Jim Hendry got the Cubs rebuild off to a good start with the 2011 draft. The Epstein/Hoyer front office had loaded up on pitching in the 2012 draft, but so far that gamble on arms had mostly generated a lot of injuries. When June 2013 rolled around, with a farm system loaded with positional talent, the focus for the Cubs was still squarely on pitching.
Fortunately, there were two really, really good college pitchers in the 2013 draft. That meant, when the Cubs picked at Number Two overall, they would be guaranteed either Mark Appel or Jon Gray. And if you surveyed Cubs fans in the spring of 2013, I think the majority would have been campaigning for either Appel or Gray. [Brett: I remember it very well, and I can confirm this was the majority sentiment.]
The minority opinion favored Kris Bryant.
There are reports that the Cubs themselves preferred Appel to Bryant, but, whether true or not, fortunately the Cubs did not have to make that choice. The Astros drafted Appel, the Cubs took Bryant, and that left the Rockies with Gray. Appel has since been traded to the Phillies, and has pitched 322 minor league innings in which he has posted an ERA of 5.04 and a WHIP of 1.455. Gray struggled in his big league debut in 2015, but had a solid if unspectacular follow-up season for the Rockies in 2016.
Bryant, meanwhile, has won Rookie of the Year, NL MVP, and already has 112 postseason plate appearances, in which he has hit five home runs and posted a line of .263/.348/.495. And he might be the most marketable player in the National League. I think the Cubs are pretty happy about how the first three picks in 2013 played out.
Bryant, alone, accounts for a 13.6 career bWAR. To put that in context, we have go clear back to the 2010 first round to find any other active player with a career bWAR higher (Bryce Harper (21.5), Manny Machado (24.4), Chris Sale (31.1), and Christian Yelich (13.8) – admittedly, 2011 gets an asterisk thanks to unfortunate passing of Jose Fernandez (14.3)).
For Bryant to have surpassed every other player in those first rounds despite only being drafted in ’13 is nothing short of remarkable.
If the Cubs had drafted Bryant and then simply gone home, the 2013 draft would go down as one of the best in Cubs history. That’s often the reality of getting value in the draft – you get what you get up top, and nothing else shakes out.
But the Cubs kept drafting. In the second round they took Rob Zastryzny, a left-handed pitcher out of Missiouri. Zastryzny went on to become the first Epstein/Hoyer drafted pitcher to reach the majors with the Cubs. He’s appeared in eight games so far, and is a likely candidate to compete for a 5th starter slot in the Cubs rotation in the near future.
Zastryzny was not the first Epstein/Hoyer drafted pitcher to reach the majors, though. That honor goes to 2013 10th round pick Zack Godley. The Cubs sent him to Arizona in a deal for Miguel Montero, another key player in the World Series winning team, in December of 2014.
And that concludes the list of 2013 draftees who have reached the majors. The draft wasn’t that long ago, so there’s still time.
In fact, looking down the remainder of the list of signed players, I do see at least two more who are very likely to make it to the big leagues.
Jacob Hannemann was a surprising choice as the Cubs’ third rounder in 2013. Even though the organization needed pitching, the Cubs opted for an older college outfielder who was very rusty in his return to baseball following a two-year mission trip. The tools were there, but some wondered if a player who had missed out on two years of development time could ever translate those skills into baseball skills.
The jury is still out on that, but it is increasingly looking like the Cubs took a good risk. Hannemann has emerged as a gifted and dynamic defender who can play anywhere in the outfield. He was added to the 40-man roster after an injury shortened (74 games) Double A season in which he hit 10 home runs, stole 26 bases, and hit .247/.326/.426. As a defensive fifth outfielder/pinch runner as the floor, I think he is all but assured of a Major League opportunity. If he can make a little more consistent contact, and if the power comes along, he could compete for a starting outfield job one day.
Trevor Clifton (12th round) is the other likely Major Leaguer from the 2013 draft. The Cubs selected him out of a Tennessee high school, and paid him an above-slot bonus to sign. At first, scouting reports talked about little more than a good fastball and a projectable frame. Since then his command has improved, his secondary pitches have developed, he’s filled out that frame, and last August he came in at Number 6 on the Bleacher Nation Top 40, the second highest ranking of any of the Cubs pitching prospects. He will head to Double A this season with a possible future as a Number 3 starter. In 2016, Clifton was the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the year.
In between Hannemann in the third and Godley in the tenth, the Cubs took nothing but pitchers (except in the ninth, where they drafted interesting and improving OF Charcer Burks). Unlike the high school heavy run on pitching in 2012, in 2013 the Cubs focused more on college arms. Tyler Skulina (4th round) started 27 games for Tennessee last year, but gave up a lot of walks on his way to a 5.16 ERA. Trey Masek (5th) spent 2016 playing for an independent league team in Texas. Scott Frazier (6th) has yet to make it out of Low A. David Garner (7th) spent 2016 in Tennessee’s bullpen. He has potential as a middle reliever, but only if he can get the walks under control. Sam Wilson (8th) did not pitch last season.
Unfortunately, this is what we should expect when it comes to developing pitching prospects. Pitching is a risky business, and developing pitching is every bit as risky. With two pitchers in the majors and a third looking likely to get there, we should probably consider the 2013 draft a success in terms of pitching acquisitions, especially when two of the first three picks were used on position players. Developing pitching is so inherently risky that any draft that produces multiple major leaguers from picks outside the early first round is a productive draft.
The only other name in this draft that stands out is Cael Brockmeyer. Brockmeyer is large for a catcher (6’5″, 235 lb), but there have been periodic positive reports of his work behind the plate. The Cubs seem to be balancing developing him as a hitter with using him as a journeyman catcher. In 2015 he spent time in Low A, High A, Double A, Triple A, and the Arizona Fall League (he remains the only prospect I can find to do all five in one year). In 2016 he played at only three levels – High A, Double A, and Triple A. Moving around so often does not give him much of a chance to adjust to pitching, and that in turn makes it tough to get a read on his potential, especially given that he splits his time at first base.
Add it all up, and 2013 is inarguably a very successful draft. It is probably the organization’s best since 2001 and has a chance to go down as the best Cubs draft of the modern era. How close 2013 comes to that title likely depends on whether or not Zastryzny and Clifton become fixtures in the Major League rotation. Bryant alone makes this a very good draft. Bryant and a couple of starting pitchers could make it the best.