When Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod took over the organization, the pitching cupboard was almost bare. There were no front line pitching candidates on the horizon — there really weren’t any good bets even lower in the system. There were a few good arms: Trey McNutt, Dillon Maples, Dallas Beeler, and Ben Wells to name a few, but injuries have slowed down the progress of those pitchers.
Because of that, it seems that when we talk about the farm system and the MLB Draft, we talk about how the Cubs need to add pitching. The Cubs have not spent a first round pick on a pitcher since Hayden Simpson in 2010 and haven’t had one make the majors since Andrew Cashner in 2008 — and they haven’t spent a top 10 pick on a pitcher since Mark Prior in 2001 and Kerry Wood in 1998. The Cubs have instead chosen to attack the problem with volume. The thinking here is that pitching is higher risk and at the top of the draft you want — as much as possible — to mitigate that risk. You’ll take that “sure thing” like Prior if he he’s there, but as we saw in last year’s draft, even the slightest doubts will steer the Cubs toward the position player. The Cubs were prepared to take the well-established Mark Appel, but were not ready to make the same commitment to a rising one year phenom like Jonathan Gray — at least not over the best position prospect in Kris Bryant.
So how has the Cubs strategy worked so far?
Well, it’s one thing to say you are going to attack pitching with volume but the larger question is, how do you acquire the volume in the first place? The rules for compensation in the draft have changed since the front office’s first year here so they’ve had to be creative. Much of that volume has had to come through this front office’s willingness to acquire short term assets and convert them to long term assets via trades.
So lets’s go back and take inventory. Here are the FO’s best pitching acquisitions since arriving in Chicago…
- Letting Aramis Ramirez go for comp pick: That compensation pick turned out to be Pierce Johnson, whom some would argue is the Cubs best pitching prospect right now. Johnson finished the year a combined 11-6 with a 2.71 ERA with 43 walks and 124 strikeouts in 116.1 innings. What’s even more encouraging is that he got even better once he moved up to the Florida State League (6-1, 2.21 ERA, 2.95 FIP).
- Letting Carlos Pena go for comp pick: That pick turned out to be Paul Blackburn and while he is not as well known as Johnson in prospect circles, he may have the greater long term potential. Blackburn is a pitcher who has a chance to put all the desired skills together: command, velo, secondaries, and makeup. I consider him a top 10 prospect with the Cubs, though I may be in the minority on that one. Blackburn had an up and down year at Boise (2-3, 3.33 ERA; 4.35 FIP) but came on strong in the playoffs, chalking up two dominant performances that showcased his ability to throw strikes and miss bats.
- The Sean Marshall deal: A deal that wasn’t very popular at the time but many saw this as a great deal from day one because it was a chance to acquire a young, cost-controlled LHP for one year of a relief pitcher. Travis Wood has turned out to be more than a cost-efficient back of the rotation guy. He has arguably been the Cubs best pitcher this year, going 9-11 with a 3.05 ERA (3.86 FIP) and he’s still just 26 years old.
- The Ryan Dempster deal: Perhaps one of the Cubs most resourceful deals, they were painted into a corner by Dempster’s no-trade clause and desire to go to the Dodgers. When it became apparent the Dodgers weren’t prepared to give up anyone the Cubs liked, they quickly turned to the Rangers at the last minute and picked out two sleeper prospects from a deep system. The pitcher in that deal was Kyle Hendricks, who didn’t even make Baseball America’s top 30 list but has since become the odds-on favorite for Cubs minor league pitcher of the year. He has put up video game numbers at 13-4 with an even 2.00 ERA between AA and AAA. He has walked just 1.8 batters between the two levels and showed little signs of slowing down after being promoted to the hitter friendly PCL, posting a 2.48 ERA (3.18 FIP). Whereas once some considered him a sleeper prospect (Keith Law even called him “an organizational arm”), most evaluators now believe he has a chance to be a #4 starter in a big league rotation.
- The Jeff Samardzija conversion: This is lower on the list because, technically, this wasn’t the front office’s idea. It came from Samardzija himself and Hendry promised to give him that chance. The new front office honored that promise and, with their guidance, Samardzija has run with it. It looked like his career was coming to a crashing halt in 2010, but Samardzija has become the Cubs best pitcher from an advanced metrics standpoint (3.68 FIP/3.47 xFIP), though he hasn’t had the same successful results as Wood. He has top of the rotation stuff, but so far his lack of plus command and general inconsistency has made him more of a mid-rotation guy. He’s still just 28 with very low miles on his arm, especially in the all-important early stages of his amateur and pro career.
- The Paul Maholm deal: The Cubs got a bargain deal with Paul Maholm, who had questions about some nagging shoulder issues and waning velocity prior to his free agent season. The Cubs signed him to a one year deal with an option and he quickly became the most reliable pitcher on the Cubs staff in 2012. The Cubs seized on the opportunity to deal him at high value for Arodys Vizcaino, who was ranked as the #12 prospect in all of baseball per Keith Law in the previous season. Injuries have changed his outlook but from a pure talent standpoint, Vizcaino could well be the Cubs best pitching prospect — maybe their most talented pitcher period. But obvious health and stamina questions have derailed him so far and Vizcaino’s status as a starting pitcher is very much in doubt for now — but if he can’t stick as a starter, he has the chance to be a dominant closer.
- The Matt Garza Deal: This was a deal that was supposed to go down last year but Garza had one of the worst-timed injuries in recent memory as he hurt his elbow shortly before the Cubs were ready to send him to Texas for Mike Olt and LHP Martin Perez. The Cubs did eventually get Olt, but the injury cost them Perez. As a consolation prize, the Cubs picked up the fast rising CJ Edwards and those who don’t think Pierce Johnson is the Cubs top prospect will point to Edwards as the Cubs top minor league arm. Edwards has been ridiculous all season long, going a combined 8-2 with a 1.86 ERA. In 116.1 innings — the same as Johnson, he has walked 41 batters and struck out an incredible 155. He was even more dominant in the playoffs, twice combining for one-hit shutouts. Those who question Edwards long term viability have concerns about his slight build and still underdeveloped secondaries, but I’ve heard from one top evaluator who sees him as a #3 starter with the only question being whether he could handle the load of a TOR starter long term. As if Edwards wasn’t enough, the Cubs also picked up Justin Grimm, who has a shot to be a back of the rotation starter and Neil Ramirez, who has #3 stuff, but delivery and command concerns make him a likely bullpen candidate, where he has enough arm to profile as a late inning guy.
- The Scott Feldman Deal: One of the front offices most inspired moves, the Cubs took a career 5th starter/swingman and correctly gambled he was due to put up some legit starter numbers. He did and like the Maholm situation, the Cubs capitalized and sold high, picking up a couple of live but erratic arms in Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Strop has had a huge, immediate impact on the bullpen but the people I talk to aren’t convinced he can maintain that level of control/command for very long based on his history. So the jury is still out there. The gem of the deal may be Arrieta, who uses an easy, clean delivery to generate mid to high 90s heat and a slider that can reach 90. The stuff screams TOR. The command screams bullpen. Either way, the Cubs should get impact but if he figures out how to command his filthy repertoire, this deal will go down as one of the biggest Cubs steals in recent memory.
- The Alfonso Soriano Deal: Soriano has lit up the scoreboard for the Yankees and has vaulted them into the thick of the pennant race, but there is no question he was a short term player for the Cubs. They will miss him this season and next year from many aspects but the Cubs did well to move on and get a piece that may help them in the future. Corey Black is undersized at 5’11”, 175 lbs but possesses a lightning bolt for an arm, able to hit the high 90s and often sitting in the mid 90s. His numbers weren’t special with the Yankees but the Cubs let him loose and he responded by going 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA and striking out a shade over 10 batters per 9 IP (26.7% K rate). His role is almost certainly going to be in the bullpen, but acquiring this kind of arm for a player that didn’t fit your plans has to be considered a steal.
- The Scott Hairston Deal: Who’d have thought that a last minute signing like Hairston — who went on to have the worst statistical season of his career, would turn into anything useful? I’ve received mixed reviews on Ivan Pineyro, who is really a guy who relies on changing speeds and command more than pure stuff, but there is no question he does that very well. He has gone 9-4 with a 3.29 between two levels and two organizations, walking just 31 while striking out 111 in 125.1 innings. What Pineyro lacks is a true out pitch and instead relies on keeping hitters off balance with a very good change-up and good location. As we’ve mentioned in the past with Hendricks, that makes his margin for error increasingly small as he moves up the ladder, but Hendricks has proven he can adapt with each league. Will the Cubs strike gold again? Pineyro sharpened his command upon joining Daytona (1.8 walks per 9 innings) while continuing to miss enough bats. He also did his usual good job of keeping the ball in the park. His FIP of 2.89 bodes well for his numbers next season.
- The Tony Campana Deal: This is the 3rd consecutive deal mentioned here where the Cubs traded a player who simply didn’t fit and had no long term future on the team — and still turned him into something useful. The Cubs seized on D’Backs managers obsession with grit and effort over talent and turned speedster Campana into two very raw young arms with intriguing potential. The more advanced of the two arms is Erick Leal, whom the Cubs brought stateside to pitch with the rookie level AZ team. The 18 year old Leal posted a 2.77 ERA (2.28 FIP) in 48.2 innings with a strikeout/walk ratio per 9 IP of 9.62/1.48. 17 year old Jesus Castillo may have the better raw arm and showed some promise in the VSL in just 19 innings before being shut down. I’m not aware of the reason, whether it was trying to preserve his arm at such a young age or if there is some physical injury – -but either way there is plenty of time for him to recover and develop considering his age.
Jury Still Out
What makes these deals even more important is that the jury is still very much out on the Cubs international acquisitions. Gerardo Concepcion has been a bust so far while Juan Paniagua has been derailed by visa issues and never recovered in 2013. The most successful acquisition in the Latin American market so far has been Armando Rivero, who profiles as a bullpen arm. The Cubs haven’t fared much better in the Pacific Rim where Kyuji Fujikawa suffered an injury that has already jeopardized his future as a Cub. The Cubs also missed out on the top arms including Yu Darvish and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Again, the Cubs most successful story may be a bullpen arm. This time it’s Chang-Yong Lim, but at 37, he is a short term solution at best.
Oh, did someone say Masahiro Tanaka?
The Tommy John Experiment
The Cubs looked to capitalize on what they hoped would be a market inefficiency in targeting pitchers with a past history of Tommy John surgery. So far that hasn’t worked out for them as Scott Baker, Arodys Vizcaino, Josh Conway, and Hector Rondon have struggled to stay healthy and/or effective. There is still some hope here and there have been encouraging signs from all of these pitchers at one point or another, but overall the Cubs haven’t been able to exploit this market the way they’d hoped so far.
The Cubs have done a remarkable job building up pitching depth through trades and comp picks, but they still lack that top level impact arm. C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson have the best shot of cracking the top 100 — and perhaps top 50 or better down the road as they continue to develop. Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija have given the current rotation a boost as well. Jake Arrieta has shown flashes. But, for now, there is no question the Cubs still lack that high level top of the rotation arm, so there is work to do — and some of that (ahem) should start with the international market. It’s also possible that this will be the year to gamble on that college arm in the MLB Draft — though we should expect that the Cubs will only take that arm if they feel he is truly the best player available.
Overall, however, there is no question that the Cubs have restocked the organization with promising arms and in time should be able to produce cost-controlled mid to bottom of rotation starters. At the same time, they should also develop an inexpensive, homegrown bullpen with the talented arms who don’t pan out as starters.