Cubs

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.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.