MESA, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta has been the single greatest reason the Cubs’ rebuilding plan has succeeded, so far, without producing a major-league pitcher from any of the four drafts or international signing periods under the current front office regime.
Now he might be one of the biggest reasons for optimism that one or two of those 80 pitchers drafted could finally see big-league daylight this year.
Although much of the buzz this spring surrounding the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner centered on tabled negotiations on a potential long-term contract, a lot of the more significant behind-the-scenes action involved the time he spent helping groom pitching prospects who might one day replace him in the rotation.
“He took me even more under his wing [than last spring], and every day he came up and talked to me,” said Pierce Johnson, the first pitcher drafted by the Cubs after Theo Epstein took over the operation in the fall of 2011. “After outings we would diagnose everything. For me, just the way he goes about his business and everything is phenomenal. If I can translate that to my game, hopefully it can take off like his.”
Duane Underwood, the third pitcher drafted in that first Epstein Cubs draft in 2012, said Arrieta helped him, too, with things such as daily routines for starting pitchers.
“There’s a lot of guys that talk about doing stuff like that but never really do,” manager Joe Maddon said of veteran pitchers. “The fact that he’s actually taking the time to do that, that’s the kind of stuff that matters. And hopefully it’s going to make us really good for years to come.”
If it’s part of the so-called team culture the Cubs are trying to establish, in part through some of the veterans imported into the clubhouse, then it might be taking hold just in time.
Since adjustments to its plan during the first year in Chicago, this front office has been ahead of schedule of its most optimistic projections on almost everything it has done with the exception of drafting and developing its own pitching.
Some of that is a byproduct of design – emphasizing safer-bet hitters with high first-round picks all four years, including college hitters Kris Bryant (No. 2 overall), Kyle Schwarber (No. 4) and Ian Happ (No. 9) the last three years.
Thirteen pitchers taken after the Cubs’ picks in those four first rounds have reached the majors, including All-Star Michael Wacha, taken by the Cardinals 13 spots behind Albert Almora in 2012; Jon Gray, taken by the Rockies one spot behind Bryant, and Brandon Finnegan, who pitched in the 2014 World Series the year he was drafted by the Royals.
How much of the lack of big-league graduation of pitchers is about evaluation and development will likely be determined in the next year or so, when pitchers such as Johnson – who has struggled to stay on the field in the minors and to get hitters out in two big-league springs – make it, or don’t.
Johnson, who has made repeated trips to the disabled list the last three years with leg and back ailments, said he believes he and pitching coach Chris Bosio found a mechanical answer to command issues that also have plagued him since he was drafted.
“I keep building off that and keep working hard, and hopefully I can make it up there sometime this year and contribute to the team,” Johnson said after pitching four scoreless innings Saturday night against the Indians in his one strong outing of the spring, the day after he was optioned back to the minors.
Arrieta, who took several years to break free from the mechanics and adversity of cookie-cutter coaching early in his career, preached leaving the heavy thinking behind once he steps on the mound. He also told Johnson the major-league stuff is there.
“And I told him that it’s going to translate, that you just need to block out all the other BS in between the lines,” Arrieta said. “Just execute. That can be the only mindset.
“He is close. He knows it,” Arrieta added, “and we’re in contact quite a bit. I’m there for him.”
Now Johnson, and/or Underwood, Ryan Williams and some of the other pitching prospects have to prove the organization can identify and develop more than just hitters like Bryant and Schwarber.
“I’d definitely say I’m a little jealous that they’re up there already having that success,” Johnson said.
He downplays the pressure of expectations associated with being the first pitcher drafted by Epstein’s Cubs (No. 43 overall in ’12): “I think it drives me a little bit.”
Said Williams, last year’s Cubs minor-league pitcher of the year: “We definitely have lot of quality arms that will make a name for themselves.”
Some of the top starting prospects in the system are clustered at the Class A levels, including Dylan Cease, a fully rehabbed 100-mph right-hander the Cubs got for over-slot price in the sixth round two years ago because he was coming off Tommy John surgery.
Williams and highly regarded left-handers Justin Steele and Carson Sands also came out of that draft between the fourth and 10th rounds.
Underwood lists some other, older prospects: Johnson, 2012 pick Paul Blackburn, 2013 international amateur Jen-Ho Tseng.
“We’ve got really great pitching, and I think that shows throughout the minor-league organization,” Underwood said.
The proof of just how great will come when they start reaching the majors, making starts, back filling for the likes of Hammel, Lackey and even Arrieta.
“Once they get their chance,” Williams said, “I have no doubt we’ll take full advantage of it when we get there.”