The year is 2014, and for the first time in the history of the Epstein/Hoyer reign in Chicago, we have no clear idea what the Cubs will do as draft day approaches. In 2012 the Cubs had been connected to Albert Almora for months. In 2013 the Cubs were certain to take one of Kris Bryant, Mark Appel, or Jon Gray. But in 2014, even though the Cubs were picking fourth, all we had entering the final week of the draft was speculation.
And most of that speculation centered on the pitching. The Cubs, the thinking ran, were badly in need of pitching prospects. And they had a high draft pick. So, obviously, they would spend that pick on a pitcher … right?
Late afternoon on draft day, word leaked out that the Cubs had settled on Indiana catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber. We later learned that Schwarber had been very high on the Cubs’ draft boards for weeks.
Some Cubs fans, including me, liked the pick. The patient, powerful left-handed bat was easy to believe in, and provided the Cubs thought Schwarber could catch long term, he made perfect sense as a high first round pick, especially where he would be signing for under slot.
Others were outraged. Draft night 2014 is quite possibly the high water mark for anti-Epstein/Hoyer rantings online. I was a thousand miles away from Chicago sports talk radio that night, but I doubt the content there was much better. [Brett: There was a contingent of folks here who were absolutely apoplectic. I would agree with Luke that, if you were anti-Epstein/Hoyer, the night of that pick was the absolute height of your anger. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also just about the singular turning point where the rebuild accelerated into winning.]
Fans wanted pitching, and they could not understand why the Cubs had completely wasted a pick on a guy who obviously would never be able to play any position in the field and would be relegated to being American League trade bait in the absolute best case scenario.
That was June 2014.
In October 2016, Schwarber was a baseball folk hero, elevated to near legendary status with his improbable injury return for the World Series and his extremely impressive .971 OPS as the Cubs DH. In his short career (71 MLB games) he has already been worth 1.1 bWAR (to say nothing of his playoff contributions in 2016 and in 2015), and is one of just eight first round picks from 2014 to make it to the majors at all (so far).
If he can play a halfway decent left field (I think he can), and if he can continue catching at least part time (if the knee holds up, I think he can), Schwarber appears likely to have a very productive Major League career. That is exactly what we hope for in a first round draft pick, so on that basis alone, I think we can call the 2014 draft a success.
But the Cubs did not simply get their guy by drafting Schwarber. They also signed Schwarber to a team-friendly bonus that left them with a lot of room to work later in the draft. As a result, just like they did in 2012, the Cubs attempted to load up on high ceiling high school pitching starting in the fourth round.
In the second round, though, they took a college pitcher out of Maryland: Jake Stinnett. This pick was considered a good move at the time, but Stinnett has been slower in developing than we would normally hope from a college senior. His numbers haven’t been the greatest, but the trend lines are good and I like what see every time I see him pitch. It would be easy to write off Stinnett as a second round bust, but I think that would be premature.
Mark Zagunis was the Cubs’ third round pick, and the second catcher/outfielder the Cubs drafted. Unlike Schwarber, though, the Cubs quickly moved Zagunis into the outfield full-time. He should be part of a very deep and very talented group of outfielders in Iowa waiting on a shot in Chicago.
After taking two bats with their top three picks, the Cubs then drafted nine straight pitchers. And you will recognize many of these names.
The run opened with a pair of high school lefties – Carson Sands (now sidelined after non-Tommy-John arm surgery) and Justin Steele. Both have developed slowly (not uncommon with high school draftees), and both have back of the rotation starter potential a few years down the road.
It is the guy taken just after them, though, who is drawing all the headlines. Dylan Cease was drafted, immediately had arm surgery, and has been turning heads this spring with a triple digit fastball and promising secondary pitches. The Cubs could move him to the bullpen and fast track him as a future closer, but the plan for now is to continue to develop him as a starter. If the secondary pitches come around, if the fastball command improves, if his repaired right arm holds up under increasing starter work loads, if his fastball continues to get results when he starts to face hitters who can catch up to the sheer velocity, if he can maintain that velocity late in games late in the season, and if about a dozen other things all break right, Cease could turn into an impact frontline starter. For now, he is arguably the best pitching prospect to be drafted by the Cubs since a guy named Mark Prior.
James Farris, drafted in the ninth round, has done well as a minor league reliever, and the Cubs turned him into Eddie Butler in a trade with the Rockies earlier this offseason. Ryan Williams, drafted in the tenth round, has moved rapidly through the system until being shut down by a shoulder injury last season. Brad Markey (19th) has some scary looking peripheral numbers, but somehow gets enough positive results to keep an eye on. Zach Hedges (26th) is considered by some to be a sleeper pitching prospect; after posting a 2.75 ERA in 24 starts between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, we may need to drop the sleeper tag.
On the bat side, this is the draft that produced athletic outfielder Kevonte Mitchell, excellent hitting utility man Chesny Young, and interesting corner infield prospect Jason Vosler. Young should spend a good part of the season in Iowa; it is not likely that he would get a call to Chicago this season given the Cubs general infield depth, but I think he will get that chance eventually.
How we look at this draft long term, whether as a good draft or as a great one, may come down to career of Dylan Cease. If Cease becomes a front of the rotation guy or an elite closer, it is not completely out of the question that the Cubs will get as many bWAR from this draft as they will get from the Bryant-led class of 2013. Even if Cease has a less stellar career, I would not be surprised to see half a dozen players from this draft class make it to the majors eventually. This is, at worst, a good draft.
And the 2016 World Series would not have been the same without it.