The Cubs Should Probably Develop Some Pitching

There are times when a single statistic grabs your attention. Such a time occurred for this author late last month, courtesy an excellent piece by Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic.

Sharma examined the number of innings recorded for every major-league team by pitchers they’d acquired via the draft since the arrival of the current curse-breaking Cubs regime ahead of the 2012 season.

During that timeframe, which includes six drafts, the Cubs have produced a total of 30 homegrown innings. Thirty! The Blue Jays lead the majors with 1,299 such innings. The Cardinals are second in the majors and lead the NL with 872, according to Sharma’s research.

Consider the following chart he produced:

Part of is this is by design, of course: when they were in tanking mode, the Cubs expended their premium draft picks on positional players, the idea being that they carried less risk. They planned to, and eventually did, flex their financial might to fill the pitching voids that remained via free agency. It’s hard to argue with the results — it led, in part, to a World Series title — though it’s a strategy that’s only applicable in large markets. For instance, the Brewers and Pirates are unlikely to address their own rotation holes with top-of-the-market arms.

At the same time, sustaining success is difficult if a club’s draft-and-development systems are producing, essentially, zero pitching. (Kyle Hendricks, one of the few Cubs starters to pass time in the system, was acquired for Ryan Dempster in 2012.) The game’s super teams — the Astros, Dodgers, Indians, and Nationals have all drafted and/or developed top-of-the-rotation arms.

For Epstein, the issue really dates back to Boston, where Clay Buchholz — drafted in 2005 — is the last homegrown Red Sox pitcher to have a starting role of substance, though Justin Masterson was drafted and traded to acquire Victor Martinez, while Jonathan Papelbon was converted into an impact reliever.

The Cubs realize this is a problem and are trying to address it.

Said Epsten to Sharma:

“We’ve been real open about the fact that we need to do a better job with our evaluation and development of pitching,” Epstein recently said. “Especially young pitching. Finding a new voice or the right resource in the front office would be really valuable to us.”

This offseason the Cubs have hired former Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict, who was let go by the Derek Jeter-led Marlins. The previous Marlins regime thought enough of Benedict that they traded Trevor Williams for him.

Said Cubs amateur scouting director Matt Dorey to Sharma:

“I think we realized we were narrowing the pool of pitching to the extent that it gave us really limited options, essentially handcuffing us a little bit from the pool of players we were picking from,” Dorey said. “This [current] approach is keeping more guys alive, not being so stringent or strict on the biomechanics, arm action, deliveries, but focusing more on performance, guys that miss bats, guys that have stuff that we think can play at the big-league level. Then really leaning on our development staff to iron out any deficiencies they have in their game. Whether it’s control, breaking ball development, whatever it may be.”

Maybe the Cubs have been overthinking it.

But even if they can improve their process in draft and development, the results won’t be felt overnight. This is akin, rather, to turning around a Gerald Ford-class carrier. It’s going to take time.

In the meantime, the Cubs are still winning, still trying to compete for World Series titles. And they continue to search, and sometimes overpay, for pitching. They traded Gleyber Torres for three months of Aroldis Chapman, for example. They traded their other 2013 international signing prize — Eloy Jimenez — and pitching prospect Dylan Cease as part of a four-prospect package to acquire the White Sox’ Jose Quintana. Jimenez is now the top prospect in a deep White Sox system. Cease ranks 10th, according to Baseball America. This offseason, Chicago has signed Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow to lucrative deals. They might need more still.

The Cubs rank 11th in projected starting-pitching WAR (14.4), but eighth among 2017 playoff teams. And the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Red Sox, and Yankees all have arguably better No. 1 and No. 2 starting options, which matters in the postseason, when more innings are absorbed by teams’ best starters.

An offseason ago, the Cubs looked like a potential dynasty. While they’re still projected to be one of the better teams in baseball, their dynastic aspirations might depend on the ability to develop their own pitching.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Team building is sort of a catch-22. On the one hand, it’s risky to develop a team around pitching (see: New York Mets). On the other hand, consistently buying pitching in free agency is not a sustainable business model. Perhaps the best way to do it is to build a core of good position players with the next wave of prospects being pitchers. That’s what the Yankees seem to be doing (albeit unintentionally) and the Dodgers to a lesser extent. If the Cubs had two or three good near-MLB ready pitching prospects their franchise would have perhaps the best long term outlook of anybody.

6 years ago
Reply to  james123

Well, yes and no: they traded away so much of their top-end prospects, who could say what would be left?

6 years ago
Reply to  james123

if- That’s a mighty big ‘if’