Horton, Wesneski lead new wave of Cubs pitching

March 21st, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- After ending a 108-year World Series title drought in 2016, the Cubs seemed positioned to stack multiple championships. But they haven't won a playoff series or notched a postseason victory since 2017, and they slid into losing records in each of the last two seasons.

An inability to develop any homegrown pitching of note was the biggest culprit in the demise of the dynasty that never came to be. But that shouldn’t be a problem going forward.

A pair of mid-2010s Draft picks broke through in 2022, with Keegan Thompson leading Chicago with 10 wins and Justin Steele topping the club with 126 strikeouts. Of greater note, the Cubs added four of their five current best pitching prospects last summer and own a better and deeper collection of mound talent in the Minors than they've had in at least two decades.

Jared Banner, Chicago's vice president of player development, chuckled when asked it it was going to be difficult to figure out how to distribute all of the system's pitching prospects among four full-season clubs.

"That's the fun part of the job, definitely not the hard part," Banner said. "A large amount of credit should go to our scouting departments, and our pitching infrastructure has really prepared these guys. We've very happy where we are with our pitching. We're excited."

The Cubs were thrilled to pull off a pitching parlay with their first two selections in the Draft last July. They grabbed Oklahoma right-hander Cade Horton with the seventh overall pick and a below-slot $4.45 million bonus, then used the savings to float Florida high school left-hander Jackson Ferris to the second round and sign him for an over-slot $3,005,000. Horton was the best college pitcher in the 2022 crop -- albeit with a limited track record, hence the discount -- while Ferris had as much upside as any prep southpaw.

Both of them can push their fastballs into the upper 90s with good carry and can devastate hitters with a breaking ball, a slider for Horton and a curveball for Ferris. They'll make their pro debuts in April and have only added to that anticipation by standing out during Spring Training.

"I had only seen video of Cade and you can only really truly appreciate him when you see him in person," Banner said. "That slider is really impressive. Jackson has a ton of arm strength and can spin the ball. He's getting used to the professional workload and we can help him with repeating his delivery."

Two weeks after drafting Horton and Ferris, the Chicago executed two trades that turned big league relievers into quality starting pitching prospects. They shipped Scott Effross to the Yankees for Hayden Wesneski the day before the Trade Deadline and dealt David Robertson to the Phillies for Ben Brown on deadline day.

Brown had pitched just 100 1/3 innings in five pro seasons before 2022 because of Tommy John surgery and the pandemic, but opened eyes last year with a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s curveball with downer break.

"There are a lot of things to like with Ben," Banner said. "It's a power arm and he obviously has the fastball/curveball combo. He's also an exceptional worker who spent the whole offseason here in Arizona working on his changeup and slider."

Camp standout: Hayden Wesneski

As for Wesneski, he surfaced in Chicago five months after his trade and posted a 2.18 ERA with 33 strikeouts in as many big league innings. He has made a strong case to open the season with the Cubs by not permitting an earned run in his first three Cactus League starts and leading the club with 17 whiffs in 12 frames. He has five pitches, highlighted by a low-80s slider with quality sweep, and provides plenty of strikes.

"Hayden does a lot of things well," Banner said. "His slider is a premium pitch, he executes the gameplan well and he's a big-time competitor. That's a nice recipe for success."

Breakout potential: Daniel Palencia

Signed by the Athletics for just $10,000 out of Venezuela in February 2020, Palencia made only six starts in their system before getting traded for Andrew Chafin 17 months later. He has the best fastball among Cubs farmhands, working at 96-98 mph and peaking at 102 with explosive carry, and he also can break off some nasty sliders and knuckle-curves.

Some scouts believe Palencia could help Chicago this year if moved to the bullpen, while others like his upside as a starter even though he's 5-foot-11 and has yet to prove his durability or throw consistent strikes.

"Daniel is in our top tier of pitching prospects," Banner said. "People short-change him as a starter because of his velocity and delivery, but all four of his pitches work."

Something to prove: Kohl Franklin

The nephew of former All-Star closer Ryan Franklin and a sixth-round pick as an Oklahoma high schooler in 2018, Kohl emerged as one of the Cubs' better pitching prospects by the end of the following season. But he didn't pitch at all in 2020 (pandemic shutdown) or 2021 (oblique and shoulder issues), then recorded a 6.88 ERA while making abbreviated starts last summer in High-A.

Franklin's arsenal includes a mid-90s fastball to go with a solid knuckle-curve and changeup, but his heater lacked life and command in 2022. He spent most of the offseason in Mesa, working on adding a sweeping slider to his mix.

"Kohl's stuff is not a question," Banner said. "It's just consistency of command and execution. He looks good this spring and now that he's got a full season under his belt, he should be able to take off."