Over the past four summers, it has been interesting to watch how the Cubs have gone out and scouted the current players in the organization. The Cubs selected some great talent in Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ in the first round. In each of those drafts, the Cubs continued to select other players over the course of 39 more rounds.
In the Theo Epstein era, the Cubs have significantly beefed up their scouting department. In 2012, scouts went to Coastal Carolina University to check out pitcher Josh Conway. The Cubs actually came away with two selections from that school in Conway and catcher Will Remillard. Conway was picked in the fourth round in 2012 and Remillard was picked in the 19th a year later. The two never played together, but the groundwork had been laid during that initial visit. This year, CCU is ranked #22 in the nation and has several prospects worthy of scouting, including another Remillard, a third baseman named Zach, who is leading the team in HR’s and RBI. And yes, he is Will’s brother.
In 2013, the Cubs selected Kris Bryant number one and later selected pitcher Michael Wagner, both from the University of San Diego. Although Wagner has not panned out, the Cubs’ further illustrated a pattern of keeping their eyes open to more than just the primary player they came to scout.
To wit, the Cubs dipped into the Indiana University talent pool by selecting Kyle Schwarber with their first pick in 2014 and then selecting pitchers Scott Effross and Jake Kelzer (who did not sign) in 2015. In addition, Virginia Tech teammates Mark Zagunis and Brad Markey were both picked in the 2014 draft.
Another happy accident occurred in 2014 when scouts and Jed Hoyer went to look at Jeff Hoffman of East Carolina. Hoffman, who would later undergo Tommy John surgery before the season was over, was one of the picks the Cubs were considering at the number four spot in the MLB draft. The Cubs did not select Hoffman (he was picked in the first round by the Blue Jays), but they did select one of his teammates, pitcher Ryan Williams, in the 10th round. Williams is now one of the fasting moving prospects in the Cubs’ system. He will be at AAA Iowa in 2016 after beginning 2015 at low-A South Bend and skipping high-A Myrtle Beach to finish the season with AA Tennessee.
I expect the Cubs’ strategy to continue this year in the draft as well. It would not surprise me to see them return to Indiana for Kelzer and number one starter Kyle Hart, a lefty who has been brilliant this year. Kelzer’s 6’8” frame is intriguing, while Hart is currently 3-1 in 4 starts with a 1.40 ERA and has struck out 25 in 25.2 innings.
The University of Mississippi’s roster contains Cubs’ 2013 draftee Sean Johnson. Johnson is having an outstanding season after coming off TJS. With a 2.20 ERA after three starts, all signs point to the 6’7” righty being back to full health. The Rebels also have another great prospect in Brady Bramlett, a 6’4” righty with a big frame.
Kyle Twomey, another Cubs selection last year out of USC, was a nice surprise at short season Eugene. One of his Trojan teammates, Jeremy Martinez, is catching at the college level for the first time and is off to a good start at the plate. The Cubs originally selected Martinez out of high school in 2013 as a catcher, but he spent his first two college seasons at first base. He projects better as a catcher though, and could be an early-round pick after moving back behind the plate. Pitcher Kyle Davis is someone the Cubs could also target as a reliever. At 6’0” and 170 pounds, Davis could be a nice part of the bullpen.
Another school that could provide multiple picks this year is Duke University. Their pitching staff is filled with draftable prospects such as Trent Swart (who is coming off TJS) and Bailey Clark. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cubs revisit Mercer University, the home of Chesney young, for some more talent. Though the Cubs have not selected anyone else from Mercer in the last four drafts, the school is quietly turning out top-of-the-draft style pitchers.
Is there a madness to this method or is it purely coincidental?
It makes sense to select players who the Cubs feel have enough talent to risk drafting. While Zagunis and Markey were both drafted from Virginia Tech, the latter was an excellent pitcher at other schools long before he came to Blacksburg. That selection was purely coincidental. Ryan Williams is a guy other teams shied away because the lack of velocity, but the Cubs got more looks at him while scouting Hoffman.
Effross was Indiana’s closer and had started some, and the Cubs were able to see more of his four-pitch mix — very rare for a closer — as they built a book on Schwarber. It figures that good programs are going to produce a wealth of good players, so by keeping their options open, the Cubs are putting themselves in position to look at multiple draft prospects with each trip.
Last month, we discussed how the Cubs could redraft some players with their permission this summer. Sean Johnson and Jeremy Martinez are two who could fulfill that strategy. In scouting them, the Cubs are surely collecting data on multiple other players at the same time. And why not? Each player follows a different developmental path and some are going to break out sooner than others. By keeping a broad focus, this scouting department may be able to find those players who’ve been overshadowed by more mature teammates.
It’s more than just seeing teammates or revisiting pedigreed programs though. Considering that the Cubs signed Jason Heyward this offseason, it might make it easier to scout and sign his little brother Jacob, who is having an outstanding junior year at the University of Miami.
One pick really can lead to another. And with the Cubs having to sit out the draft until pick #104, this might be the year that strategy pays off.