Cubs trying to find next generation of pitchers in MLB draft

Cubs trying to find next generation of pitchers in MLB draft

PHILADELPHIA – Six days after Cole Hamels beat Jake Arrieta and no-hit the Cubs at Wrigley Field last year, the Philadelphia Phillies accelerated their rebuild by trading a homegrown World Series MVP to the Texas Rangers in an eight-player deal that included a young right-hander named Jerad Eickhoff.

Fast forward to Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, and there was Eickhoff beating the best team in baseball, limiting the Cubs to one run and two hits across seven innings in a 3-2 victory while the Philadelphia brass prepared to make the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft less than 48 hours later.

The churn of all those flip deals and win-later trades helped transform the Cubs into a 97-win playoff contender last season and the fastest team to 40 wins this year, the best start in the majors since Lou Piniella’s Seattle Mariners won 116 games in 2001. 

Which is even more impressive when you consider the Cubs have so far gone 0-for-80 in drafting and developing pitchers since Theo Epstein’s crew took over baseball operations at Wrigley Field. 

Zack Godley – who was supposed to be the other pitcher packaged with intriguing prospect Jeferson Mejia in the Miguel Montero trade – accounted for 36-plus innings with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. But except for Godley – a 10th-round pick in 2013 out of the University of Tennessee – the Epstein administration hasn’t yet found a major-league pitcher through four draft classes.       

It won’t get any easier with the Cubs waiting until the 104th pick to make their first selection on Friday and having the smallest bonus pool ($2,245,100) in the majors this year. 

“We all feel – not pressure – but I think we all feel the challenge,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “We got to identify some guys, we got to develop some guys, so that there are those pitchers that teams usually go out and get. 

“We understand where we are at this point in time with the major-league team. It’s a challenge to us. We’re certainly not happy with where we are with the pitching. And we expect to be better.”

While 22-year-old outfielder Albert Almora – the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration – made his big-league debut on Tuesday in South Philly, the Cubs don’t really know when their next generation of pitchers might arrive or who might be part of that wave. 

By letting Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena walk as free agents, the Cubs gained the 43rd and 54th overall picks in the 2012 draft, which turned into Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn. Johnson (lat) is injured again after putting up a 5.17 ERA in his first four starts with Triple-A Iowa and has drifted off the prospect radar, while Blackburn continues his steady growth with the Double-A Tennessee rotation (2.06 ERA through 11 starts).  

Jen-Ho Tseng (shoulder) – an international signing out of Taiwan and the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2014 – advanced to Tennessee but is now on the disabled list. The Cubs also had to shut down Ryan Williams (shoulder) – a 10th-round pick out of East Carolina University in 2014 and the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2015 – after a strong start for Iowa’s rotation (4-1, 3.30 ERA).

Cutting a below-slot deal with No. 4 overall pick Kyle Schwarber in 2014 allowed the Cubs to buy out college commitments and give seven-figure bonuses to high school pitchers Carson Sands, Justin Steele and Dylan Cease in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds.

The Cubs understood Cease would be a Tommy John case, took the conservative approach and now have him in extended spring training, planning to send him to Class-A Eugene this summer and see how his triple-digit velocity and big curveball might play at that short-season affiliate.

These are only snapshots, but Sands (5-0, 3.30 ERA) and Steele (3-5, 6.17 ERA) are going through the inevitable ups and downs in the Class-A South Bend rotation.

That inherent unpredictability explains why the Cubs are built around power hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Schwarber, and the overall athleticism of players like Addison Russell, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

As long as the Cubs can keep pouring money into the free-agent market, making change-of-scenery trades and gaining competitive advantages with their coaching staff, they believe they can figure out the staff from one year to the next and won’t sweat the pitching deficit now. 

“Our system’s in pretty good shape overall,” Epstein said. “Obviously, we’re deeper in position players than pitching. No secret there. We’re in a pretty good position to roll the dice on some pitching upside and hopefully hit on a few guys.”

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

The seventh-inning stretch is a sacred tradition at Wrigley Field. Harry Caray passionately performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” every home game during his tenure as Cubs radio play-by-play man, previously doing so late in his tenure with the White Sox.

Caray died in 1998 and the Cubs have continued the tradition in his honor ever since, using a rotating cast of celebrities and former players as guest conductors. Last season, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster performed at the Friendly Confines.

Some renditions are more memorable than others, though not in an endearing way like Cookie Monster’s. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon sang 15 years ago Sunday, and not only did he refer to the ballpark as “Wrigley Stadium,” but also was off pace and didn’t really know the lyrics altogether.

Cubs fans showered Gordon with a chorus of boos, to which all he could do was chuckle and finish as fast as possible. 

Singing in front of 40,000 people isn’t easy, so it’s hard to be too tough on those whose appearances go awry. Nevertheless, guest singers know what they’re signing up for. On the anniversary of Gordon’s performance, here are five more of Wrigley’s worst in recent memory.

Mike Ditka — June 5, 1998

Well, Ditka certainly provided some energy. “Da Coach” didn’t take a breath in his 26-second blaring performance; perhaps he was winded from rushing up to the booth, to which he arrived a few moments late.

Ozzy Osbourne — Aug. 17, 2003

This isn’t a ranking of bad performances, but Osbourne sits atop the leaderboard anyhow. The Black Sabbath vocalist started off singing “Let’s go out to the ball game” before breaking into a mumble streak of made-up words. The look on Kerry Wood’s face summarizes things well.

Mr. T — May 25, 2009

It didn’t sound too good, but it sure was enthusiastic. Way to do your thing, Mr. T.

David Cross — Sept. 21, 2013

Hard to say what Cross, a stand-up comedian and actor, was going for here. He starred in three “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films and, fittingly, screeched into the mic a couple of times. Maybe it was all in jest? He ended his rendition by saying, “That was awful. I’m so sorry.” 

Scottie Pippen — Oct. 22, 2016

Pippen performed the stretch in the biggest game in Cubs history (at that point) — the pennant-clincher in 2016. The Bulls Hall-of-Famer was on tune to start before mixing up lyrics, then passing the mic to the animated Wrigley crowd. 

We’ll give Pippen a slight pass here, considering he brought six championships to Chicago during his playing days.  

With that, I'll leave you with this:

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