I spent Day Three of the 2016 draft driving around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with family, checking my phone every twenty seconds to see how the draft was progressing. Given that the Cubs had loaded up on pitching the day before, I was expecting a more balanced approach starting with Round 11. About an hour into the day’s drafting, as the Cubs were making their third pick on the day (round 13, Wyatt Short), I realized I was as wrong as I had ever been in my baseball writing career. The Cubs didn’t want balance. They wanted pitching. College pitching. And college pitching they got. (See our earlier write-up on the few hitters taken in the draft here.)
The Cubs drafted two non-pitchers in the first 20 rounds. They didn’t draft a high schooler at any position until the 22nd round. They didn’t draft back-to-back position players until the 24th. We may go a very long time before we see a front office draft in such a focused, single-minded way.
But … did it work?
To be fair, the jury is still out, and will remain mostly out for a few more years. Drafts take a long time to judge. But as we discussed in the summary of the 2016 bats, the bar is relatively low, thanks to the Cubs’ extremely small bonus pool and no picks until the end of the third round. If anyone from this draft makes it to the majors, it is a good draft. If anyone has a long and productive career, it is a fantastic draft. When you aren’t picking in the first hundred choices, that’s just how it works.
I have to say, though: so far there are a number of promising pitchers in this draft class. Most are still in the low minors, but as of now I do think we will probably see at least one player reach the majors. Possibly more than one. Based on those early results, and given the situation in which they were drafting, it looks like the Cubs may have done pretty well.
The headliner here is Tom Hatch (3rd round, RHP). The Cubs challenged the previously-excellent, but previously-injured college righty with a trip to Myrtle Beach in his first professional assignment. After some early adaptations, he turned in a solid year (4.04 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 9.10 K/9). Hatch, 23, made 26 starts, pitched 124.2 innings, and gave up an anemic 0.14 HR/9. The walks sometimes got him in trouble (3.61 BB/9), but for the most part got strikeouts and kept the ball in the yard. Hatch probably profiles as a future No. 4 starter, but if you wanted to dream on him as a No. 3 type, I wouldn’t argue.
After striking out 22 and walking none in 12.2 innings of relief for South Bend, Michael Rucker (11th round, RHP) was promoted to High A Myrtle Beach and joined the rotation by mid-summer. Over 93 innings (15 starts, 20 games) he finished with an ERA of 2.51 and a strikeout rate of 8.87 K/9. The walk rate was nice and low (2.03 BB/9) and the groundball rate a solid 46.7%. Like Hatch, Rucker looks like a solid back of the rotation prospect on his way to Double A, and he was getting some attention last year.
Also in the High A rotation as the season ended was Duncan Robinson (9th round, RHP). Robinson pitched well in South Bend to start the year (2.11 ERA, 76.2 IP) before joining Myrtle Beach for 10 starts. He also pitched well in those games, finishing up with a High A ERA of 2.37 and a FIP of 2.87. His peripherals aren’t as strong as we might like, particularly the 6.75 K/9, but so long as he keeps the walk rate down (2.74 BB/9) and piles up the grounders (47.8% ground ball rate), he profiles as a 5th starter. I think the ground ball rate will need to trend up a little if he is going to sustain his success as a low strikeout type, but I think he has the arsenal to do it.
Sticking with High A (yes, that’s now four pitchers who finished their first full season after being drafted in High A (exactly what you want to see when you go college pitcher heavy)), we have relief specialist Dakota Mekkes (10th round, RHP). Mekkes opened the year with 31 innings in South Bend and a laughably good 0.58 ERA. His final 42.1 innings came in Myrtle Beach, and ERA there was a sparkling 1.28. The peripherals aren’t quite as shiny, though. The strikeout rate is good (9.57 K/9), but the walk rate is squarely on the high side (4.25 BB/9) and his ground ball rate just isn’t high enough to compensate (37.6%). That means Mekkes is getting by on soft contact in the air, and that is a very dangerous formula. Since he was drafted the question on Mekkes is whether he is hard to hit because of deception that may not fool more advanced hitters (watch him pitch and you’ll see what I mean), or if his pitch movement was just that good. We may find out when he hits Double A this year.
What’s that? You aren’t impressed by the Cubs having four pitchers reach High A in their first full season? Fine. Meet the fifth: Marc Huberman (18th round, LHP). Huberman joined the Pelicans in mid-summer, and then again in August, finishing with 24 relief innings at that level. His ground ball rate with Myrtle Beach was an impressive 64.4%, but the strikeout rate (7.88 K/9) and walk rate (6.75 BB/9) led to a High A ERA of 6.00. With South Bend, though, that strikeout rate spiked to 12.65 K/9 over 37 innings and led to an ERA of just 1.70. He has some work to do, but if he can pair some of the swing and miss he got in South Bend with the excellent ground ball rate he had in Myrtle Beach, Huberman could be one to keep an eye on.
One 2016 draftee made it even higher than High A. Matt Swarmer (19th round, RHP) spent most of the season no higher than South Bend, but in August he jumped all the way to Iowa for one start and then to Tennessee for two. His Triple A start was fantastic. His Double A starts were more what you would expect for a guy vaulting up from A ball. For the season, though, he consistently attacked the strike zone (10.3 K/9) and avoided walks (2.0 BB/9). He didn’t get a ton of grounders and was somewhat prone to the long ball, but all in all he had a pretty good season. I think he’ll head to Myrtle Beach to start 2018, likely in the rotation, but you can make a case of slotting him just about any place short of Chicago.
The first lefty taken by the Cubs was reliever Wyatt Short (13th, LHP). Short is a, um, not tall (5’8″) closer who finished 32 games (and pitched in 40) for South Bend last year. He pitched a respectable total of 62 innings, wound up with an ERA of 3.19, and generally struck out plenty (9.00 K/9), limited walks (2.90 BB/9), avoided the long ball (0.29 HR/9), and kept the ball on the ground (52.9% groundball rate). He will likely be the closer for Myrtle Beach to start the year, and if he repeats those numbers he may finish the season in Tennessee. Short has all the signs of a reliever who could move quickly, but you always have to regard pure relief prospects at the low levels with some measure of skepticism.
Bailey Clark (5th round, RHP) struck out 49 in his 49 innings work most with Eugene last summer, but he walked 36. Clark has some of the best stuff of any pitchers the Cubs drafted in 2016, and if he can cut way back on the walks this season he could start to move quickly. He should head for South Bend, but given that he pitched just 49 innings a year ago I’m not sure he’ll be able to handle a full season in the Cubs rotation. Don’t be surprised if Clark works in relief for a sizable chunk of the season.
Reports exist that Chad Hockin (6th round, RHP) can pair his good breaking stuff with a high 90s fastball, but velocity numbers from the low minors should be treated as suspect until proven otherwise. If those reports pan out as he moves up the system, then he could have the raw materials of a late inning reliever. Last season with South Bend he pitched 54.2 innings in 38 games and finished with an ERA of 3.95. The strikeout rate was good (9.38 K/9), the walk rate was a little high (3.13 BB/9), and he allowed 8 home runs. He has some work to do, but Hockin has plenty of upside.
And finally, at least for this article, we have Tyson Miller (4th round, RHP). Miller started 20 games for South Bend (and came out of the bullpen for eight), posting an unremarkably decent line in the process. His strikeout rate was a fine (7.38 K/9), his walk rate was ok (2.83 BB/9), and his groundball rate was adequite (42%). I wouldn’t be surprised to see all of those numbers improve a little this season, even though he will be facing somewhat tougher competition in High A.
And, really, that is the case for most of these pitchers. It is not uncommon to see college draftees, hitters or pitchers, improve in their second full year, despite tougher competition – and that’s really when you want to see them take a big step forward. We may not have a good idea what the Cubs have in some of these pitchers until they reach Double A. Fortunately, that should be this season for a number of them.
If things go well, we could see our first Major League arrivals from this class as soon as 2019. Hatch is the most likely pitcher to be first up, but I would definitely keep an eye on the two lefties (Short and Huberman) as well. Both could move fast, and given that the Cubs generally have more depth in the upper minors on the right side of the pen, a situation that gives one of them a shot could appear before Hatch gets his break.