Right now, this is the stuff of video-game commercials: Who would the Cubs start in the deciding game of a World Series?
The Pittsburgh Pirates already have their answer in mind. Gerrit Cole has the No. 1 overall pick pedigree and a 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame. He’s UCLA-educated, with Boras Corp. polish, a nasty curveball and 100 mph velocity.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said everyone else wants to put the hotshot pitcher in “the HOV lane,” but the Pirates fast-tracked Cole, who made only 38 starts in the minors. He became the National League’s Rookie of the Month after going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA last September. He split two playoff games against the St. Louis Cardinals last October. He’s 23 years old and under club control through the 2019 season.
“He’s 20 percent of your rotation in place and it’s the No. 1 pole,” Hurdle said before a 5-4 victory at Wrigley Field. “Down the road, it’s a No. 1 horse. That’s the spot everybody’s looking to fill. We feel we’re going to have that spot filled.”
Cubs fans will be seeing a lot of Cole, who fell into a four-run hole, battled through six innings, notched 10 strikeouts and earned the win. It was more tough luck for Travis Wood, the All-Star lefty who walked off the mound in the seventh inning with a 4-0 lead and wound up with a no-decision after a bullpen meltdown.
The Cubs view Wood as part of their future, but Jeff Samardzija is an extreme long shot to stick around here after the July 31 trade deadline. So far, Edwin Jackson has been a $52 million disappointment. The Cubs have missed on free-agent targets like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Anibal Sanchez and Masahiro Tanaka.
C.J. Edwards, the centerpiece of last summer’s Matt Garza’s deal with the Texas Rangers, has emerged as the organization’s best pitching prospect, showing a big personality and an advanced feel for the game. But Baseball America’s No. 28 overall prospect weighs about 165 pounds and just spent his first week above the A-ball level.
The Cubs have the fourth overall pick in the June draft, right behind the White Sox. The Houston Astros and Miami Marlins hold the first two selections in a draft that was supposed to revolve around North Carolina State University lefty Carlos Rodon and East Carolina University right-hander Jeff Hoffman, who haven’t quite lived up to the enormous expectations so far this season.
As Cubs executive Jason McLeod acknowledged: “There’s been other guys who’ve really stepped up.”
The vice president of scouting and player development described a more fluid situation than last year, when the Cubs could really narrow their focus. They grabbed University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick after heavily scouting two college pitchers. Mark Appel went first overall to the Astros and the Colorado Rockies snapped up Jon Gray at No. 3.
The Cubs could be heading toward another pitcher vs. hitter decision, knowing that historically position players are the safer bet up top and believing Bryant and 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora will be key pieces to the next contending team at Clark and Addison.
“We’ve got certainly a handful of guys that we’re discussing,” McLeod said. “There are some high school players in the mix. It comes back to what we said the last couple years: Who’s going to provide the most impact for our organization?
“We’ve made no secret that we’ve tried to acquire as much pitching as we can. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face. But if you look at our last two drafts, we’ve taken two position players with our first pick, because we felt Albert and Kris were the best players at those picks.
“That’s how we’re going to approach this draft as well. We’re not going to draft on need. We’re going to draft the guy that we feel will provide that long-term impact for us. But you probably will see a more pitching-heavy draft after the first pick.”
The Pirates drafted Cole first overall in 2011, during the middle of Hurdle’s first season in Pittsburgh. They’ve gone from 72 to 79 to 94 wins across the last three seasons with a mixture of homegrown players, under-the-radar free agents and international talent.
“There are different ways to add to the depth of your system,” Hurdle said. “It’s based on organizational philosophy, what you look for, what’s inherent. Some people believe you develop hitters and you just try and go get pitchers. I’ve heard it the other way, where you develop your pitchers and you go buy bats. It all depends on what the organizational philosophy is at the time.”
The Cubs already have a farm system stocked with intriguing position players. Maybe Rodon or Hoffman will surprisingly drop to No. 4. Maybe a high school pitcher like Tyler Kolek or Brady Aiken really will be that once-in-a-lifetime talent. Maybe Vanderbilt University’s Tyler Beede or Texas Christian University lefty Brandon Finnegan could be the next one on the fast track.
There are no sure things. Just ask Hurdle, who made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978 as “THIS YEAR’S PHENOM.”
“You need to hit all over the place,” Hurdle said, “because all the No. 1s aren’t going to hit. All the No. 3s aren’t going to hit. You’d like to think all the $20 million players you hire from the outside are going to hit. They don’t, (but) you know that going in.
“Every pick at the time – it’s kind of like that’s your most important pick. (So) in the 14th round, we got to get the best player we can right here. I know that every organization has a level of belief in doing that. Some are just more successful at it than others. That’s kind of the way the world works.”