Press Box 815: End to Cubs’ misery may come sooner than fans think

By Chris Luttig
Sports Columnist

Chicago Cubs fans have been hearing the names Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Alberto Almora since last year’s draft — and for great reasons. They are some of the top hitting and power prospects in baseball. Bryant, Baez and Soler scored a rating of 80 on the 20 to 80 Major League Scouting Scale. While this is exciting in baseball, pitching wins championships.

It has been a long time since Chicago Cubs fans have heard a peep about an exciting pitching prospect, or the pitchers in the farm system, for that matter. You have to go back to 1999 and 2001, when the Cubs drafted Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, to a time when fans could be excited about a Cubs pitching prospect. Actually, since Greg Maddux.

Four years ago, the Chicago Cubs’ top 10 prospects featured two pitchers — Andrew Cashner and Chris Carpenter. Cashner was part of the Theo Epstein era’s first power moves. He is now a front-of-the-rotation starter for the San Diego Padres.

The Cashner trade brought the Cubs Anthony Rizzo, who Epstein picked up for the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round in 2007. Epstein valued Rizzo as a potential All-Star first baseman in Boston’s farm system, but made him the centerpiece of the Adrian Gonzalez trade.

Heading into last season, Cubs fans saw this as a winning scenario, as Rizzo was coming off a promising 2012, while Cashner was still a middle relief bullpen pitcher for San Diego.

Fast forward to 2014, and the flip side of this trade is seen, as Rizzo struggles for a second year and Cashner is turning into a coveted front-line starter. Carpenter (not the Chris Carpenter who retired from the Cardinals last season) is now pitching for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows after failing to break camp again with the Boston Red Sox. This is part of the trend the Cubs’ farm system is out to break.

From 2002 to 2011, the beginning of the Epstein era, the Cubs used six first-round draft picks on pitching. The final draft before the Epstein era was 2010, and the Cubs drafted surprise first-rounder Hayden Simpson, a little-known, undersized pitcher from a small NCAA Division II school — Southern Arkansas University. Most teams projected Simpson as a fifth-round or later project. Simpson was released by the Cubs in spring training last year and is out of baseball. Cashner is the only pitcher in the major leagues.

Upon Epstein’s arrival, the cultivating of the Chicago Cubs farm system was overhauled from the top of the organization. Cubs fans and all of baseball knew about Jed Hoyer and his time with Epstein in Boston, but he wasn’t the key prize to come back to join Epstein from San Diego.

The name not heard was Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod, who orchestrated several of Boston and San Diego’s recent drafts.

A former college pitcher and Houston Astros draft pick, McLeod values pitching and approaches the scouting of pitchers unlike other teams.

McLeod was instrumental in drafting Boston’s current stacked farm system and top-end pitching prospects and current major leaguers: Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Daniel Bard and Jed Lowrie. He is now working to bring the same caliber to Chicago via the draft.

Epstein also realized while assembling his team that finding players is only one aspect of building a strong farm system. Once players are in the system, developing them into budding stars is a whole different game.

When it comes to recruiting and developing pitchers, there has been nobody better in recent years than a man named Derek Johnson, who is now the Chicago Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator.

Johnson was the associate head coach at Vanderbilt University, where he was named 2004 National Pitching Coach of the Year and 2010 National Assistant Coach of the Year. Eight players from Johnson’s Vanderbilt pitching staff were drafted in 2011 — pretty impressive, considering most Division I college teams only carry 24 active players.

In his tenure at Vanderbilt, Johnson developed five current major-league starting pitchers: David Price, Sonny Gray, Mike Minor, Jeremy Sowers and Jensen Lewis. More than 25 pitchers were drafted during Johnson’s time at Vanderbilt. During that time, the Chicago Cubs missed on every first-rounder except Cashner and have only drafted and signed seven pitchers who have made it to the major-league level. None has had the same success as Johnson’s pitchers.

Several others are new to the Chicago Cubs scouting and minor league development team, but McLeod and Johnson are ones to get excited about. They have both covered the country from end-to-end, searching for diamonds in the rough and have turned unknown players into the most talked-about names in baseball. This is the start of a new era that will take a couple years to build and most fans won’t see coming until the players reach the major leagues.

The Cubs have drafted and signed 30 pitchers in the last two drafts under the new regime. Four are ranked among the organization’s 2014 Top 20 prospects, with Pierce Johnson — the first pitcher selected in the Epstein era — leading the way at No.7. Epstein has also acquired several pitchers in recent trades. Seven are also on the Top 20 prospect list.

C.J. Edwards is the crown jewel of the pitching prospects, ranked No. 5 in the system and a key piece in the Matt Garza trade. He is sidelined with a shoulder strain and will begin a throwing program in Arizona next week.

The three others acquired in the Garza trade are all on the big-league roster: Mike Olt (3B), Neil Ramirez (RP) and Justin Grimm (RP). The trade has paid great dividends in the rebuilding era, bringing three players to the major-league level. Between the two drafts and the last two seasons of deadline trades, there is plenty to be excited about for Cubs fans.

The on-field Epstein era has begun, and it will be here a lot sooner than fans think. They have waited more than 100 years — what is two more to have a team that will compete for championships for a decade to come?

Twitter: @pressbox815

From the May 14-20, 2014, issue

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