This October has seen its fair share of young pitchers stepping into the spotlight and delivering memorable performances. Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray and Alex Cobb all have, at one point or another, stepped up and proven to be part of an impressive youth movement that’s taking place in the big leagues. It appears that managers are less afraid than ever to go with raw talent over experience in the biggest of moments.
Naturally, the instinct of fans whose teams aren’t pumping out young pitching prospects with mid-90s fastballs and devastating breaking balls is to ask, “Why can’t we ever have one of those guys?” I’ve seen this refrain quite a bit lately from Cubs fans, even some writers who claim that, while the Cubs have a great farm system, it’s devoid of the type of pitching talent that teams like the Rays, Cardinals and A’s consistently produce.
There’s no doubt that those three teams have done something special when it comes to acquiring (most frequently via draft, but also by free agency or trade) and developing young pitching. All three teams seem to lose talented veteran pitching year in and year out, whether it be through injury, trade or free agency, and never seem to lose a step. The Rays trade Matt Garza and James Shields? No worries, here come Matt Moore and Cobb. The Cardinals have Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia go down to injury? Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Wacha step right in.
The Cubs are known for the offensive power that’s in their farm system. Not only do they have top talents like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, but they have depth with names like Arismendy Alcantara and Dan Vogelbach. It’s pretty obvious that the Cubs are lacking elite pitching talent in their system (that’s a concern for majority of teams in baseball), but they’ve tried to remedy their depth issues by going pitcher-heavy in the last two drafts. But to assume that the system is completely devoid of the type of young talent we’ve seen star over the past two weeks would be folly.
Of course, there is no Cole comparable in the Cubs system. Cole, the number one overall pick in the 2011 draft, is a rare commodity. The number of young pitchers in baseball with Cole’s ceiling and pedigree isn’t very high. There are a few already in the majors (Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, to name a pair) and even fewer in the minors (Archie Bradley, Taijuan Walker and Jameson Taillon).
One could make the argument that the Cubs passed up this type of elite talent by taking Kris Bryant over Jonathan Gray in the last draft. But that argument would be ignoring the fact that Kris Bryant has quickly become one of the top prospects in all of baseball. You can talk all you want about the Cubs lack of top pitching prospects, but once a front office starts drafting for need over talent, that’s when mistakes are made.
The focus here should not be on Cole, but on the other three pitchers mentioned in the opening paragraph. Wacha and Cobb were both projected as back of the rotation starters with number three upside and both have recently pitched like top of the rotation arms. Gray (of the Sonny variety) has always possessed the stuff scouts speak of when describing an ace, but his small stature (5-foot-11, per Baseball-Reference) brought out doubters that he could stick as a starter.
There are numerous explanations as to why these three have exceeded expectations. First of all, we have a very small sample size, so to suggest that we’re seeing a finished product with these kids would be unfair. There’s still time for all three to regress back to what scouts originally projected for their careers. However, in the case of both Cobb and Wacha, they have exceeded their projections not just with game results, but both have developed above average breaking balls (which was not the expected result according to industry consensus when they were drafted) and are proving to be plus-pitchers at the Major League level. Gray has yet to prove he can handle the rigors of being a 200-inning workhorse, but he’s certainly shown he has the arsenal to be a top of the rotation arm and topped the 180-inning mark between the minors and majors this regular season, and appeared to have plenty left in the tank for the playoffs.
While the Cardinals and Rays obviously liked both Wacha and Cobb enough to draft them, if you talked to people in their respective organizations, they’d admit both pitchers have exceeded expectations. The success those organizations have had recently is a credit to their scouting and player development departments and of course, they’ve been blessed with a little bit of luck. Unfortunately for the Cubs, in what is likely a failure at some level in each of those three categories (and sprinkle in the fact that money hadn’t been heavily invested in the farm system until recently), the North Siders haven’t seen such results in a while.
But if you look at their system, it’s not too hard to find a few arms who could be making some noise for an improved Cubs team in the not so distant future. Here’s a quick look at three of them (for a more in-depth analysis, please read my season review of the Cubs system at ESPN Chicago).
Pierce Johnson: According to one scouting director, had it not been for a forearm injury, Johnson would have been drafted right around where Wacha ended up going (19th overall) in the 2011 draft. Johnson has the stuff (plus fastball and slider) and just needs to continue to improve his command as he works his way through the Cubs system.
C.J. Edwards: Edwards has the stuff to be a top of the rotation arm, but many question his ability to handle the innings load that comes with that label of “staff ace.” The easy comp is to Gray, but while the A’s rookie is shorter than Edwards, he’s also broader than the Cubs’ top pitching prospect. Questions with Gray remaining a starter stem from his short stature and what some scouts believe would lead to an inability to get quality downhill plane on his fastball, something easier to accomplish for taller pitchers. Edwards doesn’t have that issue, but has what one scout recently described as the build of a marathon runner (the descriptions about Edwards’ slender frame have gotten more and more creative the more I ask around. It’s as if there’s some sort of contest among front office types about who can come up with the most unique skinny metaphor). But make no bones about it, if Edwards can stick in a big league rotation, he has front of the rotation stuff.
Paul Blackburn: Here’s the guy who people within the Cubs organization are hopeful can take that leap (I’ve previously gotten a Cobb-comp for Blackburn). While the previous two pitchers mentioned already have mid-rotation or higher ceiling, Blackburn currently projects as a four or five. There’s still development needed for Blackburn, but it’s not a complete dream to project a tick up in his stuff and he already has impressive command. Blackburn has yet to pitch in a full-season league, so he’s further away than both Edwards and Johnson. An offseason of work and his foray into what will likely be low-A ball will give us more insight into what the Cubs can hope for from Blackburn down the road.
No, the Cubs certainly don’t currently have the pitching depth of their arch-rival Cardinals (coming into the season, Wacha was St. Louis’ fourth best pitching prospect, behind Miller, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, according to Baseball Prospectus. Seriously, WTF Cardinals?). But there are some names in the Cubs system to keep an eye on. The Cardinals strategy shifted about a decade ago when they started populating their system with athletic, hard throwing arms. Those arms have been found in the early rounds (Wacha, Miller) or later on in the draft (Rosenthal, Garcia). The Cubs are starting to do the same and their hope is that, along with the three names mentioned above, pitchers like Rob Zastryzny, Tyler Skulina, Duane Underwood and others will provide the system some much needed depth of power arms.
So don’t believe those who say the Cubs haven’t acquired the pitching necessary to compete with the big boys or those who repeatedly point to a dearth of pitching in the system as a major flaw. Yes, they need some things to break their way to ensure these kids reach their potential, but the arms are there. The scouting department has done their job. The recently revamped player development department is in the process of doing their best as well. The rest is up to our fickle friend luck.