Cubs

MLB draft: Will Cubs take pitcher with first-round pick?

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MLB draft: Will Cubs take pitcher with first-round pick?

Is this the year the Cubs finally take a college pitcher with their first-round pick?

“Maybe,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If he’s the best player with the best combination of upside and certainty. But he has to be the best bet.”

The Epstein administration knows all the risks associated with pitching, how history shows it can come from anywhere in the draft, building this franchise’s future around power hitters and athletic, versatile position players like Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

So when All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo noticed scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod talking with two reporters on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, he made this prediction while walking down into the dugout: “Left-handed power bat.”

“That’s it,” McLeod said before a 3-2 win over the Washington Nationals, an elite National League team methodically built through the draft with No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and a collection of homegrown players.

[MORE: Rookies come through in the clutch as Cubs beat Nationals]

The Cubs don’t know what they will do with the No. 9 overall pick on June 8. But they don’t plan to be drafting that high again – at least for the next several years – and they are finally seeing results at the big-league level.

So if there’s a college pitcher who can be put on the fast track – and maybe factor into the 2017 rotation and the middle of this competitive window – does that change the calculus?

“I don’t think so,” McLeod said. “If the position player is the right guy, then we’re going to take him. It’s just a different draft because of some of the injuries. I think there are going to be some picks go off the board that maybe we wouldn’t have thought (would) happen. And someone’s going to probably be there that we didn’t think would be there for us. We’ll figure that out in the next two weeks.”

So when the Cubs gather their scouts and executives for draft meetings that begin on Sunday night in Chicago, they will likely be focusing on at least four prospects McLeod mentioned as standouts in a pool of college position players that’s not particularly deep.

It’s probably a stretch to think Vanderbilt University shortstop Dansby Swanson and Louisiana State University shortstop Alex Bregman will slip all the way to No. 9.

[MORE: Maddon, Cubs sticking with Starlin Castro in No. 4 spot]

There’s also a feeling the Cubs might do a below-slot deal – like they did with No. 4 overall pick Schwarber last year – and spread that money around to sign pitchers with upside later in the draft. That scenario could line up with University of Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi or University of North Florida outfielder Donnie Dewees.

It’s a long shot, but it sounds like the Cubs haven’t completely ruled out Brady Aiken yet. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick is recovering from Tommy John surgery after not signing with the Houston Astros, but there are many unanswered questions about the lefty’s medical history.

The Cubs had Aiken as the No. 1 player on their board coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego last year. Aiken’s still only 18 years old, a high-risk, high-reward pitcher who’s not expected to be there when the Cubs make their second pick at No. 47 overall.

“A kid of his talent certainly is going to be discussed,” McLeod said, “and he’ll be someone that we talk about.”

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

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.