CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs have put together a nice five-game winning streak -- Saturday's 5-2 defeat of the Miami Marlins the latest in that string -- and earned their third and fourth series victories of the season in the process. They’re getting strong starting pitching; their young, powerful bullpen arms have delivered impressive performances; and the offense has given the fans some excitement with a pair of walk-off wins.
However, the focus this weekend wasn’t on the suddenly strong play of the big league club. A Cubs organization that is still squarely focused on the future wrapped up 40 rounds of the draft Saturday afternoon, the first 10 of which might turn out being one of the stronger in all of baseball.
Scouting director Jason McLeod seemed pleased with how things turned out.
“It’s been a good couple days for us,” McLeod said. “We’re excited about the guys we were able to draft over these three days. We felt [Friday] we were able to get some high-upside, talented, young high school pitchers mixed in with the college group that we did. I said a couple days ago that we were going to make a run on pitching and certainly we’ve done that.”
The Cubs used eight of the first 10 selections on pitchers and at one point drafted nine consecutive arms. Many expected the run on pitching heading into the draft; the surprise was the selection of Kyle Schwarber, a catcher out of Indiana University, with the fourth overall pick.
It was suggested that the Cubs made the pick with the intention of signing Schwarber under his slot value while targeting a high-upside, over-slot high school arm in the second round. While Schwarber will likely come at a discount, the Cubs were adamant that the pick was made based on talent and not financials. However, they were certainly high on polished high schooler Jack Flaherty, but the Cardinals selected the California right-hander with the 34th pick. Unfazed, the Cubs quickly changed directions and took senior Jake Stinnett out of the University of Maryland with their second-round pick.
Normally in the draft, when a college senior is chosen, it’s assumed that the pick was made so the team could save some money and redistribute those funds toward other selections. However, Stinnett is a rare case.
“He was an athletic kid who was a conversion -- he went into Maryland as a third baseman/pitcher,” McLeod said. “So he doesn’t actually have as many innings under his belt as a lot of college pitchers do. This year was actually his first full season as a starting pitcher and he goes out and leads the ACC in strikeouts, big-time ground-ball rate, throws a lot of strikes. He’s already a physical guy that’s athletic and he’s a younger kid, for a fourth-year player in college, he’s actually at junior-age, he’s only 21. We felt all of those things lead to someone who’s still on the rise as a pitcher.”
Chicago's focus on high-upside high school arms began in the fourth round with the selection of lefty Carson Sands. The Cubs tabbed another lefty in Justin Steele in fifth and right-handed fireballer Dylan Cease in the sixth. All three were rated higher than where they ended up being selected, with Cease possibly the best of the bunch, with a fastball that touches 97 and a solid curveball and changeup.
When picking high school players who fall in the draft due to contract demands, there’s always a concern about whether they’ll end up signing. Not only would failing to sign a player mean a wasted pick, but any player chosen in the first 10 rounds has a specific amount of money tied to his draft position. If such a players goes unsigned, the team loses both the player and its slot money, meaning the club won’t be able to redistribute those funds toward other picks.
“These are kids that were rated very highly and had strong college commitments,” McLeod said. “But, through the due diligence of our scouts -- communication [is important], certainly in this system of the draft, you have a pool of money, you have to work hard to make sure it fits within the parameters. And we did and we feel like we got three talented young players that we think we’ll be able to sign.”
Cease missed most of the season after suffering an elbow injury and opted to have platelet-rich plasma injections rather than surgery. However, McLeod said the team believes he’ll likely have to undergo some surgical procedure, possibly Tommy John, and made the pick with that in mind.
“We also know that coming into the year he was arguably a top-15-type pick in the draft,” McLeod said. “Where we were in that area of the draft, we felt that looking at who we selected, if we use our money wisely it's an opportunity there to hit real big. We know that there's risk, he's a high school right-hander, will probably have to have some sort of procedure on his arm. But to get that kind of talented player in the sixth round, we certainly felt it was worth it.”
McLeod also appeared quite optimistic that the Cubs would be able to sign their 22nd-round pick, Joey Martarano, a third baseman with huge power, who plays football at Boise State.
“We're going to make a good run at him,” McLeod said of Martarano, who is slated to be a redshirt freshman linebacker in the 2014 season. “It's a different situation there in that they don't have baseball at that school, but he is a guy that was well-known on the amateur circuit in high school because he's so strong, physical, right-handed power. That one actually is one that we're going to try. It might be a situation where he plays football still and goes down and plays baseball in the summer.”
The selections of Martarano and Cease, along with the other high school arms, were all made possible by the fact that the Cubs took Schwarber and Stinnett early. However, McLeod reiterated that they didn’t reach for either, particularly Schwarber. McLeod surprised many Thursday when he said the powerful lefty was second on their draft board behind No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken.
“I’ve always said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that certainly holds true in the draft,” McLeod said. “There may have been teams that had Kyle Schwarber 10th or 15th on their list, but, like I said, he was No. 2 on ours. You do your work on the signability, for sure, and what you think a player will sign for, you have those kinds of discussions. But that’s not what’s going to be the determining factor for us on where we’re going to place a guy on the board or if we’ll pick him.”
Despite being pretty athletic for his 240-pound build, it’s likely Schwarber will have to move from behind the plate and into a corner outfield spot, with left field being the probable destination. After selecting Schwarber on Thursday, McLeod admitted that he might move quickly through the system, but cautioned about setting expectations too high.
“I think Kris Bryant has set the bar high and really we need to step back and look at some reality,” McLeod said after Thursday’s first round. “I don’t want people think he’s going to be in double-A, doing what Kris is doing, this time next year. But we do feel, with his profile and the way that he handles himself as a hitter, that he can move pretty quickly.”
Bryant, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, continues to light up the Southern League and went 3-for-3 with a home run, a double and a walk Saturday, bringing his season line up to an eye-popping .353/.460/.701.
Despite their recent winning ways, Jeff Samardzija, who tossed seven strong innings in Saturday’s victory over the Marlins, and the rest of the big league Cubs aren’t bothered that the attention appears to be focused on the kids. In fact, they look forward to the day when guys like Schwarber and Bryant get to Wrigley nearly as much as the fans.
“I think we all know what we have coming in the minor leagues and I think everyone’s excited to show what they have,” Samardzija said. “Then when they start coming, we’re all a part of it. That’s what everyone wants. You don’t want to put all this hard work in and battle to where we’ve been to where we are now with help coming, then not be a part of it. So everybody’s excited and is just ready to keep this going.”
While he took an optimistic tone Saturday, it’d be an upset if Samardzija is around when the kids arrive, as many expect him to be dealt this summer. However, with the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro producing at a high level, there appears to be some legit talent at the big league level for the kids coming through the system to complement.
And though the Cubs still sit nine games below .500 and near the bottom of the National League, a five-game winning streak and a fruitful draft left many pointing toward a future that could be bright sooner rather than later at Wrigley Field.