Thinking Out Loud About the Cubs’ Changing Evaluative Priorities

Transaction season, like winter, is coming. We are less than a day away from the start of the first-year player draft, less than four weeks away from the beginning of the international free agency (IFA) signing period, and just under two months from the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. Before the calendar moves too much farther forward, then, I’m here to think out loud about changes in the Cubs’ evaluative priorities that might be taking place right now. But you knew that already, from the title of this piece. Let me explain what I mean by that sentence.

For the last two seasons, the Cubs have engaged in a transaction strategy intended primarily to “build a foundation for sustained success”. This strategy has sometimes, but not always, led the team to pull the trigger on transactions also consistent with winning at the big-league level in the present. This transaction season, however, with the Cubs firmly in the playoff hunt, it’s reasonable to expect that the goals of the transaction strategy could shift somewhat, with a higher value assigned to present wins for the big-league club than has been assigned in the past. Such a change could also mean that a concurrent shift in the Cubs’ evaluative priorities with respect to their players might also have to take place. This isn’t to say that it is changing, by the way, or that it will; it’s just thinking out loud about how it could change.

And why could it change? Because the first step towards making a transaction that achieves your strategic goals—and for the Cubs, these goals now include winning at the big-league level in the present—is conducting an effective evaluation of the relevant players, and the first step in any effective evaluation is understanding what qualities you value in those players. If you don’t understand those qualities, you’re on the fast road to unintended consequences-ville. You might get something good out of the transaction, or you might not. Either way, you won’t know in advance and you might not even know after the fact. Successful evaluation drives successful strategy.

The Cubs’ rise to contention, and possible consequent changes in transaction strategy, might therefore dictate an analogous change what qualities they prioritize in players they acquire, both via trades and through the draft and international free agency. I’m here to suggest that these possible changes can be helpfully understood by representing them along two dimensions, and in two separate domains. Here are the dimensions:

Dimension #1: Whether higher priority is given to players who

    1. Fit the ‘Cubs Way’ OR
    2. Fit the industry consensus of a talented player.

Dimension #2: Whether higher priority is given to players who

    1. Have high ceilings OR
    2. Have high floors.

And here are the domains:

Domain #1: Big-League Players

Domain #2: Minor-League Players.

Let me explain. During the 2012-14 phase of the rebuilding project, in the big-league domain, the Cubs sought to acquire a particular type of player: the type they could later trade for players in the minor-league domain. This meant that the players they valued—and often acquired—at the big-league level during that time period shared, in general, two qualities. First, they were players who were also valued by the industry at large (after all, they needed to be traded, later, to the rest of the industry), and second, they needed to have a high floor for their projected performance. The Cubs couldn’t afford to spend their money on free agents who might not be able to be traded for prospects at midseason. The wins a high-risk/high-ceiling player might provide in the present weren’t worth the potential cost of not bringing in future talent if the player didn’t pan out. So the Cubs purchased high-floor players like Paul Maholm, Jason Hammel, and Scott Feldman, built them up into players the industry valued, and traded them for prospects. Those evaluative priorities can be represented by the following chart:

(Big-League Players, 2012-2014) Fit ‘Cubs Way’? Fit industry consensus?
High Ceiling?
High Floor? X

Note that this is not to say that the Cubs didn’t value players who fit the ‘Cubs Way’, or who had high ceilings. If they could get those qualities as well, of course they would (and did, in the cases of Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, among others). It’s just that the dominant priorities were those indicated by the chart above. Those were the things that were important, because they allowed the team to, later, acquire the minor-league players they wanted. So what of those minor-league players? What qualities did they have? Let’s move over to Domain #2..

In this domain, we find the players that the Cubs intended to play on the next Cubs’ winning team—a team we are now, apparently, watching. Examples of this type include Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks, and a host of role players. Where do these players fall along the two dimensions I’ve identified? Well, I’d argue that here, the team prioritized acquiring players whose style of play was consistent with the Cubs Way (the team, after all, wanted them to eventually perform for the Cubs, not for other teams) and those who had a high floor. Their chart therefore looked like this:

(Minor-League Players, 2012-2014) Consistent with ‘Cubs Way’? Consistent with industry consensus?
High Ceiling?
High Floor? X

Why a high floor? Because the Cubs couldn’t risk these players busting. They needed to make sure that the players they acquired actually made it to the big leagues as part of an emergent core. Chicago is a big media market, and they couldn’t take a risk with a Brady Aiken or Mark Appel who wouldn’t work out and delay the rebuild by another few years. They needed players who would almost certainly make it to the big leagues, and make it by playing baseball in the way the Cubs’ preferred. Ergo, Kris Bryant and company.

Ok. So that’s what I’d argue the Cubs’ evaluative priorities have looked like over the last three years. From where we stand, it appears those priorities have served the Cubs’ well so far. The 2015 team is competitive a year ahead of expectations, and is doing so while being—as my colleague Matt Trueblood has put it—”radically young“. Things, in summary, have gone as well as can be expected, and a core of young talent is now in place. But now that they’re competetive at the big-league level, what might the Cubs’ priorities look like going forward? Here’s where thinking about the priorities in terms of these dimensions becomes really helpful. I’d argue that, within each domain, the Cubs’ current competitiveness could cause the rank-order of the priorities to exactly flip from where they were before.

Let’s take the example of big-league players. Whereas to date, the Cubs have prioritized players who the industry also liked, so they could trade them later, there is now no reason for the Cubs to acquire players for the big-league team who play in a way that is at all inconsistent with the Cubs Way, even if the rest of the industry hates them. The players they acquire now will be expected to win, and they’ll be expected to win in the way that the Cubs win.

Similarly, before this season, the Cubs needed to prioritize players with high floors, so that they could be sure of returning value in trades. Now, the presence of a young, high-floor core in Chicago could allow them to take a gamble on players who have high ceilings, but might not quite achieve them. Think, for example, of Noah Syndergaard. He’s now a risk worth taking: if he doesn’t reach his ceiling, the team isn’t screwed: Rizzo, Bryant, and Co. are still there to form a solid foundation around a Syndergaard-like player operating at only, say, 70 percent of his potential. With all that in mind, the Cubs’ new priorities for big-league acquisitions probably looks something like this:

(Big-League Players, 2015-Present) Consistent with ‘Cubs Way’? Consistent with industry consensus?
High Ceiling? X
High Floor?

But how might they get those players? That’s where their changing evaluation for minor-league players comes in handy, because it’s largely by trading these players that the Cubs will acquire the big-league talent they want. Whereas before, the Cubs prioritized acquiring amateurs with high floors who fit the Cubs Way (expecting them to eventually contribute to the big-league club), they might now shift their priorities somewhat towards acquiring players who might be attractive to other teams seeking to rebuild. Those players should therefore be consistent with the industry consensus about talented players, and should have the kind of high ceiling that makes competing general-managers dream on a franchise-changing trade. The Cubs can’t play all of them, after all.

(Minor-League Players, 2015-Present) Consistent with ‘Cubs Way’? Consistent with industry consensus?
High Ceiling? X
High Floor?

Again, if the Cubs can get a player who fits all four criteria as an IFA or in the draft, I’m sure they’ll take them. I’m just guessing they’ll be slightly more willing to gamble on a really high-ceiling player this year—including, possibly, a pitcher in the first round—than they have in years’ past. Those are the type of players you can trade away easily if things don’t work out, or if you don’t have space on your big-league club because of your talented core.

Am I certain that these are the only two dimensions the Cubs will consider going forward, or that these are the only two they’ve considered in the past? No. In fact, I’m certain that this model is a limiting device, and that there are more sophisticated ways to think about the Cubs’ talent acquisition strategy. And that strategy might, after all, not change one bit. However, I am equally certain that thinking about players along these two dimensions might be helpful in predicting the type of players the Cubs will seek to acquire during the upcoming transaction season, and those in the years immediately to come. The team is in a time of transition on the field, and changes are underway. It should be an exciting summer of baseball on the North Side, on and off the field.

Lead photo courtesy of David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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