Chicago Cubs: Failure to develop homegrown pitching proving costly

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs have developed a lot of position players lately. Their inability to develop homegrown pitching is catching up with them.

One big reason why the Chicago Cubs Theo Epstein had so much success with the Boston Red Sox was that their farm system consistently produced new talent to go along with their trades and free-agent signings. The Dodgers and Astros are also building perennial elite teams thanks largely to their farm systems. However, the Cubs under Theo Epstein are failing to do this, specifically with their pitching.

Cubs fans would struggle to think of even one pitcher that the Cubs have drafted, developed, and turned into an impactful major league pitcher since Epstein took over as President of Baseball Operations after the 2011 season. And this is a big problem.

When the Cubs were going through their rebuild in 2012-2014, Epstein’s plan was to load up on position player talent while filling pitching needs through free agency and trades. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Cubs drafted a pitcher with their first amateur draft pick. That approach worked at first, as the Cubs won a championship in 2016, but it has prevented them from building a sustainable elite franchise.

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Looking through the Cubs’ rosters since 2015, their first year of contention, the lack of homegrown pitching talent stands out. Kyle Hendricks graduated through the Cubs system, but he was drafted by the Texas Rangers and only came over to the Cubs after more than a year in the Rangers’ system. Carl Edwards, Jr. also briefly had success as a middle reliever, but again he came over in a trade with the Rangers. That’s it.

If we look back at MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cubs prospects for 2015, there were a total of 14 pitchers. Edwards was on that list. Duane Underwood has had a couple of brief MLB stints. And Dylan Cease has made the majors as a member of the White Sox after the Cubs gave him up in the Jose Quintana trade. None of the others have had an impact at the major league level.

This approach by the Cubs’ front office worked at first. The Jon Lester signing was a success while they struck gold taking a chance on Orioles castoffs Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. However, to build a perennial elite team in this way, you have to hit on all your free agent signings and trades. And that hasn’t happened. Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels have been up-and-down, while the Cubs gave up two of their biggest minor league pieces (Cease and Eloy Jimenez) for Quintana. And he’s been far from the No. 2 starter that we expected although it might not have been as one-sided as we thought. 

This inability to develop pitchers has impacted the Cubs’ ability to develop position players too. Since the team graduated Willson Contreras to the majors in 2016, David Bote is the only homegrown position player the team has brought to the majors and seen have any impact. (Victor Caratini came over in a trade with the Atlanta Braves.) This is largely because the Cubs had to give up a boatload of talent to try to fill their pitching holes, notably in the Aroldis Chapman and Quintana trades.

I hesitate to be too critical of the front office that finally brought us a championship. And I understand that building a World Series winner is a hard thing to do, especially considering that winning leads to lower draft picks. The Epstein Regime should be held accountable for the fact that their farm system is not producing the way it should.

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As the Cubs struggle to even make the playoffs here in 2019, we can see that it is critical that the Cubs’ farm system starts to produce more if they are going to have any chance at continued success. Given the state of the Cubs’ organization, is it too late? I sure hope not, yet I fear it is.