A couple tweets recently got me stepping back for a moment just to appreciate how the Cubs really are on the cusp of entering a very different organizational phase. One where they might finally see multiple entirely homegrown pitching prospects coming up to contribute meaningful innings again, and again, and again over the coming years. We know that the Epstein Era front office focused heavily on positional prospects at the top of the draft and in the most expensive part of international free agency, and also had a system in place that prioritized finding lower-risk, lower-upside pitching in the draft (on the thinking that they were less likely to completely flame out (which turned out to be correct, but also turned out to be a great way to net almost no impact big league arms)).
Generally, the Cubs started evolving in part of that philosophy in 2017 (taking two pitchers in the first round), and started taking bigger risks on early-round pitching with huge upside (but obvious warts). That, combined with a total overhaul of the player development infrastructure from 2018 to 2019, has left those of us observing the farm system feeling like there really are, finally, multiple waves of talented homegrown pitching on the way, distributed throughout the system’s levels.
This year has offered a taste of it, too. Consider these two items, which flat out would not have been a thing you could say or discuss in any of the last five+ years:
Homegrown Cubs pitchers in 2021: 57.2 IP, 33 H, 2.97 ERA, 24 BB, 71 K.
Non-homegrown Cubs pitchers in 2021: 242.1 IP, 253 H, 4.90 ERA, 118 BB, 242 K.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) May 10, 2021
With Keegan Thompson's win today, Cubs have 3 homegrown pitchers with W's this year (also Alzolay, Steele) for 1st time since they had 5 in 2013 (Jeff Samardzija, Chris Rusin, Carlos Marmol, James Russell, Blake Parker).https://t.co/jSX53fEqYR
— Gordon Wittenmyer (@GDubCub) May 8, 2021
To be sure, the Cubs of this era deserve some credit for maxing out guys acquired in trade like Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, but when it comes to pitchers who’ve come all the way up through the system, from scouting to signing to developing to the big leagues, it’s just been a barren, barren decade – easily the most barren on that specific front than any team in baseball. It has worked out, generally, because the Cubs have been so extreme in the opposite direction on the positional side, and also have had a lot of success in their trades for pitching and big-ticket free agent signings. But as we’ve seen the last few years, it can’t work forever, especially as all that positional talent gets more expensive. The Cubs needed impact pitching to emerge from their own system, and it just hasn’t been there.
As I said, though, it’s starting to arrive. Adbert Alzolay needs to work on his length and mechanical stamina past that 80 pitch mark (get over that Rich Harden hump), but there can be no question that he’s got impact big league stuff, and will factor into the Cubs’ next several years of rotation considerations.
Justin Steele is probably better than 50/50 to remain a reliever long-term at this point, but with such a good fastball-curveball-slider mix, it’s not out of the question that he could be a multi-inning guy or even a super utility pitcher who can pitch in any role, including spot starts when you need 3+ innings. He hasn’t thrown the curveball much at all this year, which is likely because the slider has been so dang good in short bursts – it has elite spin and movement. He’d probably need to bust out the curve (or develop changeup) quite a bit more if he were going to become a starter again, but it’s not like being a multi-dimensional, multi-inning reliever is a bad thing.
Keegan Thompson will continue to be developed as a starting pitcher for now, I suspect, and he’s gonna have to start missing more bats eventually if he’s going to sustain success. But the individual pitches look good and the poise is clearly there. Even if we were considering only these three guys, it’s a really nice group to bring up internally!
(Gotta slide in a shout for Dillon Maples, too, who is also having a lot of success this year and is entirely homegrown (drafted just before the Epstein Era front office took over). I know the questions remain (even after all this time) about whether he can hold it together for a full, quality big league season, but right now, he’s been one of the best relievers the Cubs have. He’s got a 1.84 ERA over 14.2 innings (the most he’s thrown in any big league season), and he’s paired an obscene 41.0% K rate with a “ok maybe that’s playable if the K’s remain” 16.4% BB rate.)
Among the guys who are also (1) entirely homegrown, (2) could be impact guys, and (3) could be arriving as soon as this or next year: Brailyn Marquez, Cory Abbott, Burl Carraway, Brendon Little, Tyson Miller, and Manny Rodriguez. And there are invariably a number of High-A/Double-A guys who could pop this year that maybe I’m not quite thinking are yet on the radar for 2022, and then suddenly, they are.
After that group, it’s an even bigger group who are probably around two or three years away, but hopefully the steady flow, by then, has started. Maybe we’ll look back and say, “Oh, remember when Adbert and Justin and Keegan were all contributing at the same time in early 2021? That’s really when it finally started to turn.”