Pipeline report: Cubs camp
Chicago farm focused on developing pitchers
Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the Cubs.
The Cubs have done a masterful job of acquiring and developing position prospects. They advanced to their third straight National League Championship Series last year with homegrown products Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kristopher Bryant, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber as mainstays their lineup.
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Chicago ranked fourth in baseball in scoring last year (5.07 runs per game) with MLB's fifth-youngest lineup (27.1 years of age). The Cubs had so much hitting talent that they used the surplus to bolster their pitching staff, trading elite prospects Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez to acquire Albertin Chapman for their 2016 World Series club and add Jose Quintana to their rotation last summer. They've also dealt Dan Vogelbach, Jorge Soler, Jeimer Candelario and young shortstop Isaac Paredes for bullpen help.
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Chicago hasn't been nearly as successful at growing its own pitching. Carl Edwards, Kyle Hendricks and Hector Rondon were the only key arms on their 2017 staff who came up through their farm system, and none of them were originally signed by the Cubs. That's something they're determined to change.
"Over the past three or four years, everything we've done through the Draft or international signings, we've focused our time and energy on pitching," farm director Jaron Madison said. "We know we have a roster full of young impact players. We did a deep dive this offseason, looking at everything we do from our throwing program in the Minor Leagues to when to push players to the next level to communicating with the big league staff, just trying to have synergy on the pitching front.
"We're definitely emphasizing changing the narrative and developing quality pitching."
The Cubs best pitching prospects are all right-handers signed on the international market. A bargain at $10,000 out of Venezuela in 2012, Adbert Alzolay has No. 3 starter upside and could be ready for Wrigley Field by the end of 2018. Oscar de la Cruz ($85,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2012) and Jose Albertos ($1.5 million from the Mexican League's Tijuana Bulls in 2015) have higher ceilings but are further away.
Chicago also has stocked up on pitching in the last two Drafts, taking college arms with 13 of its first 14 picks in 2016 and its top five last year. Right-hander Alex Lange and left-hander Brendon Little, its dual first-rounders from 2017, and righty Thomas Hatch, its top pick (third round) in 2016, all could advance quickly. So could righties Keegan Thompson and Erich Uelmen, third- and fourth-rounders from last June.
Fortunately for the Cubs, they control every member of their current rotation -- Yu Darvish, Jonathan Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Tyler Chatwood -- through at least 2020. That should give their system time to start churning out pitching.
"I think you'll see some relievers come up sooner than the starters," Madison said. "It's going to be a year or two before you see some starters have an impact. We're going to have a big battle at [low Class A] South Bend and [high Class A] Myrtle Beach this year. We probably aren't going to have enough rotation spots for all the impactful arms from the last two Drafts, but that's a great problem to have."
De la Cruz looked sensational in Minor League Spring Training a year ago, then he missed much of the regular season with a pectoral strain. With a pair of plus pitches in his fastball and curveball and polish to go with them, he might have the highest ceiling of any pitching prospect in the system, so the Cubs added him to their 40-man roster in November. In his first taste of big league camp, he has four strikeouts in three scoreless innings and has converted a pair of save opportunities.
"De la Cruz is pitching really well," Madison said. "We've thrown him into the closer situation and he has embraced the pressure with the game on the line. He has a big league body and great makeup. We've just got to get him through a healthy year."
Mark Zagunis has been the most impressive position prospect, though he has little chance of cracking Chicago's deep outfield. Known for his hitting and on-base ability, he has batted .350/.435/.400 in 23 plate appearances.