CHICAGO -- The Cubs knew that they would raise some eyebrows with their first-round pick in Monday night's MLB Draft. This is an organization that built the core of its World Series-caliber roster on polished position players, and this was an amateur pool full of options that fit that familiar
CHICAGO -- The Cubs knew that they would raise some eyebrows with their first-round pick in Monday night's MLB Draft. This is an organization that built the core of its World Series-caliber roster on polished position players, and this was an amateur pool full of options that fit that familiar mold.
When Fresno State right-hander Ryan Jensen's name was announced as Chicago's 27th overall pick, it was indeed arguably the surprise of the first round. What the selection signaled, however, was a continued shift in philosophy for a Cubs front office that has been criticized for its lack of homegrown pitching, and a group trying to change the way it evaluates amateur arms.
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"I've had a lot of conversations with all of you guys over the years," said Cubs senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod, "about our development or our maturation, if you want to call it that, in terms of how we wanted to go about identifying and selecting pitchers in the Draft, especially at the top. Ryan Jensen certainly hits the nail on the head in terms of things that I've talked about that we probably avoided."
The Cubs' second-round pick is the one that struck a more familiar chord. Chicago grabbed UCLA second baseman Chase Strumpf with the 64th overall selection, adding another polished bat to the farm system. It was just a year ago that the Cubs picked Stanford shortstop Nico Hoerner with their first-round pick (24th overall) and he has already ascended to Double-A Tennessee and to the top of Chicago's Top 30 Prospects list per MLB Pipeline.
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The Day 1 focus will understandably be centered around picking Jensen.
Jensen has a big arm, but he does not have a big frame. He's not "Jon Lester-looking," as McLeod phrased it. The righty also has some red-flag traits in his delivery mechanics. In the early years of the Theo Epstein-led Cubs, the team would have pushed this type of pitcher down the white board in its Draft room. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the Cubs are seeing that their old ways of targeting arms did not pay many dividends.
On May 16, McLeod watched the 21-year-old Jensen take the mound against UNLV. The 6-foot, 180-pound pitcher piled up 10 strikeouts, generated nine groundouts and had zero walks over eight shutout frames. Jensen sat around 95-97 mph with his fastball and maintained that velocity into the final two innings of his outing. He showed off his slider, mixed in a changeup and generated a dozen-plus swings and misses.
"Just a dominant performance," McLeod said.
It was the kind of showing that only supported the work done on Jensen over the past two years by area scout Gabe Zappin, who had a hand in the Cubs taking Hoerner in the first round (24th overall) last June. Combine that with the excitement of pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara, who is eager to get Jensen into the team's pitching lab in Arizona, and McLeod was convinced this was the pick when No. 27 arrived.
It was not long after the national anthem ahead of Fresno State's NCAA regional game against Stanford when Jensen received word about the Cubs' selection. The pitcher said his mom "freaked out" in the stands, chuckling while recalling the moment a day later. It was a bittersweet day for Jensen, given Fresno State's loss, but he was excited about joining the Cubs.
"I couldn't be more grateful for it. This is awesome. It's just crazy to think that I'm in this position right now," Jensen said. "I think it's going to be pretty interesting how they're going to break down my mechanics and everything and all my pitches. I'm new to that. I haven't used [that type of technology] before, so I think it could be pretty beneficial for me and help me out a lot."
McLeod said the Cubs went into the Draft with a small group of names in mind for that selection, but the decisions made earlier in the first round pushed Jensen to the top of the team's list.
"Brendan was in our Draft meetings going through, not only Ryan, but a lot of pitchers that we were considering," McLeod said. "I can say that Ryan was one of the guys that Brendan was most excited about the potential of having in the organization. And for us, we're excited to get him in, get him into our system and start working him with pitch design and some mechanical things and see where we go from there."
In 16 appearances for Fresno State this season, Jensen went 12-1 with a 2.88 ERA and 107 strikeouts against 27 walks in 100 innings. That includes a 1.17 ERA with 33 strikeouts vs. five walks in his last four games (30 2/3 innings). Jensen (the first Bulldogs pitcher to go in the Draft's first five rounds since 2008) was ranked 99th on MLB Pipeline's list of Top 200 Draft prospects and 106th by Baseball America.
The Cubs' bonus pool for the first 10 rounds is $5,826,000, which includes a $2,570,100 value for the 27th pick. Two years ago, Chicago also had the No. 27 selection and used it on North Carolina lefty Brendon Little, who is currently in extended spring camp. That same year, the Cubs also grabbed pitcher Alex Lange in the first round (30th overall). He has been off to a rough start this year with Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach.
Before this season began, McLeod expressed excitement over the crop of arms coming up through Class A and breaking through to Double-A and Triple-A this season. He spoke on how the Cubs have worked to adopt a more aggressive in-season developmental approach with their prospect arms, shifting the philosophy on that front as well.
The Jensen pick may have surprised Draft evaluators, but the Cubs believe he represents another step toward changing the team's history with identifying and developing impact pitchers.
"We knew going into that selection, when we were going to make it, that it was going to be a surprise," McLeod said. "We understand it, but at the same time, we trust in our process."
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.