Cubs' hopes hinge on developing pitching

Cubs' hopes hinge on developing pitching

June 19, 2013, 6:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

For all the talk about the Cubs' prospects, there is one clear weakness in the organization: Pitching.

The Cubs have game-changing positional prospects like Albert Almora, Jorge Soler or Javier Baez, but the system is bereft of elite pitching, especially at the higher levels.

[RELATED: Cubs prospect Almora brings a 'stabilizing' presence to organization]

Theo Epstein and his front office have attempted to change that over the last year-and-a-half, selecting seven pitchers in the first 10 rounds of this month's MLB Draft. Last year, the Cubs took pitchers with seven consecutive picks immediately following Almora's selection at sixth overall.

Two of those draft picks -- Pierce Johnson (43rd overall in 2012) and Michael Heesch (254th in '12) have gotten a chance to showcase their stuff with the Kane County Cougars this spring, just an hour's drive from Wrigley Field.

Johnson was one of the top pitching prospects in last year's draft, but saw his draft stock sink after a late forearm injury during his junior season at Missouri State and fell to the Cubs in the supplemental round.

The 22-year-old right-hander is completely over the minor forearm issue and considers the injury as a blessing in disguise.

"I feel like this is a perfect fit," he said. "I'm a pitching prospect here and the Cubs are turning it around.

"We're going to do something in the near future. We're going to win a World Series and I feel like I'm going to be a good part of that. It makes me so excited."

It's been 104 years since the Cubs won a World Series, part of an infamous drought that is unlike any other in sports history. But players in the lower levels of the Cubs system -- like on the Cougars, where most guys fall in the 19- to 22-year-old range -- are itching with anticipation in hopes of bringing a title to Chicago.

"It's definitely a mindset," Heesch said. "If you're not trying to get that, what are you here for? That's the ultimate goal. We want to win a World Series.

"[The front office] makes it very apparent that is the goal. That is the purpose of everything we do, to get to that point. The fans want to see a World Series and we definitely want to win one, for this organization, for this city."

Heesch knows a thing or two about being a Cubs fan. He has spent almost his entire life in the Chicagoland area, growing up in Crystal Lake, attending high school at Park Ridge -- where he won a state title in 2008 -- and then playing college baseball for University of Illinois-Chicago for two-and-a-half years.

Even though his dad is a White Sox fan, the Heesch family spent a lot of time at Wrigley Field when Michael was growing up. In fact, they were at the tragic "Bartman game," when the Cubs were five outs from the World Series in 2003, but blew their shot against Derrek Lee and the Marlins.

Now, Heesch finds himself in the middle of the Cubs' franchise-altering rebuild that everybody involved hopes ends with at least one World Series ring.

"They're doing a really good job of trickling down what is going on up top to us," Heesch said. "The mentality, 'The Cubs Way' as they refer to it. It's very apparent what they want us to do and what we want to do."

[MORE -- The Foundation: Cougars still learning 'The Cubs Way']

"Everybody feels it, whether they're a prospect or not," Johnson said. "They just kind of embedded that in us in spring training and told us it's going to happen. Once you go out there and start playing well, you can see it unfolding. I think [a World Series championship is] going to happen."

If the Cubs are going to get to the promised land, they'll need more young pitchers like Johnson, who is 5-5 on the season with a 3.10 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 74 strikeouts through 69 2/3 innings.

A lot of the Cubs' recent draft picks are projectable arms with varying degrees of upside and it's up to guys like Cougars pitching coach Ron Villone to develop and harness the players' talent.

Villone, 43, was a first-round pick (14th overall) of the Mariners back in 1992 and spent his career as a journeyman, pitching for 12 teams in 15 years, never spending more than three seasons at any one spot.

"I've learned so much from this guy," Johnson said of Villone. "I think I've learned more in the past three months this year than I learned in all of college and high school put together.

"Just little things about approaching the game, attacking batters, reading hitters, even when I'm not pitching. It's changed my game and I can't wait to see what's going to come of it."

[RELATED -- The Foundation: Hope drives the 2013 Kane County Cougars]

Heesch, a southpaw, has said he is trying to absorb even more from Villone, who made a career as a left-handed swingman with 717 big-league appearances, including 93 starts.

"Ron is a wealth of knowledge," Heesch said. "You can learn so much from him. Sometimes when I'm not throwing, I'll just be in the dugout and stand next to him and wait for him to say something, 'cause I know he's going to say something that's going to be good and help you out in some way or another.

"The things that I've done -- good and bad -- he's definitely helped. He's definitely been a big part of the improvements I've made."

With the Cougars well represented in this week's All-Star game, Villone looked back at the season's first half and liked what he saw.

"We've made some good strides," he said. "We've learned a lot. We still have plenty to learn, but the guys were focused on getting better every day, whether it was on the field or preparation.

[More from "The Foundation"]

"They made it real important to not just themselves, but the organization. We're going in the right direction."