Another Cubs superstar deals with aftermath of hometown mass shooting

Another Cubs superstar deals with aftermath of hometown mass shooting

MESA, Ariz. — An example of just how prevalent gun violence is in the United States?

In the last few months, the hometowns of both faces of the Chicago Cubs have been rocked by mass shootings.

The Cubs’ roster is just 25 names long, and yet the two highest-profile of those names, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, have found themselves joining the national conversation about gun violence as their hometowns became some of the latest scenes of these shockingly common tragedies.

Rizzo left Cubs camp after Wednesday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He attended high school there and left Arizona to be with his community. According to ESPN, among the 17 people killed in the shooting were Rizzo’s former high school football coach and a relative of his agent.

Rizzo joined many online in sharing the opinion that action needs to be taken.

Rizzo, who is well known in Chicago and around baseball for his charitable efforts — he won last year’s Roberto Clemente Award — surprised no members of his Cubs family by opting to return to his hometown.

“It really speaks to who Anthony really is,” Bryant said Thursday. “Yeah, we’re baseball players and the season’s about to start. But something like that happens in his community, he’s right there with them. Anthony’s just a role model for everybody on the team and in Chicago and the whole country. He’s just such an amazing person that he’s going down there and doing anything he can do to help.”

Bryant had to answer similar questions not five months ago after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history struck his hometown of Las Vegas on Oct. 1 of last year. Bryant and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper, also a Las Vegas native, appeared together in messages of support as the postseason began and the Cubs and Nationals played against one another in the National League Division Series.

Bryant recalled the emotions he felt at the time, though he didn’t join Rizzo in voicing much of an opinion in his comments to the media Thursday.

“Oct. 1 in Vegas was such a terrible day with so many of my friends and family being involved in that,” Bryant said. “My sister in law was there, just a lot of people I knew. Obviously you wish those things did not happen, but the community coming together after that, being there this offseason and seeing ‘Vegas Strong’ everywhere, it’s made me so proud to be from Las Vegas that everybody in the community came together.

“It’s just been so great to see our community come together, and I know Anthony will have a big influence in that in Florida. But it’s so sad for it to be so new and for it to be just yesterday. I can’t imagine what some of those people are going through.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, however, took more of a stance when asked about the need for gun control legislation.

“Of course, there’s got to be something done about that, there has to be,” Maddon said. “More specifically, I don’t know enough except that it doesn’t make any sense that an automatic rifle has to be in anybody’s hands. I don’t understand that. ... I don’t understand why those kinds of weapons are necessary in our culture in the hands of just anybody. I don’t understand that.”

While the shooting in Florida has become a topic of conversation across all walks of life in this country over the past 24 hours, it’s domination of the discussion at Cubs camp Thursday stemmed from the guy who wasn’t present. It allowed Rizzo’s teammates and manager to paint a picture of the kind of person Rizzo is and the kind of support he’s hoping to bring to his community back in Florida.

“He is the rock on the field, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “Of course we’ve got KB and some other really good players, but for the most part Rizzo is kind of like the rock that most everything builds off of.

“And then you take his work off of the field, the fact that he’s a cancer survivor. And his community work, his charity work is staggering to me. The fact that he won the award last year was well deserved. When he won the award, I texted him and said, ‘beyond anything you could’ve accomplished on the field, this is the most impressive thing, to me, that you’ve ever done.’

“He encompasses everything. The other day, he walked in the office smiling, loose, confident, shares his confidence with everybody else. He’s on the verge of becoming a very good leader, and he’s got all the intrinsic qualities to be that kind of a person. I think it was a matter of playing long enough, having enough life experience in order to be that guy. But he wants to be that guy, and he’s on his way.”

Looking back at just how lucky the Cubs were in the 2013 MLB Draft

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AP

Looking back at just how lucky the Cubs were in the 2013 MLB Draft

Revisionist history is one of the best parts of being a sports fan.

Looking back at how drafts went for each league, realizing what teams made mistakes and what teams got lucky is a modern-day American national pasttime.

The Cubs certainly deserve a lot of credit for drafting and developing Kris Bryant, but they also got really, really lucky, too. 

Thursday morning represented more proof of that.

Mark Appel — the former can't-miss pitching prospect selected right before the Cubs grabbed Bryant in 2013 — announced he will be stepping away from baseball at age 26.

If Appel never returns to the professional game, he will become just the third player ever to be selected No. 1 overall and not even reach the majors.

The Houston Astros chose to pass on Bryant, opting for Appel out of Stanford instead. At first, the move looked fine. Appel found himself among all the top prospect lists in the game for three straight seasons, but the numbers never matched that reputation.

Appel wound up making 37 starts at Triple-A, but posted a 4.82 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in those games. In his five-year minor-league career, the 6-foot-5 right-hander sported a gawdy 5.06 ERA.

He was traded from Houston to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2016 season and even a change of scenery didn't help matters.

Still, things worked out just fine for the Astros, who will head into 2018 as the defending champs — which is even more impressive now after getting no help from their No. 1 overall pick five years ago.

Had the Astros gone with Bryant first overall, it obviously would've changed the landscape of both franchises. It's hard to even envision the Cubs without Kris Bryant let alone trying to think how the Cubs would've ended the longest championship drought in American sports history.

If Bryant was the consensus first pick, would the Cubs — selecting second — have gone with Appel or Jon Gray? At the time, the three players were seen as clear frontrunners. Gray — selected third by the Rockies — has emerged as a budding ace in Colorado and could draw the Opening Day start in 2018.

The rest of the 2013 first round didn't fare much better than the Astros, so the Cubs were also lucky just to be choosing second overall:

After Gray, the next nine players selected in 2013 have combined for just -0.1 WAR. Later in the first round, only Tim Anderson (17th), Aaron Judge (32nd), Sean Manaea (34th) and Corey Knebel (39th) have provided any notable impact for their big-league club to date.

Theo Epstein's front office did so many things right to get to this point of sustained success, but they also needed quite a bit of luck along the way and they were never more fortunate than the 2013 MLB Draft.

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."