’t have been more than a twinkle in Tom Ricketts’ eye—the Cubs spent $20 million in signing new players, an amount the team says is a franchise record. The Cubs’ top choice, Javier Baez, a high school shortstop out of Florida, already has been named on several lists of top 100 minor-league prospects.

So there’s the Theo bounce: Counting down the changes that have infused the team over the last six months, listening to the bright and personable McLeod—the combination turned my thoughts from Shel Silverstein’s transparent cynicism to the heartening words of Ernest L. Thayer, in Casey at the Bat, writing unforgettably about the “hope which springs eternal in the human breast.”

On the other hand, Casey struck out.

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RICHARD BABCOCK is a Chicago writer. He stepped down last year after 20 years as editor of Chicago magazine.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house; Dallas Green photo courtesy Terren in Virginia/cc; Don Zimmer shot courtesy Kirk Bravender/cc; SI cover courtesy delusionalcubsfan/cc; Wrigley wind courtesy Niklas Hellerstedt/cc.

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