Maples relishing inaugural callup after long road

Cubs pitching prospect overcomes physical, mental adversity to turn career around

September 1st, 2017
Dillon Maples revived his career in the Minors this season, posting a 2.27 ERA and striking out 100 in 63 1/3 innings. (MiLB)

CHICAGO -- A year ago in September, Dillon Maples thought his baseball career was over. The Cubs' highly regarded prospect had struggled while pitching for two Class A level teams.

"It's been a pretty crazy 180 [degree turn]," Maples said Friday. "The way this year has progressed, I expected to be here -- well, I wouldn't say, I 'expected' to be here, but I was ready to be here if I was called on."

Maples is now with the Cubs, getting his first callup to the big leagues on Friday. The 25-year-old began this season at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach, moved up to Double-A Tennessee, then Triple-A Iowa. In 52 relief outings, he struck out 100 batters over 63 1/3 innings and posted a 2.27 ERA. To record that many strikeouts, something has to be working right.

"You have to have that one unhittable pitch -- whether it's a fastball or an outstanding breaking ball -- and in his case, I guess it's the slider," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Maples, who complements the nasty slider with a fastball that can reach the upper 90s.

When Maples got the news about the callup, he called his father.

"He's the guy I called last year when I wanted to hang it up," Maples said. "I'd lost passion, lost drive. I remembered calling him last year. It was appropriate that he would be the first one I called to tell, and my mom was in the car, and she found out right away. I heard her scream. It's definitely been a crazy ride for all of us."

Maples' parents weren't at Wrigley Field on Friday. His brother, Carson, is a freshman at the Air Force Academy and just finished boot camp.

"He hasn't seen any of our family for a long time," Dillon said of his brother. "I wanted them to go out there and spend time with him."

They'll have plenty of time to catch up with the right-hander, ranked 14th on MLBPipeline's list of top 30 Cubs prospects. Maples was actually projected as a second-round pick in 2011, but had made a commitment to the North Carolina football team. The Cubs signed him for $2.5 million, which is still a Draft record for after the third round. But he struggled with control and injuries in his first five pro seasons.

That's why Friday was so special.

"It's been a long road," Maples said. "There's been issue after issue, injuries, mental funks, zero confidence. It's been a roller coaster, and I've arrived. I'm just ready to get out there and throw."

Maples said there were so many coaches and teammates who had faith in him and his ability.

"When I didn't believe in myself and had zero ounces of confidence, I had people who believed in me," he said. "It's strange to think how you could have that faith in somebody who has been so bad. They never lost sight. I'm thankful for all of them."

When Maddon met with Maples prior to Friday's game, he also gave him a vote of confidence.

"I just wanted him to know in my experience, really good Major League pitchers don't show up until they're 26, 27 years of age," Maddon said. "The other part I wanted him to understand is to not change anything: 'You've gotten here, you've done a lot of good stuff to get here. Don't think you have to do more.'"

What's been the difference? Maples has always had the pitches and ability. This year, his preparation has been "astronomically better" than before, he said.

"It's a really fun moment for us to see a guy like that who was a high-profile guy, went through ups and big downs and might even hang it up, so for him to be here today, those are the special callups," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "For someone like him to realize that dream after that much hard work, it's a great thing for our game."

Said Maples: "It's been a crazy year, but I'm ready for this."