In today’s AJC, general manager John Coppolella is quoted as saying his Atlanta Braves will not be driven by need when the MLB draft begins Thursday night. This, I’ll concede, is what you’d expect him to say — even though the Braves have next to no power under contract at any level. “A recipe for disaster,” Coppolella calls drafting for need. Because, as he also says, “needs change.”
The Braves made it clear from the first that their rebuild would center on young pitching. That’s the way the Braves got good in the ’90s and stayed that way for 15 years. It is, however, worth noting that the best team in baseball — a team that underwent a similar rebuild and lost 101 games in 2012 — has risen on the strength of young bats.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Chicago Cubs drafted their hitters and bought/traded for their pitchers. Some of that is true. (Their entire rotation — Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks — started as some other team’s property.) Looking from afar, I’ve wondered: Was the Cubs’ Way better than the Braves’?
But then, as often happens, Baseball Prospectus educated me. In a conversation with BP’s Tim Britton, Jason McLeod — the Cubs’ VP of player development and amateur scouting — was asked about his team’s preference for drafting hitters. Turns out it wasn’t so much preference as happenstance.
Said McLeod: “We were picking No. 6 (overall in 2012) and we had two guys we were on really—Carlos Correa and Albert Almora. We were just shooting for upside there. Coming back with Kris Bryant, that was an easy one in ’13. We spent a lot of time with Brady Aiken that spring and obviously he went No. 1. Kyle (Schwarber) we thought was the best college hitter in that draft. And then last year we came back with Ian Happ. We did like some of the college pitching. Obviously Carson Fulmer we were fans of. Tyler Jay we were a fan of. Those guys went before us.”
Then: “It hasn’t been an aversion so much to picking a pitcher. It’s just the guys that we would consider were gone last year, and the other years we had a lot of position players higher on our board.”
The shortstop Correa went to the Astros as the No. 1 pick in 2012. The Cubs took Amora, an outfielder who’s hitting .322 in Class AAA. Bryant went No. 2 overall in 2013 — behind pitcher Mark Appel, whom the Astros traded to Philadelphia in the Ken Giles deal and who has a 5.17 ERA in Class AAA. Aiken was taken No. 1 overall by the Astros (them again) in 2014 but famously did not sign. He was re-drafted No. 17 overall by Cleveland last year and is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Schwarber is a big hitter who lacks a real position but made a splash for the Cubs last season. He’s out for the year after hurting his knee in the season’s first week and undergoing surgery. Jay and Fulmer are pitchers who went sixth and eighth overall, to the Twins and White Sox respectively, in last year’s draft. Both are in the minors. Happ, an infielder, was the No. 9 pick. He’s in Class A.
Among current Cubs regulars, the only homegrown bat drafted by this administration is Bryant, the third baseman. (Utility man Javier Baez was taken in Round 9 in 2011, which was before Theo Epstein’s crew took over.) Left fielder Jorge Soler was signed out of a Cuba as an amateur free agent in 2012. First baseman Anthony Rizzo was drafted by the Red Sox, sent to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez trade and, 13 months later, shipped to Chicago for Andrew Cashner. Shortstop Addison Russell came from the A’s in the Jeff Samardzija deal.
Catcher Miguel Montero came in a trade with the Diamondbacks for nobody you’ve heard of. Center fielder Dexter Fowler was drafted by the Rockies, traded to the Astros and sent to the Cubs for reliever Dan Straily, who’d arrived in the Samardzija deal, and infielder Luis Valbuena; Fowler re-signed with Chicago this spring as a free agent. Catcher David Ross, right fielder Jason Heyward and second baseman Ben Zobrist signed as free agents.
The point (I think) being: The draft is a wonderful tool — and, in the grand scheme, wonderfully cheap — but you cannot rely on just the draft. If you’re in rebuild mode, you have to try everything. You must make lots of moves, be they picks or trades or signings. The Cubs had enough money and resources to construct a superb rotation, although nobody in the world expected Arrieta, who had a 5.76 ERA over 3 1/2 seasons with the Orioles when he was traded to Chicago in 2013, to become what he has. Meaning: It also takes luck.
The Braves have gotten the make-many-moves part right; their transaction rate has been dizzying. They’ve also built the top-ranked farm system around those young pitchers. What they haven’t yet found are bats. What we can’t yet know is if they’ll be lucky.
Super fun reading: