Waiting for next wave of pitching, Cubs play complete game and knock out Julio Urias

Waiting for next wave of pitching, Cubs play complete game and knock out Julio Urias

When will that wave of young pitching finally crash into Wrigley Field and match the position-player core that’s turned the Cubs into a World Series favorite?

The Cubs can’t stand in front of the cameras and microphones and say something like: “Who cares?” But it’s obvious how Theo Epstein’s front office separates organizations that are built to last from the ones that are an MRI away from crumbling. 

That’s an oversimplification on June 2, 2016 for the team with the best record in baseball (37-15). Check back in October – or when Jake Arrieta is pitching somewhere else on Opening Day 2018 – or sometime during the second half of Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal.

But the Cubs flexed their muscles again during Thursday afternoon’s 7-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, knocking out pitching prodigy Julio Urias after five innings and winning this four-game series between 2015 playoff teams.    

Javier Baez, Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo all crushed home runs for this American League-style lineup constructed with first-round picks, pitching-for-hitting trades and big free-agent contracts.        

The Cubs don’t have any blue-chip pitching prospects like Urias – a 19-year-old lefty who signed with the Dodgers as an international free agent out of Mexico – and might be years away from developing one.

But that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from creating a rotation that began Thursday leading the majors in ERA (2.38) – the Washington Nationals ranked second at 3.06 – and WHIP (0.98) and now has 37 quality starts through 52 games.

After throwing a complete game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Memorial Day weekend, Kyle Hendricks (4-4, 2.84 ERA) limited the Dodgers to two runs across eight innings, showing he might be the best No. 5 starter in baseball.  

During the rebuilding years, the Cubs flipped short-term assets Scott Feldman and Ryan Dempster, making opportunistic trades for Arrieta and Hendricks. The Cubs bought 200-inning reliability and World Series experience on the free-agent market with Lester and John Lackey. The coaching staff – Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode – helped turn Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner, revive Jason Hammel’s career and create a competitive culture.

“When we see one guy go out there and dominate, the next one in line wants to go do it,” Hendricks said. “It fuels all of us.”

Of course, the Cubs would love to have a Urias, who put together 27 consecutive scoreless innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City before facing the New York Mets last week at Citi Field, becoming the youngest starting pitcher to debut in The Show since Felix Hernandez with the Seattle Mariners in 2005, and the youngest in the National League since Dwight Gooden in 1984.    

Maybe Urias (0-1, 9.39 ERA) someday reaches those heights and becomes the next great pitcher at Dodger Stadium. But the Cubs roughed up Urias for six runs – five earned – including back-to-back homers from Heyward and Bryant in the fifth inning.

And the Dodgers (28-27) couldn’t generate any momentum while Baez was making spectacular plays at second base, diving to catch a line drive and flipping a ball from his glove to first base. Remember, the Cubs are so deep that manager Joe Maddon thinks one of his utility guys is one of the best defenders in the NL. 

“We got a great lineup,” Baez said, “and we all can play defense.”

So Cubs scouts and executives will gather for meetings on Friday in the state-of-the-art Wrigley Field clubhouse, preparing for next week’s draft and hoping to identity a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the future.

But if not, the Cubs will keep taking their chances on change-of-scenery guys and bounce-back candidates and a relentless offense. It’s impossible to argue with those results now.

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

Normally baseball trivia is consumed by the average fan in a question-answer format.  Today, we are going to try something different.  I’ll name a player from Cubs history, present a little background of that player, then finally reveal why the player is relevant in terms of 2018 Cubs trivia.  Let’s get started.

Ted Savage
Savage was the 1961 International League MVP for the Buffalo Bisons. After a promising rookie season with the Phillies, he was traded to the Pirates and ended up bouncing around the league for several seasons. In all, the outfielder played nine Major League seasons with eight different teams. His finest season was 1970 when he played for the Brewers in their first season in Milwaukee (they had been the Seattle Pilots in 1969), hitting .279/.402/.482 with 12 HR & 10 SB. 

In 1967 Savage was purchased by the Cubs from the Cardinals. He appeared in 96 games for Chicago, and he stole seven bases.  Three times he stole second.  Twice he stole third.  Twice he stole home.  And no Cub would again steal home twice in a season… until Javier Báez in 2018. 

Fred Pfeffer
Fred Pfeffer hit one home run in 85 games in 1882 as a rookie for the Troy Trojans.  He hit one home run the following season in 96 games for the Chicago White Stockings (the team we know today as the Cubs).  He hit 25 home runs in 1884.  This wasn’t really an incredible power surge, since the fences at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were about 180 feet away and prior to that season anything over the fence was a ground rule double.  Three of his teammates also hit at least 20 homers.  They ended up moving to a new park the next season.  But still, Pfeffer was the second baseman of the dominant Chicago teams of the 1880s. 

Back to that 1884 season.  Pfeffer not only hit 25 home runs that season, he also knocked in 101.  And he even made an appearance on the mound.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Because Anthony Rizzo also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBI and a pitching appearances this past season. Rizzo and Pfeffer are the only players in franchise history to do that.  Of course Rizzo had a higher degree of difficulty.

Ellis Burton
A switch-hitting outfielder, Burton played for the Cardinals for eight games in 1958 and 29 games in 1960.  After some more time in the minors, he resurfaced with the Indians in 1963 and was purchased that May by the Cubs. August 1963 was easily the most eventful month of his Major League career.  On the first of that month, he homered from each side of the plate – the second Cub ever to do that; the other was Augie Galan on June 25, 1937.  On the final day of August he had perhaps his finest moment.  The Cubs trailed Houston 5-1 entering the bottom of the 9th inning.  It was 5-2 with two outs after a pair of flyouts, three singles and a walk.  Burton stepped to the plate to face Hal Woodeshick (who replaced Hal Brown – unlikely we’ll ever see a two-Hal inning again), and hit an ultimate grand slam – a walkoff grand slam with the team down three runs.  

It was a feat which wouldn’t be duplicated by a Cubs batter until David Bote turned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win with one swing of the bat on August 12 against the Nationals.