Next week, the current Theo Epstein administration will go to the MLB draft for the sixth time. While we don’t know what they are going to do (and if we are to be honest, with the 27th pick the Cubs likely don’t know what they are going to do), we do know that the previous five drafts have been pretty successful.
The draft has often been described as a crapshoot, and that’s true if you understand that talented teams can load the dice. No one is immune from the vagaries of young men playing baseball. Injuries can derail a career or players who look good against lesser competition can simply not be able to make the adjustments against better ones. But without question, the current Cubs front office has been able to shift the odds in their favor.
The Cubs have had four first-round picks over the past four seasons (they did not have a first-round pick last year) and all four of them are currently playing on the major league roster. (Even more impressive, the final first-round pick of the Jim Hendry era, Javier Baez, is also on the roster.) That’s never happened before in Cubs history. Now the team did have an advantage that all four of the picks were top ten picks, which only happened once before from 1986 to 1989. Mike Harkey was the best player taken out of those four drafts. Cubs fans still bring up Ty Griffin and Earl Cunningham each year around this time.
How did they pull this off? Obviously, good scouting played a big role. But that’s something that every team tries to do. But from Tom Verducci’s book “The Cubs Way,” we know the Cubs did two other things as well. One, they went with hitters as opposed to pitchers. Hitters have a much lower “bust-rate” than pitchers do, in part because injuries are a constant Sword of Damocles hanging over every pitcher’s arm.
But the other, and the somewhat revolutionary, criterium that the Cubs used was to focus on players of high character. That isn’t just because they want good guys who will make up a harmonious clubhouse, although that is an important side effect. But becoming a major leaguer is hard. You want young men with the character to be able to handle adversity and overcome it. You want young men who aren’t going to be distracted by off-the-field concerns. And of course, you want players who are willing to put in the extra work to make themselves just a little better. And in Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ, the Cubs got all of that.
Now there are some downsides to the Cubs approach. Not drafting pitchers has meant that there is not a pitcher on the Cubs current 25-man roster who was signed and developed out of the Cubs system. (Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. both came over from the Rangers in trades.) But overall, the system has worked and that big World Series trophy is a testament to that.
To refresh your memory, here’s five years of Cubs drafts.
First round pick: The first pick of the Epstein era was Almora, taken with the sixth pick. Almora was also the only high school player the Cubs have taken with their first pick under the current front office. He was considered a high-character player and I heard more than one evaluator describe him as the kind of kid that you’d want to marry your daughter. He also had extensive experience on Team USA’s under-18 teams.
Rest of draft: The other picks weren’t as successful. The Cubs had two more supplemental first round picks in 2012 for losing Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, and they took college right-hander Pierce Johnson and high school right-hander Paul Blackburn. Johnson was an injury-risk out of Missouri State, and while he did make his major-league debut this season, injuries and general ineffectiveness as a starter have moved him to the bullpen.
Blackburn was traded to the Mariners in the Mike Montgomery deal and the Mariners sent him to Oakland for Danny Valencia. He has yet to make his major-league debut, but he is having a successful season in Triple-A Nashville. However, his ceiling looks to be as a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Other players from that draft that are still in the Cubs system include 2nd-round pick Duane Underwood Jr., 3rd-round pick Ryan McNeil, 7th-round pick Stephen Bruno, 13th-round pick Bijan Rademacher, 18th-round pick David Bote and 21st-round pick Steve Perakslis. None of them are top prospects at this point, but Underwood keeps teasing us.
But Almora is the only pick from this draft currently in the major leagues. That’s not unusual, but it’s also not a sign of a great draft. Just a good one.
First-round pick: Picking second, the Cubs took Kris Bryant. Al took care of this one on Tuesday.
Rest of draft: Two other players from this draft have played in the majors. Second-round pick Rob Zastryzny made his major-league debut last year and was even on the roster for the NLCS last fall, even if he never got into a game. He did get to warm up a lot. Zastryzny has a good chance to have a long career as a left-hander out of the bullpen.
The other one is 10th-round pick Zack Godley, whom the Cubs sent to Arizona as part of the Miguel Montero deal. Godley just got sent back to Triple-A in a numbers move, but he made six starts for the Diamondbacks this season and posted a 2.39 ERA. He’s in Arizona’s long-term plans.
The big name still in the Cubs system from this draft is 12th-round pick Trevor Clifton, who grew about four inches since being drafted (or at least since being measured) and has turned himself into a top prospect. He could be in a major league rotation next season.
Others still in the system include 3rd-round pick Jacob Hannemann, 7th-round pick David Garner, 9th-round pick Charcer Burks, 15th-round pick Michael Wagner, 16th-round pick Cael Brockmeyer and 24th-round pick Tyler Alamo. My apologies if I missed someone.
First-round pick: The Cubs took Kyle Schwarber with the fourth pick in the draft. It was considered an overdraft by many at the time as there were (and still are) questions about Schwarber’s defensive abilities. But this isn’t the place to debate Schwarber’s future. You know what he did last year and you know how good a hitter he is. The Cubs aren’t regretting the pick.
Rest of draft: No one else from this draft has made the majors, which isn’t really surprising. The one guy who was expected to move quickly through the system, right-hander Jake Stinnett, has been derailed by injuries.
But there are several players in this draft that are top prospects. Third-round pick Mark Zagunis and 6th-round pick Dylan Cease are top ten prospects in the Cubs system. Chesny Young, taken in the 14th round, looks like a solid future major-league utility player. Seventeenth-round pick Jason Vosler is showing some nice power numbers in the minors. Zach Hedges was taken in the 26th round and looks like a future major leaguer, although it’s still unclear if it will be as a starter or a reliever.
James Farris was dealt to the Rockies in the Eddie Butler deal.
For pure volume of talent, the 2014 draft looks like the current front office’s best. It may be beaten in overall value by the 2013 one because of Bryant, but there are several players who could be major leaguers in this draft.
First-round pick: The Cubs took switch-hitting outfielder Ian Happ out of Cincinnati in with the 9th overall pick and quickly decided he’d play second base as well. Since his callup to the majors he’s mostly been in the outfield, but the Cubs hope that he’ll have the versatility to play all over the diamond.
Happ is one of only five current major leaguers taken in the first round of the 2015 draft and the lowest pick of the five.
Rest of the draft: It’s still too early to really evaluate this draft. There are a lot of “maybes” still in the Cubs system from 2015. Left-hander Bryan Hudson was taken in the 3rd round. Outfielder D.J. Wilson went in the fourth. P.J. Higgins was taken in the 12th round as a second baseman and has successfully moved behind the plate. Catcher/first baseman Ian Rice was taken in the 29th round and can really hit. Thirty-first round pick Daniel Spingola is having a breakout season in High-A Myrtle Beach.
There are many, many picks from this draft still in the system, as should be expected. Second-round pick Donnie Dewees went to the Royals in the Alec Mills deal.
First-round pick: The Cubs didn’t have a first- or second-round pick last year, having forfeited them to sign Jason Heyward and John Lackey. Third-round pick Thomas Hatch was a right-handed pitcher out of Oklahoma state and he sat out all of last season after a heavy college workload. He started his professional career at High-A Myrtle Beach this spring and struggled to start the year, but he’s put together three strong starts his last three times out.
Rest of the draft: It is way too early to get a read on last year’s class, but Epstein and company broke away from their hitter-focused drafts this time in the absence of a high pick. Fourteen of the Cubs first 15 picks were pitchers. The Cubs decided to cast as wide a net as possible for pitching and hoping that at least a few of them will survive the meat grinder and make it to the majors as productive pitchers.
So far, pitchers who have met or exceeded expectations include 9th-round pick Duncan Robinson, 10th-round pick Dakota Mekkes, 11th-round pick Michael Rucker and 18th-round pick Matt Swarmer. There are others. Seventeenth-round pick, shortstop Zack Short, is also off to a good start to his career.
But without a pick in the first two rounds, this draft class will probably fall short of the other four under Epstein. But they seem to have done well with what they had available to them.
We obviously don’t know what is going to happen next week, but it should be an interesting draft because the Cubs are in a situation they haven’t been in before under Epstein. They have two picks in the first round, but both come near the end. They pick 27th for having the best record in the game last season and also 30th as compensation for losing Dexter Fowler. They have all their picks after that, which is the final pick of each round.
Be sure to follow the draft, starting on Monday.