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."

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

For the second time this season, Pedro Strop has added another chapter to the legend of El Mago.

And for at least the second documented time over the last few years, Strop also helped give Javy Baez the motivation needed to lift the Cubs to victory.

On an 0-2 pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo in the eighth inning, Baez smacked a 3-run homer into the right-field bleachers, notching the Cubs shortstop another curtain call and sending the 39,077 fans at Wrigley Field into euphoric bliss.

"That was big. He was so frustrated," said Strop, who picked up his 9th save in the 5-3 victory. "When I was walking to the 'pen, he was so frustrated after that first strikeout [against Jacob deGrom]. He was like, 'He's not throwing fastballs, just sliders!' I was like, 'Bro, it's good that you know that. So go up with another plan. Do your thing. You're gonna win this ballgame.'"

Baez's 100th career homer accomplished exactly that and in doing so, changed the entire tone and tenor of the first weekend of summer on Chicago's North Side.

There's no way the Cubs wanted to go into a four-game set with the contending Atlanta Braves after having just dropped three of four to a hapless Mets team that is melting down inside the clubhouse. It also would've been the Cubs' ninth loss in their 13 games, but Baez's clutch blast helped them salvage a series split and maintain sole possession of first place entering a new week of baseball.

"That's the last thing you want to do is lose another one," said Cole Hamels, who gave the Cubs 7 strong innings, but did not factor in the decision. "... That's the momentum we need to take forth, especially with the series that's coming up."

It also continued one of the strangest/coolest statistical oddities of the 2019 MLB season, given that it came on an 0-2 count.

Baez now has more homers after falling behind in the count 0-2 this year than NINE other MLB teams and nearly half of his homers (9 of 19) have come after getting into the extreme pitcher's count:

What makes Baez so tough on 0-2 counts?

For starters, he's never afraid of striking out, possessing a fearless nature Joe Maddon and other Cubs players have admired for some time.

But Hamels also provided some great perspective on why Baez might be so good in a count when pitchers typically dominate:

"I think that's kinda the difficult part with him — sometimes it can always be 0-2 with him," Hamels said. "Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2. If that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him — if it's considered almost always an 0-2 count — he's gonna get really good at it because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. 

"With him though, being a teammate, you just know that he's never out of it. He's trying to hit a homer every at-bat, every pitch. That obviously can make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect and therefore that's why they make mistakes."

The win puts a nice bow on what was otherwise a sloppy weekend for the Cubs, who often looked flat at the plate and made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Prior to that homer from Baez, the Cubs had only managed to push across 1 earned run in 13 innings against a Mets bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.39 ERA and more blown saves than any other team in baseball.

It's the second time in just over a week where the Cubs managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but the last time (Anthony Rizzo's homer off Kenley Jansen last Saturday in L.A.) apparently wasn't enough to spark the team to get back to their winning ways. 

Was this Baez blast enough to wake the team from their midseason slumber and be this year's seminal moment that we all look back on in September? 

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

Craig Kimbrel could still make his debut before the current homestand is over, but in the meantime, the Cubs added another intriguing veteran to the bullpen.

Tony Barnette was activated off the 60-day injured list Sunday and Rowan Wick was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa. 

The 35-year-old right-hander has had an interesting career ever since was drafted in the 10th round in 2006 by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Arizona State University. He spent a couple years in the D-Backs organization but then went to Japan in 2010 to pitch for the Yakult Swallows for six seasons.

Barnette returned to the U.S. in 2016, signing a deal with the Rangers and putting up a 3.50 ERA in 125 appearances for Texas over three seasons. The Cubs signed him over the winter to add another arm to the bullpen mix, but he's been hampered by shoulder issues since spring training.

Barnette actually began a rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa in April initially, but made only four appearances before heading back to Arizona to hit the reset button on his recovery. He restarted a rehab assignment with Iowa on June 1 and has been lights out since — he's allowed only a pair of baserunners (1 hit, 1 walk) in 8.1 shutout innings while striking out 9. 

"Patience is a virtue," he said Sunday morning inside the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "It's hard to be patient in this game especially when you're expected to be logging innings at the major-league level. Patience was something that I really had to work on and stay with. Stay patient, trust the process, work with the training staff and make sure I was right and I am."

When the Cubs called Barnette over the winter, he said it was definitely a call he wanted to take — to join a team with World Series aspirations and play in front of the fans at Wrigley Field. Now he wants to answer the call out of the bullpen whenever he gets the opportunity.

Joe Maddon hasn't gotten a chance to see Barnette pitch live much due to the early injury in spring training, but the Cubs manager envisions utilizing the veteran righty as a weapon against opposing right-handed hitters. In his MLB career, Barnette has allowed only a .652 OPS to righties vs. a .780 OPS to left-handed hitters.

"He's a strike-thrower. He attacks the zone. He's kind of a fearless guy," Maddon said. "He's an assertive kind of a guy. He's an attacker, he can put the ball on the ground. He's an aggressive sort. Normally pitch-efficient.

"He's very confident right now. He's feeling really good."

When the Cubs signed him over the winter, Barnette was looked at as another potential under-the-radar option in the bullpen and now that the injury is behind him, he and the Cubs are hoping to make good on that potential.

But the Cubs pitching staff is also getting crowded, with Barnette joining a group of bullpen arms that includes:

Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Brandon Kintzler
Brad Brach
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery

At the moment, the Cubs have folded both Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood into a six-man rotation. But they also have Kimbrel's arrival on the horizon as well as the eventual returns of Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr.

It's unknown how all these pieces will fit together, but Barnette could emerge as a reliable piece for Maddon and the Cubs.