Cubs: 3 things we learned from the decision to draft Cade Horton

Mandatory Credit: Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports /

Years ago a friend gave me a cartoon that had appeared in an Emil Verban Society newsletter, in which a young Chicago Cubs fan was making three wishes to a nonplussed genie: “Pitching, pitching, and … um … pitching!” The current front office liked that plan so much that they added “pitching and pitching,” for a total of nine of their 10 wishes in the first two days of the MLB Draft.

The team’s recent failures to draft and develop impact arms have been well rehearsed, so in a way this sequence of picks isn’t surprising. Even standing alone, however, the Cubs’ decision to draft college right-hander Cade Horton with their first pick in the draft – the seventh overall – gives insight into the front office’s thinking about the trajectory of the team over the near and medium future. Here are three interesting things we learned from that pick:

#1: The Cubs trust their internal Pitch Lab

It’s unlikely Jed Hoyer would have spent such a high pick on a remarkably untested arm unless he had faith in Craig Breslow and his team of mad scientists, laboring maniacally deep in the dungeons below Wrigley Field, to develop Horton into an impact starter. Horton had an outstanding College World Series in which he showcased a slider that … well, I can’t do better than Keith Law’s description in The Athletic:

"Horton sits 94-96 mph, touching 98 mph, and has a wipeout slider up to 89 mph that breaks downward so sharply that it doesn’t just fall off the table, it takes the tablecloth and all the dishes with it."

And it has wicked horizontal break, too. Even with that slider, Law initially had Horton going no higher than the second round, and as low as the fifth. But based in part on his incredible CWS performance, Horton acquired helium – as the kids say – and floated up into the first round. With his injury history, tiny track record and lack of a third pitch, Horton doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of an early first-rounder.

But for a team of pitching architects, Horton is excellent raw material. That third pitch (probably a changeup) doesn’t need to be excellent for Horton to excel as a starter. The Cubs’ Pitch Lab marries sound theory and practice with the individual abilities (or lack thereof) of each pitcher to create individual development programs that, hopefully, bring out the best in each athlete. Horton already has good to excellent velo and throws baseball’s most dominant pitch in equally dominant fashion. Despite the abbreviated track record, the former Oklahoma hurler may much be closer to the rotation than a lot of guys already drafted who have thrown more innings.

Does the lab work? The publicly available evidence is mostly encouraging. Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson have (mostly) flourished this year. There’s more red on Thompson’s Statcast page than there was last year, and Steele still has a lot of it too. Both have FIPs in the mid-threes; the MLB average is 4.00.

The Cubs minor league pitchers are, in the aggregate, striking out more hitters than they did in 2019 (10.1 per 9 vs. 8.8). The top prospects have gotten better: Caleb Kilian, Jordan Wicks, and D.J. Hertz all have shown some FIP improvement this year, though Kilian’s cup of espresso in The Show this season was suboptimal. Walks have jumped system-wide in the minors since 2019, from 3.9 per 9 to 4.8.

Horton will be the lab’s most important experiment to date. Wear goggles, kid.

#2: The Cubs are surrendering to the slider revolution

There are a few teams that get more value from their fastballs than their sliders – the Yankees, the Astros, the Phillies – but for most, the slider is the more effective out-getter. That’s been true for the Cubs for several years, but Chicago has nevertheless resisted the slider’s lure. Regularly at or near the bottom in slider usage, the Cubs this year have surged up to 23rd in the charted universe this season. Baby steps, people.

Horton will, of course, fit right into this apparent change of course. The fact that he only recently developed his slider may actually work in his favor. Sliders may or may not be the disproportionate cause of injuries, but Horton’s history does not in any case present that risk.

Here’s a breakdown of the Cubs’ slider usage this season (minimum 20 innings). Kyle Hendricks’ complete avoidance of the pitch drags down the team’s overall slider usage rate.

#3: The Cubs think they already have their infield of the future

"With the eighth pick of the 2022 MLB draft, the Minnesota Twins select Brooks Lee, a shortstop from Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo."

Rob Manfred there – say what you will about the man, he sure can enunciate. Yes, Cade Horton will cost the Cubs less than to sign than Lee would have, and the Cubs will pour those savings into one of the bags of cash they will shortly dump on Jackson Ferris’ front lawn. But Lee had been linked to the Cubs, and most (all?) mock drafts had Lee going ahead of Horton. Lee, in fact, went right after Horton – those scheming Twins were lying in wait.

Maybe this was a case of miserly Ricketts miserliness, but there is a more optimistic view. Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal, Patrick Wisdom, Cristian Hernandez, James Triantos – three of those five may well be the non-cold-corner infield for your next Cubs playoff team. Maybe you could even throw Christopher Morel in that mix; I like him in center, but a healthy Brennan Davis might push Morel toward the dirt.

Passing on Lee could be seen as a vote of confidence in Hoerner, but most prognosticators have Lee moving off of short, probably to third, though Hoerner has indeed staked his claim to shortstop. The decision to leave Lee to the tender mercies of an even colder city probably indicates the Cubs front office feels pretty good about filling the non-Hoerner spots on the infield.

There is reason to be hopeful. Triantos seems to be developing rapidly. Morel’s exciting ascent has already been covered in this space. Indeed, he’s hitting so well now that his bat could carry first base, although his 30.7 percent K rate is almost certainly unsustainable. Hernandez is showing decent over-the-fence pop in the AZ Complex League even though he can’t legally drink.

Next. Cubs 'crushed' early rounds of this year's MLB Draft. dark

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No one is going to write a poem about this infield, however it shakes out.  But there is enough talent here to warrant Hoyerworld’s decision to focus on patching other holes in the listing S.S. Wrigley. By the time you read this, the Cubs may have drafted even more pitchers. With the high pitcher attrition rate, teams win the pitching development aspect of the game with quantity. That said, Horton already has the quality to reach the middle of the rotation, if – working with the Cubs’ mad scientists – he can unlock his talent.