Cubs: Developing the next David Price

Cubs: Developing the next David Price

February 16, 2013, 7:00 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs made a $52 million investment in Edwin Jackson because they saw their rotation potentially being Jeff Samardzija and four question marks after this season.

Jackson’s career numbers (70-71, 4.40 ERA) are underwhelming, but the Cubs felt like that’s the going rate for someone who can account for 200 innings. That four-year contract could look more like a bargain as more television money pours into the game.

The Seattle Mariners just made a $175 million commitment to Felix Hernandez. The 2011 Cy Young winners – Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw – could be dreaming about $200 million when/if they become free agents after the 2014 season. That could set the stage for David Price, who’s positioned to hit the market after the 2015 season and land a record-setting megadeal.

If the Cubs don’t want to pay retail – and make some of the biggest, riskiest bets in free agency – then they are going to have to develop some of their own arms.

“No doubt,” scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod said, “it’s going to be the lifeblood of our organization.”

So the Cubs made Derek Johnson an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Johnson grew up a Cubs fan in downstate Illinois and still has family there. He was an all-conference pitcher at Eastern Illinois, where he began a coaching career that would take him to Southern Illinois, Stetson and Vanderbilt.        

In Johnson’s 11 seasons at Vanderbilt, the program produced six pitchers selected in the first/supplement round of the draft, including Price, the No. 1 overall pick in 2007.

One Internet conspiracy theory had the Cubs hiring Johnson as minor-league pitching coordinator being a first step toward possibly going after the Tampa Bay Rays ace. Last month, Fox Sports columnist Ken Rosenthal cited a “rival executive” floating that idea, which had insiders chuckling.

“I think David’s going to pretty much have his pick,” Johnson said. “He’s going to have good options. Selfishly, I’d love to see him here, because he’s such a great kid and I love him. But at the same time, I mean, he’s going to have pretty much whatever he wants.”

Johnson had his pick of jobs over the years, but decided to remain in Nashville with his wife and two kids. There were inquiries from major-league organizations – though he never heard from the Boston Red Sox – and head-coaching jobs (like Duke) that didn’t quite fit.  

Johnson had never before met McLeod, team president Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer. David Macias – a former Vanderbilt player and minor-league outfielder in the Cubs system now working in the front office – essentially made a cold call to gauge his interest.

Johnson flew to Arizona last fall to meet with Epstein, McLeod and farm director Brandon Hyde during instructional league in Mesa.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” McLeod recalled. “His luggage got lost (and) he had been at like a Perfect Game tournament in Florida. We meet with him here in the lobby at the Marriott. He’s still wearing his shorts and a Dri-Fit shirt and he’s like so apologetic.

“But we ended up (sitting) in the lobby for like four hours. It just became apparent: This guy is definitely speaking our language.”

McLeod sent Johnson “The Cubs Way” and the two reviewed the manual during the offseason, making some changes to the pitching sections and trying to address the organization’s biggest weakness. Johnson then made his presentation to around 150 staffers during the organizational meetings.

“He’s very confident in his abilities,” McLeod said. “At the same time, he’s not going to tout himself. He’s had opportunities to go be a head coach, but he just loves pitching.”

Johnson sounded like that while talking about his greatest student, the “shy kid” and “homebody” he found when he walked into Price’s living room. The left-hander out of Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., is now the American League’s reigning Cy Young winner.

“At the end of the day, in all honesty, his parents and genetics and God had way more to do with it than I did,” Johnson said. “But I think he was at a good point in his life where he needed some direction – and that’s not to say that he was a bad kid. It’s not that at all.

“I’m talking about from a pitching standpoint. He needed some direction and came in and was a sponge. He probably taught me more about pitching, really, than I taught him, in the end.”

The Cubs need some direction now, with the No. 2 overall pick looming and a 2012 draft class that saw them select seven straight pitchers – 22 in total – after top choice Albert Almora.

Minor-league pitching coordinator might not be the most glamorous title, but it is an important position in the Epstein administration. Because the meter is running for the alternative…$52 million?...$100 million?...$200 million?      

“What I see is just like any other organization – guys that are on the cusp of something,” Johnson said. “Now you have to be able to draw it out of them somehow.”