New Cubs Regime Finds Team In Need Of Pitching
CHICAGO—When Jason McLeod's cell phone rings, there's an explosion of guitars and percussion, with The Who soaring toward the epic vocals in "Baba O'Riley."
Perhaps it's a subliminal reminder for McLeod about the key question hanging over the Cubs as they head toward the second season for the Theo Epstein regime. That is, who are the pitchers that will lead them back toward the postseason when they are once again contenders?
For Epstein, Jed Hoyer and McLeod, the pitching landscape they inherited was a wasteland. A lack of pitching depth exacerbated by two midseason trades led directly to the Cubs' first 100-loss season since 1966, and the outlook for pitching—especially power pitching—was just as grim in the farm system. Nothing is more important for the new regime than addressing that shortage.
"I love pitching, and I may be biased, but to me our long-term success will be built on a foundation of pitching in the minor leagues," McLeod said. "How we ultimately succeed—and Theo, Jed and everyone here agrees—is by building up our pitching, adding and developing our pitchers, especially power pitchers."
Epstein's first year as Cubs president of baseball operations was marked by a buildup of young position players. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora were acquired to join shortstops Starlin Castro and Javier Baez and perhaps power-hitting first baseman Dan Vogelbach in forming an intriguing mix of parts to use in building a contender. But 2012 was a sobering one on the pitching front.
"From an organizational depth standpoint, we have depth in the upper levels but we're lacking in impact power arms, especially starters," said McLeod, a club vice president who is essentially the scouting and farm director. "We have some interesting bullpen arms, but we're lacking in power starters."
Hoyer, the general manager, and Epstein have said since last summer that rebuilding pitching is their goal. That was the focus when they traded Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm for Arodys Vizcaino from the Braves and Kyle Hendricks and Barret Loux from the Rangers (after Jacob Brigham was deemed damaged goods and returned to Texas).
While they didn't match the investments in Soler and Almora, the Cubs were able to sign Dominican righthander Juan Carlos Paniagua (who hit 100 mph on the radar gun in Mesa) and claim Missouri State's Pierce Johnson and high school righthanders Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood in the draft.
Dipping Into The College Ranks
Their most significant pitching move to date probably came in November. That's when Epstein and his staff persuaded college pitching guru Derek Johnson to leave Vanderbilt and become the organization's minor league pitching coordinator. McLeod's phone was busy after the announcement.
"I got a lot of calls and texts from around baseball," McLeod said. "They were saying, 'Wow!' and 'Great hire!' "
Johnson, a native of Normal, Ill., is a lifelong Cubs fan who was an all-Mid-Continent Conference pitcher at Eastern Illinois and began his coaching career there in 1994. He spent the last 11 years as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, with a highly decorated run as pitching coach. Johnson helped develop 32 pitchers who were drafted, including 2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price and fellow first-round picks Mike Minor and Sonny Gray. 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.
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.
"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."
Johnson believes pitchers often "under-throw, under-prepare," but that doesn't mean the Cubs will have a one-size-fits-all approach to training pitchers.
"What we do at Triple-A will be different from what we do in short-season (leagues), low A," he said. "We'll be trying to find certain things that will work for the individual."
When Epstein was hired, the organization's most highly regarded pitching prospects were righthander Trey McNutt, who had dominated in the low minors in 2010, and righthander Dillon Maples, who signed for $2.5 million in the 14th round of the 2011 draft after turning down a chance to play football and baseball at North Carolina. McNutt's development stalled until he moved to the bullpen midway through 2012, and Maples worked 10 innings in the Rookie-level Arizona League in his pro debut last season, which raised questions about his delivery and his health. He remains an intriguing arm, however, throwing in the mid-90s at the Cubs' complex in Peoria, Ariz.
Hayden Simpson, the Cubs' 2010 first-rounder, has never come close to throwing as well as he did at Southern Arkansas, leaving McLeod to say the hope remains he "finds his stuff again." Robert Whitenack, a pleasant surprise from SUNY Old Westbury, was added to the 40-man roster because of the promise he showed in 2011, but he hasn't been the same pitcher since having Tommy John surgery. Korean Dae-Eun Rhee will move to Triple-A in 2013 but hasn't shown more ceiling than former Texas A&M lefty Brooks Raley and Kentucky lefty Chris Rusin, who combined for a 7.17 ERA over 12 late-season starts with the Cubs.
Matt Loosen, a 23rd-rounder in 2010 who won 11 games and struck out 110 in 113 innings at Daytona last season, is poised to put himself on the radar in 2013. But the pitchers who will be watched the closest are the ones who have arrived since last June, especially Johnson, Vizcaino and Paniagua.
"If not for missing a couple of weeks during the (college) season with an elbow twinge, there's no way he would have been there (for us)," McLeod said of Pierce Johnson. "He's a first-round talent . . . quality arm, power curveball, runs his fastball up to 95, 96."
McLeod says Vizcaino showed "electric stuff" in the Braves' bullpen in 2011, which was why Epstein wanted him even though Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2012. He's a risky proposition but could have a higher ceiling than Randall Delgado, whom Epstein was close to acquiring before Dempster blocked a trade with Atlanta. The Cubs expect Vizcaino back on the mound by March and at full strength by June, with a chance to show he can be a big leaguer in 2014, possibly at the front of the rotation.
"We want to see what we have with him as a starter," McLeod said. "We've seen at times three quality pitches out of him—a big fastball, an electric slider (and a decent changeup)."
Epstein says the first day of the draft is the most important of the year, and that's certainly true this time around. The Cubs will pick second and hope to land the same kind of talent that came with that pick in 2001, when Southern California's Mark Prior was available after the Twins took Joe Mauer first overall.
It will be a shock if the Cubs don't take Indiana State lefty Sean Manaea or another power pitcher from the college ranks. Stanford's Mark Appel, Arkansas' Ryne Stanek, Mississippi's Bobby Wahl and Florida's duo of Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson will be scouted closely.
Manaea, who wasn't drafted out of high school, is the buzz guy after dominating the Cape Cod League in a summer when juiced balls led to an offensive explosion. He works in the mid-90s with a hard slider and has a funky delivery, like the White Sox's Chris Sale.
Given the need for pitching, don't be surprised if the Cubs double up on college arms, as they only have to wait until the 39th pick to draft again.
"You never know how a draft will unfold," McLeod said. "It would be very nice to be in that position. If something happens with a top guy, you might get two of them. The second pick is interesting too, not just the first one."