Over the past two seasons, with the disappointing (but mostly expected) poor results at the major league level, there have been two dates that have stood out as hugely important to the Chicago Cubs organization: the amateur draft and the trade deadline. Yet again, in 2014, that appears to be the case. With the draft just three weeks away, teams’ anticipated picks should be starting to come into focus. But an assortment of injuries, poor performances and a drop off in talent after the top three has made what the Cubs will do a bit murky.
Like last season, a clear top three has emerged in the 2014 draft. However, unlike last year, the Cubs are picking at four.
Two high school arms – the hard-throwing, mountain of a man, Tyler Kolek and the southern California lefty Brady Aiken – along with N.C. State southpaw, Carlos Rodon are the obvious top three on most draft boards around baseball. Rodon entered the season as the presumptive, sure-fire top pick, but some spotty performances, due to inconsistencies in repeating his mechanics, which (at times) has led to iffy fastball command and a dip in velocity, has allowed Kolek and Aiken to pass him in the minds of some talent evaluators. However, his history of success and some recent strong outings have kept him firmly entrenched in the top three draft prospects.
The ideal situation for the Cubs is for one of the top three players to fall to them at the fourth spot. While unlikely, it’s hardly impossible. The Astros, Marlins and White Sox pick ahead of the Cubs, and, of those three, it’s clear that the Marlins will likely take one of the high school arms. Stan Meek, the Marlins’ scouting director, is a big fan of high school arms, especially big guys who throw hard. So, many expect him and Miami to nab Kolek if he falls to two, which is hardly a guarantee. Either way, it appears either Aiken or Kolek will be headed to Miami come June 5.
The real question is what the Astros and the White Sox will do. Pinning down the plans of Astros GM Jeff Lunhow is never an easy task. The Astros have been all over the Texas native Kolek, even sending Nolan Ryan to watch him a few weeks ago, but there is no known clear-cut leader for the top spot. There’s even a chance the Astros could go off the board, selecting someone like high school power bat Alex Jackson or San Francisco outfielder Brad Zimmer, the latter of whom the Cubs are not considering at four. If that were to happen, then of course the Cubs would end up selecting which ever top three arm ends up falling to them.
The other scenario that could benefit the Cubs is if the Astros select Rodon. The White Sox don’t appear to be too keen on selecting a high school arm and could end up tabbing Jackson if Rodon isn’t available at three. With Eastern Carolina righty Jeff Hoffman on the shelf after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the options are limited for the White Sox, who reportedly prefer college arms. And don’t believe the rumors that the White Sox would pass on Rodon simply because of the Scott Boras connection. This isn’t the White Sox of a few years back; they aren’t afraid to spend in the draft or internationally anymore, and they’d be thrilled to get Rodon at three if the opportunity presents itself. If it’s down to Aiken or Kolek, the White Sox may end up going with a high school bat, possibly Jackson, but those high school arms certainly aren’t being ruled out.
Of course, these are the situations the Cubs would love to arise. However, it may be wishful thinking. If Aiken, Kolek and Rodon are all off the board when the Cubs are on the clock, that’s when the real questions start. And the answers aren’t as clear as some assume.
With Hoffman down for the season, he’s out of consideration for the Cubs and pretty much the top 10. He’ll likely go to a team that can afford to take the risk somewhere in the middle of the first round. The same goes for UNLV ace Erick Fedde, who was shut down over the weekend after it was announced he will also undergo Tommy John. Fedde has a very repeatable delivery, sits in the low-90s with his fastball and has occasionally touched higher this spring. His entire repertoire has improved this season, especially his slider, and he appears to have room to grow over the long term. The Cubs were considering Fedde with Hoffman out, but now it’s likely Fedde will be a value pick in the back end of the first round.
Then there’s undersized lefty Brandon Finnegan from TCU, who was recently shut down for a couple weeks with shoulder stiffness. Still, Finnegan is definitely highly thought of by the Cubs. His diminutive stature – he stands just 5’-10” – certainly gives teams pause, but a fastball that gets up to 96, a plus change up and a developing slider makes him an intriguing arm. However, the combination of the shoulder issues and his height – which could hurt his plane and efficiency, possibly making him less durable – brings about questions as to whether he provides enough value at the fourth spot. But he’s certainly someone the Cubs will continue to keep an eye on.
A few names who aren’t being considered at four: Hartford LHP Sean Newcomb (a great arm with erratic command and a lack of feel), Evansville LHP Kyle Freeland (tall and lanky with great stuff, earning him Chris Sale comps, but also has a similar arm-action to Sale, which has scared off some teams at the top, including the Cubs), FSU RHP Luke Weaver (stuff has been down all year, sitting in the upper-80s to low-90s) and, possibly most surprisingly, Vanderbilt RHP Tyler Beede.
Beede was considered by many to be heavily connected to the Cubs, possibly because of the presence of former Vandy pitching coach Derek Johnson, who now serves as the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator. However, it appears the Cubs were never too high on Beede, despite his hot start to the season. His lack of command, which was a major issue last summer, has popped up once again, with one source describing it as “borderline yips,” making his selection at four very unlikely.
As far as the college bats go, Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto (one of the better hit-power-patience combos in a weak college bat class), Indiana catcher/first baseman Kyle Schwarber (possibly the best college power bat) and N.C. State shortstop Trea Turner (speedster with a questionable hit tool) are unlikely, but at the very least, still being considered.
So who does that leave? Well, Finnegan is certainly still being watched closely and could jump back into the discussion if his medicals come up clean and his performances over the next three weeks are strong. LSU’s Aaron Nola has an outside chance of being the Cubs choice at four. Nola is a model of consistency, but lacks the projection and upside many would expect of a top five pick. Fedde was likely ahead of Nola on the Cubs board prior to his season ending surgery.
Two other strong options, and quite possibly the leaders when looking at things today, are Jackson and high school shortstop Nick Gordon. Jackson has the most power of any bat in the draft, and, though he is unlikely to stay behind the plate, he still provides plenty of value in a corner outfield spot with his bat. Gordon, who appears to be the favorite to go at four at the moment, if no one drops, has been climbing up draft boards all season. In fact, Gordon may have been the pick here even if Hoffman and Fedde had stayed healthy. Expected to stick at shortstop, Gordon has some pop from the left side and is a good athlete. Though he’s not as fast as his brother Dee, Nick is stronger, which has often been a knock on Dee.
The choice then comes down to whether the Cubs would prefer the upside of a high school bat (since the security of a college bat isn’t really an option, this being such a down year for them) or the safety of a college arm (safety being used loosely here, as we’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a safe arm). With a Tim Wilken-led scouting department selecting Javier Baez in 2011, and the new regime taking Albert Almora in 2012, it’s clear this front office isn’t afraid to tab a high school bat early in the draft. Add in the fact that pitchers appear to be falling left and right all around baseball, and the security of a position player becomes all the more tempting. Even Mark Appel, with two consecutive strong seasons in a power conference with three plus pitches, and who was considered as close to a sure thing as a pitcher gets, has struggled. Appel was reportedly at 87-91 mph in his last start at High-A before being sent to extended spring training.
The Cubs certainly want a combination of upside and security with their first round pick, which once again could lead them to selecting a bat early on. After that, expect them to make another run on arms. Talent evaluators have been raving about the depth of pitching in this draft class, especially high school arms with huge velocity. Rounds two through five should be littered with some intriguing pitchers. And while the Cubs may be looking for some certainty at four, they realize, as always, that nothing is guaranteed in baseball. And that goes double with the draft.