The endless search for pitching led the Cubs to Oklahoma State University right-hander Thomas Hatch on Friday, grabbing the Big 12 pitcher of the year with their third-round pick and beginning a run on arms in the amateur draft.
The Cubs had to wait until No. 104 on the draft’s second day to make their first selection, part of the cost for signing pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Jason Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals and bringing back leadoff guy Dexter Fowler in spring training. Theo Epstein’s front office also couldn’t take as many chances while working with this year’s smallest bonus pool (less than $2.3 million).
The Cubs also went with right-handed college pitchers in rounds four through six: California Baptist’s Tyson Miller; Duke’s Bailey Clark; and Cal State Fullerton’s Chad Hockin (a grandson of Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew). As well as rounds eight through 10: Haverford’s Stephen Ridings; Dartmouth’s Duncan Robinson; and Michigan State’s Dakota Mekkes.
Hatch missed the entire 2015 season with an elbow injury, but he’s come back from that sprained ulnar collateral ligament to perform as a redshirt sophomore (7-2 with a 2.16 ERA and 102 strikeouts against 28 walks through 112-plus innings). He’s listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds for a Cowboys team trying to advance to the College World Series this weekend.
“It’s something that certainly we have to be aware of,” said senior vice president Jason McLeod, who oversees the scouting and player development departments. “We know that it’s in his past, but we’re confident in making the selection that he’s going to be healthy going forward.
“We always know when you draft a player who’s had a medical occurrence in his past it’s always a risk. But (it’s) weighing all the factors, getting to know the player himself, the competitor that he is.
“I just saw him a couple weeks ago at the Big 12 tournament. The stuff coming out of his hand, how he’s commanding everything, and more so just how this guy competed every week and how he performed every week, we felt very good to get him there.”
The Cubs tried to find athleticism and projectable skills in nontraditional places, using the example of Jacob deGrom, a Stetson University shortstop who became a ninth-round pick in 2010, an All-Star pitcher five years later and a World Series starter for the New York Mets.
Beyond the 6-foot-4 Miller – the first Division II player drafted this year – the Cubs also chose a 6-foot-6 Division III guy (Ridings) and a 6-foot-6 Ivy League pitcher of the year (Robinson).
The Cubs used 80 draft picks on pitchers between 2012 and 2015 and not one has thrown a single pitch for the major-league club yet. Of course, three first-round hitters from those four draft classes have already debuted in The Show.
Kris Bryant, the National League’s reigning Rookie of the Year, is already closing in on his second All-Star selection. Kyle Schwarber is recovering from season-ending reconstructive surgery on his left knee, but he already holds the franchise record for postseason home runs (five). Albert Almora Jr. just got promoted from Triple-A Iowa this week, showing Gold Glove potential in the outfield, less than two months after his 22nd birthday.
In addition to having arguably the best collection of young position players in the game, the Cubs also pieced together and coached up a pitching staff that leads the majors in wins (41), ERA (2.61), batting average against (.200) and opponents’ OPS (.584) heading into Friday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
Whether or not it comes through the draft, the Cubs will need to create another wave of pitching by Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta might be in a new uniform, John Lackey could be retired and Jon Lester will be 34 and in the fourth season of a $155 million megadeal.
“We spent a lot of time scouting pitching across the country this year,” McLeod said. “Not having those first couple of picks, it really lets us as a department, as an organization, spend much more time with those guys in rounds five through 10 that we might not get as many looks at in a normal year. So we feel good about the things that we did today.”