Tom Ricketts has been vocal since buying the Cubs about the need to strengthen the minor league system. It’s getting harder to doubt his sincerity given the construction of a new facility in the Dominican Republic, the increased number of overslot draftees in 2011, and the newly competitive nature of the organization in plucking sixteen year-olds out of foreign countries.
But I’m not specifically interested in discussing the Little Ricketts Dominican Achievers (and proud we are of all of them). What has me intrigued is whether his fingerprints are present in the type of player currently being acquired by the Cubs. Take a look at these names:
Marc Sawyer (15)
Bryan Jost (44)
Ryan Keedy (16)
Rebel Ridling (25)
Sean Hoorelbeke (33)
Greg Rohan (21)
Justin Bour (25)
Andrew Clark (31) – unsigned
Ryan Cuneo (20)
Karsten Strieby (30) – unsigned
Benito Santiago (31) – unsigned
Jacob Rogers (44) – unsigned
That is the complete list of first basemen drafted by the Cubs since Tim Wilken took the helm as fearless draft leader in 2006 up through 2010. Five drafts, twelve first basemen, eight signed, and none picked before the fifteenth round. This is no surprise to anyone who has followed Wilken’s career. He drafts athletes who can move rightward along the defensive spectrum if need be, and the progression from first base is roughly: First Base –> American League –> American Legion Coach.
I do like guys who can hit, and I like up-the-middle guys. Middle guys are usually the best players on the field, so you can move them more easily if the need arises. I know that in Toronto we had 10 of them in instructs (instructional league) one year that went on to play in the big leagues. Some, like Michael Young, Orlando Hudson, and Cesar Izturis, are still there, but others, like Casey Blake, moved to a corner or the outfield.
Of course, Wilken has to follow orders, but the mandate from Hendry seems to have been along the lines of: “Fuck this. You do it.” Wilken’s drafts with the Cubs have not strayed far from his stated philosophy on talent. Cubs fans have learned to expect middle infielders, athletic pitchers and outfielders, and the occasional wide receiver or decathlete. Simply put, first basemen are the opposite of what the Cubs have looked for in a potential draft pick since Wilken took over. So what happened this past June?
Dan Vogelbach (2)
Trevor Gretzky (7)
Paul Hoilman (19)
Roderick Shoulders (25)
That’s four first baseman (three of whom will require overslot money to sign), and two of them in the first seven rounds. It’s certainly possible that Wilken recognized his previous neglect of the position, and decided to make it a priority in 2011. Or perhaps the available prospects were more athletic than in prior years. But just look at this guy:
If DJ Lemahieu stood to his right, they would form a “10.” He moves like a pregnant yak. Not exactly what I would picture as Wilken’s platonic ideal of a first baseman.
I think we have to consider the possibility that Ricketts is subtly steering the scouting department. Carrie Muskat reported that he was present during the draft, and at least influenced the selection of less signable high schoolers. Furthermore, Tom Ricketts was a rich, young financial executive in 2003. That demographic voraciously consumes the Malcolm Gladwell “pop-business” genre like it’s manna from heaven. Is there any chance that Ricketts, who was clearly interested in baseball at the time, didn’t read Moneyball? Now let’s reconsider Dan Vogelbach. Not only is he a poster boy for the “not selling jeans” mantra, he most likely is selling barely-legal pastries from the back of his four wheeler. To me, that pick has “yuppie boss wants a power hitter” written all over it.
It’s not easy to spot a change in draft philosophy, given the variation in available prospects each year. Wilken, in particular, has been all over the map in terms of the typical high school vs. college, and pitcher vs. hitter tendencies. I bring up first basemen because it seems his one obvious avoidance prior to this year.
Of course, all of this is more speculative than forensic, at least until an enterprising beat reporter decides to investigate. Moreover, whether or not a scouting course correction would be good for the franchise is a matter for debate. From where I sit, the minor league system is teeming with mediocrity, and a shift in philosophy would be welcomed. However, Wilken maintains a fair number of defenders even on this blog. At the very least, it’s an encouraging sign for those of us who are desperate for both middle of the order prospects and any sign of leadership within the new regime.