Sure, it’s been 106 years since those cursed Chicago Cubbies celebrated a World Series win, but the Diamondbacks would still be smart to take a page out of their playbook.
The Cubs have been close to a championship before. In 2003, led by flame-throwing youngsters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, Chicago advanced all the way to the National League Championship Series. Unfortunately,
Bartman happened the team couldn’t muster a win against the eventual WS victors, the Florida Marlins, but their future remained bright.
Friars on Base
It should’ve been bright, at least, but the team remarkably hasn’t won a single playoff game since. After a series of devastating arm injuries, Prior – the man with the perfect mechanics – never threw a pitch in the Major Leagues after his age-26 season.
He retired at 33 after years of failed comebacks.
Wood’s story echoes Prior’s, if slightly less tragic. Wood hit the DL a has-to-be-some-kind-of-record 14 times in his 13-year career and was forced into life as a reliever by 2007.
His retirement in 2012, like Prior’s, rang of promise unfulfilled.
But in 2011, the Cubs made the unlikely snag of Boston Red Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein as their new-age president of Baseball Operations. Since then, the Cubs’ front office has worked to restock the team’s depleted farm system, and has been widely applauded for its efforts.
Baseball America has consistently rated Chicago’s farm system higher and higher, and in 2015, ranked them No. 1 in MLB.
So what’s Theo’s big secret? Avoid the Kerry Woods, the Mark Priors, and invest in hitting. They’re just a better long-term investment at this point. A record number of pitchers are undergoing Tommy John surgery, many before they even reach the majors. Just check out this visualization, from an incredible Stephanie Bell piece on ESPN, showing the Rise of the Knife.
And while TJ surgery has achieved a high success rate, any serious arm injury still threatens a pitcher’s career, and with it, a team’s investment.
With that in mind, the Cubs have taken hitting prospects with their first round picks in every draft of Theo’s tenure.
While the Cubs have been stockpiling hitters and signing pitchers off the free agent scrap heap, Arizona has drafted just one offensive player in the first round since 2009, catcher Stryker Trahan.
In 2011, the club selected free-swinging middle infielder Javier Baez, currently an uber-elite prospect. The next year, they chose outfielder Albert Almora, the No. 38 prospect in baseball heading into 2015, according to Baseball Prospectus.
All-world 3b Kris Bryant was the pick in 2013, and the sky appears to be the limit for him, though that might be too limiting. And last year, hard-hitting catcher Kyle Schwarber joined the Cubs’ slew of first-round mashers.
Chicago didn’t even stop there, amazingly, signing Cuban standout Jorge Soler in 2012 and adding top SS prospect Addison Russell last summer in a trade that sent Jeff Samardzija‘s expiring contract to Oakland.
A quick review of the Cubs’ current depth chart shows the impact of the team’s attention to young hitting. (Courtesy of ESPN)
Dozens of quality pitchers have come from these drafts – accomplished hurlers like Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray and Michael Wacha – but there have also been a number of injury-plagued ones. When the Cubs drafted Baez, they passed over Jose Fernandez, currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, for instance.
That same year, the Diamondbacks had two selections before Chicago’s No. 9 pick, and chose Trevor Bauer and Archie Bradley. Both Bauer and Bradley have struggled to shake control problems throughout their young careers, and Bauer was traded in December 2012.
That could, and should, change Monday. The Diamondbacks, as worst teams in baseball tend to be, are in the unique position of selecting whomever they want to shape the direction of their franchise.
In what is considered a weak draft, there is no true No. 1 overall prospect, but several shortstops are seen by most in the industry as the year’s top talents. Consensus is leaning toward Vanderbilt SS Dansby Swanson, a quick-footed collegiate with plus-defense and a high ceiling.
But even if the DBacks veer away from Swanson, as some rumors suggest, the team can’t afford to miss. The time is now for Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa to surround Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock with legitimate talent. Adopting the Cubs’ strategy, as strange as that seems, is Arizona’s best bet.