Due to their free agent spending binge on Jason Heyward and John Lackey the year before the Cubs had surrendered their top two draft picks and had the least amount of draft capital in all of baseball heading into the 2016 draft. With just over $2.2M dollars to spend in the entire draft, or nearly $1M less than they had given just Ian Happ as the 9th overall pick the year before, the Cubs were not in a position to haul in any of the premier talents from the class.
Instead, the Cubs continued their approach of attacking the pitching deficiency in their system through volume, and did so like they had never done before, with 16 of their first 18 picks being used on pitchers. Given that their Major League club featured an aging pitching staff, but their lineup and Minor League system was stocked with young hitters, they refined their criteria even further. Each of the top 16 pitchers they drafted attended a four-year school. In fact, the Cubs did not select any players, pitcher or otherwise, from the prep or JUCO ranks until the 22nd round.
This was undoubtedly an effort to bring in a group of polished pitchers with a greater chance than a bunch of high risk prep arms, of having their development path aligning with the championship window opening up for the Major League club. If they could produce even one pitcher from this class that could serve as replacement in the Chicago rotation or even the back of the bullpen it could make the difference toward reallocating the money from the pitching staff to the young hitters once they approach free agency in a few years time. It was a tall task given the fact that the majority of Major League production yielded from the draft comes from players selected in the top two rounds.
Now that this group of pitchers has begun their second full season we can take a fairly accurate reading regarding how successful this draft class may one day become. If you would have asked me even a month ago I would have been lukewarm on the group, thanks mostly to a couple solid bets to one day contribute to the MLB roster, but not much them. It is now clear a month into the Minor League season, that a few of the upside gambles the Cubs did pick have taken a significant enough leap in their development that I also find myself pleased with the amount of depth that the class has produced as well.
At this point we can boil down the pitchers chosen to a core group of seven:
3 (104) Thomas Hatch - Oklahoma State University
4 (134) Tyson Miller - California Baptist Univeristy
5 (164) Bailey Clark - Duke University
9 (284) Duncan Robinson - Dartmouth College
10 (314) Dakota Mekkes - Michigan State University
11 (344) Michael Rucker - Brigham Young University
19 (584) Matt Swarmer - Kutztown University
The Cubs grabbed a pair of physically mature arms in Thomas Hatch and Michael Rucker. Both possessed a high floor as potential relievers thanks to already present low-mid-90s velocity and solid slider. Both checked in at roughly 6'1" and 190 pounds. Injury and transferring schools, respectively, forced each to miss development time at the collegiate level. Given the opportunity to refine their full repertoires as starters in 2017, both responded. Hatch developed an above-average changeup to go along with his above-average slider and fastballs. His changeup may not be quite as effective as Hatch's but Rucker has made his own into a solid offering and is capable of mixing in a curveball as well.
The team selected a number of other pitchers fitting a similar size profile. While most have already washed out of the org or chose not to sign in the first place, a couple are still still kicking around in. Reliever Chad Hockin (6th) began the year in Myrtle Beach but just went down with an elbow that required Tommy John surgery. Lefty reliever Wyatt Short (12th) is the only undersized pitcher the Cubs selected that was expected to stick around, and he has done just that, working at the back of the Pelicans bullpen.
Of the remaining five pitchers listed above, Bailey Clark checks in as the shortest at 6'4". The rest would form a hell of a basketball squad. Tyson Miller and Matt Swarmer are 6'5", Duncan Robinson is 6'6" and Dakota Mekkes is 6'7" and 250 pounds. The Cubs drafted another giant, 6'8" Stephen Ridings in the 8th, who is still trying to work things out in rookie ball. Other than Robinson and Mekkes, the rest of these pitchers had frames on the lean side that the team hoped would fill out once they turned pro.
Robinson and Mekkes both emerged last season along with Hatch and Rucker as legitimate prospects. Unlike the other tall pitchers, these two were physically mature already and more advanced in terms of their stuff. All four have begun the season in AA with the Tennessee Smokies. Robinson joins Hatch and Rucker in the rotation while Mekkes is entrenched as the club's closer.
Neither Robinson or Mekkes possess overwhelming stuff so they have needed to find other ways succeed. Robinson leverages his height, while using his smarts and diverse assortment of pitches, to keep hitters guessing. Mekkes uses his size and unorthodox delivery that features a low arm slot to create both extension and deception that helps his stuff play way up. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Mekkes becomes the first player from this draft class to debut with the Cubs. His ability to get big outs could come into play as reinforcement for the Chicago pen as early as this September.
The rest of the selections were high risk plays on upside. The early returns on these projects were not particularly strong. Bailey Clark battled nagging injury and the same command inconsistencies that plagued him during his tenure at Duke. Those issues caused him to be dropped from the Blue Devils rotation during his draft year and saw his stock fall from a potential 1st rounder entering the year to still being available in the 5th where the Cubs to snagged him. Meanwhile, Matt Swarmer and Tyson Miller were pitching to lukewarm results for Eugene and South Bend without significant advances in terms of velocity.
Clark was in a slightly different position than the other two as his issues were mostly health and control related. He regularly flashed a mid-to-upper-90s four-seamer, a hard driving two-seamer in the low-90s and hard breaking slider both at Duke and in his early pro outings. But the injuries prevented the stuff from remaining crisp at all times and his control issues too often left the pitches in the middle of the plate or out of the strike zone.
He has been a new man this season, however. Clark is getting ahead of hitters with his sinker and when he doesn't induce weak, early contact off it he is finishing them off with four-seamers up in the zone and sliders just off the plate. I would still like to see further refinement with his command, and for his slider to retain its tight break more consistently, but it is easy to envision his stuff playing at the back of a MLB bullpen in the near future.
The progress Miller and Swarmer have made from last fall to this spring is the real revelation and why I feel far more comfortable with the depth of the 2016 draft class. Miller was the more highly regarded of the two coming out. His lean, projectable 6'5" 200 pound frame and choppy mechanics screamed for a bump in velocity once professional coaches and weight rooms had a chance to work their magic on him. There wasn't much progress during 2017, but we are now seeing Miller consistently reach 93 mph with his fastball after spending a lot of time in the high-80s previously. The pitch appears to have a high spin rate causing late life and he is regularly blowing the pitch past hitters right now.
As he continues to fill out Miller could certainly find himself with a powerful four-seamer in the mid-90s or higher. His changeup and slider are still works in progress but both flash as average and occasionally more. The feel he gains for those two pitches will go a long way toward determining if he can remain a starter or if he becomes a power reliever like Clark.
The emergence of Swarmer is biggest surprise. A gangly 6'5" 175 pounds while sporting a funky high leg kick and deceptive over-the-top delivery, Swarmer was mostly in the high-80s with his fastball to go along with a solid slider when selected in the 19th round. His greatest strength was his advanced control and command. Swarmer began bulking up last season and is now up over 200 pounds. The additional strength and stamina has helped out in a big way as Swarmer is now sitting in the low-90s and touching 94 on the radar gun.
The other big development has been a potentially plus changeup. The addition of a second strong secondary offering, in combination with his ability to throw strikes gives him a much stronger chance of remaining a starter than I had previously evaluated. Since the start of 2017, Swarmer has struck out 131 batters in 122 IP while walking just 25 men. That K-to-BB ratio is the best in the system over that time period and has only improved this season as Swarmer recorded a 8.7-to-1 (26 K, 3 BB) ratio this April with the Pelicans.
Swarmer will turn 25 in September so you would like to see him pushed up the ladder and face more advanced hitters soon. He acquitted himself quite well during three emergency starts with Tennessee and Iowa in the 2nd half of last season, so a promotion to AA seems only a matter of waiting for an opening in the rotation there. That opening could well come once Hatch gets summoned to Iowa this summer.
Despite their heavy slant toward drafting pitchers the team even managed to unearth a couple of potentially useful position players as well. Shortstop Zack Short (17th) has emerged as a utility man (or more) prospect. Joining him with Tennessee to begin 2018 is another athletic infielder and potential utility man Trent Giambrone (25th). It is a long shot, but the top position player selected by the club, Michael Cruz (7th), is still toiling in South Bend but shows enough left handed pop at the plate and a developing game behind it, that he could one day factor in as a potential backup catcher.
As much as more infield depth will help, the real determining factor on whether the 2016 draft class will be considered a success, will lie with the Cubs ability to develop the pitchers. Between Mekkes, Clark and the potential starter as well, the Cubs are very likely to receive a boost to their bullpen over the next few seasons. If Hatch reaches his full potential or one of the late bloomers continue to develop there is a solid chance the Cubs could also receive the bonus addition of a cost-controlled MLB starter. Not a bad haul for a team without selections in the top two rounds and with the least amount of bonus money available to throw around at high upside prep pitchers later in the draft.