Friday, March 24, 2006

a lesson in player development

with the cub rotation tattered by injury for likely the first six weeks of the season at least, much hemming and hawing has gone into who will be pitching in the interim between april 3 and the arrival (if any) of prior, wood and miller. with rusch and williams already being counted upon, the named of youngsters like jae-kuk ryu and sean marshall -- both with potentially bright futures, neither with any experience beyond double-a (and, in marshall's case, precious little of that).

this page has already vented its opinion on the marshall conundrum and the foolhardiness of promoting based upon the need of the franchise and not the merit of the player. it is, in this writer's opinon, the single best way to guarantee that the farm never produces a damn thing of value and destroys as many nascent careers as possible. is it coincidental that the tendency toward needs-based promotion -- the names of gary scott, korey patterson and kevin orie leap to mind, all high-profile busts who learned and accomplished too little in iowa before jumping to chicago to fill a hole, squelching much promise -- and abject sterility have both been longstanding features of the cubs' minor league system? surely not.

this is not to be construed as a naive statement. minor league systems exist to produce players for major league teams. when a need exists on the major league level, the minors are obligated to furnish someone to fill the gap. the question of the moment is whether or not the cubs are creating gaps by their incompetency for which they have no good minor league solution -- and so force a promising but insufficiently prepared youngster into the breach, risking their education, confidence and thus career.

it seems here to be wise to imitate that which has been consistently successful -- and there are few more successful farm systems in recent years than that of the saint louis cardinals. albert pujols. yadier molina. danny haren. j.d. drew. placido polanco. it's not to say that there haven't been failures -- rick ankiel, perhaps, or bud smith -- but the fruit of their farm in the last several years has been remarkable, especially in comparison to the cubs.

there are, of course, a lot of factors that go into the production of able players, and it is inadequate to examine only one in comparing the wholes. but the cardinals are giving a wonderful lesson in how to bring along talent this offseason with adam wainwright and anthony reyes, their two top pitching prospects, in the competition for matt morris' vacated rotation spot.

tony larussa and waly jocketty yesterday sent reyes down and wainwright to the bullpen in favor of experienced but ineffective hurler sid ponson, whom jocketty signed to howls of protest in cardinal nation.

The 24-year-old Wainwright said he always felt it was Ponson's job to lose. Wainwright has been one of the team's top pitching prospects since he was acquired from the Braves in 2003 along with Jason Marquis for J.D. Drew.

"In the back of my mind I'm grinding the entire time competing for the fifth spot knowing that Sidney is going to have every opportunity to make the team," Wainwright said. "Sidney has experience on his side and he's a great pitcher.

"Getting moved to the bullpen is a chance for me to get better and show I can pitch in any situation."

... La Russa said Reyes, 24, needed to work on pitch selection and concentrate less on power.

"The thing about Anthony is he can be a premier pitcher because he's got premier stuff," La Russa said. "He just needs to keep adding looks to the hitter."

walt jocketty is to be credited here for signing a high-era castoff with a drinking problem on the cheap with more on his mind than just how to win right now. jocketty and larussa cannot be ignorant of ponson's record. they know he's going to struggle. and they know they've got a fight on their hands in retaining title to the nl central, having rebuilt their stellar bullpen of last year, not to mention losing morris and reggie sanders and larry walker. wainwright in particular has pitched remarkably this spring, posting an 0.77 era in 11.2 innings, walking only one while fanning six. they could have slotted him in.

but -- rather than panic or taking the shortsighted path -- they've coolly kept the interests of the development of reyes and wainwright foremost, knowing that their future is tied up in bringing these kids along carefully and allowing them to learn all the necessary tools for survival and success before exposing them to the shock and tumult of a major league rotation. the cardinals recently did as much with haren, giving him plenty of time at triple-a and some in their bullpen, with great success. and they acquired ponson, this writer suspects, specifically with an eye toward doing so for these two.

there is a lesson in this as the cubs contemplate placing a pitcher with ten double-a starts in their starting rotation in a fit of reactionary hysteria to the setbacks experienced by wood and prior. winning now isn't the only thing -- and cannot be the only thing -- if you want to win consistently, something the cubs haven't done in nearly seventy years.

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