Chicago Cubs

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.” 

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

MILWAUKEE – As protests formed at NFL stadiums across the country, sending an anti-Trump message after the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, a group of about 11 Cubs players and coaches stood off the third-base line while a men’s a cappella group sung the national anthem before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The night before, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel during the national anthem at the Oakland Coliseum, sending a jolt through a conservative industry.  

“Like I’ve always talked about, everybody’s got the right to express themselves in the manner in which they feel,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

That’s easer said than done in a team sport that doesn’t have the same outspoken culture as NBA or NFL locker rooms. It will be fascinating to see if this starts a similar movement across baseball. The Cubs are a marquee team that has already visited the White House twice since January and will likely return to Washington in October for a must-watch playoff series against the Nationals.

“I have no idea,” Maddon said. “We’re going to wait and see. And, again, if it does, that’s fine. I have no issues. I’m all into self-expression. And if a player feels that he needs to express himself in that manner, then so be it.”

[RELATED — Joe Maddon feels the heat from White House comments and rethinks Trump vs. sports world]

Maxwell, the son of a U.S. Army veteran who made his big-league debut last year, told Bay Area reporters this decision had been building and rooted in his own childhood in Alabama, where Trump appeared on Friday at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange and told the crowd that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b----” kneeling during the national anthem.      

“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve.

“At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.

“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy gives the Cubs the space to do whatever they think’s necessary to get ready for the next game. It’s freedom from: dress codes on road trips, guidelines on facial hair and overloaded mandatory batting-practice sessions.

That hands-off approach has worked to the point where the defending World Series champs could clinch a second straight National League Central title as soon as Tuesday at Busch Stadium and celebrate in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not unusual to see only a small group of players, coaches and staffers standing on the field during the national anthem.

“That’s up to them,” Maddon said. “I’ve never really had a policy regarding being out for the anthem or not. A lot of times guys like to do different things right before the game begins. Sometimes, you’re on the road, you hit later and you get in later and then your time is at a premium. So I’ve never really had a specific theory about coming out for your anthem at all.”