Cubs

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish accomplished something Saturday he has never done in a Cubs uniform — he pitched at least 5 innings in three straight starts for the first time since signing that $126 million deal more  than 14 months ago.

That's not exactly an indicator that Darvish will be contending for the National League Cy Young this season, but it's certainly a step in the right direction from his previous 10 starts in Chicago.

Darvish lasted just 5 innings in Saturday's 6-0 loss to the Diamondbacks, needing 88 pitches to get through those frames before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning. 

He retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced, including a pair of strikeouts to end his last inning. 

Does he feel like he's still moving forward?

"I think so, especially that last inning," Darvish said. "The fifth inning — mentally — was very good. It's good for next start."

The end line Saturday wasn't great — 5 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs, 3 walks, 7 strikeouts, 2 homers — but he kept his team in the ballgame after giving up back-to-back homers to the second and third hitters of the afternoon.

He was still hitting 96 mph in the fifth inning and acknowledged he could've easily gone another inning if the Cubs weren't trailing 3-0 when his spot in the batting order came up.

"The fastball velocity came up as the game was going on, the breaking ball got sharper," Joe Maddon said. "...They got him quickly and then [Zack] Greinke pitched so well. I thought keeping it at 3, which Yu did do, and that's really not a bad thing after the beginning of that game. We just could not get to Greinke. 

"Had we been able to get back into the game, I think Yu's performance would've been looked on more favorably, because he actually did settle down and do a pretty good job."

Still, the Cubs need more than moral victories every time Darvish takes the ball.

Theo Epstein said earlier this month he doesn't think it's fair to issue a "start-to-start referendum" on Darvish, but this is 5 starts into the season now for the 32-year-old right-hander, who's walked 18 batters and served up 6 homers in 22.2 innings so far. 

Forget the salary or the big free agent deal. This is a four-time All-Star who has twice finished in the Top 10 in Cy Young voting, yet fell to 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 13 starts in a Cubs uniform. 

In those 13 starts, Darvish has walked multiple batters in 11 of them and allowed at least 3 earned runs in 8 outings. He's also averaged less than 5 innings a start overall, and that number is down to just 4.5 innings per outing in 2019. 

Darvish said he wants to pitch into the seventh inning (something he's never done as a Cub) and believes that would be great for his confidence that's been building — slowly but surely — since the start of the season. But he still has to get over that hump.

"His stuff's nasty — plain and simple," Jason Heyward said. "Any time I pitch with Yu in a video game, guarantee at least a 1-hitter. I feel like his confidence is just another thing he'll have to keep building on for himself. 

"Every game is different. Today was — I guess you could say — a step back or whatever. Last start was pretty good and next start, I know he's gonna come out and be hungry again. ... Today was one day. We got a long season. Hopefully next time we can scratch a few runs across."

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Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

The news on Brandon Morrow might not be so positive, but the Cubs did receive very good reports on their injured ace this weekend.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game against a couple of his Cubs teammates Saturday morning at Wrigley Field, tossing 45 pitches in total. In between "innings" of the sim game, Lester was also working out on the side in an effort to ramp up the intensity and simulate more of a game feel to see how his injured left hamstring will respond.

Lester initially went on the injured list two weeks ago after he was removed in the third inning of the Cubs' home opener on April 8, when he hurt his hamstring running the bases.

"[The sim game went] really well," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "I thought he looked very good. Pretty amazing where he's at already. ... Did not hold back at all, so it's very encouraging."

Maddon also said he thought Lester's stuff looked good from where he was watching behind the catcher and pointed out that the Cubs ace was "hypercritical of himself," indicating that Lester's focus was on competing and making good pitches instead of worrying about his hamstring or any physical limitations.

The Cubs don't have a next step mapped out for Lester just yet, as they will see how the 35-year-old feels Sunday after the "rigorous" activity Saturday.

There is currently no timetable for his return, but Maddon didn't rule out the possibility that Lester would be able to pitch sometime in the coming week.

The Cubs rotation has looked very good since Lester went down — combining for a 0.96 ERA in the last 7 games before Yu Darvish struggled early in Saturday's tilt with the Diamondbacks.

Tyler Chatwood gets the ball for the Cubs Sunday to close out the series against Arizona and then the team has Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels lined up for the first two games of the series against the Dodgers when they come to town Tuesday night. 

The Cubs won't need a fifth starter in the rotation again until next Saturday, April 27, so that could be a date to circle for a possible Lester return if all continues to go well in the veteran's recovery.

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