"It's something that keeps us up at night."
That's how Cubs senior VP Jason McLeod summed up the state of the organization's pitching development while at the fan convention last month.
Rob Zastryzny still stands as the most impactful drafted-and-developed pitcher to come up from the Cubs minor league system under Theo Epstein's front office and the left-hander has just 34.2 career innings in the big leagues.
That lack of success has been the Cubs' Achilles' heel for years and it's come to something of a breaking point given how much money the team has to invest in pitching in 2019.
So the Cubs are changing tactics a bit in their farm system. It's time to dial up a sense of urgency in every aspect of the organization.
"[In the past], I would say that we definitely wanted to err on the side of being cautious and conservative," McLeod said. "If there was anything going on with the pitcher — arm soreness, felt a little tweak with the elbow, certainly with the high school pitchers — [we backed off.] We were trying to put in such a structure progression through Years 3 and 4 that we probably could've pushed guys in our early days.
"As we sit here five or six years later, not to be egregious about anything, but we'll probably be a little bit more aggressive."
Put simply: The conservative approach hasn't worked for the Cubs and they're going to try to push the limits (within reason) in 2019 and beyond.
"I think there's an overwhelming sense of urgency throughout the organization," McLeod said. "I know Theo brought it up [at Cubs Convention]. When I say that, it's an urgency of doing something to impact the organization. Not being complacent, not being safe, not being conservative.
"It doesn't mean pushing someone who's not ready for it, but I also think there is gonna be more of a 'let them show themselves' if they're ready to help us, so to speak. We know exactly where we are with that. This is probably the first year I can confidently sit here and feel like we have the guys that can help the team in the major leagues this year if needed."
That's crucial now more than ever. The Cubs had the oldest pitching staff in the National League last season and that collective number is only going to increase as guys like Jon Lester and Cole Hamels inch closer to the twilight of their careers while no young pitchers are coming up to help augment the bullpen or rotation.
"We've gotta be better than what we've been," McLeod said. "We know what we are from the major league standpoint with our club and players that are getting into their arbitration years. It's just on us. We can't keep celebrating Kris Bryant and the 2013 draft.
"[The lack of impact pitching is] an obvious — it's so obvious it's not even an elephant in the room. It's something that drives us every day. I think we made a great hire in [minor league pitching coordinator] Brendan Sagara last year. He already is really good. I like the players we have in our system. This is the best I've felt after 8 years and I am bullish on some of those guys."
Will 2019 finally be the year that rewrites the narrative of the Cubs' pitching development?
If so, the impact arms will likely come from the following list:
Alzolay is no longer the consensus top pitching prospect in the Cubs system, but he still may hold the highest upside and is probably closest to the big leagues. The 23-year-old right-hander was shut down in May last year due to a lat injury, so he'll have a pretty stingy innings limit.
That means the most likely path to Chicago comes via the bullpen. The Cubs still see Alzolay's long-term future as a starter, but they want to protect his arm in 2019 and won't push him too far. Plus, it would take several injuries for a spot to open up in the big-league rotation given the five starters in place plus Mike Montgomery, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as starting depth.
The Cubs have been touting Alzolay for a while and 2019 may finally be the year we see him in Chicago.
Duane Underwood Jr.
Roughly seven months after Epstein's regime came into power at Clark and Addison, the Cubs front office drafted Underwood with their second-round pick. That should give you an idea of how long Underwood has been among the Cubs pitching prospects.
We're still waiting for that breakthrough from the right-hander, but he's still young (he doesn't turn 25 until July) and made his long-awaited MLB debut last year, impressing in a 4-inning spot start in Los Angeles.
The Cubs have been cautious with Underwood since they made him the 67th overall player selected in 2012 out of high school, but the training wheels have slowly come off — he threw 125.1 innings in 2018 after accounting for 138 innings in 2017. Still, the results have been underwhelming — 4.53 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7.9 K/9 in 27 outings (20 starts) with Iowa last season.
Underwood is on the cusp of cracking the big-league roster, but it's still unknown what his long-term role will be.
"Duane's in this area right now where we're gonna develop him as a starter still," McLeod said. "I think it's really up to him — is he gonna grab on to it? I absolutely believe in his ability to pitch out of the bullpen if needed, which makes you feel good. If Alzolay's healthy and Underwood, then we can go get those types of guys and break them in in the bullpen — pitching 2 innings at a time maybe."
The 6-foot-7 right-hander is not a household name yet and hasn't been included on any top prospect lists, but he's on the cusp of becoming a legitimate big-league option. Mekkes — a 10th-round pick out of Michigan State University in 2016 — has shot up through the Cubs system and dominated at every stop, including a 0.81 ERA in Double-A and 1.44 ERA in Triple-A last year.
Mekkes doesn't have elite velocity, but the Cubs love how he pitches to his big frame and a deceptive motion that hides the ball from hitters. That's led to a lot of swings-and-misses in the minors — a career 11.6 K/9 rate, with 71 whiffs in 53.2 innings last season.
"He's kind of a big guy with a lower slot with a high-riding heater that guys can't get on for whatever reason," McLeod said.
The 25-year-old righty has flown under the radar since the Cubs selected him in the 9th round of the 2016 draft, but that may be changing in a hurry. During McLeod's "Down on the Farm" panel at Cubs Convention last month, he mentioned Robinson by name more than any other pitcher in the organization, talking up the 6-foot-6 starter.
Robinson is a product of Dartmouth College just like Kyle Hendricks and McLeod was quick to draw a similar parallel between the two pitchers in how they execute a gameplan, throw strikes and consistently get outs without elite "stuff."
Robinson has a career 2.78 ERA and 1.198 WHIP over 288 minor-league innings and turned in a strong showing (8-4, 3.11 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) in 26 starts last season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. He'll start the year at the Cubs' top minor-league affiliate — one call away from joining the big-league rotation or bullpen should injuries strike.
It's impossible to predict how the next 7-10 months will play out, but the Cubs would love for a guy like Robinson to force their hand and potentially become a long-term answer in the MLB rotation.
"Who knows what's gonna happen with the club in future years, but I feel good about the depth and I feel like we have guys that can step in and be rotation pieces," McLeod said.
The 23-year-old has been a fast riser in the Cubs system since they made him a 3rd-round selection in 2017. Thompson reached Double-A last year, making 13 starts with a 4.06 ERA and 1.40 WHIP with Tennessee and figures to be a part of the Triple-A rotation at some point early in 2019.
The Cubs love Thompson's competitiveness and the way he pitches off his fastball.
"Whether it's this year or next year, I'd be very surprised if you don't see him in Chicago," McLeod said.
Miller is another unknown, but don't expect that to last for long. McLeod couldn't contain his enthusiasm for the 23-year-old righty when speaking about him last month:
"I'm so excited to see what Tyson does when he shows up because of the year he had last year. ... He got stronger as the year went on and he's a guy I'm really excited to see what he does in Double-A. He finished so strong, the velocity was there at the end of the year, he can pitch off his fastball, it's got that natural cut-life to it and he's just a big, physical monster."
The 2016 4th-round pick spent all of 2018 with Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, going 9-9 with a 3.54 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and struck out 126 batters against only 35 walks in 127 innings.
He's still probably a couple years away from the big leagues but another good season in 2019 could be enough to throw his name in the ring as a potential long-term option for the MLB rotation.
Hatch has been a poster boy for the cautious, conservative approach the Cubs have had with their minor-league pitchers. He was the organization's top draft pick in 2016 (3rd round) but he missed all of 2015 with a sprained ligament in his elbow and the Cubs opted to let him rest and simply watch during his first foray into pro ball after a high workload at Oklahoma State in spring 2016.
However, when he's been on the field, Hatch has turned heads. He started 26 games for Tennessee last season, going 8-6 with a 3.82 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 7.3 K/9.
He'll likely begin 2019 in the Iowa rotation in his age-24 season.
The Cubs added the 23-year-old southpaw to their 40-man roster this winter so they wouldn't lose him in the Rule 5 draft. His 2017 season ended early due to Tommy John surgery, but he made a quick recovery — posting a 2.31 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 in 11 starts last year between Rookie ball, Myrtle Beach and Tennessee.
Steele will have an innings limit in 2019 and McLeod said he'd probably start the year in the Double-A rotation again.
The 23-year-old right-hander was named the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 and made his Triple-A debut last year to solid results (3.89 ERA, 1.36 WHIP).
Clifton found his name at No. 87 on Baseball Prospectus' top prospect list prior to 2017 before a tough season in Double-A removed some shine from his status. He figures to begin the year as a part of the Iowa rotation.
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