While we focus on players and prospects, it’s the long-term organizational pitching health that the team is working hardest to repair right now. The Cubs are becoming more than respectable in terms of position player prospects with Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Dan Vogelbach, not to mention MLB’ers like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Welington Castillo, and possibly Brett Jackson.
The pitching is much more speculative as only Arodys Vizcaino is a consensus top 10 prospect among the pitchers and the only top arm at the upper levels. The Cubs view him as a starter, according to Cubs VP of Scouting Jason McLeod. Alberto Cabrera is another arm the Cubs are hoping to convert from one of their top RP prospects last season into perhaps a mid-rotation starter. Barrett Loux could also be a #3 or #4 starter. But they lack depth as far as power arms.
The Cubs do have some power arms: Pierce Johnson, whom the Cubs are very high on, Juan Paniagua (who reportedly hit 100 mph in Mesa), Duane Underwood, and others. But the Cubs have had good arms before, who can forget Bobby Brownlie, Luke Hagerty, Chadd Blasko, and Billy Petrick.
The problem with that second group of names isn’t that they were less talented, didn’t throw as hard, or didn’t have potential for a nasty breaking pitch. The real problem was that they got hurt. All of them.
The Cubs think part of the next marketing efficiency is a way to keep your young pitchers healthy. Much has been studied about pitch counts and mechanics but it seemingly hasn’t been enough as the Cubs have continued to fail to develop arms consistently.
So the Cubs took a bold step in hiring Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson, who has helped tutor David Price, Mike Minor, and recent 1st round pick Sonny Gray.
The hiring was immediately praised among Jason McLeod’s peers. The Cubs like Johnson so much that they’re even willing to tweak some of their Cubs Way manual, according to Baseball America,
McLeod says Johnson’s ideas fit well with those the new front office put into a manual for the organization. He said there have been some “tweaks” to the new Cubs’ Way since Johnson’s hiring, but that his influence will come mostly in one-on-one work.
Johnson believes something that may feel a little counter-intuitive to some. He believes they under-throw and under-prepare. He has a system but he keeps it flexible for the individual player. He’s known for producing pitchers who throw a lot, with a highly structured system for long-tossing, and is considered a gifted teacher who adapts his style according to the strengths and weaknesses of pitchers.
“I spend a lot of time striving to really get to know the player—where he’s coming from, how he operates, how he competes—and studying what will make him better,” Johnson said. “This game is about the players. It’s not about my program . . . it’s about figuring out how to foster a player’s development.”
Expect the Cubs to continue to purse arms in next year’s draft, starting with the #2 overall pick as they give Johnson more and more raw material with which to work. It’s going to be a process, but as we’ve seen, teams don’t give up upper level pitching talent all that easily. If you want guys like Taijuan Walker and Julio Teheran, apparently it’ll cost you a top young player like Justin Upton. The Cubs are not in that position right now, so they have to find alternative means to acquire top arms, though it’s going to take some additional development to get there. Luckily, the Cubs think they’ve found the guy in Derek Johnson to help them with that development process.
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