The state of the farm system: Where will the Cubs find their next wave of pitching?

The state of the farm system: Where will the Cubs find their next wave of pitching?

The Cubs ended the 108-year drought without a homegrown pitcher getting a single out during the World Series, so they should obviously get the benefit of the doubt here.

But what if the stress from the last two Octobers catches up to Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks this year? What if John Lackey pitches like a guy who is almost 40 years old and has already thrown nearly 3,000 innings in The Show? What if Mike Montgomery doesn't establish himself as the No. 5 starter? What if Brett Anderson spends most of another season on the disabled list? What if the post-Coors Field change-of-scenery trick doesn't work for Eddie Butler?

These are worst-case scenarios, the cracks in The Foundation For Sustained Success. But the Cubs continued with their low-risk depth strategy on Wednesday, acquiring right-hander Alec Mills from the Kansas City Royals for minor-league outfielder Donnie Dewees.

Mills — who got designated for assignment when the Royals signed ex-Cub Jason Hammel to a two-year, $16 million contract — went 5-5 with a 3.22 ERA across 125 2/3 innings for Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha last season. To create space on the 40-man roster, the Cubs designated lefty reliever David Rollins for assignment. More answers will start coming in one week, when pitchers and catchers go through their first official workout at the Sloan Park complex in Mesa, Ariz.

"We understand that's our challenge — to go get starting pitching," said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. "That's going to be what we need to feed the major-league club over the next few years."

Because if super-agent Scott Boras gets Arrieta his megadeal somewhere else, Lackey retires after this season and no one else steps forward into the rotation, the Cubs could be looking at replacing 60 percent of their rotation by Opening Day 2018.

— Theo Epstein's front office views hitters as generating a better return on investment, spending four first-round picks on Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ, flipping pitchers Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija in deals for Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell and committing $240 million to free agents Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

All along, the Cubs planned to stockpile assets and trade for pitching, the way they packaged Gleyber Torres in last summer's blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees for superstar closer Aroldis Chapman.

"The significant reason that we built up our farm system is to play in Chicago," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "But a small ancillary reason is that there is a currency in prospects. And to go out and get a totally dominant closer is going to be expensive.

"We were aware of what we were trading in Gleyber. We had great reports on him. He's a terrific kid. We really enjoyed getting to know him. But (our fans) had been waiting a long time to win a World Series. And we felt like we had a team that was prepared to do it.

"We felt like: If not now, when?"

It won't be the last time Cubs officials ask themselves that question. Especially if Sonny Gray shows he's healthy and performs for the Oakland A's and the Tampa Bay Rays finally get serious about a total rebuild.

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— Unless there's a dramatic breakthrough in 2017, the Cubs don't have any obvious or immediate internal options. Look at Baseball America's list of the organization's top-10 prospects and you'll see only four pitchers — Dylan Cease, Oscar de la Cruz, Trevor Clifton and Jose Albertos — who haven't yet played above the A-ball level.

Clifton, the organization's minor league pitcher of the year for 2016, is the only one within that group who has thrown more than 75 innings in a professional season and made it as high as advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, where he led the Carolina League in ERA (2.88), WHIP (1.16) and opponents' batting average (.225).

"(This) is a guy that checks all the boxes as to what you're looking for — athleticism, stuff, feel for pitching, aggressiveness," farm director Jaron Madison said. "He has all those tools to be a starting pitcher."

— This will be a pivotal year for Duane Underwood Jr., who's had trouble staying healthy but still got added to the 40-man roster in November after a season that began with a spot on's list of the game's top prospects (No. 77) and didn't live up to expectations at Double-A Tennessee (0-5, 4.91 ERA in 13 starts).

"We still consider Duane a priority and a prospect," Madison said. "He moved to Arizona in the offseason to get ready for the year, so he's completely dedicated to getting back on the field and showing us what he can do."

— The Cubs have used 107 draft picks on pitchers since the Epstein administration took over baseball operations after the 2011 season, and so far only lefty Rob Zastryzny has made it to the big-league club, accounting for 16 innings during the second half of last season and looking like Triple-A Iowa insurance to begin this year. (Zack Godley, a 10th-round pick in the 2013 draft, has made 36 appearances for the Arizona Diamondbacks across the last two seasons after being packaged in the Miguel Montero trade.)

"In no way am I making excuses (for) what we've done in amateur scouting," McLeod said. "(But) the fact of the matter is over 50 percent of major-league rotation (guys) that come out of the draft are taken in the first round.

"We've been taking position players our first four years, and we didn't have a pick until the third round last year. So we hadn't really played in that area yet. This year, it's really exciting because we do have two first-round picks. (But) we still feel good about the volume of arms that we've got."

— The Cubs always try to take a broad view and never get locked into one way of fixing a problem. The major-league infrastructure that helped elevate Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner, transform Hendricks into an ERA leader and nurture Hector Rondon from a Rule 5 guy into a 30-save closer will get creative. Winning trades, hitting the jackpot with first-round picks like Bryant and Schwarber and locking up Rizzo with a team-friendly long-term contract creates financial flexibility.

The Cubs own the 27th and 30th overall picks in the 2017 draft and will select again at No. 67, with Baseball America reporting their bonus pool will be worth more than $7 million.

"I think it's a little bit dangerous to look at any draft class and rate where the strength is," amateur scouting director Matt Dorey said. "That's the job of our area scouts, and I want to really empower them to go and find the players they think are best for the Chicago Cubs.

"One of the biggest parts of this transition over the last (several) years was really talking through what the narrative is for a championship-level player, on and off the field. So that was one of the things that we've been (stressing to) our scouts, and really giving them the freedom to go and find not just guys that are going to play in the big leagues, but guys that they feel can contribute to first-division, championship-level teams.

"On paper, I would say that the depth of the draft is probably in the high school pitching. The elite college bats are a little bit limited this year. But like I told our scouts, let the players tell you who they are.

"I don't want to put our blinders on any one of our scouts. I want them to walk into ballparks around the country looking for impact makeup (and) impact tools and really let the player drive themselves to the Chicago Cubs.

"At the end of the day, when we come in and reconvene for the draft in the middle of June, I'm so confident we're going to have the best information in the industry to make the best choices for the Cubs."

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein's front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.

The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail. 

Murphy's introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform. 

He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy's Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, which would've ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.) 

Murphy's performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it's also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn't just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn't able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.

The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.

So could a reunion be in the cards?

"I wouldn't rule anything out," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' 2018 campaign ended prematurely. "It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.

"So I think he's gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that's in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain. 

"We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

There's a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.

For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn't sure "what league" Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.

Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.

The other aspect of Epstein's comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn't rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.

It's hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote. 

Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would've looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would've probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.

Still, Murphy's hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn't enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein's statement about how the Cubs "look a lot better" with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.

Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy's bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward. 

But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs' 2019 roster for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it's tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn't be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.

Murphy's defense/range also doesn't figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.

Offensively, Murphy isn't perfect, either. He's never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that's a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent). 

Then there's the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.

Add it all up and Murphy's potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.

But like Epstein said, don't rule anything out.