Cubs

Who are Cubs relying on to finally bring homegrown pitching to big leagues?

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USA TODAY

Who are Cubs relying on to finally bring homegrown pitching to big leagues?

There are less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training to kick off Year 7 of Theo Epstein's regime and yet the Cubs are still waiting for the first wave of true homegrown pitchers to roll through Chicago.

To be clear, Epstein did exactly what he was hired to do — stop the championship drought and set the Cubs up for a period of sustained success.

This is one of the best teams in baseball and barring a wild rash of terrible luck and injuries, the Cubs should have one of the top pitching staffs in the game once again in 2018.

But the Cubs have built that pitching staff based off trades and free agents. Not one pitcher on the projected Opening Day roster was drafted by the club and only Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. have spent extended time in the Cubs minor-league system after coming over in trades with the Texas Rangers.

The Cubs are working to rectify that situation, bringing in pitching guru Jim Benedict and new minor-league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara to add to the mix this season. New big-league pitching coach Jim Hickey is part of the equation, too. 

Benedict will work with Cubs senior VP of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod to get a look at the entire pitching infrastructure within the organization, but will mostly focus on guys on the 40-man roster.

"It's definitely been frustrating," Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison said earlier this month. "And that's why there's this whole re-evaluation of how we're doing everything from the ground up, just to make sure everybody's on the same page and we're doing everything possible to get the most out of our pitchers.

"...We're digging in and re-evaluating everything we're doing from a pitching standpoint. We've come a long way, but now we need something to take us over that next level. So that's where [Benedict] and Hickey and Sagara will come in.

"We're completely looking at how we do everything at the minor-league level. There might be some more changes there to help the infrastructure and get these pitchers ready to go."

Madison also pointed to the level of patience required with pitchers that is different from how hitters are evaluated. 

The Cubs placed an emphasis on polished college position players when they had Top 10 picks in the draft and were able to let guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ fly through the farm system.

Pitchers have to be handled in a completely different way.

"Pitching takes longer," Madison said. "You have to prepare these guys. You can't just shoot a guy up to Double-A or Triple-A if it's his first or second year because they have to build up and have innings under their belt or they're going to get to the big leagues and they won't have any innings left and we're shutting them down.

"You've seen that with a lot of big-league clubs who have run out of innings — like [Stephen] Strasburg that one year [with the Nationals]. So that's the difference with pitching — you have to build on what they did the previous year and add a little bit to that."

Gone are guys like Zack Godley and Paul Blackburn, who were traded away and wound up posting solid seasons in the big leagues last year. Pierce Johnson — the first pitcher drafted by Epstein's front office — made his MLB debut in 2017 and was promptly waived in September. 

James Farris (2014 — 9th round) looks like he could grow into a big-league reliever, but he was dealt to Colorado for Butler a year ago. Duane Underwood Jr. — the second pitcher selected by Epstein's group in 2012 — still hasn't reached Triple-A and has had trouble staying healthy.

Other former early-round draft picks like Tyler Skulina (2013 — 4th round) and Trey Masek (2013 — 5th round) are no longer with the organization: Skulina is with the Nationals and Masek is in Independent Ball.

Rob Zastryzny (2013 — 2nd round) is the only pitcher drafted under Epstein's front office that has made even the slightest impact in the big leagues and he's pitched just 29 innings the last two years to a 4.34 ERA and 1.48 WHIP.

Dillon Maples — who enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2017 — was part of the final draft of Jim Hendry's front office in 2011.

Zastryzny and Maples could have an impact in the Chicago bullpen at various points in 2018 and on the starter's front, the Cubs are insistent those waves are coming. Adbert Alzolay and Jen-Ho Tseng were both signed as international free agents and the Cubs are counting on both to act as rotation depth in 2018.

[MORE — The prospect that may change everything about the Cubs' long-term pitching plans]

Health is a big part of the problem.

Carson Sands (2014 — 4th round) appeared in just 8 games in 2017 while Jake Stinnett (2014 — 2nd round) made only 14 relief appearances in the minors.

Ryan Williams (2014 — 10th round) was the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year in 2015 when he went 14-3 with a 2.16 ERA and topped out at Double-A Tennessee, but the big righty has only appeared in 15 games (11 starts) in the two years since.

Trevor Clifton (2013 — 12th round) — the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 — took a step back in Double-A last year, posting a 5.20 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 21 starts.

The Cubs handled their most recent first-round picks (Brendon Little and Alex Lange) with kid gloves, as the two combined for just 10 starts in short-season Class-A ball.

But Little and Lange are part of a group that has the Cubs front office believing reinforcements are on the way. Seven of the Cubs' Top 10 prospects (MLB.com) are pitchers, with Lange coming at No. 4 and Little at No. 5.

Back in 2014-15, Corey Black was seen as a future option in the big-league bullpen but he missed all of 2017 to injury. He's now back and fully healthy and will start the year in Triple-A and could once again provide bullpen depth.

Southpaw Justin Steele (2014 — 5th round) enjoyed a breakout 2017 (2.92 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.5 K/9) in High-A and is starting to draw buzz — ranked No. 10 on MLB.com's prospect list.

Thomas Hatch is another former high pick (2016 — 3rd round) who is beginning to emerge on the radar near the big league. The 23-year-old right-hander made 26 starts with Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach in 2017 and struck out more than a batter per inning (126 Ks in 124.2 IP) and was ranked No. 7 on MLB.com's list.

But it's the international signings — not draft selections — that are really turning heads in the Cubs system.

Oscar De La Cruz (No. 1 on MLB.com's prospect rankings) turns 23 in March and has been in the Cubs system for five years, but he's made only 53 appearances in that span as he's had trouble staying healthy. He had a pec issue in 2017, but is healthy now and the Cubs believe he could move quickly through the system with a big-league-caliber arsenal.

Jose Albertos (No. 2 prospect) is 19 and started just 10 games last year, but the Cubs love his mental makeup and toughness.

"All the tools are there," said Alex Suarez, the Cubs director of international scouting and assistant director of player development. "He's a young kid that — very much like Dillon [Maples] — has a major-league arsenal. ... We're confident he can move pretty quick."

Albertos and Lange are slated to begin 2018 with Class-A South Bend.

Most of these guys won't make any impact on the Cubs' pennant race this fall, but the Cubs hope they can be one day in the not-so-distant future.

"I think those waves are coming," Madison said. "It's just a matter of staying healthy and continuing to do everything we can to develop these guys.

"It's really digging in on those guys and making sure we're doing everything we can do to get them to the big leagues."

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.