McNutt Blossoms Into Late-Round Steal For Cubs
Really good players can slide though baseball's draft, although not often. Yet no matter how much money teams spend trying to identify future major leaguers, how large the legion of area scouts and crosscheckers who drive endless miles and sit through game after mind-numbing game all across the United States, it does happen.
Meet 21-year-old Trey McNutt, who Cubs general manager Jim Hendry points to as a guy who could reach the big leagues this season, his second full year as a pro.
"He's been our best pitcher since he signed," Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita said.
A 32nd-round pick in the 2009 draft from Shelton State (Ala.) CC, McNutt shot from the low Class A Midwest League to the Double-A Southern League last season. He enters 2011 with the Cubs waiting for him to face some adversity—he has a 2.19 ERA in 144 innings.
Fleita says McNutt caught his eye almost immediately when he threw alongside the Cubs' other minor league pitchers a year ago.
"He throws strikes,'' Fleita said. "Around here, you really love the guys who throw strikes. He got here throwing strikes and he just kept throwing strikes. He threw too many strikes for us not to notice him.''
He Seems Hard To Miss . . .
Hitters notice McNutt, as well. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, he commands attention. And while he's around the strike zone, he's hardly a comfortable guy to face. McNutt's fastball is generally in the mid-90s but can spike to 98 and his breaking ball is also a plus-plus pitch. It changes planes like a curveball but has the sharp lateral movement of a slider, diving toward the back foot of lefthanded hitters.
According to sources, McNutt was one of the few players the Cubs put off limits during their trade talks with the Rays about Matt Garza. They ultimately dealt two other top prospects, righthander Chris Archer and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, but would not have made the deal had the Rays insisted on McNutt being included.
Greg Maddux, the future Hall of Famer who serves as a special advisor to Hendry, worked closely with McNutt in the Midwest League at the start of 2010. He's given him his stamp of approval, and Hendry weighs that heavily.
"I thought I was going to be in Florida this year," McNutt told MLB.com. "They had just put Archer on the 40-man and he had a real good year last year and I thought I was going to Tampa. We got on the Internet and I saw they traded Archer instead, and thought, I got lucky there."
Maddux continued his work with McNutt this spring, concentrating more on finer points of pitching than mechanics.
"Greg coming into Peoria last year was huge to my success," McNutt said. "He taught me how to pitch. I was throwing 95, 97, and I just dropped down to 90 to 94. I can still run it up there, but I enjoy trying to hit my spots and setting up hitters.''
Like almost all young pitchers, McNutt gets excited in high-profile situations. He had trouble relaxing when he got a chance to pitch in three Cactus League games, overthrowing and getting behind in counts.
"He just has to pitch down,'' Fleita said. "After that, it's all experience . . . The kid has good enough command he should be able to do that. You have to keep the game simple. A lot of people think the game is different when you start moving up, but it's not. Just keep it simple.''
Yet Most Teams Missed Him
So how did a strike-thrower with good stuff and the ability to learn slide to the 32nd round? How did 979 players get picked before McNutt?
There's no one answer. He wasn't a guy who pitched in showcases as a high school prospect, and even if he had he might not have landed on the radar, as he was something of a late bloomer. He wasn't throwing his best early in the 2009 season, but he had an advocate in Shelton State coach Bobby Sprowl, who pitched in the big leagues for Boston and Houston.
Sprowl says he knew McNutt had "everything they're looking for'' in the starter kit for a big-league pitcher. "He's got all the attributes,'' Sprowl said in 2009. "It's just a matter of putting it together consistently.'
When McNutt's velocity returned late in the season, Sprowl worked the phones to try to get teams to take a second look at him. The Cubs had their hands full with the draft approaching and were handicapped by having had their Alabama area scout quit earlier in the season. They would not have scouted McNutt had his team not advanced in the playoffs, eventually reaching the Junior College World Series.
Scout Al Geddes and crosschecker Jim "Crawdaddy'' Crawford were blown away by McNutt's potential.
"Crawdaddy said, 'This guy is almost too good to be true,' " scouting director Tim Wilken said. "He said he couldn't understand why everybody wasn't on him … Based on those reports, we should be ashamed of ourselves for waiting until the 32nd round to take him."
McNutt signed with the Cubs for $115,000, which looks like some of the best money they've ever spent.
He'll start 2011 with Double-A Tennessee, where he was winless in three starts last season, but his ceiling keeps moving higher. He needs to build durability, as he's worked only 117 innings in his 25 starts last season, so he'll be watched carefully this season. Look for him to work 160-180 innings, and after that he's a candidate to turn in 200 in 2012. No one will be shocked if those are in the National League.