Cubs stock up on pitching during Day 2 of draft

Cubs stock up on pitching during Day 2 of draft

The endless search for pitching led the Cubs to Oklahoma State University right-hander Thomas Hatch on Friday, grabbing the Big 12 pitcher of the year with their third-round pick and beginning a run on arms in the amateur draft.

The Cubs had to wait until No. 104 on the draft’s second day to make their first selection, part of the cost for signing pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Jason Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals and bringing back leadoff guy Dexter Fowler in spring training. Theo Epstein’s front office also couldn’t take as many chances while working with this year’s smallest bonus pool (less than $2.3 million). 

The Cubs also went with right-handed college pitchers in rounds four through six: California Baptist’s Tyson Miller; Duke’s Bailey Clark; and Cal State Fullerton’s Chad Hockin (a grandson of Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew). As well as rounds eight through 10: Haverford’s Stephen Ridings; Dartmouth’s Duncan Robinson; and Michigan State’s Dakota Mekkes.

Hatch missed the entire 2015 season with an elbow injury, but he’s come back from that sprained ulnar collateral ligament to perform as a redshirt sophomore (7-2 with a 2.16 ERA and 102 strikeouts against 28 walks through 112-plus innings). He’s listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds for a Cowboys team trying to advance to the College World Series this weekend.   

“It’s something that certainly we have to be aware of,” said senior vice president Jason McLeod, who oversees the scouting and player development departments. “We know that it’s in his past, but we’re confident in making the selection that he’s going to be healthy going forward. 

“We always know when you draft a player who’s had a medical occurrence in his past it’s always a risk. But (it’s) weighing all the factors, getting to know the player himself, the competitor that he is.

“I just saw him a couple weeks ago at the Big 12 tournament. The stuff coming out of his hand, how he’s commanding everything, and more so just how this guy competed every week and how he performed every week, we felt very good to get him there.”  

The Cubs tried to find athleticism and projectable skills in nontraditional places, using the example of Jacob deGrom, a Stetson University shortstop who became a ninth-round pick in 2010, an All-Star pitcher five years later and a World Series starter for the New York Mets. 

Beyond the 6-foot-4 Miller – the first Division II player drafted this year – the Cubs also chose a 6-foot-6 Division III guy (Ridings) and a 6-foot-6 Ivy League pitcher of the year (Robinson). 

The Cubs used 80 draft picks on pitchers between 2012 and 2015 and not one has thrown a single pitch for the major-league club yet. Of course, three first-round hitters from those four draft classes have already debuted in The Show. 

Kris Bryant, the National League’s reigning Rookie of the Year, is already closing in on his second All-Star selection. Kyle Schwarber is recovering from season-ending reconstructive surgery on his left knee, but he already holds the franchise record for postseason home runs (five). Albert Almora Jr. just got promoted from Triple-A Iowa this week, showing Gold Glove potential in the outfield, less than two months after his 22nd birthday.

In addition to having arguably the best collection of young position players in the game, the Cubs also pieced together and coached up a pitching staff that leads the majors in wins (41), ERA (2.61), batting average against (.200) and opponents’ OPS (.584) heading into Friday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.    

Whether or not it comes through the draft, the Cubs will need to create another wave of pitching by Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta might be in a new uniform, John Lackey could be retired and Jon Lester will be 34 and in the fourth season of a $155 million megadeal.  

“We spent a lot of time scouting pitching across the country this year,” McLeod said. “Not having those first couple of picks, it really lets us as a department, as an organization, spend much more time with those guys in rounds five through 10 that we might not get as many looks at in a normal year. So we feel good about the things that we did today.”     

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”