Chicago Cubs take a pitcher first; just second time under Theo Epstein

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

The headline doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a big deal. The Chicago Cubs, under Theo Epstein, had drafted and developed hitters with most of their first picks. So what’s changed?

In Theo Epstein’s time with the Chicago Cubs, it just seemed the norm. The Cubs would draft a college hitter with their first pick of the draft. In Epstein’s first four years, he and Jason McLeod selected Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ from 2012 to 2015. When the Cubs made it to the World Series in 2016, the first three played a significant part. Happ would come up the following year and impress, but he’s since been sent down to Triple-A to work on his swing.

The success of the Cubs was great news to the team, but first-round picks weren’t going to be in the top 10 as they had been in the tough years. In 2016 the Cubs didn’t even have a first-round selection. In 2017, they took Brendon Little at No. 24, a left-handed pitcher. And then they selected Nico Hoerner in 2018 at No. 27, a shortstop. The selection of Ryan Jensen at the No. 24 pick was just Epstein’s second pitcher taken by the Cubs in the first round as president of the Chicago Cubs.

Even more surprising? You weren’t likely to find Jansen in the top 100 of any mock draft boards. So for a team that hasn’t drafted many pitchers in the first round, and not had the best success rate, is this the type of pick that shows their simply not good at drafting pitchers?

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No. But the answer isn’t as simple as that.

Since 2008, the Cubs had selected four pitchers aside from these last two. Andrew Cashner in 2008, Hayden Simpson in 2010, and Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn in 2012.

Cashner has had the most success, and Blackburn has made it to the majors with the Oakland Athletics. Johnson is pitching in Japan, Simpson lasted just two years in the Cubs system. So what has changed since these debacle picks to now? Metrics.

Scouting has become less of an art and more analytical. Some are able to pull someone out of the group and know they’re going to be somebody. Hitters, as the Cubs have shown, are easier to do this with. Pitchers, on the other hand, can have so many things go wrong. And while metrics aren’t the only way players are scouted, it’s become high on the Cubs list.

Let me be honest. The pitchers they had selected in the previous years fell in line where the Cubs should have drafted them. And look how that turned out. So the Cubs are trying a different approach these days.

Jason McLeod, a senior vice president who’s in charge of scouting, always gets much of the praise for the hitters they’ve drafted. But he’s also knocked for not developing homegrown pitching. This is what he said in a conference call with the media.

"“I’ve had a lot of conversations with all of you (in the media) over the years about our development, or our maturation, if you want to call it that, in terms of how we wanted to go about identifying and selecting pitchers in the draft, especially up at the top,” he said. “Ryan Jensen certainly hit the nail on the head in terms of things I talked about that we probably avoided, especially in those early years. h/t Patrick Mooney, The Athletic (Subcription required)"

Basically what he is saying is that the Cubs have been too ‘conservative’ taking pitchers early, and needed to mix things up. So the next stop for Jensen? The pitch lab in Arizona.

But first, the Cubs have to get Jensen to sign. And for how much, is the question. When the Cubs took Schwarber below his slot value, they were able to save some money for later rounds and select Dylan Cease (Traded to the White Sox.) Jensen’s slot value was $2.57 million, and the Cubs might be able to get him for less than that.

Next. Cubs add to middle-infield depth in second round. dark

The MLB Draft isn’t as exciting as most other sports, as you likely won’t see many of these faces at a ballpark near you. Some never make it. That’s why the Cubs have decided to go a different route, and hope the metrics lead the way.