Cubs Should Revamp Draft Strategy to Spur Stagnant Pitching Development

The 2018 season may have just began, but scouting for the June amateur draft is in full swing. Division I college schedules began in mid-February and high school play is now well underway in even the coldest states.

The big questions for Cubs draft fans is whether the team’s scouting and drafting methodology will change. No sugar-coating here, if we exclude the four consecutive top-10 overall picks, the yield from Theo Epstein’s six Cubs drafts has been downright dismal. And not just “we expect more from Theo, who does all things great” dismal, but 1970’s Cubs drafting dismal.

Over the winter, The Athletic famously charted the poverty of homegrown pitching talent (subscription required/recommended) in the Epstein era. But less noticed is how, outside those high first-round picks, the organization has not drafted and developed any major-league position players either.

Chicago Cubs prospect
4 for 4: First-rounder Albert Almora in his Iowa Cubs days. (Pic by Dylan Heuer/Iowa Cubs)

But first, credit where credit is due for those aforementioned top picks: Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. To have four consecutive selections matriculate to the majors is impressive. By comparison, the Astros’ had three consecutive No. 1 overalls and one No. 11, which resulted in “just” Carlos Correa and George Springer.

In addition, Cubs scouts have very effectively evaluated other teams’ more developed minor-league talent to return key contributors. The team’s top international signings (Gleyber Torres, Jorge Soler, and Eloy Jimenez) also returned significant major league talent (Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, and Jose Quintana).

Pitching flood as drought

But the June amateur draft has proven a different animal, and the futility of the Cubs’ pitching development deserves special focus. Reviewing the first 10 picks in each of Epstein’s six Cubs drafts reveals a pitching obsession. The Cubs went pitcher 45 times in those 60 picks (75 percent).

Chicago Cubs prospect
Traded with Dan Vogelbach for Mike Montgomery in 2016, Paul Blackburn debuted in the majors last year with Oakland but now on 60-day DL.

The theory was to flood the organization with pitching quantity. In this way, the Cubs might leverage the law of averages in their favor. But no diamonds resulted. Only two arms have yet to contribute significantly at the major league level: starter Zack Godley (traded to Arizona in the Montero deal) and reliever Paul Blackburn (traded to Seattle in Montgomery deal).

This paucity surprises given the draft success of Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod in Boston. They innovated key new tactics. But these were nullified later by changes to the collective bargaining agreement (bonus overslotting) or adopted by the rest of the market (collecting better college stats).

But savvy as those innovations were, very solid scouting, selecting, and development were still needed to find the Pedroias, Papelbons, Buchholzs, Bettses and Travis Shaws outside the first round. So where has this gone in Epstein’s Cubs years?

Hendry redux

Emerging from the Jim Hendry draft years (2003-11), many looked forward to what Epstein might bring. On the pitching side, Hendry seemed fixated by max-effort hurlers prone to early arm injury. Further, the organization’s promotion criteria over-rewarded velocity and K/9 rates over command.

(From a nuanced scouting perspective, it makes you wonder how closely top drafted max throwers were evaluated beyond velocity and high K rates. I.e., was that high swing-and-miss rate achieved in the stroke zone or dependent on average prep and college bats chasing anything over 94 mph.)

Chicago Cubs prospect
Despite an exceptional 2017, strike-throwing relief prospect Daury Torrez garnered little notice. (via Twitter)

However under Epstein, the prospect parade of power arms continued with as little to show. Each year Team Epstein touts and promotes the next great high-K crop. But deeper dives usually uncover high walk rates, high WHIPs, injury-prone deliveries, and starters seldom averaging more than five innings per start.

And the promotion criteria appears to still largely overlook command. Take the curious case of Daury Torrez. No K king, Torrez made the Double-A all-star team last year, posting a 1.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 1.5 BB/9 over 77.2 inning. Like Kyle Hendricks did, Torrez also has a career minor league WHIP under 1.100. Yet he did not earn promotion to Triple A, and in spring training, he faced just four batters, gave up no runs, and was quickly returned to the minor league camp.

Epstein readily admits his team’s failure to draft and develop homegrown pitching. But the question remains whether admission will lead to real change.

A kindred Kyle cometh?

Evidence isn’t great so far, but a couple small glimmers have appeared. First, command starting pitchers have refreshingly slipped into the draft mix the past two years.

In 2016, a potential Hendricks clone was drafted from Hendricks’ alma mater Dartmouth. True to form in his first full pro season, righthander Duncan Robinson posted very Hendricks-like numbers: 1.087 WHIP, 0.5 HR/9, 6.9 K/9 and 2.29 ERA, and is now at Double-A Tennessee.

Robinson cost just a ninth round pick. Even more interesting, the Cubs took another command pitcher last year in round three. They selected six-foot Auburn right-hander Keegan Thompson and assigned him to High-A Myrtle Beach this year.

Change hopes eternal

A second glimmer came this winter when Epstein took advantage of Hurricane Jeter’s destruction of the Miami Marlins. The Cubs hired Jim Benedict, longtime scout and exec who had been serving as the Marlins’ vice president of pitching development.

It’s too early to know what influence Benedict may have as Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. He might simply be front office “depth” if McLeod nabs a GM job. But the hiring at least shows the front office’s openness to new ideas.

None of this suggests the Cubs should draft only command pitchers or all previous picks are doomed. But after 15 steady years of max-throwers (or as Greg Maddux called them, “brain-dead heavers”), a better balance in the Cubs’ draft strategy would seem called for.

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