Chicago Cubs: Taking stock of the Cubs’ progress in developing starting pitchers

jmurray
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /
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The Chicago Cubs’ lack of homegrown starting pitching has been much maligned throughout their recent run of success. But could things be looking up in the near future?

The Chicago Cubs‘ inability to develop homegrown starting pitching has been perhaps the most significant failure of Theo Epstein’s time on the North Side.

During the World Series run in 2016, the playoff rotation consisted of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. Lester and Lackey came via free agent signing, and Arrieta and Hendricks through trades.

Hendricks is the closest to homegrown since he was traded as a minor leaguer, but the Cubs still have yet to see a starting pitcher they drafted contribute heavily to the big league club. Promising prospects like Dylan Cease have been traded away, and first-round draft picks have been used on hitters like Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ, rather than pitchers.

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But at the 2019 Cubs Convention last weekend, VP of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod seemed to express some hope for the state of starting pitcher development. McLeod acknowledged the team’s failure to develop homegrown starting pitching, but also noted a sense of urgency in the organization and mentioned several pitching prospects rising through the ranks who could make a difference.

Pitching prospects rising up the ranks

In an article in The Athletic on Sunday (Subscription required), Patrick Mooney discussed a few names McLeod cited as possibilities to contribute to the major league rotation in the future.

Right-hander Duncan Robinson is a 2016 ninth-round pick who had a solid 2018 and ascended all the way to Triple-A Iowa in late August. He started two games in Iowa and went 1-0 with a 0.82 ERA, finishing the year with a 3.11 ERA overall.

Adbert Alzolay was a candidate to break into the big leagues last year, but a strained lat muscle ended all hopes of that in 2018. 2019 could be the year he finally makes the jump.

Justin Steele was one of the Cubs prospects in attendance at Cubs Convention. He excelled in his return from Tommy John surgery last season, going 2-2 with a 2.31 ERA in 11 starts between the Arizona Rookie League, High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee.

Thomas Hatch, another promising 2016 draft pick, spent all of 2018 at Double-A Tennessee, going 8-6 with a 3.82 ERA. He’s likely to start the year in Iowa and thus is set up for a potential ascension to the big leagues in 2019.

In the interest of budget

Not only would improvements in starting pitching development help the Cubs jump to the next level, but it could also help reduce their budget dramatically. They have paid high prices for starting pitching throughout their run of success, and as many have observed this offseason, it’s starting to take a toll.

The salaries of all the pitchers who were part of the rotation for a significant amount of time last season (Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Tyler Chatwood, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery) combine to make just over $100 million, according to Spotrac.com. That’s nearly 50 percent of the team’s total payroll.

Because the front office has done such a fine job of developing young hitters, they’ve been able to keep costs low in that department. But the prices for free agent starting pitching are sky high, and the Cubs have felt that burden.

However, if they could develop more homegrown starting pitching and sign fewer marquee free agents, they could allocate some of that money for other needs—like a slugger to improve the offense. You know, someone like Bryce Harper. It’s more of a long-term aspiration, of course, but if McLeod is right about the starting pitcher development improving, it could make a big difference in sustaining success.

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While the Cubs have addressed their starting rotation by bringing in free agents and trade acquisitions, developing more homegrown starters would help in several different areas. It’s in their best interest to improve, to benefit the budget and the rotation talent for years to come.

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