Ian Happ

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."

Looking to take next step, Ian Happ hoping for more of what fueled his Cubs breakout

Looking to take next step, Ian Happ hoping for more of what fueled his Cubs breakout

Ian Happ knows 2018 is going to be different than 2017. That's why he's hoping it's the same.

Happ will be a big leaguer from Day 1 this season, the obvious biggest difference as he's prepared for the upcoming campaign. Happ didn't make his major league debut until May 13 last year, though he did so with a bang, homering in his first game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He burst onto the scene with a .357/.455/.786 slash line and seven extra-base hits in his first eight games.

But that was all part of proving he belonged at the major league level, something he won't have to worry about now that the calendar has turned.

After slashing .253/.328/.514 and belting 24 homers in his rookie season — one behind the 25 Billy Williams hit in his rookie season and two off the 26 Kris Bryant sent out in his rookie year — Happ's spot is safe, and that made for an entirely different offseason for the 23-year-old former Cincinnati Bearcat.

"Definitely a different offseason for me, just going through the process, getting ready to go to spring training, getting ready for the season instead of getting ready to compete and try to prove that I can be on the team," he said during the Cubs Convention earlier this month at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "For me, definitely a more relaxed offseason.

"This offseason, just getting in good shape, trying to get ready to really enjoy spring training and mesh with these guys and see how much I can learn again. For me, going into the year, just want to help the team any way I can, same thing as last year, being as versatile as possible."

And so in the different comes hope for the same for Happ, who wants to again show the versatility that resulted in him playing five different positions in 2017.

The rookie became yet another utility man on Joe Maddon's roster full of those kinds of players. The mix-and-match manager values versatility in the field as much as anything, and he took full advantage with Happ, who played 54 games in center field, 44 at second base, 29 in left field, 14 in right field and even four at third base.

The roster, at least from a position-player standpoint, looks much the same as it did in 2017. And coming off a third straight trip to the penultimate round of baseball's postseason — and the World Series hangover that defined the first half of last season — Maddon will surely look to give his players rest where he can. Being able to plug in Happ all over the field helps in that effort.

Happ has actually been an oft-mentioned name this offseason, and not necessarily for what folks are expecting from him in 2018 and beyond. Instead, Happ has been a frequent subject of trade speculation. As of this writing, the Cubs have yet to acquire a top-of-the-line starting pitcher to replace Jake Arrieta, and the suggestion that a young position player — be it Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez or Addison Russell — could be moved for a pitcher has been common.

Unsurprisingly, none of that chatter has affected Happ and he's ready to go with the rest of the Cubs' current roster.

"All of the media speculation, it's part of the deal, it's part of the gig," Happ said. "For me, I'm excited with the guys we've brought in and excited for what they'll put on the field this year."

But whether it's part of his motivation or not, if 2017's performance proved that Happ belonged at the big league level, then what he does in 2018 could go a long way in proving to outsiders that he belongs in the "untouchable" category and nowhere near future trade speculation.

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

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USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

ESPN’s Jesse Rogers stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki about his new book on Joe Maddon. The trio also debate whether Maddon’s tactics get stale and how the new coaching staff will affect the season.

Plus, who should hit leadoff? Fans are all in on Albert Almora Jr., but that might not be the best option. And whose side do you take in the Willson Contreras-Yadier Molina tiff?

Listen to the entire podcast here: