Chicago Cubs: Homegrown pitching will decide length of championship window
By Jake Misener
The Chicago Cubs must drastically improve their internal development of pitchers if they want to extend their current championship window.
If I read one more article updating us on Yu Darvish and what team he’s reportedly holding out for, I’m going to hurl myself off the top of a building. With that in mind, we’re going to talk about pitching – but not in the way it’s been discussed in regard to the Chicago Cubs for the last three months.
Darvish would be a really nice addition, to be sure. The same can be said for Alex Cobb, Jake Arrieta or even Lance Lynn (despite what some may believe). But these are interim fixes to a much deeper-rooted problem in Chicago.
This organization, under the leadership of Theo Epstein, has critically failed when it comes to developing in-house, big-league pitching. Now I don’t mean that in reference to the reclamation success they’ve certainly enjoyed. That’s near-irrefutable at this point. I say this regarding the drafting, development and successful Major League implementation of pitchers – especially starters.
Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic put together an outstanding piece focusing on this issue this week (subscription needed and recommended). In it, Epstein accepts his team’s shortcomings in this regard – but says the picture isn’t quite as bleak as some may believe.
"“For all the things that have gone right here the last five or six years, the thing we’ve had the least success is developing our own home-grown pitching,” Epstein said. “There’s no doubt about that … We did trade for Kyle Hendricks when he was in Low-A ball, so that doesn’t count as being drafted. We’ve traded away some impact pitchers we developed on our own who have gone on to have success in the big leagues.”"
A shift in mindset is already underway
To be fair, Chicago had used its highest draft picks on position players almost exclusively for a half-decade. Players like Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Javier Baez and Ian Happ – all of whom were taken in the first round – now occupy big-league roster spots. (Not to mention contributed in various ways to a World Series championship).
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When you’re using lower-tier picks, your odds for finding success decline. It stands to reason that top prospects are more likely, statistically, to make it to the Major Leagues. Using late-round picks usually means the team isn’t sure – and depends more on the player’s individual development.
But a change is at-hand. Last June, Chicago selected right-hander Alex Lange and lefty Brendon Little with their first two picks. Both hurlers already rank as Top 10 organizational prospects (fifth and seventh, respectively).
An entirely new debate exists in that fact, as well. Are they that talented or is the Cubs’ system simply depleted to a point we haven’t seen in a long time? Probably a little of both. And the lack of impact talent isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Take into account, as mentioned above, how many of their top prospects are on the big-league roster.
Once you factor in the Jose Quintana and Aroldis Chapman trades, everything makes a lot more sense.
Looking at the current pitching staff
Let’s start with the rotation. For argument’s sake, we’ll call Mike Montgomery the fifth starter at this point. The Cubs traded for Montgomery, Quintana and Hendricks and signed Jon Lester and Tyler Chatwood in free agency.
That gives us a grand total of zero homegrown innings from the staff. (Take into account Epstein’s point, though. The Cubs picked up Hendricks from Texas very early in his Minor League career).
Moving to the bullpen, Chicago figures to head into 2018 with a combination of the following guys: Carl Edwards (trade), Steve Cishek (FA), Justin Wilson (trade), Pedro Strop (trade), Justin Grimm (trade) and Brandon Morrow (FA).
Again, zero innings.
The closest thing to a substantive homegrown arm we could see this year? Reliever Dillon Maples. Now, we’ve covered him pretty extensively already this offseason – but it’s worth pointing out he could be a big piece for the Cubs’ pen.
Next: Are Cubs to blame for current tanking model?
All told, the team’s formula has worked to perfection. Focus on drafting position players and build a controllable, powerful young core. Add pitching through other avenues to compliment this core and chase titles.
But, someday, this championship window will close. If Chicago hopes to postpone that inevitability, their internal development of pitchers they’re drafting right now could be the final difference-maker. Will we see a new wave of top Cubs prospects dominating on the mound rather than in the batter’s box?
Time will tell.