The Cubs haven't produced a homegrown starting pitcher in the Theo Epstein era. This seems almost impossible given their eye for talent. On the other hand, it does seem possible when you consider that the Cubs haven't made the same kind of investment in terms of draft picks. Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod picked 6th, 2nd, 4th, and 9th in their first 4 drafts, but none of those picks were pitchers.
The Cubs philosophy was to take advanced position players, particularly those with promising hit tools. And so the Cubs drafted Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ in those drafts. The tally is a starting CFer wth gold glove potential, an MVP, a World Series legend, and a top 2 prospect in their system.
It's not like the Cubs have completely ignored pitching. They drafted Pierce Johnson, Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, and Ryan McNeil all within the first 3 rounds in 2012. They drafted Rob Zastryzny in the 2nd round the following season. 2014 saw the Cubs invest a 2nd round pick on Jake Stinnett. In 2015, it was Bryan Hudson as a 3rd round overslot.
And then last season, the Cubs picked Thomas Hatch with their first pick in the draft, though once again it was not a first round pick. Hatch was a 3rd round pick as the Cubs gave up their first two picks to sign Jason Heyward and John Lackey.
So when the Cubs have invested a higher draft pick on a pitch, they have done reasonably well. All 7 pitchers mentioned are legitimate MLB prospects, though Blackburn was part of the deal that brought Mike Montgomery.
But the Cubs also attacked the pitching shortage in numbers and it has been some of their lower round gambles and modest IFA signings that may have the most impact potential.
The Cubs top 4 pitching prospects (in alphabetical order) are as follows...
- Jose Albertos
- Dylan Cease
- Trevor Clifton
- Oscar De La Cruz
While they may not have been high draft picks or the top IFA bonus babies, the Cubs have been creative. Albertos is a product of Mexico, a region that has been largely unexplored by scouts...until now. Cubs successes like Jose Albertos as well as position players Carlos Sepulveda and Isaac Paredes have brought attention to Mexican amateur baseball. The Cubs once had their pick of the litter, but now it seems other teams are in on the secret, so it is going to be more difficult from this point forward.
The Cubs did manage to snatch Albertos for a relatively cheap $1.5M, though it did not seem all that cheap at the time because Albertos wasn't widely known. Even I was mildly curious at first simply because I did not have a lot of information on him.
And then I saw him pitch.
Albertos surprised with a mid 90s fastball that touched as high as 97 as a 17 year old. He showed an advanced change-up and a curve that flashed plus. He also displayed unusually good command for a player of his age and experience. That the Albertos signing came and went relatively quietly and with some skepticism to boot just goes to show how little scouts had as far as the amateur ranks in Mexico.
If Albertos were to be made available today, there is no question he would bring about a bidding war, but the Cubs beat everyone to the punch and got themselves a potential ace where few were looking.
I saw Cease at the UA All-Star Game and he had the best fastball of any pitcher and quite possibly the best curve, though the curve was not on display that day. I gushed about the pick and this is what I wrote about him after seeing him at the UA game the previous August...
Dylan Cease isn't the biggest kid out there at 6'2", 180 but he showed a nice, easy delivery with tremendous arm speed that made it look like the ball was just exploding out of his hand. He also hit 97 on the stadium gun but did not have a feel for his secondary stuff yesterday.
But a questionable delivery and then the inevitable injury raised a lot of doubts shortly before the draft, so he dropped. And the Cubs, who had played the draft wisely in terms of allocating their pool money, pounced on the opportunity.
Cease lasted until the 6th round in 2014 but that didn't mean he was an easy sign. He had once been considered among the top 10 players in that draft class. There wasn't ever any chance he was going to sign for 6th round money. The Cubs were either going to pay him top round money and take the risk that came with the likelihood of Tommy John surgery -- or he was going to take his chances and try to re-establish his value in college.
The Cubs chose to take the risk at a price tag of $1.5M.
We know the Cubs get to know players very well before they invest and that was vital in Cease's case. They saw a kid who had the mental makeup to not just overcome that setback, but also to handle the pressure and load that comes with being a front line starter.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Cubs are ready to let Cease loose. He showed up this year at 6'2". 200 lbs of lean muscle. He is now far enough removed from surgery and strong enough physically to take on a significant innings load. The kiddie gloves are off.
In short stints, Cease has shown dynamic stuff: a fastball that has reached 100 mph, a curveball that one Cubs official compared to Dwight Gooden's and a moxy and focus on the mound that might make you think of Jake Arrieta. In fact, that was overheard in the stands in one of his extended spring games last season. One of his opponents sitting behind home half-jokingly said, "Did the Cubs send Jake Arrieta down here for rehab or something?"
Cease is working on two things: his change-up and his command. The change isn't going to be special. It isn't going to remind you of Kyle Hendricks -- but it doesn't have to. Cease understands that he needs the pitch to keep hitters honest and that velocity alone isn't going to carry him in the big leagues. While it doesn't have a ton of movement, he sells it well enough with his arm speed and occasionally gets some run. When he has thrown it well, it has drawn some weak swings and weak contact.
The command is improving as well. Cease can throw strikes and he doesn't miss by as much as we saw 2 years ago, but he is still working on throwing better strikes.
The last concern is the possibility of reinjuring that right arm, but Cease has smoothed out his mechanics a great deal and one scout I spoke with rated it a 4 on his personal 1-5 scale (5 being the best). His previous rating was a 2. Combine that with the added strength and physical maturity and it would seem that while it is impossible to control injury, you can at least minimize the risk. Cease appears to have done that.
Clifton is the most advanced pitcher on this list in terms of the level he has reached. He will start the season at AA Tennessee,. Clifton came to camp in his usual good shape, sporting the same athletic frame he has since he was drafted.
But that Clifton is considered the most "advanced" is a testament to his hard work. He was anything but polished when the Cubs drafted him in the 12th round, though they liked him enough to pay him well above slot at $375,000. What they saw in Clifton was not a finished product, but a good athlete with the hand strength to spin and the work ethic to make the most of his natural talent. I am not sure there is a pitcher in the system who has come further in terms of improving his mechanics, command, and secondary stuff as much as Clifton has.
Clifton broke through last year and is an across the board top 10 Cubs prospect now. Some see him as a 3rd starter on the strength of his 92-94 mph FB, plus curve, and much improved change which is beginning to look like it can also be an above average MLB pitch.
The key for Clifton in 2016, however, was the drastic improvement with his control and command, something that can be directly traced to his work to rein in his once violent mechanics and learning to repeat his delivery consistently.
AA is a big test for pitchers but Clifton seems ready for the task. His live BP session may have been the most impressive of the past 2 days. If he can build on what he started in 2016, then the Cubs could have a replacement for John Lackey as soon as 2018.
Oscar De La Cruz
Another creative find, De La Cruz was an oversized shortsop at 6'4", 200 lbs who signed for a mere $85,000 while we all had our eyes on Jorge Soler, Gerardo Concepcion, Juan Carlos Paniagua, and Frandy De La Rosa, the 4 bonus babies of that class.
As you might expect, De La Cruz is a good athlete with plus arm strength. He has since grown to 6'6" and now fills out that frame pretty well.
The added size has come with added velocity. De La Cruz will pitch in the 92-97 mph range and started to consistently hit those mid 90s last season. He complements that with a curve ball that can be a plus pitch for him at the MLB level. It is about 15-20 mph slower than his FB, so the speed differential can disrupt a hitter's timing.
The change-up is a work in progress and it wasn't very good when I saw it last spring. He often tipped it off by slowing his arm as well as leaving the ball up. Hitters were teeing off and I began to worry that he may end up a reliever.
The change has since improved and while it is still not consistent yet, there is a lot of room for growth. De La Cruz hasn't been a pitcher all that long and up until now, he has been able to get away with being an aggressive, intimidating power arm, not afraid to go inside on hitters to back them off the plate, then dropping the curve on the outer half to put them away. Given his inexperience, the Cubs feel he is just scratching the surface on that 3rd pitch and there are some believe it can even become an above average offering in time -- but time is the key word here.
Also working in De La Cruz's favor is his athleticism, which helps him repeat his low effort delivery easily. The control has always been solid despite his relative experience and above average command may soon follow.
There really isn't any question to me that these are the Cubs top 4 starting pitching prospects and that all have impact potential as #3 starters or better. They also have high floors because of their solid command and power repertoire. They all can be power relievers, though the Cubs are obviously hoping that they stick as starters.
It's an exciting time in the Cubs system as far as pitching goes. We really haven't seen this kind of talent since the days of Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Juan Cruz, and Angel Guzman to go with young MLBer Kerry Wood.
And there is talent behind them as well, including the pitchers we mentioned early in the article. Apart from those high draft picks, the Cubs are high on Adbert Alzolay, who possesses excellent arm speed and has a good feel for pitching, They also still have high hopes for lefties Jose Paulino, Justin Steele, and Carson Sands. Bailey Clark, a power arm who showed a lot of promise until some struggles in his junior year, has potential as both a starter and reliever. Lastly, the acquisition of Alec Mills gives the Cubs another potential starter, as does Eddie Butler, who is technically no longer considered a prospect. Once again the common theme here is the Cubs acquiring these arms through unconventional means, whether they be unheralded IFAs whom they helped developed, mid round overslots with something to prove, or post hype prospects who may just need a change of scenery.
Filed under: Uncategorized