MESA, Ariz. – Derek Johnson first saw C.J. Edwards at a tournament on Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus, proof that the best pitching prospect in the Cubs organization didn’t come out of nowhere.
This was a few years ago, when the Cubs pitching coordinator worked as a Vanderbilt assistant. Long before Theo Epstein’s front office studied the Texas Rangers system and made Edwards the centerpiece in the Matt Garza trade, Johnson noticed the lanky kid throwing 85-86 mph.
“It was like a no-name summer-league team,” Johnson recalled Tuesday at Cubs Park. “There was about 10 people there and I was one of them.
“I think I put an Oil Can Boyd on him. It was kind of that feel to me. This guy’s got real long levers and is kind of loose. Maybe he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing yet. He might have a chance to be pretty good.
“I obviously had no idea that he was even remotely as good as what he’s turned out to be.”
No one thought Edwards would be the next big thing. Johnson made a follow-up call, but Vanderbilt didn’t offer a scholarship. Edwards dropped to the Rangers in the 48th round of the 2011 draft and got a $50,000 signing bonus.
“The Texas scout just beat everyone on him,” Cubs executive Jason McLeod said.
Edwards – No. 28 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list – grew up in Prosperity, S.C., and graduated from Mid-Carolina High School. He developed a feel for pitching while competing against the older guys in the men’s league. He is the exception at a time when kids are overhyped and overanalyzed and the game has mushroomed into a showcase-industrial complex.
“For the summer-league baseball circuit, it was kind of a B or a C team,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t one of the premier (teams). It was just sort of an ‘Eh’ team. They were kind of a scrappy club.
“Where he’s from is not a baseball mecca by any means, but it has pretty good baseball in places.”
Edwards made an immediate impression upon his advanced Class-A Daytona teammates after the Garza trade last July.
“My first start, everybody looked at me first like: ‘Who is this kid? He’s probably breaking 80 (mph),’” Edwards recalled. “And then I struck out the first seven batters and everybody was like: ‘Dude, let’s do it.’”
Edwards helped Daytona win the Florida State League title that had the organization pointing to a brighter future. The 22-year-old right-hander will be listed at 6-foot-2, 155 pounds in the media guide. During last month’s rookie-development program, he had reporters cracking up when he described what he mauled during a field trip to the United Center to watch the Blackhawks.
“Anything I see, I eat,” Edwards said. “At the hockey game, I had Italian sausage, cheese fries, Sprite, a Coke and a hot dog with cheese on it. I’m trying to gain weight.”
The Cubs are putting a lot on his shoulders, hoping Edwards can develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter who can pitch deep into October. He’s gone 13-5 with a 1.72 ERA in 183.1 career minor-league innings, notching 240 strikeouts while giving up only one home run.
“Turn sideways, you don’t see him, because he’s so skinny,” McLeod said. “He has development to do with some of his off-speed stuff. And physically it’s a question of just how much more strength you can put on him. It obviously leads to the durability question. Certainly, he’s going to go out and start at Double-A (Tennessee) and you just hope that he is the guy (who) can log 100-plus innings. If he’s not, I think his fastball plays up so much he could transition if you wanted to.”
Edwards is definitely on the map now, hoping to reach Wrigley Field by 2015 and prove the doubters wrong. Again.
“Yeah, that motivates me a lot,” Edwards said. “But like I tell everyone: It’s not about the round. It’s not about the money for me, because I just have the love for the game. It’s not about where I was drafted. A lot of people say I was overlooked, but it doesn’t bother me. As long as I got my opportunity, I’m just going to run with it.”