Is this the year the Cubs finally take a college pitcher with their first-round pick?
“Maybe,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If he’s the best player with the best combination of upside and certainty. But he has to be the best bet.”
The Epstein administration knows all the risks associated with pitching, how history shows it can come from anywhere in the draft, building this franchise’s future around power hitters and athletic, versatile position players like Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.
So when All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo noticed scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod talking with two reporters on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, he made this prediction while walking down into the dugout: “Left-handed power bat.”
“That’s it,” McLeod said before a 3-2 win over the Washington Nationals, an elite National League team methodically built through the draft with No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and a collection of homegrown players.
The Cubs don’t know what they will do with the No. 9 overall pick on June 8. But they don’t plan to be drafting that high again – at least for the next several years – and they are finally seeing results at the big-league level.
So if there’s a college pitcher who can be put on the fast track – and maybe factor into the 2017 rotation and the middle of this competitive window – does that change the calculus?
“I don’t think so,” McLeod said. “If the position player is the right guy, then we’re going to take him. It’s just a different draft because of some of the injuries. I think there are going to be some picks go off the board that maybe we wouldn’t have thought (would) happen. And someone’s going to probably be there that we didn’t think would be there for us. We’ll figure that out in the next two weeks.”
So when the Cubs gather their scouts and executives for draft meetings that begin on Sunday night in Chicago, they will likely be focusing on at least four prospects McLeod mentioned as standouts in a pool of college position players that’s not particularly deep.
It’s probably a stretch to think Vanderbilt University shortstop Dansby Swanson and Louisiana State University shortstop Alex Bregman will slip all the way to No. 9.
There’s also a feeling the Cubs might do a below-slot deal – like they did with No. 4 overall pick Schwarber last year – and spread that money around to sign pitchers with upside later in the draft. That scenario could line up with University of Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi or University of North Florida outfielder Donnie Dewees.
It’s a long shot, but it sounds like the Cubs haven’t completely ruled out Brady Aiken yet. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick is recovering from Tommy John surgery after not signing with the Houston Astros, but there are many unanswered questions about the lefty’s medical history.
The Cubs had Aiken as the No. 1 player on their board coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego last year. Aiken’s still only 18 years old, a high-risk, high-reward pitcher who’s not expected to be there when the Cubs make their second pick at No. 47 overall.
“A kid of his talent certainly is going to be discussed,” McLeod said, “and he’ll be someone that we talk about.”