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The Royals should rip a page out of the Chicago Cubs’ draft strategy

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Not in tanking, but in strategy.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers
Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There is an acronym for a certain part of player development that gets converted into a gangly made-up word that nevertheless is terrifyingly potent. That word is ‘TINSTAAPP.’ There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. TINSTAAPP. Essentially, TINSTAAPP refers to the unstable and unpredictable nature of pitching prospects.

Part of that is the utter insanity of the biomechanics required to fling a ball at 90+ miles per hour. Even a single scientific study on the forces involved in pitching yields some mind-bending statistics. For instance, during the pitching process the interior shoulder rotation velocity maxes out at between 6000-7000 degrees per second. That’s an RPM of between 1000-1166. From that stupidly high speed, the shoulder comes to a complete stop in only 50 ms. The total forces exerted on the arm during the pitching motion are between 1 and 1.5 times the pitcher’s entire body mass.

With so many moving parts that must perform in an impeccable symphony of timing, order, and magnitude, it is a miracle that anybody is able to repeatedly go through a pitching motion for thousands of times in a career without shredding their arm into a billion tiny pieces.

In other words, science and good scouting can only go so far. Pitching is somewhat magical. It is difficult. And even the best pitchers with the best promise can break down for no apparent reason.

Case in point: over the past two months, top pitching prospects Brent Honeywell, A.J. Puk, and Jose De Leon all went under the knife for Tommy John surgery. And the top of the draft is not immune to catastrophic pitcher arm issues, either. None of Kyle Zimmer, fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Mark Appel, first overall pick in the 2013 draft, Brady Aiken, first overall pick in the 2014 draft, Tyler Kolek, second overall pick in the 2014 draft, or Tyler Jay, sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft have reached the major leagues yet. That’s because all five have had varying arm injuries that have slowed their development to a crawl. Appel isn’t even in professional baseball anymore.

TINSTAAPP.

Enter the Chicago Cubs, helmed by Super General Manager and Cursebuster Theo Epstein. Epstein took control of the club at the end of 2011 and has therefore been in charge for every draft since 2012. Everyone knows that the Cubs tanked—Epstein ripped apart a mediocre and expensive team to its bare bones, netting the second overall pick in 2013 and the fourth overall pick in 2014—but Epstein’s draft strategy went far beyond tanking.

In Epstein’s first four drafts, here are his first picks:

  • 2012: Albert Almora, outfield
  • 2013: Kris Bryant, third base
  • 2014: Kyle Schwarber, catcher
  • 2015: Ian Happ, outfield

You’ll notice one constant: none of those dudes are pitchers. Despite pitching being the currency of baseball, none of Epstein’s first picks in his first four drafts, when he had the highest draft positions, were pitchers. Epstein’s signing of outfielder Jorge Soler out of Cuba in 2012 was just another punctuation in his preference for hitters over pitchers.

Of course, the Cubs did develop pitching. They just let other teams do the hard work. They acquired Kyle Hendricks in a trade with the Texas Rangers. They acquired Jake Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles, with whom he debuted by whom he was drafted. They signed Jon Lester in free agency, who had been drafted and developed into a great starter by the Boston Red Sox.

And it worked! The Cubs made the playoffs in 2015 and 2017, and they won the 2016 World Series. Epstein used what remained of his excellent farm system to construct a team that will continue to compete for years to come.

This year, the Royals own four picks among the top 40 in the June draft. They are on track to get a top ten and possibly top five pick in the 2019 draft. The Royals have been bad at drafting for a long time, and it is absolutely crucial that they turn it around and nail their picks if they want their rebuild to go quickly.

Dayton Moore has been relatively successful with drafting and developing position players. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, Johnny Giavotella, Christian Colon, Whit Merrifield, and even Hunter Dozier have all ascended to the big leagues; Alex Gordon is a success story because of how Moore handled him and converted him to outfield. On the other hand, Moore’s track record of pitching is significantly spottier.

The Royals need not exclusively draft position players, or even refuse to use a good draft pick on a pitcher. But TINSTAAPP exists. The Royals should absolutely use their best pick on a position player, and should continue to do this as long as they have relatively high picks. They’ll still need pitching, of course, but it is far easier to acquire a semi-developed pitcher with promise (or an established starter like James Shields).