Cubs fans take note. There’s an important lesson to be learned in an under-reported move a division rival made earlier this week, when the Pirates demoted highly touted rookie Gregory Polanco in favor of 25 year old ex-prospect Jose Tabata: Have patience, have patience in troves.
For the first time since a 22 year old Mark Prior finished third in the Cy Young voting and brought Chicago to within five outs – perhaps within one Moises Alou catch in the left field stands – its an exciting time to be a Cubs fan.
The team is flush with young hitting and drowned in cash. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler have already arrived - with 400+ foot authority - and Kris Bryant of 43 minor league home runs shouldn’t be far behind. By next year, 20 year olds Albert Almora and Addisson Russell should join a lineup anchored by All-Stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, though neither prospect is old enough to legally purchase an Old Style. Oh, and 22 year old center-fielder Arismendy Alcantara homered in friday night’s victory over Cincinnati, in case any fans forgot about him amidst Baez and Soler’s historic debuts.
Any problems on the mound can be solved on the open market, as Chicago has been linked to 2015 free agents Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. This is the Cubs, a big market franchise that has fielded a low to mid-market payroll each of the last three seasons and whose established stars – Castro and Rizzo – are locked up to team-friendly contracts. They have shown no hesitation to spend in the past – remember Alfonso Soriano, Derek Lee, Carlos Zambrano – and three weeks ago, they placed waiver claim on Cole Hamels and the roughly 90 million dollars left on his contract.
But winning may not come easy – it rarely does, especially up on Northside. Because while big league success may come instantly for some prospects, consistency is a process, and winning can be a lengthy one.
Take Polanco for example. Just two months older than Jorge Soler, Polanco entered the season as the games #10 prospect per Baseball America, was promoted to the majors on June 10. He didn’t hit three home runs in his first three games as Soler has, but he still started his major league career with an 11 game hitting streak, complete with a 5 hit night and a 13th inning game winning home run in his fourth career contest.
He was hitting .306 with three home runs and an .827 OPS on July 2nd when his maple bat turned to Ash. From that day forwad, Polanco hit just .194 with a ballpark adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+) of 46 (MLB average is 100, no qualified player has a mark below 60), while getting on base at a .286 clip and left the yard just once in August. By the 25th of that month, he was in Triple-A.
Polanco, however, is not the first major prospect this season to make an immediate before falling suspect to major league pitching, not even the first in this division.
Oscar Taveras, ranked by BA as baseball’s third best prospect two years running, made his debut for the Cards on May 31st. Like Soler, like Baez, he homered in his first major league game. And like Baez, he had some trouble getting on base. Too much trouble. On June 11, Taveras had a .225 OBP and a .189 average and St. Louis returned him to Triple-A Memphis. They promoted him again on July 1st, even gave him an everyday job, but he has yet to find a groove (wRC+ 58)
Recent history provides legions of examples, but the Cubs need not look further than their own roster. Arismendy Alcantara came a home run shy of the cycle in his second big league game, had a 1.139 OPS after his fifth. He proceeded to go 0 for his next 12 and Since then, the athletic outfielder’s slash line reads: .203/.266/.329.
Even Javier Baez, for all his explosive power, sports a .225 on base percentage and is just four for his last 29 (two of those hits, of course, being home runs)
The counter-argument to these stats is nothing more than shrugs. Young players struggle, its a part of the game. It can take a few months to adjust to major league pitching and to adjust to how major league pitching adjusts to you.
But oftentimes its more than that. Oftentimes, Rookies and prospects act like undulating waves, sweeping between success and failure, and looking lost at the plate just when the appear to have put everything together.
That’s what happened with Tabata, who drove in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning of friday night’s 2-1 victory over the Reds. The #22 prospect in baseball his peak, the Venezuelan outfielder made his major league debut in May of 2010 and seemed to have rapidly adapted to major league pitching. He hit .299 with 19 stolen bases and a .746 OPS for the season, finishing eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
He looked like Pittsburgh’s left fielder of the future and the Pirates treated him as such, rewarding him with a six year, fifteen million dollar contract in August of 2011 season. But less than a year after signing, Tabata turned that deal into an apparent mistake. He found himself back in Triple-A Indianapolis, having posted a .295 on base percentage through July 1st.
Perhaps a couple months in the minors was all he needed, as Tabata returned on August 19th and posted a .747 and wRC+ of 113 down the stretch. In 2013, he was a solid contributor to the Pirates’ first playoff club in 21 years, with marks of .771 and 119 in those departments.
Then the wave crashed. On June 22nd of this season, Tabata had no home runs, a wRC+ of 88, and the lowest OPS (.658) of his career. On June 23rd he found himself back in Indianapolis. The fact that Tabata, who now has 1700 major league plate appearances under his belt, was still considered a valuable chip in a potential trade for Red Sox ace Jon lester this July is a testament to how long the jury of baseball can deliberate on a player.
Some journeys, though, have greener and more resolute destinations. Again, the Cubs need look no further than their own roster.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo didn’t have the instantaneous success of Tabata or Taveras or Polanco. To the contrary, he was anemic as a rookie with the Padres in 2011, waddling to a .141/.282/.241 with a wRC+ of 59 and showing none of the power or on base ability that brought him to game’s highest level.
That offseason, the Cubs acquired Rizzo for right-hander Andrew Cashner – another promising young player who took some bruises along the way – and the game started to click for the young slugger. Then 22, he hit .285 with 15 home runs and a .342 on base percentage, finishing as the 17th’s most valuable first baseman in baseball, despite playing in only 87 contests.
That led to expectations, expectations that only grew loftier when Rizzo signed a 7 year, 41 million dollar deal on May 12th. At the time he had a .912 OPS and was tied with Paul Goldschmidt for most home runs among National League first baseman. That night, he went 0-4. The next, he was just 1-5 the next. From the day he signed the extension on, in fact, Rizzo hit just .216 with a .379 slugging percentage and a wRC+ of 89.
However, Rizzo, unlike Tabata, has learned from his struggles. This year, he has been one of baseball’s breakout superstars, ranking second in the National League with 30 home runs and earning a trip to Target Field for the 2014 All Star Game with his stellar play.
He came out on top, and surely, many of the Cubs’ top prospects will as well. But it will take time. Time rife with moments of doubt and confidence and ambiguity, moments where Javier Baez looks like the second coming of Ernie Banks and moments where Jorge Soler appears as the specter of Corey Patterson.
There’s promise here, probably more than in any other organization in baseball. Cubs fans deserve it too, after four straight losing seasons (including 2014) and three of unabashed rebuilding. It still won’t come easy, though, It never does.