The St. Louis Cardinals copied the Wrigleyville blueprint, building rooftop decks outside Busch Stadium, trying to develop a neighborhood that can feel like a ghost town.
The Cubs look at The Cardinal Way and get jealous of all the young power pitchers bubbling up through the farm system.
Philosophically, Theo Epstein’s front office believes bats are the least-risky bets at the top of the draft. But this is a pitching-heavy draft class, the minor-league affiliates are already stocked with position players and there’s a new tradition of trading away 40 percent of the rotation.
So where does that leave the Cubs with the No. 4 overall pick?
“We’re just going to take the best player, regardless of position, the best investment and the best bet on a player’s career,” Epstein said. “I think there’s tremendous pitching depth in this class. I think it’s more depth than elite, per se. But we should come out with a pretty good pitching haul, we hope, when it’s all said and done.”
The Cubs are seriously considering at least four pitchers, sending Kerry Wood to watch Tyler Kolek, another big Texan with 100 mph velocity in high school. Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer recently scouted North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon and East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman, who notched 16 strikeouts that game but is now sidelined with an arm issue. Lefty Brady Aiken has shown an advanced feel for pitching at Cathedral Catholic High School, and this front office is plugged into San Diego’s baseball community.
But where last year the Cubs knew weeks in advance the decision would come down to No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant vs. college pitchers Mark Appel and Jon Gray, now industry sources suggest more than a dozen players are still on their first-round radar. This is viewed as a thin class for the college position players the Cubs would ideally like to target.
“It’s unreal,” a National League scout said. “There’s so much uncertainty.”
The Cubs will see the arms race this weekend, when they face Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. Dressed in red, the sea of Cardinals fans will flow into Wrigley Field, giving it an atmosphere that’s been missing during a 9-17 start.
To narrow the gap in the National League Central, the business/baseball plans at Clark and Addison are banking on the June draft and another summer sell-off. (Come on down Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel!)
It seems like Wainwright has been in St. Louis forever, but he was actually acquired along with Jason Marquis from the Atlanta Braves in the J.D. Drew trade before the 2004 season.
Wacha became the ultimate symbol for how the Cardinals run their business, getting drafted No. 19 overall out of Texas A&M in 2012 with the compensation pick they got when Albert Pujols signed his megadeal with the Los Angeles Angels.
The Cardinals grabbed Lynn out of Ole Miss with the 39th overall pick in the 2008 draft, but they’ve proven that pitching can come from anywhere. Closer Trevor Rosenthal lasted until the 21st round in 2009.
Cubs minor-league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson tipped his cap to The Cardinal Way, which led to a 2011 World Series title, an NLCS Game 7 in 2012 and another pennant last year.
“They put guys in the right position,” Johnson said. “They do a good job with a plan of development. They obviously draft really well and they get some sleepers you kind of scratch your head at. So there’s some luck involved there, too. No disrespect. I’m not taking anything away from that club. But you’ve got to be able to have a little bit of luck and hit on those guys at 18 or 22 or whatever when no one is looking to get them.”
As a Vanderbilt assistant, Johnson helped develop future first-round picks David Price (Tampa Bay Rays), Mike Minor (Braves) and Sonny Gray (Oakland A’s).
“There’s a confidence (in St. Louis),” Johnson said. “There’s a swagger there. They kind of know who they are and they know what they have to do to be successful each year. They follow that plan and they draft well, so I think it all kind of fits together. We can be that way, too. It just takes time.”