MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs need to find their Justin Verlander.
Besides lobbying for the Wrigley Field renovation and negotiating a new television deal, the Cubs could also be heading for a showdown with super-agent Scott Boras in their series of potential franchise-altering decisions this year.
When the Cubs close camp on Thursday, there will be 10 weeks left until the draft, and already their options for the No. 2 overall pick are coming into focus. With 2015 viewed internally as a possible breakthrough year for the organization, one of these college pitchers could be a game-changer.
Mark Appel has begun to answer some of the questions after rejecting the Pittsburgh Pirates and returning to Stanford for his senior season.
Jonathan Gray has dominated at Oklahoma – 4-1, 1.41 ERA, 51 strikeouts and nine walks in 44.2 innings – and jumped up the draft board.
Sean Manaea – the Indiana State left-hander and Baseball America’s top prospect at the Cape Cod League last summer – remains on the radar.
Verlander is the outlier. The Detroit Tigers lost 119 games in 2003 and selected the Old Dominion right-hander with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft. Two years later, they reached the World Series, watching him develop into the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2006 and MVP/Cy Young winner in 2011.
But it would take a leap of faith for the Cubs to go against the historical trend. Almost a decade ago, senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod reunited with Theo Epstein in the Boston Red Sox front office and their analysis still influences their thinking at Clark and Addison.
“We had crunched a lot of NCAA data on the performance side of things and then we just started looking at it on the draft side,” McLeod recalled. “What is the draft telling us over the years? Where is the talent coming from? What areas? What positions? There are just so many variables with pitching, injuries, some of the innings these guys have to throw. Everyone would love to hit on a Justin Verlander at No. 2 overall.
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“If we go that route, hopefully our guy turns into that kind of guy. But if you look back at the draft, you’ll also see a lot of guys that went 1, 2, 3 that were pitchers and kind of just had mediocre careers. So pitching comes from everywhere. Typically, (with) your position players, the star guys come at the top of the draft.”
That logic helped push the Cubs to make Albert Almora the first pick of the Epstein administration. Appel and Manaea – like Almora – will be advised by Boras. The Cubs passed on Appel last June and went with the high school outfielder from South Florida.
In the first year of a collective bargaining agreement that severely restricts spending on amateur talent, Appel dropped to the Pirates at No. 8, reportedly turned down $3.8 million and decided to return to Palo Alto, Calif., to finish his degree. Through five starts, the Stanford ace has a 1.18 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 38 innings.
If Appel wasn’t the right choice with the sixth overall pick, why would he make sense at No. 2 a year later?
“Well, it’s a different draft. It’s certainly a different year,” McLeod said. “The way our board lined up last year – I said it (at the time) – we simply liked Albert Almora more than we liked Mark Appel.
“That’s no slight to Mark Appel. (Like I said), you take the position player at the top. For us, we got a kid we thought was going to be a premium centerfielder and hit in the middle of the order. Those guys are hard to find.
“Mark certainly (is) someone (who’s) proven to be a first-round guy. He’s gone out and done well so far this year. We’ve spent a lot of time with him and we will continue to.”
The Cubs will have a representative at every start for each of the college pitchers they’re considering with the No. 2 pick.
Epstein recently ducked out of camp to watch Gray in Norman, Okla., as part of the blanket coverage. Special assistant Tim Wilken, amateur scouting director Jaron Madison and national crosscheckers Sam Hughes, Matt Dorey and Ron Tostenson will all get multiple looks at those pitchers.
Earlier this month, general manager Jed Hoyer was part of the group that went over to Surprise Stadium for a college tournament that included Arkansas (Ryne Stanek) and Gonzaga (Marco Gonzales). When the Cubs visit the Atlanta Braves during Final Four weekend, two dynamic high school outfielders (Austin Meadows and Clint Frazier) will be in the area.
“If you look at the history of the draft, the position players up high are more of a sure bet if you get the good ones,” McLeod said. “Unfortunately, the college class isn’t as strong as in some years. There are a couple of guys that have stepped up so far this year that certainly are putting themselves on a map as considerations up there. But not as strong as a typical year.
“We’re doing our due diligence. We’re still seeing them (and) all the high school players. Obviously, it’s a semi-deep college pitching crop at the top of the draft and we’re going to see those guys quite often.”
After grabbing Almora last year, the Cubs began to address the deficit throughout their organization by picking seven straight pitchers and 22 in total. That could be the plan of attack.
“You play the odds,” McLeod said. “You do your due diligence on the things that we believe, checkpoints from a pitching standpoint: Guys you hope have stuff, guys who you hope mechanically are going to throw strikes and stay healthy. If you can get a volume of those guys, you’re bound to hit on a couple of them.
“I imagine you’re going to see a lot of pitching come off the board for us this year again, too. We’re making no secret about that. But with two-and-a-half months to go here still, you can’t rule out anything.”