Chicago Cubs: Team’s top prospect list loaded with pitching talent
By Jake Misener
After years of developing homegrown position talent, the Chicago Cubs now boast a steady crop of young arms amongst the minor league ranks.
When Theo Epstein assumed control of Chicago Cubs’ baseball operations, he went all-in on drafting position players. There is far less risk in this avenue – and it paid off tremendously. Guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant all played integral roles in the team’s 2016 World Series championship.
This focus extended far beyond just the annual June draft. In trades, Epstein landed guys like Addison Russell, who paired up with Jim Hendry era holdover Javier Baez for one of the league’s best defensive defensive double play combos. But with that young core under control for the next few years, the team has now shifted its focus to pitching.
Entering the offseason, Chicago needs to fill 40 percent of its rotation. Who will close out ballgames for Joe Maddon in 2018? Also a question that needs an answer. In short, pitching will dominate the team’s moves in coming months. Epstein, however, is doing what he can to remedy this issue in the long-term.
Since 2011, the Cubs used five of their seven first-round picks on position players. The last notable first-round pitcher drafted by Chicago? Andrew Cashner – and that came back in 2008, nearly a full decade ago. With their first picks in the 2016 draft, however, Epstein bet on a pair of young arms – Alex Lange and Brendon Little.
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Stockpiling young arms
Due to trades that largely depleted the high-end talent in the farm system, both Lange and Little occupy spots on the Cubs’ top prospect rankings.
MLB.com has Lange fourth and Little fifth. Baseball America, meanwhile, ranks the same pair fifth and seventh, respectively. No matter how you slice it, though, pitching dominates the discussion.
BA lists eight of the Cubs’ top 10 prospects to be pitchers. The MLB.com rankings also has eight of 10 as hurlers. So which one of these arms will make an impact at Wrigley Field the soonest?
Some names to familiarize yourself with
Most of those top names likely won’t hit Chicago till 2019. But there are several players expected to play some role on the big-league team this season, including a guy we got a quick glimpse of last year in Jen-Ho Tseng.
The right-hander made two appearances with the Cubs in 2017 and didn’t exactly play well. He allowed five earned in six innings of work. That quick cup of coffee hardly inspired confidence in him, but given he’s won Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year twice now, there’s clearly something there.
On the bullpen side of things, Dillon Maples could have a shot at earning a big-league role come Spring Training. If you look at his numbers from six relief appearances in Chicago last year, you’d laugh at my mentioning his name. But take away one shoddy performance in a blowout loss to the Pirates and you’ve got some impressive numbers.
Control issues plagued him. He walked greater than a batter per inning with the Cubs in 2017. That being said, he’s clearly got swing-and-miss stuff. In those half-dozen appearances, Maples averaged north of 18 strikeouts per nine. In 17 Triple-A outings, the right-hander was just as effective, putting up impressive strikeout totals there, as well.
Young studs? Time will tell
As I mentioned, the Cubs have a lot of pitching higher ranked than Tseng and Maples. Guys like Adbert Alzolay (who we chatted about semi-recently), Jose Albertos and Oscar De La Cruz are all highly-regarded arms but will take some time to get to the big-league level.
In the meantime, expect Epstein to continue working through free agency and trades to fill the team’s needs in the interim. The Cubs have been linked to pretty much every quality arm on the market already this winter and are one of five reported finalists for two-way Japanese standout Shohei Ohtani, as well.
Next: Did Cubs make a mistake by non-tendering Rondon?
The years to come will be exciting. I’ve said it a million times: we live in the Golden Age of Chicago Cubs baseball. But it’s not too far-fetched to think we’ll soon see a team led by homegrown pitching as this group of arms makes its way to the Windy City.