Our Pledge To You

Cubs

Heat is on for budget-strapped Cubs to finally produce homegrown pitching

No exciting new names. No splashy announcements. No buzz of any real substance.

Beyond a Twitter-ilating war of words with the Cardinals, the Cubs Convention this year provided little more for fans than three days worth of walking, talking reasons why Bryce Harper won’t be a Cub in 2019.

And the biggest of all might be the other conspicuous absence at the downtown Sheraton Grand over the weekend: An actual homegrown Cubs pitcher with even a season of big-league time.

More than seven years after incoming team president Theo Epstein promised to build a “scouting and player development machine,” that has instead been a stunning organizational weakness – especially when it comes to developing pitchers.

Cubs president Theo Epstein (center), player development boss Jason McLeod (left) and general manager Jed Hoyer are still trying to deliver that "player development machine" they promised when they arrived in the fall of 2011 (pictured).

And nobody is hiding from it, much less denying it.

“We can’t keep celebrating Kris Bryant,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ top scouting and player development executive since Epstein took over. “It’s so obvious it’s not even an elephant in the room. It’s something that drives us every day.”

And it’s about to drive the payroll budget over a cliff – and maybe even the competitive window with it.

More than $100 million is tied up in the starting rotation and closer on a franchise-record 2019 budget that is straining at the seams.

A hefty expense for outside pitching was built into the early competitive plans, made feasible by a young core of hitting talent that wouldn’t reach high-priced arbitration years until some cheaper, homegrown pitchers would be contributing significantly.

Uh-oh.

Seven drafts into the process, the Cubs haven’t had a homegrown pitcher throw a single postseason pitch in four playoff runs and don’t have one projected to make the Opening Day roster.

If anything, the Cubs have gotten worse at developing pitchers since the new regime took over – a problem that has become so acute in recent years that they’ve shifted from their conservative approach medically and mechanically to a more aggressive approach over the last two seasons.

“We tried to fit everyone neatly into a box,” McLeod said. “Do these mechanics lead to what we think is going to be long-term health? And has he thrown enough strikes that we think prior performance is going to equal this type of performance going forward? We put so many checks on guys … that probably hamstrung us a little bit.

“As we’ve sat here five or six years later, I think that – not to be egregious about anything – but we’ll probably be a little more aggressive.”

Thomas Hatch, the Cubs’ first draft pick (third round) in 2016 out of college, was a pivot point in pushing players’ limits more, despite an injury history as an amateur. The result: 26 productive starts each of the last two years, progressing to 143 2/3 innings in 2018.

RELATED
• How boring is St. Louis? Let’s pick up on Cubs star Kris Bryant’s put-down
Cubs new bench coach deflects manager-in-waiting talk as Theo praises Joe Maddon

McLeod said former minor-league coordinator Derek Johnson pushed for the new approach in the time leading up to his departure after the 2015 season to become a big-league pitching coach. And coordinator Brendan Sagara – hired a year ago this month – is a strong advocate, McLeod said.

Between that and what McLeod considers the best volume of potential big-league contributors he’s had at the upper levels of the minors since he got to Chicago, the system might finally be able to produce some real help this year (likeliest in the bullpen).

And not a moment too soon.

Because the heat is on like it hasn’t been since this front office took over.

“I don’t know if heat is the right word. It’s just the sense of urgency,” McLeod said. “We know where we are from the major league standpoint, with the major league club and players that are getting to their arbitration years, and it’s just on us.

“There’s an overwhelming sense of urgency throughout the organization,” he said but added: “This is probably the first year I can confidently sit here and feel like we have the guys that can help this team in the major leagues this year, if needed.”