Some of you are a couple minutes from rolling your eyes, and saying "Not this again!" The meme of "Sorry, not sorry" has never applied more. Writing is therapeutic for me, and when I can educate in the process, it's red peppers in my hummus. I prefer to write in what I know, or what I can reasonably surmise to be true. Whether I've had confirmation or not, few things are as comfortable for me to talk about as the Cubs pitching system.
However, before I go there, I'll take a moment to talk about why I burn column inches to it. In the day, when daily newspapers were the main option, the Cubs writers didn't talk about the Cubs minor league pitching system. Probably, this was in part to lack of reader interest. Some may have been a lack of actionable information. A trace may have been a lack of said plan existing. Too few people talked about the 'whys' of the Cubs pipeline. For those of you that care, I continue to try my best. It would be fun for me to talk with knowledge about the Cubs systems of however-many-years-ago. I can't. So I talk about now.
By the time I reached Bleed Cubbie Blue, I knew from here what was going on during minor league games. However, to me, knowing what is going on in games is almost useless without knowing why that is the expected result. The opinions I value the most aren't the ones that tell how good a player was last season. What I prefer is a person with a valid range expectation for next season, and a reason for his top and bottom of said range.
Since 2011 (around when I started following the minors more than the big club), I've kept a special mental filing cabinet for Cubs prep pitchers signed in the draft. Initially, data was a bit slow in developing. However, having followed it awhile, I'm more comfy talking about it.
When a prep arm gets drafted by the Cubs, their first few months will be about getting innings against hitters in Arizona. The next year, the goal will be getting in 50 or so innings in short-season ball. Until now, that would have meant a trip to Boise. Now, it will mean late-June through August in Eugene, Oregon.
The next year, the Midwest League awaits. Look for a goal that year of a bit over 100 innings or so. After that, and this is as far as I've gotten, Advanced-A Ball is the goal. By then, getting 130 innings, or more, might even be accepted. (Tayler Scott was a smidge over 130 in the last two seasons of A-Ball.) While each pitcher is different, from health spectrum, to success at different levels, to need of developing their secondary pitches, the basics are the same.
In 2011, Scott "started me" on the venture, though. Dillon Maples was also a prep selection who hasn't worked out as hoped yet. 2012 came and the new regime added Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood to the process. Ryan McNeil and Anthony Prieto have failed to stay healthy.
With Kris Bryant taking up much of the 2013 cap space, the Cubs took only two preps in their first 20 picks. One was outfielder Charcer Burks, and the other was prep arm Trevor Clifton, who figures to be with South Bend in April, following the program.
Last June's draft was the perfect storm to push the system a bit. With some early picks being rather inexpensive against the cap, a number of highly ranked pitchers were available on the second day. The first off the board was Carson Sands, a left-handed pitcher from high school in Tallahassee. What should be expected from Sands?
He wanted to get to Boise last season, I remember reading. That didn't happen. It probably wasn't an option. He threw 19 innings in Mesa, which is following the system. If healthy and effective in extended spring training, he might pitch every fifth day for the Emeralds. He had a WHIP below 1.2, and fanned 20 in those 19 innings, so that is very possible. Look for fifth-rounder Justin Steele to be in Eugene as well.
As an older prep pitcher, South Bend could be a 2015 option for Sands. The Twins went that route with early 2014 draft pick Kohl Stewart. Stewart had a good season brewing, until his shoulder started hurting. Whether the rush of advancement, or the patience of the system wins out will be a hint for future early selections. Sands appears to have the velocity and repertoire to move up the system faster than some. Projecting much beyond the next 12 months isn't something I'm comfortable with, especially having never seen him pitch live. I'd expect early success in the Northwest League.
Since you asked, here is an historic look at pick number 109. Better than you might think, keyed by some quality talent.
The system, as now understood, is not simply about prep arms. When you have a prep arm, though, you have fewer questions, and more control. You don't have to curse the college coach that trotted him out for 130 pitches on three days rest to get the team into the Super-Regionals. You know his training schedule. You have plenty of film. By the time he would be draft-eligible as a junior, if things go right, he's in the Advanced-A rotation, with proper pitch counts as his backstory.
The college arms play in the system, as well. The scouts generally what they're looking for. If a team representative is taking in a ballgame, and the pitcher is shaking off his catcher regularly, skipping pitches in the dirt, and throwing numerous senseless tosses to first holding the base-runner, he probably isn't "the guy". Plenty of college arms are totally capable of throwing strikes, working quickly, changing speeds, and fielding their position.
The others? Let someone else draft them.
The 2014 Kane County rotation was a solid blend of prep selections, college guys, international signings, and a trade piece thrown in as well. That staff led the league by a wide margin, after being a distant 16th the season before. White the system is starting to get more quality to the Advanced-A level, more quality options will be advancing closer to the majors. Some will reach Wrigley as Cubs. Some will get traded for pieces the parent club needs to compete. Many will fall by the wayside somewhere along the line. The team is better served by pitchers able to pitch effectively at full-season levels, as pitching prospects retain more trade value than pitching suspects.
That the system has flipped pitching from "perceived glaring weakness" to "not as bad as we thought" in such short order is a sign that quite a few people are doing their jobs well. Scouts, coaches, executives, and players alike. That they're trying new things like yoga, and increasing attention to player nutrition is also a benefit long-term, likely.
Not all pitchers do well. Obviously. As you look at a Mesa roster, you will see many unfamiliar names. Some of the pitchers have ugly WHIP numbers. When a pitcher with limited upside reaches Mesa (whether from the draft, the VSL, DSL, or parts unknown), it may be all there is for him. However, with the system limiting innings for major prospects, grinding out innings with limited statistical success saves the arms of the other players. It's like a walk-on in basketball taking his lumps and staying healthy while the freshman is allowed to red-shirt. As international development improves, hopefully the innings-eaters in Mesa will, as well.
Yeah, it's a fun time to be following the Cubs pipeline. Most of the care and concern, from a fan base perspective, is on the top few. Justifiably so.
However, when I look at the 2014 Cubs draft class, I keep looking at the picks from the early rounds of the third day. These picks likely haven't been vetted too carefully. The night between the second and third day of the draft, many names are openly discussed for the first time. Area scouts are asked to give their best pitch on guys they have seen, and they may be on their own in their assessments. Theo Epstein hasn't flown in to see these guys. The second- and third-tier decision-makers come in to play heavily on day three.
These scouts know what they are doing. Some of these early third day selections will be productive pros. Why do I say that? Some of them already have been. Kevonte Mitchell took to CF much better than a HS 3B should. Chesny Young had an OPS of .767 for the Midwest League Champs while being young for the level. Four college arms were drafted, and they will likely provide value in 2015 in the lower rungs of the minors.
And then, there's Austyn Willis. A prep arm from the same California high school that produced Aaron Sanchez, Willis can get eased through the system with little pressure on him. There will be plenty of pitchers he would need to beat out for a rotation slot in Eugene. Don't rule him out.
However, whether Willis or Sands ever make major waves in Wrigley, I'm very comfortable with the progress of the Cubs pitching system. Identifying talent, getting it signed, and getting it developed need to be in sync for a system to produce. All seem to be working positively now. And this won't be the last time I tell you so.