I guess Cubs fans have given up on the dual tracks we hoped the organization would enact to develop a long-term winner. The first track was obviously a raging success. The Cubs promised, and did, draft and find a bunch of ready-made offensive players who wouldn’t take all that long to get to the majors and make for a fierce lineup. And they did. All of Rizzo, Bryant, Russell, Happ, Schwarber were on the team within two years of being drafted/acquired, and all have at least flashed being plus offensive players. And all are young enough to think they’ll be around for a long time. They’ve also improved Baez and Contreras, and Almora eventually made it up as well.
What we also hoped, if not thought, is that deeper in the system the Cubs would also develop a flotilla of pitchers who would then follow those hitters, and eventually be ready to replace Arrieta and Lackey and then Lester down the road. This is the part that hasn’t come to fruition. And it’s really a wonder why we thought it might happen.
Because this front office has never done it.
Here’s a list of starters that Theo Epstein has drafted both with the Red Sox and Cubs to have an impact in the majors: Clay Buchholz, Charlie Blackmon (yes, that one, so clearly not as a pitcher), Justin Masterson… and I’m afraid that’s it. And Masterson and Buchholz never exactly set the world on fire, though at least Buckles threatened it every so often before falling down the cliff under an avalanche of homers.
In that time, this front office hasn’t really produced that many effective relievers either. Jonathan Papelbon yes, Hunters Strickland…ok, and we have hopes for Carl Edwards Jr. We can throw Kyle Hendricks on this list, as though they didn’t draft him he was a minor leaguer they clearly identified and did bring through the system.
So it’s a wonder why this isn’t marked out as more of a blindspot than it has been. Looking over the top Cubs prospects, there are pitchers there but they’re mostly down the system with a lot of obstacles in their way before they became major leaguers. Adbert Alzolay is the only one you hear with a chance to make it to the majors in the next year or two. And he hasn’t been above Double-A yet.
So yeah, there just hasn’t been much, and it’s getting harder and harder to think there will be. The Cubs have tried to attack it with numbers, just taking pitchers and hoping they produce one out of it.
But at some point, while the Cubs have been exemplary at developing every day players and instilling the proper baseball tenets in them, we have to ask what it is they’re doing for their pitchers. And it’s not like you have to keep bringing them through. We’ve seen what happens to teams that are hinging themselves to a raft of young pitchers. Hello, Mets, twice. The Giants did win two World Series on the backs of their young starters, but by the time the third one rolled around it was Bumgarner and their offense that was doing the heavy lifting. And even the second one Lincecum had already been moved to the pen.
I think the Cubs know this, which is why they’ve been so focused on the bats in the system. There might not be a way to do it. Looking around, the Dodgers have Kershaw and that’s about it. Wood was traded for, Hill signed, Darvish traded for. Urias was their prized prospect. He may never be the same again. And that’s the thing. Pitchers get hurt early on, and you don’t know what you have after that. The Astros had Keuchel drafted, and McCullers too. But that’s it. Morton a signing, Verlander a trade, Fiers a trade. The Yankees had Severino. The Red Sox didn’t have any homegrown starter. Only the Tribe could be considered to have more than one with Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar. The Nationals had Strasburg and that’s about it. It’s just not something that happens a lot.
The Brewers were built as much on their young starters as their impressive young lineup. But with Jimmy Nelson’s injury, where are they now? The Cards might roll out three impressive young starters next year in Martinez, Weaver, and Reyes if he returns healthy. But who knows? And if he’s not, and Martinez continues to pitch scared in the bigger games?
It just might be the Cubs are always going to let others develop pitching, and then go get what is already proven. It’s hard to gauge if that will work over and over. It did the past three years, and you wouldn’t expect a staff built on at least Lester, Q, and Hendricks next year is going to be bad. But prospects to trade run out. There’s only so much money, with the luxury tax. It’s going to be a constant shuffle. And it will be harder and harder when the position players start to actually get paid.