How the Dylan Cease deal came together and may have given Cubs a future ace

How the Dylan Cease deal came together and may have given Cubs a future ace

It will take years to do a full accounting of Kyle Schwarber’s impact on this franchise. The Cubs believe this is just the beginning of a long runway, and Schwarber might have already helped them land their future ace.

While Schwarber rocketed from college kid to World Series legend within two-and-a-half years, Dylan Cease is just beginning his climb at Class-A South Bend as the organization’s brightest pitching prospect. 

[CubsTalk Podcast: Jason McLeod on Ian Happ, Dylan Cease and MLB Draft]

Those two players will be intertwined, because without Schwarber envisioning his future in Chicago and taking a below-slot deal as the No. 4 overall pick in 2014, the Cubs don’t have the same money or appetite to gamble on Cease, giving a sixth-round pick a $1.5 million bonus before his Tommy John surgery.

“You had a kid that had been scouted by the whole industry the prior year,” Jason McLeod said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “He was on the showcase circuit in the summer and certainly he was no secret to anybody. He went into that 2014 draft as a potential first-round selection, just because the arm strength was so big and he had already been in the lower-to-mid 90s the year prior. Then the injury happens with the elbow.

“With a kid who’s really talented, you never want to lose track.”

McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, credited area scout Keith Lockhart, who covers Georgia and played 10 years in the big leagues, for doing the background work. Right-handed high school pitchers might be the most difficult group to project, and Cease already had a medical file and the leverage from his college commitment to a prestigious program. 

“Typically, those Vanderbilt kids are tough to sign anyway,” McLeod said. “It would have been really easy to say: Well, gosh, he’s hurt. He’s not going to pitch for two years. He can just go to Vandy and get one year of school out of the way and then concentrate on baseball and concentrate on his rehab. You could have completely understood if that was what borne out there.

“But through conversations with ‘Locky’ – and him getting to know the family – it became apparent that this is a kid who may actually want to go out and sign and go through a professional rehab process.”

Around the same time, Cubs officials developed a man crush on Schwarber, who led Indiana to the 2013 College World Series and developed into a two-time All-American. But there were enough questions about his defense and athleticism – as a catcher or an outfielder – that Schwarber’s camp thought he might drop to the San Diego Padres at No. 13. A National League official thought the Colorado Rockies might have had interest in Schwarber with the eighth overall pick.  

“Kyle knew we liked him, of course,” McLeod said. “But I think when you’re looking at yourself as a player – and where you think you might go in the draft – conversations start happening there. It became apparent that it was like a perfect marriage. We really wanted him. I think he really loved the organization.

“All of those things lined up perfectly, and Kyle wanted to get out and play. That was another major factor. So when you’re able to select a player and have those conversations about what you feel the signing parameters would be, it became apparent to all of us involved that we were going to be able to save some money and spread it around and go look for talented players (who) we may not have been able to (bring in) otherwise.

“Using all that information, understanding that Dylan Cease was a kid who wasn’t going to be able to pitch until the following summer – just a few innings – you have to weigh what the talent and the upside is there and how much of the information was true and correct.”

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Schwarber signed for $3.125 million, or almost $1.5 million below the recommended slot that year. While Schwarber blasted playoff homers into the Allegheny River and onto a Wrigley Field video board and defied the medical odds to make a World Series comeback, Cease threw less than 70 innings combined during his first two seasons in professional baseball.

At Cubs Convention in January, McLeod told an audience interested in what’s next that “the reins were off” Cease, promising that “the kid gloves were going to come off” in 2017.

“The biggest thing from a development standpoint for him is just harnessing the emotions a little bit,” McLeod said. “He’s so excited to be out of Arizona, out of the complex and short-season leagues. And now (you have) to understand: Hey, every outing, even if I don’t have a great outing from a line-score perspective, what can I take from this? What can I take into the next outing?

“Yeah, if you just look at his stat line right now, the walks are higher than he would like. The walks are higher than we would like. When you’ve got a mid-to-upper 90s heater, you’re not always going to have great command of it early in your career.

“So that’s a focus for him, the fastball command. His curveball’s been pretty good to start the season, which we’re all happy about. But I think it’s always the incorporation of the secondary pitches for strikes and just harnessing his emotion right now.”

Cease, 21, entered this season at No. 77 and No. 97 on the MLB.com and Baseball America prospect lists. He’s posted a 2.23 ERA through seven starts with the South Bend Cubs, piling up 50 strikeouts against 17 walks in 32-plus innings.

Young pitchers are so fragile. That’s why the Cubs built their franchise around hitters. But Cease will be given the chance to show he’s worth the investment.

“I’d love to be sitting with him in September at the exit interview looking back on his year,” McLeod said, “and he made all of his starts and he got better as the year went on. Not in terms of velocity, not necessarily in terms of strikeout rates or anything like that, but how he used his pitches and how he was attacking hitters. And not just going out trying to overpower everybody, even though he has that kind of stuff.” 

How Cubs reached the breaking point with Kyle Schwarber

How Cubs reached the breaking point with Kyle Schwarber

MIAMI – Theo Epstein scoffed at the possibility of sending a World Series hero down to the minors on May 16, writing the headline with this money quote: “If anyone wants to sell their Kyle Schwarber stock, we’re buying.”

If the Cubs aren’t dumping their Schwarber stock, they’re definitely reassessing their investment strategy, trying to figure out how such a dangerous postseason hitter had become one of the least productive players in the majors.

The overall portfolio hasn’t changed that much since the team president’s vote of confidence, Schwarber batting .179 for the defending champs then and .171 when the Cubs finally made the decision to demote him to Triple-A Iowa. That 18-19 team is now 36-35 and still waiting for that hot streak. 

What took so long?

“The honest answer is we believe in him so much,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday. “He’s never struggled like this. We kept thinking that he was going to come out of it. We got to a point where we felt like mentally he probably needed a break before he could come out of this. 

“The honest answer is patience. We’ve got a guy who’s never really struggled. He was the best hitter in college baseball. He blew through the minor leagues. Last year in the World Series, he performed. We just felt like he was going to turn himself around.

“It just got to a place where we felt like the right way for this to come together was to allow him to get away from the team, to take a deep breath and be able to work on some things in a lower-pressure environment.”   

The Cubs plan to give Schwarber a few days off before he reports to Iowa, an idea that would have seemed unthinkable after watching his shocking recovery from knee surgery and legendary performance (.971 OPS) against the Cleveland Indians in last year’s World Series.

But preparing for one opponent and running on adrenaline through 20 plate appearances is completely different from handling the great expectations and newfound level of fame and doing it for an entire 162-game season.   

This might actually be the most normal part of Schwarber’s career after his meteoric rise from No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft to breakout star in the 2015 playoffs to injured and untouchable during last year’s trade talks with the New York Yankees. 

“There’s been a long and illustrious list of guys that have gone through this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When a guy’s good, he’s good. Sometimes – especially when they’re this young – you just got to hit that reset button. It’s hard for a young player who’s never really struggled before to struggle on this stage and work his way through it.

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“There’s no scarlet letter attached to this. It’s just the way it happens sometimes. You have to do what you think is best. We think this is best for him right now. We know he’s going to be back.” 

When? The Cubs say they don’t have a certain number of Pacific Coast League at-bats in mind for a guy who’s played only 17 career games at the Triple-A level.

Maddon pointed out how Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee needed minor-league sabbaticals/refresher courses before becoming Cy Young Award winners and two of the best pitchers of their generation.

New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto – another college hitter the Cubs closely scouted before taking Schwarber in the 2014 draft – has gone from the 2015 World Series to Triple-A Las Vegas for parts of last season to potential All-Star this year.

The Cubs fully expect their Schwarber stock to rebound – whether or not the turnaround happens in time to impact the 2017 bottom line.    

“I’m still sticking by him,” Maddon said. “But at some point, you have to be pragmatic. You have to do what’s best for everybody. We thought at this point that we weren’t going to necessarily get him back to where we need him to be just by continuing this same path.

“It’s not a matter of us not sticking with him anymore. We just thought this was the best way to go to really get him well, so that we could utilize the best side of Kyle moving forward.”

CubsTalk Podcast: Reacting to Kyle Schwarber's demotion and Mike Montgomery on his evolution

CubsTalk Podcast: Reacting to Kyle Schwarber's demotion and Mike Montgomery on his evolution

Tony Andracki, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson react in real time to the breaking news that Kyle Schwarber was demoted to the minor leagues. Plus, the trio play around with expansion drafts and who the most indispensable players on the Cubs are.

[RELATED - Inside the numbers on Schwarber's season-long struggles]

Patrick Mooney also goes 1-on-1 with Cubs swingman southpaw Mike Montgomery about the lanky lefty’s role and how he got here.

Check out the entire Podcast here.