Cubs

Cubs trying to find next generation of pitchers in MLB draft

Cubs trying to find next generation of pitchers in MLB draft

PHILADELPHIA – Six days after Cole Hamels beat Jake Arrieta and no-hit the Cubs at Wrigley Field last year, the Philadelphia Phillies accelerated their rebuild by trading a homegrown World Series MVP to the Texas Rangers in an eight-player deal that included a young right-hander named Jerad Eickhoff.

Fast forward to Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, and there was Eickhoff beating the best team in baseball, limiting the Cubs to one run and two hits across seven innings in a 3-2 victory while the Philadelphia brass prepared to make the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft less than 48 hours later.

The churn of all those flip deals and win-later trades helped transform the Cubs into a 97-win playoff contender last season and the fastest team to 40 wins this year, the best start in the majors since Lou Piniella’s Seattle Mariners won 116 games in 2001. 

Which is even more impressive when you consider the Cubs have so far gone 0-for-80 in drafting and developing pitchers since Theo Epstein’s crew took over baseball operations at Wrigley Field. 

Zack Godley – who was supposed to be the other pitcher packaged with intriguing prospect Jeferson Mejia in the Miguel Montero trade – accounted for 36-plus innings with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. But except for Godley – a 10th-round pick in 2013 out of the University of Tennessee – the Epstein administration hasn’t yet found a major-league pitcher through four draft classes.       

It won’t get any easier with the Cubs waiting until the 104th pick to make their first selection on Friday and having the smallest bonus pool ($2,245,100) in the majors this year. 

“We all feel – not pressure – but I think we all feel the challenge,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “We got to identify some guys, we got to develop some guys, so that there are those pitchers that teams usually go out and get. 

“We understand where we are at this point in time with the major-league team. It’s a challenge to us. We’re certainly not happy with where we are with the pitching. And we expect to be better.”

While 22-year-old outfielder Albert Almora – the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration – made his big-league debut on Tuesday in South Philly, the Cubs don’t really know when their next generation of pitchers might arrive or who might be part of that wave. 

By letting Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena walk as free agents, the Cubs gained the 43rd and 54th overall picks in the 2012 draft, which turned into Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn. Johnson (lat) is injured again after putting up a 5.17 ERA in his first four starts with Triple-A Iowa and has drifted off the prospect radar, while Blackburn continues his steady growth with the Double-A Tennessee rotation (2.06 ERA through 11 starts).  

Jen-Ho Tseng (shoulder) – an international signing out of Taiwan and the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2014 – advanced to Tennessee but is now on the disabled list. The Cubs also had to shut down Ryan Williams (shoulder) – a 10th-round pick out of East Carolina University in 2014 and the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2015 – after a strong start for Iowa’s rotation (4-1, 3.30 ERA).

Cutting a below-slot deal with No. 4 overall pick Kyle Schwarber in 2014 allowed the Cubs to buy out college commitments and give seven-figure bonuses to high school pitchers Carson Sands, Justin Steele and Dylan Cease in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds.

The Cubs understood Cease would be a Tommy John case, took the conservative approach and now have him in extended spring training, planning to send him to Class-A Eugene this summer and see how his triple-digit velocity and big curveball might play at that short-season affiliate.

These are only snapshots, but Sands (5-0, 3.30 ERA) and Steele (3-5, 6.17 ERA) are going through the inevitable ups and downs in the Class-A South Bend rotation.

That inherent unpredictability explains why the Cubs are built around power hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Schwarber, and the overall athleticism of players like Addison Russell, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

As long as the Cubs can keep pouring money into the free-agent market, making change-of-scenery trades and gaining competitive advantages with their coaching staff, they believe they can figure out the staff from one year to the next and won’t sweat the pitching deficit now. 

“Our system’s in pretty good shape overall,” Epstein said. “Obviously, we’re deeper in position players than pitching. No secret there. We’re in a pretty good position to roll the dice on some pitching upside and hopefully hit on a few guys.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.