Cubs

Will 2018 be the year Duane Underwood finally breaks out?

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USA TODAY

Will 2018 be the year Duane Underwood finally breaks out?

Duane Underwood Jr. is all that remains.

That sounds like a tagline to a horror movie and in a way, it is. 

The Cubs have struggled to develop any sort of impact pitching from the MLB Draft under Theo Epstein's tenure in Chicago and Underwood represents the only player left of the top three pitchers selected after Albert Almora in the front office's first Cubs draft back in June 2012.

Pierce Johnson — the first pitcher selected by the Epstein regime (43rd overall) — was released this winter after making one appearance with the big-league club in 2017.

Paul Blackburn — selected 56th overall — was traded away along with Daniel Vogelbach as part of the Mike Montgomery deal and after another trade (from Seattle to Oakland), made 10 quality starts for the A's last year.

Underwood was chosen third of that group — 67th overall in the second round — and he has yet to climb above Double-A, struggling to stay healthy throughout his six-year career.

Underwood was drafted ahead of guys like Alex Wood (85th overall), Edwin Diaz (98th), Chris Taylor (161st) and Jake Lamb (213th), who all played important roles for their big-league clubs in 2017.

Underwood, meanwhile, was in big-league camp last spring and failed to make an impact.

"Last year, he came up a little slow and had soreness in spring training," said Jaron Madison, Cubs director of player development. "He's a guy that has not stayed healthy for a full season yet.

"It's great for him to come out and show well in spring training but for us, it's more important he's ready for the whole season and can get through 140 games. And that way we can continue to build up innings and helping out the big-league level."

The Cubs rolled with Almora in that first draft (No. 6 overall), betting on a position player over the high risk associated with pitching. But they hedged their bets by selecting seven pitchers in a row immediately after Almora and drafted nine arms in the first 10 rounds.

Ryan McNeil was not one of those top three pitchers taken, but he is still in the organization, appearing in 28 games in 2017 as Underwood's teammate in Tennessee. McNeil had a bloated 5.79 ERA and 1.75 WHIP as he struggled with control (20 walks in 28 innings). 

Expanding that 2012 Cubs draft further, the rest of the pitchers taken are now out of the system (or out of baseball altogether):

Josh Conway (4th round) — spent 2017 in Independent League

Anthony Prieto (5th round) — out of baseball after 2013

Trey Lang (6th round) — out of baseball after 2014

Michael Heesch (8th round) — spent 2017 in the Independent League

Chad Martin (10th round) — out of baseball after 2013

It's those top three — Johnson, Blackburn and Underwood — who carried high expectations and as of yet, haven't provided meaningful innings for the Cubs. 

But there still may be some hope for the 23-year-old Underwood, even if he doesn't help out the big-league club as a starter.

Underwood has made all but five of his 100 career minor-league appearances as a starter, posting a 3.72 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 6.8 K/9. He made 24 starts in 2017, his highest total ever in a professional season.

Coming into 2018, the Cubs are hoping Underwood comes into big-league training camp in Arizona, turns heads, goes back down to either Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa and eventually helps the team in Chicago in some capacity.

"He has major-league weapons," Madison said. "He has matured a lot this past year and he had a very candid conversation with Theo in the middle of the year and kinda stepped it up and took charge of his career.

"He moved to Arizona full-time so he could work out all offseason and be prepared for the year. Assuming he's healthy, I expect him to come to spring training and impress some guys."

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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