We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.
Next up: Is 2019 the year young pitchers finally come up from farm system to help in Chicago?
We're entering Year 8 of Theo Epstein's regime at Wrigley Field and Rob Zastryzny still has been the most impactful pitcher drafted and developed by this front office.
Zastryzny has 34.2 MLB innings under his belt, which leads the way for any pitcher selected in the seven drafts or signed on the international market by Epstein and Co. (Note: Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. are not included in this group, as they were both drafted by the Rangers, where they spent the first few years of their respective careers. But obviously both pitchers have been a huge part of the staff the last few years.)
Joe Maddon always says you could call this game "pitching" instead of "baseball" because of how important it is to have enough quality arms. But the Cubs have been forced to throw a bunch of money at their staff to fill holes instead of promoting from within with cost-controlled arms.
So when is that next wave of pitchers finally going to hit Chicago?
2019 looks like a strong bet to be the start of such a wave.
Top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay was considered as a choice to come up to the majors and start the second game of a doubleheader in Cincinnati, but the Cubs ultimately decided to keep him in the minor leagues. He later went down with a lat injury and didn't throw a pitch after May 29.
The 24-year-old right-hander is off to a slow start already this year as his spring was delayed by a side/back issue suffered in a bullpen right before the beginning of camp. He'll start the year with Triple-A Iowa, but he could potentially be the first arm called up if the Cubs need another guy in the bullpen.
With last year's injury, the Cubs will undoubtedly be cautious with Alzolay this year, putting an innings limit of some sort in place (maybe around the 75-inning mark). So if he does get called up, a spot as a reliever seems to make the most sense.
The ideal scenario for the Cubs might be to have Alzolay prove he can get big-league hitters out in the bullpen in 2019 and then pencil him in as part of the competition for the fifth starter's spot in the 2020 rotation (assuming Cole Hamels leaves after this season).
After Alzolay, the Cubs have a few other options who may make their way to Chicago in 2019.
Dakota Mekkes - a 2016 draft pick - has been dominant as a reliever while soaring up the Cubs system.
James Norwood and Duane Underwood Jr. may be another options for the bullpen after each got a cup of coffee in The Show last season.
Dillon Maples wasn't an Epstein draft pick (he was selected in 2011 in Jim Hendry's final year as GM), but if he could become a reliable part of the big-league bullpen, that would obviously be huge for the franchise. He struggled with control again last year and has 2 walks in 4.1 innings this spring, but he's also struck out 9 of the 18 Cactus League hitters he's faced in Arizona to date.
Left-hander Justin Steele - a 5th-round pick in 2014 - may be an option to consider in the bullpen late this year and still could have a future as a starter.
If a bunch of injuries hit the rotation, Duncan Robinson could get the call this year. A host of other arms (Tyson Miller, Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton) could follow in late 2019 or after.
Again, the key words in every one of these scenarios are "could" and "may." And who knows how many high-leverage innings this group of young arms would work even if they made it to Chicago.
At the moment, it doesn't look like any young pitcher will make that jump for the Opening Day roster. But if Pedro Strop is unable to get over this hamstring injury in the next couple weeks, that certainly creates an opening.
The overall state of pitching in the Cubs farm system is probably the best its been since Hendricks and Edwards came up, so better days very well MAY be ahead.
The complete 19 for '19 series:
19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?