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2015 MLB Draft Prep Has A New Focus

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Will the draft be handled differently in the post-rebuild phase by the Cubs?

Kyle Funkhouser, who could be on the board when the Cubs make their first-round pick
Kyle Funkhouser, who could be on the board when the Cubs make their first-round pick
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

With the call-up of Addison Russell, the rebuild phase is in the rear view mirror, largely. As with any team, the prospects still matter, and have value. However, "keeping the player in the minors for cost reasons" will rarely be in the discussion, now. If costs like that mattered, Russell would still be in Iowa. He isn't, so it isn't on the front-burner anymore. Winning games is. With the rebuild being in the past, will that change anything about the Cubs draft in the future?

Before I answer that question, I should briefly review how the Cubs have been drafting the last five or so years. The changes at the top of the organization changed things a bit, but much of the process is still the same as it had been in the later Jim Hendry years. Under Theo Epstein, no pitchers have been selected with the top selection.

The last two selections have been the best college bat available, in Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. So far, that strategy has worked rather well.  In 2012, no college bat was particularly desirable. In that instance, they took prep center fielder Albert Almora (who now goes by Junior as a post-script to his name). Pitchers have come fast and furious after the first pick, but not as the first pick.

Will the Cubs consider a pitcher first? Possibly, as Mark Appel would have been the team's preference before Bryant. It will depend on who has been taken the first eight selections. Similarly, along with which pitchers remain, which hitters remain could tilt things, as well. Ian Happ, Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman, and DJ Stewart are possibilities as college bats, early.

The Cubs have been very committed to selecting good people, as well as good players, in the draft. Success is no reason to start burning draft picks on players of questionable character. I fully expect the 'post-signing drug screen' to remain in place for the foreseeable future. While a few players may have been lost (two contracts have been voided in the last few years), the message of running a clean program eliminates the need for "Remedial Decency To Other People" classes.

There will be one standard that may be changed, and it involves pitching draft choices. Since I've been paying attention, draft picks that are pitchers are not pushed hard in their first season as a pro. Second rounders Rob Zastryzny (2013) and Jake Stinnett (2014) were limited in their innings after college.

Many college coaches milk as many innings as possible out of their Friday night ace. Sometimes, the practice gets more severe come the tournament. Pitches used to going on six days rest are sometimes trotted out for meaningful innings after three days rest. Or even less. Teams that need to win their conference tournament to reach the field of 64 will do whatever is necessary to try to win. As competitors, the pitchers won't complain.

With potential overwork in a college setup, the Cubs come rather close to capping rookie innings at around 20. Many of these innings will be in low-stress environments, whether in the compound leagues, in short-season ball, or the Midwest League. Realistically, that's a solid choice, as the newbie gets a taste of the pro ranks, and then gets shut down.

However, that might be about done.

I imagine that if, for instance, the Cubs grab Illinois starting pitcher Kevin Duchene in the fifth round (a reasonable round selection for a solid college pitcher), the club won't have any reason to rush Duchene. Get him his innings, and close him up for the year. Bring him back for instructional ball in November, then get him to South Bend in April, if all goes well. This is how the Cubs (though by no means everyone else) have done things for at least five years.

However, if the Cubs have a chance at Louisville's Kyle Funkhouser, a hard-thrower who seems to be hitting on most cylinders recently, is on the board at nine, things might change. Imagine the Cubs drafting Funkhouser. The idea would be, "He can help the parent club sooner than later."

If the goal is to help the club sooner than later, limiting him to 20 innings in Eugene might not be optimal. Or, perhaps it would still be optimal, but not preferable. I'm not sure if it makes sense to rush and overwork a pitcher, just because he was an early selection. Conversely, slow-playing an asset that may be able to start a playoff game in 2016, only to have him only advanced to Tennessee in Double-A by next September isn't necessarily a good call, either.

Also, will pitching be such a major focus on the second day? I like the talent they're getting with pitchers I've clearly never heard of. However, the scouts and coaches could get quality from hitters in some cases at those spots, as well. The pitching seems to be shored up to the point where South Bend and Myrtle Beach are solid in that regard.

Grabbing a hitter that slips on some reason that shouldn't apply wouldn't be a bad thing, either. With catcher and pitcher not screaming needs now, I'm good for a thumping first baseman. The system is a bit short on those. Though running out three catchers per squad limits the need for a first baseman. As usual, more questions than answers.

I can see both sides. Is it worth potentially blowing up a kid's arm to have him ready sooner? It hasn't been, recently. However, the Cubs haven't been seriously competitive since a few years back. I'm not sure if this will be the year a college arm is the Cubs choice. Nor am I sure that people will appreciate the timeline. We'll know more in about two months.

***

Kudos to UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts.  In Friday's game against Hawaii, Dillon Tate was in his first start back from a minor injury. Tate threw seven hitless, walking only two, Despite a pitch count of 96, the bullpen entered. UCSB won 5-0, but settled for a combined two-hitter. Checketts surrendered short-term notoriety for a chance at keeping his best pitcher healthy. The Gauchos are one spot in front of Illinois, so June will likely matter for Checketts' squad. He didn't push his ace, when clearly, he could have.

The eighth-ranked Illini haven't lost since March. They swept four games last week, and have three weeks left in their regular season. They are in a battle with Iowa for the top spot in the conference tourney. The two aren't scheduled to play in the regular season, and both figure to get decent seeds in the field of 64.

As I'm finishing this off, Pennsylvania prep arm Mike Nikorak is pitching. Two prospect followers are live tweeting. Nikorak has hit 96 and 97 in the first inning. No word on which Cubs scouts are in attendance. Nikorak has passed Ashe Russell as the in-vogue first high school arm off the board. Northern arms, for the win.

Here are some names, in no specific order, I'd be interested in at nine. As a reminder, these are in no specific order.

Brendan Rodgers, SS, HS (FL)

Dillon Tate, RHP, UCSB

Mike Nikorak, RHP, HS (PA)

Dansby Swanson, SS, Vanderbilt

Alex Bregman, SS-2B, LSU

Ian Happ, OF-2B, Cincinnati

Ashe Russell, RHP, HS (IN)

Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville

That would be eight names. The Cubs draft ninth. I'd hope someone goes "off-board" with a selection. Otherwise, drafting a player at below slot becomes viable. Of course, it isn't June yet.