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Cubs 1st round draft picks since 2000: a look back

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The Cubs have had some highs and lows in the first round of the MLB draft this century. The recent history has had more highs than lows.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2018 MLB Draft approaches, it always helps to look back and see what the Cubs have done in years past. The Cubs’ first pick is the 24th overall selection in the draft this year, so the front office probably has little idea who is going to be available that late in the draft. But it never hurts to take a look back and see what the Cubs decided to do in the past 18 drafts and how that turned out.

2000: Luis Montanez. SS. Coral Park HS (FL). (3rd pick)

I wanted to start with Montanez because I’m fascinated by the 2000 draft, which has been called the worst draft in history. Adrian Gonzalez went number one and while he turned out to be a great player, his success in San Diego only came after two other teams gave up on him, trading him for a major-league reliever, not once but twice. After that, the best players in the first round were Chase Utley and Adam Wainwright. The next best player was Rocco Baldelli, who had two good seasons before injuries, illness and a rare genetic condition ended his career. The fourth best player was Sean Burnett. Montanez is in the mix for the fifth-best. If you add the first-round supplemental picks, there’s Kelly Johnson, who would rank behind Wainwright and above Baldelli.

Anyway, I make this point to say that Montanez’s disappointing career is pretty understandable in this light. Montanez played seven seasons in the Cubs farm system. He moved to second base in 2003 and the outfield in 2004. He made it as high as Triple-A Iowa, but he only hit .224/.281/.371 as a 24-year-old in 82 games. After seven seasons, he entered minor league free agency and signed with the Orioles, where he did much better but still not great. He made his major league debut with the Orioles in 2008 and hit well as a fifth outfielder that year, but spent the next two seasons as a fifth outfielder/Triple-A taxi squad player, playing 93 games for the Orioles over three seasons. After his Orioles declined to offer him a contract after 2010, he came back to the Cubs and played 36 games for the team in 2011, hitting .222/.263/.352.

He never returned to the majors after 2011, but he played in the minors with the Cardinals and Phillies in 2012 and the Angels in 2013. His career ended after a stint with Somerset in the independent Atlantic League in 2014, where he hit .289/.350/.470 with 17 home runs in 130 games. That sounds good, but as a 32-year-old outfielder in indy ball, that’s not really going to attract much interest from major league teams so he hung it up.

I promise the rest of these capsules will be shorter.

2001: Mark Prior. RHP. Southern California. (2nd pick)

The greatest pitcher who never was. There’s no need to go over the whole Prior saga, for which you are probably all familiar. When the Twins felt that they would be unable to sign the Next Great Pitching Ace™, they picked the local boy Joe Mauer and the Cubs got a pitcher who was expected to lead them to their first World Series title in almost 100 years.

As disappointing as Prior’s career was, his 2003 season shouldn’t be forgotten. He should have won the Cy Young that year, but voters of the era were still obsessed with wins and saves so the award went to Eric Gagne. After that the injuries came and Prior would only make 57 starts over the next three seasons. His 2005 season was solid. He was out from 2007 to 2009 with injuries. He attempted a comeback in 2010, but despite four seasons in the minors, he could never stay on the field long enough to pitch in the majors again, retiring after the 2013 season.

He’s currently the bullpen coach for the Dodgers.

2002: Bobby Brownlie. RHP. Rutgers. (21st pick)

Brownlie came into the 2002 NCAA season in the mix for the first pick in the draft, but battled arm soreness all season and although he pitched through the problems, he lost some velocity and his season didn’t live up to expectations. Still, it looked like the Cubs got a bargain when the got Brownlie with the 21st pick, even though him and his agent, Scott Boras, played hardball with the Cubs and held out until March of 2003 until the Cubs finally gave Brownlie a $2.5 million bonus.

His first two seasons in the Cubs’ system looked like Brownlie was worth it. He blew through High-A Daytona and Double-A West Tennessee and while he didn’t display the ace stuff he had early in his college career, Brownlie certainly looked like a future MLB mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter.

After that, it was all downhill. He struggled in 2005 with Triple-A Iowa and was moved to the bullpen. Then the injuries came and by 2007, he was trying to revive his career with Newark in the Atlantic League. He got another chance with the Nationals in 2008 and the Braves in 2009, but in 2010 he was back with Newark and he hung up his cleats after that.

The 2002 draft was probably the worst in Cubs history, despite grabbing Rich Hill in the 4th round. The Cubs had three first-round supplemental picks after Brownlie and took three more pitchers: Luke Hagerty, Chadd Blasko and Matt Clanton. None of them made the majors. Hagerty never made it above High-A Daytona, Blasko never made it above Double-A and Clanton’s professional career consisted of two innings in Mesa and two in Boise.

2003: Ryan Harvey. OF. Dunedin HS (FL). (6th pick.)

Harvey was a big, high school right-handed power hitter who couldn’t hit a curve ball. Harvey could drive a fastball a long ways, and I remember he used to give Clayton Kershaw fits in the minor leagues. Every other pitcher just never threw him a fastball. In Peoria in 2005, Harvey hit a career-high 24 home runs. He also struck out 137 times and walked just 24.

Harvey made it as high as Double-A Tennessee in 2008 when the Cubs cut ties with him. He played for the Rockies Double-A team in Tulsa in 2009 and 2010 before finishing his career with Lancaster in the Atlantic League in 2013.

2004: None

The Cubs forfeited their 1st-round pick in 2004 to sign LaTroy Hawkins. The Twins took Kyle Waldrop with the pick, so the Cubs didn’t miss out on much. The Cubs took RHP Grant Johnson with their 2nd-round pick, and he made it as high as Double-A but was never a top prospect.

The Cubs did take Jerry Blevins with their 17th-round pick and he’s still pitching for the Mets.

2005: Mark Pawelek. LHP. Springville HS (UT). (20th pick)

Pawelek had a big arm, but injuries and immaturity meant that he never could get much out of it. He never made it above low-A Peoria, and he only pitched four innings for the Chiefs anyway. Most of his Cubs career was spent in Boise and the Cubs finally grew tired of his act in 2008. He signed with the Reds and played one season for their high-A team.

He was last seen pitching for the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

2006: Tyler Colvin. OF. Clemson. (13th pick.)

This is a bit misleading as the Cubs “real” first-round pick was Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs took Colvin as a budget pick in the first round to give them enough money to tempt Samardzija away from an NFL career after taking him with their next pick in the 5th round. (Yes, there wasn’t a “hard cap” on bonuses yet, but the Cubs were trying to play nice with Bud Selig at this time for several reasons.)

Colvin became the first Cubs first-round draft pick since Prior to make the majors when he got a September call-up in 2009. Colvin had a solid season with the Cubs in 2010, hitting .254/.316/.500 with 20 home runs in 136 games. His season ended early when he was impaled with Welington Castillo’s broken bat in September. The incident very easily could have killed him.

Colvin struggled coming back from the injury in 2011 and in Theo Epstein’s first move in charge of the Cubs, he traded Colvin and DJ LeMahieu to the Rockies for Ian Stewart. Things got better for Epstein and the Cubs after that. Colvin had a good 2012 season for the Rockies, but struggled with Colorado in 2013 and they let him leave for the Giants in 2014. That was his last season in the majors. He played 2015 with the White Sox Triple-A affiliate and then was out of the game for two years.

Colvin is currently attempting a comeback and is on the roster of the Tulsa Drillers, the Dodgers Double-A affiliate.

2007: Josh Vitters. 3B. Cypress HS. (CA). (3rd pick)

Never let the Cubs pick third. Vitters had a tremendous stroke and good power, but he simply couldn’t wait to get a pitch to hit. Vitters didn’t strike out a lot, but pitchers could get weak contact on him as he’d swing at anything he could reach, which was a lot. He just couldn’t make good contact on those pitches.

Vitters eventually did well enough in the minors to earn a shot at the majors in 2012. Or maybe the Cubs were just trying anything in that 100-loss season. In any case, Vitters hit .121/.193/.202 with two home runs in 109 trips to the plate that year. He hasn’t been back to the majors since. The Cubs released Vitters after a poor 2014 season in Iowa. He’s played in independent ball since then and is currently with Quebec in the Can-Am League, which is about as low in professional baseball as you can go.

2008: Andrew Cashner. RHP. Texas Christian. (19th pick)

Cashner blew through the Cubs farm system quickly, making the majors as a reliever in May of 2010. He had control issues, but he was still young and the Cubs still felt strongly enough about him to move him to the rotation in 2011. However, Cashner made just one start for the Cubs before suffering a rotator cuff injury that caused him to miss most of the 2011 season.

The new Theo Epstein front office made up for that LeMahieu goof quickly by trading Cashner to the Padres for Anthony Rizzo in January of 2012, and the rest is history. Cashner had some solid seasons for the Padres and some that weren’t so solid. He also had many, many injury problems. The Padres traded him to the Marlins in 2016. He signed with the Rangers as a free agent for the 2017 season and the Orioles for this season.

2009: Brett Jackson. OF. California. (31st pick)

Jackson put up some solid numbers in the Cubs minor league system and was the Cubs’ number one prospect according to Baseball America (and most everyone else) after the 2011 season. There were always some questions about how much he struck out, but he drew a lot of walks, ran the bases well and had moderate power.

Jackson got a major league call-up in that 100-loss 2012 season, in case you’ve forgotten. I know a lot of Cubs fans have tried to forget that season. Jackson did a little better than Vitters, hitting .175/.303/.342 with four home runs in 44 games. Not good, but as a 23-year-old making his major league debut, it wasn’t disqualifying.

But Jackson was injured and played poorly for Iowa in 2013 and was demoted to Double-A, where he didn’t play any better. The 2014 season wasn’t any better for Jackson and the Cubs traded him to the Diamondbacks that August. He got into seven games for Arizona and the Giants took him in the Rule 5 draft that winter. After a poor season with Triple-A Sacramento, Jackson appears to have retired.

He was last seen as an extra in the Fox TV series “Pitch” about the first female ballplayer, playing one of the Padres.

2010: Hayden Simpson. RHP. Southern Arkansas. (16th pick)

This brings back bad memories for me. Not the pick, but the reaction to it. Pretty much no one had ever heard of Simpson, who pitched in Division II, before the Cubs shocked everyone by taking him in the first round. Those who had heard of him knew he had a 95-96 mph fastball and a pair of sharp breaking pitches. But even scouts who liked him wondered if the short and slight Simpson could withstand the rigors of pro ball.

He couldn’t. Simpson came down with a case of mononucleosis right after the draft and he missed all of the 2010 pro season. He was never the same after that and injuries piled upon illness. Simpson never made it above High-A Daytona and he pitched poorly there in 2013. The new front office had little invested in him and released him. After one season in independent ball, Simpson hung it up.

While Simpson was a bust, it could have been worse. The Rays took outfielder Josh Sale with the next pick and he was not only just as big of a bust, he was also an incredible jerk and a PED user. While Simpson was an embarrassment, at least he never was an embarrassment like Sale. But Cubs fans would have been happy in 2010 if the team had taken Sale over Simpson.

2011: Javier Baez. SS. Arlington County Day (FL). (9th pick)

I don’t need to tell you what Baez is doing now, do I?

The final Jim Hendry draft. Hendry already knew he was fired when he took Baez, but he agreed to stay on through the draft.

2012: Albert Almora Jr. OF. Mater Academy (FL). (6th pick)

I don’t need to tell you what Almora is doing now, do I?

The first Theo Epstein draft. Almora didn’t add the Jr. to his name until later, but I put it in here anyway.

2013: Kris Bryant. 3B. University of San Diego. (2nd pick)

I don’t need to tell you what Bryant is doing now, do I?

The first pick in the draft, RHP Mark Appel, is already out of the game.

2014: Kyle Schwarber. C. Indiana. (4th pick)

I don’t need to tell you what Schwarber is doing now, do I? Well, he’s not catching, that’s for sure.

2015: Ian Happ. OF. University of Cincinnati. (9th pick)

I don’t need to tell you what Happ is doing now, do I? While listed as an outfielder when drafted, he had played second base previously in his college career and the Cubs always intended for him to play both.

2016: None

The Cubs sacrificed their first two picks in 2016 after signing Jason Heyward and John Lackey. In the third round, the Cubs selected RHP Thomas Hatch from Oklahoma State. Currently, Hatch is 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA for Double-A Tennessee this season. He profiles as a backend starter in the majors, which would be a great result for a player taken in the third round.

2017: Brendon Little. LHP. State College of Florida. (27th pick) and Alex Lange. RHP. Louisiana State. (30th pick).

The Cubs had two first-round picks last year after getting an extra one for losing Dexter Fowler, but they were both at the end of the first round.

Little was the more raw of the two but with the higher ceiling. So far, he’s alternated good appearances with disastrous ones for South Bend this season and has an overall record of 2-3 with a 5.59 ERA.

Lange started the 2018 season in Myrtle Beach and he has a record of 1-2 with a 4.25 ERA in seven starts.

It’s way to early to draw any conclusions about either pitcher.