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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: A look back at drafting and pitcher development in the 1990s

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Mike Harkey and Lance Dickson were top Cubs pitching picks in the early 1990s. Both flamed out due to injuries.

Mike Harkey
Former Cubs No. 1 draft pick Mike Harkey pitches for the Athletics in 1995
Getty Images

“Pitchers are too pampered now. I prefer when pitchers like Fergie Jenkins and Bob Gibson would duel for ten innings without looking to the bullpen.” This is a common sentiment. The hiccup was, in assuming that all pitchers should be like Jenkins or Gibson, many careers were ruined in the process. Today looks to the past to explain the present.

One of the wonders of both 1960s/1970s pitchers was that they were able to stay healthy. A player’s health often goes unmentioned in discussions. A starter that can take the ball every assignment provides value, beyond the assessed WAR value. By taking the ball each time, he limits the need to send out lesser arms.

The Cardinals recently called up minor league catcher Carson Kelly. Within a week or so, despite barely playing, he was injured. This isn’t to dismiss Kelly, but to note the importance of a player being ready to go. The Redbirds needed to add a player to the 40-man roster due to Kelly’s injury. Not optimal.

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If players were going to always stay healthy, discussing player health wouldn’t be necessary. However, whether by fluke or bad form, players get injured almost every day of the season. A large part of pitcher development strategy has been to keep pitchers healthy. Which is where we resume.

When the Cubs draft a pitcher in June, he will likely pitch in the neighborhood of 20 innings for an affiliate before the season closes in September. This serves two major purposes. It gives the team the chance to get video of him as a study project for the off-season. Also, the player gets a chance to both succeed and struggle against professional hitters..

  • How is his release point?
  • Does he field his position as well as could be hoped?
  • How is his pickoff move?
  • Are his third and fourth pitches worh developing?

Very tech/development stuff. For the player, he gets a chance to pitch in some pro games before shutting down for the off-season. However, this wasn’t always the way.

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Site protocol likes having players mentioned up front, and this look is about Mike Harkey and Lance Dickson. You can look at their MLB numbers forever, but not see the key miss in their development. To see that aspect, you need to look at the Harkey and Dickson numbers in their formative years.

Harkey (Cal State/Fullerton) was selected fourth in 1987 with Jack McDowell still on the board. The same with Kevin Appier and Craig Biggio. Once signed, Harkey made 12 starts in the Midwest League (76 innings) and a relief appearance in Double-A for another two frames.

His numbers in Peoria were good, but not amazingly so. He gave up over a hit per inning. His strikeout numbers pale in comparison to now, but that was a different era. In his first full professional season, he pitched 164⅓ innings, the last 34 of which were with the big club. The Cubs had no questions about “slowing down the arbitration clock” then.

After a sensational 1990, where he polled fifth in the Rookie Of The Year balloting, he was about cooked. The Cubs released him after 1993. He had minor successes for other teams, afterward. Rushing Harkey to the top level worked for one season, then blew up after.

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Dickson’s flight path was even more extreme. Taken 23rd overall in 1990 from the University of Arizona, the Cubs made no pretense of development along the way. He started three games for Geneva (New York-Penn League), five for Peoria (Midwest), three more for Charlotte (Southern), and still had time to start three games for the Cubs in August, leaving his third one after only 2⅔ innings.

His major league career was finished.

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It’s perfectly justifiable to get upset with starters being pulled due to pitch counts in the fifth inning. I grasp the angst. Perhaps, there’s a middle ground. However, to wind-sprint a pitcher from the lower levels to the parent club “just because” seems foolish and destructive.

A few days ago, I was discussing draft policy with a White Sox fan. He wants the club to take a hitter (perhaps infielder Nick Madrigal) with the fourth pick. A writer who studies the draft recommended pitcher Brady Singer, who had been the top-choice projection walking into the season.

The Sox fan said he didn’t want to draft a pitcher early, noting Carson Fulmer’s struggles. Which sent me to his development path.

Drafted in 2015, Fulmer logged 23 innings that year, mostly at Advanced-A. For that early of a choice, that seems a bit extreme. However, far better than the Stone Age methods of Harkey and Dickson. I question how much work a pitcher gets on his secondaries that early in his career at that high of a level.

In 2016, Fulmer started the season with 17 Double-A starts. My concern about developing off-speed offerings would continue on this path. 3-3 through eight starts, Fulmer would lose his next four starts, and six of his next eight. Starter wins and losses are a bit nebulous, but if you lose six of eight, something might be wrong.

Nonetheless, despite his 1.529 WHIP, Fulmer was promoted. Which, if the promotion is to Triple-A, seems a bit foolish. However, he was bumped to MLB, starting his arbitration clock. He teetered, giving up 12 hits and seven walks in 11⅔ innings. However, he was now taking up a roster spot, and having his returns to the minors count toward free agency.

This week, Fulmer was sent back to Triple-A.

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Pitching development is an unfinished story. It will likely be in flux for years to come. One benefit from the changes in emphasis on the starting pitcher has been the ability of one- or two-pitch pitchers to find use, meaning, and value in MLB bullpens.

Whether you like the eight-man bullpen or not, in a system like the Cubs pipeline, players like Justin Hancock can find a role and a paycheck tossing two innings of high 90s octane per week. No, it isn’t the two-hour, ten-minute pitching duel between Jenkins and Gibson, but it beats Dickson trudging off in the third inning of his third pro start, never to return to the league again.

Complain as you wish about pitcher usage. Pitcher usage stems from pitcher development. Discussing the prior without awareness of the latter seems a bit brash. Is the goal to get the player quickly to the top level? Or to develop them fully, so they’ll be more likely to contribute when there? For you to have credibility regarding development, it helps for you to see both extremes.

The past is gone. For the sake of pitchers like Dickson and Harkey, that’s probably a good thing. For a pitcher to be useful at the MLB level as a starting pitcher, it makes sense for him to have more than two usable pitches from his debut. However, a few fans are still more interested in churning through talent, and blaming the pitcher for getting injured. Because, if he was any good, he wouldn’t get injured, or something.