For all the talk of fixing the offense this offseason, there is hidden danger lurking within the other half of the roster that has not received enough attention.
Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Brandon Kintzler, Brian Duensing.
What do these seven pitchers have in common? They will all turn 34 or older during the 2019 season. Even if the Cubs move on from a couple of these pitchers this offseason, the team will still enter next year with more than a third of their staff in serious danger of entering a steep decline phase in career. In this light it is easy to understand why the Cubs balked at the idea of bringing back a soon-to-be 35-year old Jesse Chavez on a multi-year deal, especially since he is coming off a year in which he pitched the second most relief innings (95.1) in all of baseball.
Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Mike Montgomery, Tyler Chatwood, C.J. Edwards
What do these six pitchers have in common? They will all finish 2019 between the ages of 27-32.
Sensing a theme?
And what does seven and six add up to? Thirteen.
Or in other terms: the entirety of the Cubs projected pitching staff for next year. The age of 27 is roughly assessed as a player’s peak, so this means that all of the pitchers the team currently has under contract is at or already past their prime. There are obvious exceptions, and health plays a big factor, but there is no question that age is becoming a huge factor on the staff.
Now, the Cubs will undoubtedly tweak their roster before the campaign begins. Expect them to add an arm to improve the left side of their bullpen at the very least. They will also likely explore adding another late inning option to provide the necessary injury insurance for Brandon Morrow. But even with those changes, and even if they manage to fill those holes with young arms, this staff will remain an aging bunch on the whole.
The situation is not completely dire of course. The front office has been preparing for this eventuality. They saw it coming and understood the dangers it represents. They also knew that the salary commitments to keep their young hitters would escalate beginning in 2019 and only continue on that trajectory for the foreseeable future.
The question now becomes, will those best laid plans they put in motion two years ago bear fruit?
Drafting College Pitchers
In the 2016 and 2017 entry drafts the Cubs selected (and came to terms with) a combined 34 pitchers. All but two were chosen from the college or JUCO ranks. They did not possess a 1st or 2nd round pick in 2016 due to the Jon Lester and Jason Heyward signings, but their pair of 1st rounders in 2017 (Brendon Little and Alex Lange) represented the first pitchers chosen at the top of the draft by the regime since they took over.
The bad news, that most fans who pay attention to the Minor League already know, is that none of those arms have developed into surefire top of the line replacements. But there is good news. Injury attrition has been minimal. And the majority of the pitchers have put up solid or better numbers as they’ve progressed up the organizational ladder. The impressive pitching depth the team has built at the AAA and AA levels heading into the 2019 season is due in large part to these two drafts. They may not have hit the jackpot with any of them, but by playing it safe, they have
Starters: Cory Abbott, Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, Duncan Robinson, Matt Swarmer, Keegan Thompson
Relievers: Bailey Clark, Thomas Hatch, Dakota Mekkes, Tyler Peyton, Michael Rucker, Wyatt Short
Further down the road: Brendon Little, Erich Uelmen, and a couple others
I’ve talked up this group a lot in the Minor League threads over the past two years. A back-of-the-rotation or setup man is not a very valuable prospect because most fail to reach their full potential. But this is where the Cubs strategy of buying in bulk figures to pay off. Individually, I would not bet much on any of these guys. But as a group? Yeah, it is a good bet that at least one or two become reliable contributors soon.
It wouldn’t be a shock if one or two exceed their current projections as well. And the team has actually already received some value from these draft classes. Two of their draftees (Tyler Thomas and Rollie Lacy) were main pieces in 2018 deadline deals for Jesse Chavez and Cole Hamels.
Prior Prep Picks and IFA investments
Those are just the arms collected from two drafts. Which doesn’t account for Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Trevor Clifton, Dillon Maples, Duane Underwood, Jr. and others at the top two levels of the system that have a chance to contribute who entered the organization via international free agency or in prior drafts out of high school.
The Criticism of Pitching Development
It is true that few pitchers developed by this regime have panned out so far, and some of the ones that did (Paul Blackburn, Zack Godley, potentially Dylan Cease) were dealt for immediate veteran help (Miguel Montero, Mike Montgomery, Jose Quintana). They’ve been afforded the luxury of being able to spend freely, both in free agency and trade capital, on proven veteran arms. Such is life when most draft and IFA resources were directed toward amassing a powerhouse young lineup in the early years of the rebuild.
But that draft focus changed in 2016. The front office invested invested heavily in polished college arms with the sole intent to stock the prospect pipeline because they knew they would need to begin supplementing their aging staff with as many cheap, young options as possible for when the arbitration windows of their young hitters opened up in 2019.
It will still take a little more development time for much of this group, especially the 2017 class, before they are ready to contribute on a full-time basis in the Majors but the Cubs do need to begin trusting and using some of these players as injury fill-ins and late season contributors. The days of picking up the 20 million dollar contract of a Cole Hamels at midseason are quickly closing. It just won’t be feasible when Kyle Hendricks, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and others begin earning $10+ million through arbitration as they near free agency. Kris Bryant has already reached that point with an expected 2019 salary of $12.5M.
The 2020 season will be the real test. Due to the lack of previous investment I mentioned above, I’ve always argued the criticism directed against the front office for their inability to develop internal pitching help has been misdirected, or at least overly harsh. But I will begin leading that charge if we don’t start seeing some contributions by the end of 2019 and some real results in 2020. If one or two full-time contributors are not identified by then the performance of the pitching staff could be in real trouble of falling off a cliff.
What does it mean for 2019?
Thankfully, the Cubs will be able to buy some time by turning first to some arms that entered the org prior to the 2016-17 drafts. Adbert Alzolay and Justin Steele are two of their top starting pitcher prospects, but with both coming off injury, they will likely have an innings limit. I imagine the plan will be for both to open the year in the Iowa and Tennessee rotations respectively, before transitioning to a long relief role late in the summer. This gives the team the option to transition them to the Majors as power arms out of the Chicago bullpen down the stretch.
The team can also hope for the long awaited breakthroughs by the likes of Dillon Maples and Duane Underwood. Along with James Norwood, they offer enticing velocity and MLB caliber offspeed pitches assuming they can dial in their control on a more consistent basis. The team still has the option to turn to MLB vets Randy Rosario, Kyle Ryan and recent trade acquisition Rowan Wick if necessary.
Turning to the 2016-17 draft classes the first name to know is Dakota Mekkes. He is the most MLB ready, and I argued for him to get a look down the stretch last year. He should put up a good fight in spring training if there is an open competition for a bullpen spot although his lack of a 40-man spot could preclude him opening the season in Chicago. I do expect him to finish it there, however.
Matt Swarmer and Duncan Robinson are extreme strike throwers that figure to offer rotation depth should a rash of injuries arise. Both should be capable of spot starts if needed. Swarmer could help out of the bullpen if the team is in need of a control specialist or help getting right handed hitters out. He excels at both. Keegan Thompson is another polished starter.
A little further down the pipe, are a few guys (Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller) that we are unlikely to see until 2020, but offer a little more upside so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of one making an unexpected leap, especially if they are only called upon for relief help in 2019.