Throughout the first five years of the Theo Epstein regime, the Cubs had a stated focus on position players. Because they were so devoid of elite talent on the farm and in Chicago, and because bats develop faster than arms and are less risky in general, the strategy made sense. And with the exception of their first ever pick (Albert Almora Jr.), all of the first-round selections the front office made were polished college hitters.
Lo and behold, it worked. If, that is, you consider winning the 2016 World Series (which people forget) to be an adequate measure of success.
Thing is, there’s a steep downside and a finite timeline to an offense-first draft strategy. Before we get into that further, though, let’s first acknowledge the reality that there was a lot of good fortune involved in this whole process. That’s not putting the results purely on luck, per se, but it’s important to note that it’s not as simple as tanking and getting high draft picks. You have to properly develop those players in order for them to contribute to the big league club.
So now the Cubs have all these highly-touted position players who’ve come through the system and are having a huge impact while earning league-minimum pay. Heretofore, that has afforded them an insane amount of flexibility to go out and pay for, or to trade from, redundant prospect talent to acquire pitchers. But as those young players mature and begin to earn significant raises via arbitration, the ability to spend big on pitchers will be eroded very quickly.
What should be around $26 million in arbitration salaries this season could jump to well over $100 million over the next three years. We’re talking about more than half of the competitive balance tax threshold right there, and that’s not even taking into account the other players on the roster. Which means the Cubs will absolutely have to start developing young pitchers who can essentially do the same thing we saw with the hitters over the last few seasons.
While that’s been whispered — and with increasing volume over the last couple years — as a necessity for a team that has only gotten 30 total innings out of pitchers they’ve drafted since 2012 (Rob Zastryzny – 29 IP; Pierce Johnson – 1 IP), it was openly discussed during Sunday’s “Down on the Farm” panel at Cubs Convention. Jaron Madison, the Cubs’ director of player development, admitted that the focus has shifted to pitching when it comes to both the amateur draft and international market.
That’s an important distinction from what they’ve done to this point, which is to draft hitters first and then basically carpet-bomb subsequent rounds with pitchers. And unlike drafting hitters, there’s no expectation of having a young pitcher breeze through the system in a year or less. Maybe not even two or three or four years. Take Dillon Maples, who was drafted in 2011 and didn’t make it past high-A until last season.
Jose Albertos is another intriguing prospect, but he’s still only 19 and has been brought along carefully after experiencing some forearm tightness during his first pro season in the States. He should be at low-A South Bend to open the 2018 season and could be fast-tracked if he stays healthy. That assessment came via assistant director of player development Alex Suarez, who raved about Albertos’s toughness on the mound and polished, MLB-level stuff.
The Cubs are also very high on Adbert Alzolay, a 22-year-old from Venezuela who is working on developing his changeup in the hopes that he could eventually be a top-of-the-rotation starter. Even without the offspeed pitch, his high-90’s heater and plus curve make him a viable option for the bullpen. Then you’ve got recent draft picks like Alex Lange and Brendon Little, each of whom have college experience and the ability to make it all the way through the system.
On the whole, the Cubs are higher on their pitching prospects than pretty much every publication seems to be, and they believe other organizations concur with those assessments. But if they do end up making a deal to acquire another starter, we’re looking at having all five members of the rotation under contract for at least three more years. That’s good on several different levels, but it doesn’t exactly leave room to promote any of the young guys.
Suarez addressed that by talking about maintaining consistency in players’ individual development plans so that a given pitcher or position player is able to come up and fill a role. Those roles could change depending on how a player matures, but the goal is to get the most out of their talent as possible. Having the rotation set for years to come provides the Cubs a little more security when it comes to those plans and prevents them from forcing players who aren’t ready.
If, however, a pitcher really takes off and looks like he could be a legit big-league starter, it gives the Cubs a big trade chip. In other words, the development of pitchers offers increased flexibility in terms of more than just the payroll. That’s a little more immediate, but what the Cubs are really excited about is the talent they’ve got at the lower levels of the system. Suarez talked after the panel about the young pitchers they’ll have at extended spring training and how those are the guys to keep an eye on moving forward.
What it all comes down to is being more intentional about scouting pitchers from various different countries and levels of play and then developing those pitchers across all levels of the organization. That sounds incredibly obvious, but we’ve seen pretty clearly that it hasn’t yet borne much fruit. The Cubs know that something has to change in that regard, hence the public acknowledgement.
Don’t expect it to be very evident right away, though. Given the standard timeline for a pitcher’s maturation, it’ll take at least three or four years for a strategic change to really impact the higher levels of the minors, let alone the club in Chicago. If they’re able to make it work, though, it should coincide with escalating arbitration salaries and the expiration of contracts for their current starters.
Sounds pretty simple, right?