Cubs

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."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Lineups and leadoff men

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Lineups and leadoff men

Luke and Kap discuss the latest goings-on from Cubs camp, including Joe Maddon's recent talk about how he's going to handle his lineup card this season (0:45), the lack of a true lead-off hitter impacting the batting order (3:00), how Jose Quintana is working to improve his pitch arsenal (6:30) and what to watch for as the exhibition schedule begins (11:00).

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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The art of leadership: How Cole Hamels is teaming with Jon Lester to run Cubs clubhouse

The art of leadership: How Cole Hamels is teaming with Jon Lester to run Cubs clubhouse

"He works out A LOT. Like 10 times a day," a Cubs staffer told me as we discussed a good time to set up a spring training feature with Cole Hamels. 

The 35-year-old lefty is oftentimes one of the first guys to arrive at the facility and there are plenty of days where he's one of the last to leave, as he gets in multiple workouts. It's no secret the guy who goes by "Hollywood" on Players Weekend, spends an inordinate amount of time keeping his body in tip-top shape. His routines and work out techniques are already trickling down and catching the eyes of his Cubs teammates.

David Bote, for example, said Hamels suggested egoscue exercises, to help with his posture and aid in putting his body back into balance.

"Instantaneous results. I really haven't put on weight, maybe 3 pounds. But, I'm apparently 2 inches taller. I was just measured!" Bote said, chuckling. "It's amazing the effects better posture has on your daily routine. I'm more open in the chest and I have a better range of motion." 

That's just one example of the 20 million reasons the Cubs thought it was worth picking up Hamels' $20 million option this offseason, as we got into more detail here:

How about Ian Happ? He not only loves hitting the golf course with Hamels, but also picking his brain about the Philadelphia Phillies teams that kept their winning core together for a window contention from 2007-11.

"[He's explained to me] how, when you have a group that's been together for 4 years, you don't let things get stale," Happ said. "How do you keep things fresh and be able to keep learning from each other and keep playing together and keep getting better together?

"That's really an interesting discussion because they had that in Philly. They were good for six years all together and he was part of that young core. So, to learn from him on how that's managed by veterans, how accountable you have to hold guys and in what situations you can be firm, is really intriguing."

Meanwhile there's Jon Lester, the other veteran southpaw who has been asked to step up with Hamels and take on more of a vocal leadership role this year with the team. It's a topic the two might have discussed over a recent round of golf or at the Coyotes game they took in together on Valentine's Day:

Hamels may not be David Ross or John Lackey (who would have never put on that sweater), but he is a guy Lester respects immensely and one who can push him on the mound and as that "vocal leader" the brass is searching for. 

"Like Jon said, it is our time to kind of be that sort of person," Hamels said. "I know we're ready to do so. It's kind of an honor. When you're able to play the game as long as we have, that's the role that you get thrust into. There's some respect that you have towards that, especially from the guys that came before you. It's something that I know Jon and I are really going to take as far as we possibly can and getting the best out of everyone."

It's a fine line to walk as a starting pitcher and not a guy in the lineup every day, but it's apparent Hamels and Lester already have the attention of the Cubs young core. And it helps that group has made it clear they want to be coached and held accountable.

"It's a tough generation in what we can do and say now," Hamels said. "I know from when I came up, it was a lot different, but it's about understanding how to deal with it, understanding personalities and also understanding constructive criticism. I think for all of us, if you want to win, if you want to be a world champion, an MVP, the Cy Young, you have to play to a certain level and you have to maintain it.

"If you want to be that, you have to act like it and then you have to hold up your end of the bargain for eight months. And if we can all push each other to do that, you're going to see some amazing things." 

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