Cubs

/ by Patrick Mooney
Presented By Mooney
Cubs

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 MLB.com'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."