Paul Blackburn, righthanded starter, 6-2, 185
Drafted by Cubs in the first round in 2012 (56th overall pick)
Cubs comp: Jon Lieber
As the third Cubs pick in the Theo Epstein regime, Paul Blackburn was the first "style pick" by the new regime. What is a style pick? To explain, here's a brief look at the first two selections from Theo's first draft. Albert Almora was projected to be the center fielder that he has so far displayed himself to be. He was the top talent on the board by their scouting. Not many are debating the choice, either. Pierce Johnson was the most polished pitcher on the board, with a nice resume, and he hasn't been that much of a surprise either.
Don't you always pick the "best on the board"?
Sort of, but when Blackburn came around, the question was more what than who.
The Cubs needed to begin to develop their own starting pitchers. College pitchers will serve a role in this talent pipeline, without a doubt. However, at some point, the Cubs wanted to start developing their own without concerns about college pitch counts. To do that, a team needs a modus operandi, or a method of operating.
The Cubs had long been drafting high school arms. However, that doesn't mean they had generally been very good at it. In far too many cases, it seemed, they had dreamt on the radar gun instead of demanding quality pitching mechanics. (A system needs some of both, but if too many risks are being taken, there are repercussions when too many gambles miss.) Blackburn was a safe-ish pick.
Blackburn was selected as compensation for the team losing Carlos Pena in free agency, but only because Pena was offered arbitration. Pena refused, and that arbitration was even offered was a marked departure from the Jim Hendry days.. Whether by being too close to the maximum allowable budget, player loyalty, or for another reason, offering arbitration was considered bad form "then." Now, making a "qualifying offer" will be the standard, as needed, as it brings in talent like Blackburn.
Blackburn's numbers in Boise don't look incredible at first blush. His WHIP was over 1.5, and his K/W ratio was below it. The important thing with a high-school arm that was selected in the draft's second 50 isn't necessarily tied up in the basic stats like that. What is important is that he was pitching fairly well at 19 in a league with a whole lot of 22, 23, and 24-year-old players. And he represented in the process.
As of now, Blackburn will pitch in the low 90s early, though on a dead-arm day, he might have to fight through velocities in the high 80s. Often young arms improve in their third full pro (or college) season. This will be his second.
In 2014, look for Blackburn to start full-season ball in Kane County, either as a starter or a piggy-back option (when two starters combine to take up the first seven or eight innings). He displayed a nice three-pitch repertoire in Boise (though I can't remember today if it was a curve or a slider) and is on the standard tracking path of a healthy pitching prospect. As he wasn't selected for his pitch velocity, but for his ability to pitch, the strikeouts might not be plentiful, especially at the start. However, the strikes should be.
And, in general, strikes over control questions is now what you ought to expect. Which makes him a style pick. That the Cubs have few arms like his drafted out of high school is part of the problem of the last few decades for the Cubs. I'm enjoying "pitching ability" trumping "radar gun speed" as a primary selection reason.