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Cubs No. 1 pick Brendon Little determined to remain on rapid ascent

A little over a year ago, Brendon Little was a freshman pitcher at North Carolina who almost never got to play. He was so far down the Tar Heels’ totem pole, he didn’t even travel on most road trips.

Yet two weeks ago, there he was at Wrigley Field for a workout with the Cubs. Three days after that, the Cubs made him the 27th overall pick in the MLB Draft. And on Wednesday, they made him a rich man.

Little, a 20-year-old lefty, insists he’s going to keep driving his 2011 Chevy Cruze — but he has a signing bonus of over $2 million burning a hole in his pocket in case he changes his mind.

“From last year, not playing,” he said, “to now, being with the Cubs? That’s so crazy.”
It really has been a whirlwind for a guy who, nevertheless, doesn’t seem all that swept up in it.

Cubs No. 1 pick Brendon Little: "From last year, not playing, to now, being with the Cubs? That's crazy."

After Little crushed his aforementioned workout with the Cubs, he grabbed some Lou Malnati’s — what else is a first-timer to Chicago to do but see Wrigley and eat pizza? — and called it a night. After his signing became official Thursday in Mesa, Arizona, he donned a new Cubs hat, jersey, pants and glove and did some stretching and light throwing in the hellacious heat.

“I don’t have any plans to celebrate,” he said. “I just want to get started with the Cubs. It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve pitched.”

The last time was May 5, a game Little won for his junior-college team in Florida. It closed a red-hot run of pitching for Little that started last June in the Cape Cod League, where he was an unsigned prospect playing for the Bourne Braves, and picked up in his sophomore season at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (how’s that for a mouthful?), where he atoned for an awful season at UNC.

Little threw all of four inconsequential innings with the Tar Heels after arriving on campus with his mechanics in a state of crisis. Not long into the season — the writing on the wall that he wasn’t part of the pitching plans as a freshman — he began to focus instead on stretching and strengthening his body. As the team was leaving for a series at Virginia in April 2016, Little hid under a desk in the weight room so he’d be able to lift after the coaches locked up.

“I wasn’t pitching, but I wasn’t pouting,” he said.

As for those mechanics, Little worked out some of the kinks in the Cape Cod League. Then he found the juco pitching coach who erased his remaining troubles by simplifying everything.

Some of you will remember Don Robinson, who pitched for the Pirates, Giants and other teams during a long career that ended in 1992. Robinson determined early on that Little had been struggling with trying to learn too many pitches and experimenting with too many deliveries.

“Don’t be Thomas Edison,” Robinson told him. “Don’t invent pitches.”

Little wanted to throw sliders and splitters; Robinson insisted that he focus only on his mid-90s fastball, outstanding curveball and changeup.

And now?

“If he consistently throws strikes,” Robinson said, “you’ll see him in the big leagues fast. I’m telling you — I mean real fast.”

Robinson would know a thing or two about that. He was drafted out of high school, made his first big-league start — for the Pirates, a defeat at Wrigley — at 20 and stuck in the majors for 15 years. Little won’t make it by 20, but his goals are ambitious. He sees himself at Class AA by 22, a brief but key stopover on his way to the North Side.

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” he said, “and what I’m visualizing. I visualize everything. The more I think about it, the more I can picture it. Then when the time comes, I’ll be right in place like it’s meant to be.”

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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