In a recent conversation with a friend who lives near Chicago, it struck me that there might be a massive disconnect between local fans and those afar regarding the job the Cubs front office has done. In conversations with this friend and another Cubs fan, there was a lot of frustration with the rebuilding project. From afar, I’ve actually been pretty impressed. Yes, the Cubs have been an awful big league team since Theo Epstein arrived, but they were an awful team before he arrived. And when looking at the club’s future, the Cubs appear well-positioned to be in the middle of a very competitive NL Central pennant race in a few years. That struck me again after getting this week’s Ask BA question from what appears to be a more perceptive Cubs’ fan.
As always, if you have a question you’d like answered send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and hometown.
Q:Over the past few seasons there’s been a lot of focus on the crop of position players the Cubs are developing, and rightfully so. But I think the Cubs’ young arms get an unfair shake because they’re not as elite as the hitters, rather than for a lack of potential. This year’s draft is shaping up to be heavy on pitching at the top, with (Carlos) Rodon, (Tyler) Kolek, (Brady) Aiken and (Tyler) Beede standing out early on. The Cubs have been linked to Beede, so my question is this: If the Cubs end up with Beede (or one of the other three names mentioned), where would their crop of young pitchers stack up to other systems? I’d think Beede, (C.J.) Edwards, (Pierce) Johnson, (Arodys) Vizcaino and (Corey) Black would stack up with the top-5 from most organizations. Throw in depth like (Duane) Underwood, (Paul) Blackburn, (Rob) Zastryzny and (Kyle) Hendricks and it seems like the Cubs have some good arms on the way. Or am I just being a big homer?
BA:Picking fourth overall in a draft with an abundance of power arms, the Cubs should have their pick from a number of excellent pitching prospects. And yes, it does make some sense that the Cubs would be linked to Tyler Beede because Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator Derrick Johnson was Vanderbilt’s pitching coach during Beede’s freshman year in 2012.
But even if the Cubs add Beede or another top-notch arm to a farm system that currently includes C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks, Paul Blackburn and Corey Black, it still won’t match up with the young pitching of several other organizations. Chicago’s farm system has arguably the best group of position prospects in the game with Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara and more. On the pitching side, the cupboard is not nearly as full yet.
Edwards and Johnson are both Top 100 Prospects. Edwards projects as a front-line starter (if he holds up despite a thin frame) and Johnson looks to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But beyond them, the rest of the Cubs’ best current pitching prospects have some significant warts. Vizcaino missed all of 2012 and 2013 with injuries and has yet to prove he can throw 100 innings in a season. Hendricks is a touch-and-feel starter with a below-average fastball. Blackburn is just starting his first full pro season and Black is projected by many scouts to be a reliever.
Compare that group of young arms to the Astros’ starting pitching prospects (Jarred Cosart, Mark Appel, Mike Foltyniewicz, Lance McCullers, Vince Velasquez, Michael Feliz, Asher Wojciechowski, Josh Hader and Andrew Thurman); or the Red Sox (Henry Owens, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Trey Ball, Anthony Ranaudo, Brian Johnson and Drake Britton) or the Cardinals (Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzalez, Tim Cooney, Alex Reyes and Rob Kaminsky).
The Cubs lack depth and the number of potential front-end or middle-of-the-rotation starters when compared to those teams. It is, however, significantly better than the situation the Cubs have found themselves in for much of the past decade.
In 2004, the Cubs fielded a starting rotation of Greg Maddux (a Cubs’ draftee, although brought back as a 38-year-old free agent), Carlos Zambrano (signed by the Cubs out of Venezuela in 1997), Kerry Wood (Cubs’ 1998 first-round pick), Mark Prior (Cubs’ 2001 first-round pick) and Matt Clement (a Padres’ draftee acquired in a trade).
That was the highwater mark of homegrown Cubs’ pitching for quite a while. In the 10 years since, here’s a complete list of homegrown starters the Cubs have added to the rotation to make 15 or more starts in a season: RHP Randy Wells (2002 38th-round pick), RHP Casey Coleman (2008 15th-round pick), RHP Jeff Samardzija (2006 fifth-round pick) and LHP Rich Hill (2002 4th-round pick).
That’s four starters produced in a 10-year span. Of those four, only Samardzija, the club’s current ace, and Wells have had any stretch of success. And in Wells’ case, injuries ruined his career after two solid seasons.
Because of the lack of homegrown pitching, the Cubs have had to look elsewhere to fill out their rotation. The team has traded for current starters Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta while Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel and Carlos Villanueva (a fill-in starter) all were acquired as free agents.
The arrival of Edwards and/or Johnson should start to turn the tide on the arrival of Cubs’ homegrown arms, but it’s going to take years for the Cubs to fix their pitching problems. The hiring of Johnson and a revamped player development program should have a long-term payoff, but the position players are going to make an impact well before the homegrown pitching will.