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.” 

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Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

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Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”