By Sahadev Sharma
Calling all bats. That could’ve been the rally cry for Jason McLeod and the rest of the front office members in charge of this weekend’s MLB Draft. Despite taking pitchers with 11 of the team’s first 15 picks, the Cubs added to an already strong offensive group in the farm by drafting slugging third baseman Kris Bryant with the second-overall pick. Those offensive reinforcements can’t get to Wrigley soon enough.
A day after getting shutout, the Cubs nearly matched their futility on Saturday, but a two-run home run by Alfonso Soriano put the Cubs on the board in the ninth inning, as they fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-2.
“We got shutout yesterday, too, I didn’t want that to happen today again,” Soriano said. “But we've got to try and forget the game, yesterday and today, and try and come back and win the game tomorrow.”
Soriano might be thinking about tomorrow, but fans -– and apparently the front office -– are looking further into the future.
“Trying to look at our organization as objectively as I can, our strength is in the position players,” said McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development. “So we’re very hopeful that two years from now the club up here is winning more, and now we’ve got the pipeline going of those young position players in the upper levels, if not up here already.”
Two years might seem far away, but it’s a realistic goal to get names like Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, along with Bryant, to at least be close to joining Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo on the North Side.
After the normally reliable Jeff Samardzija delivered one of his weaker outings, giving up four runs on eight hits in six innings, McLeod talked to the media in the latter stages of Saturday’s loss. He didn’t pull any punches when pointing out that the Cubs system has been lacking in quality starting pitching at the upper levels. The Cubs current front office has been aggressive in acquiring pitching in a variety of fashions: free agency, trade and now, for the second year in a row, the draft.
The first two tactics have actually borne fruit at the big league level, as Cubs starters have delivered a solid 3.63 ERA and 35 quality starts this season. McLeod and company are hoping that the draft will eventually pay dividends on that front as well.
“Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer) have made no secret of trying to acquire pitching however we can get it,” McLeod said. “I think the last two drafts it’s been a volume approach with the amount of arms we’ve taken early. With all the arms we’ve taken in ’12 and ’13, along with some of the acquisitions in trade, hopefully we’re bearing more fruit out as far as the pitching pipeline goes.”
Though some experts deemed it a reach, McLeod seemed very pleased to land pitcher Rob Zastryzny from the University of Missouri in the second round. McLeod dispelled rumors that Zastryzny was just a "finesse lefty," pointing out that he sat at 90-94 mph with his fastball. Despite a weak win-loss record, McLeod and the scouting staff came away impressed from Zastryzny’s performances.
“It’s easy to look up at Z’s line and see the 2-9 record, but you really have to look a little deeper than that,” McLeod said. “He certainly had his struggles, he gave up 10 home runs. I actually saw him give up three home runs, and I still walked away from that game thinking that this guy is really interesting because he’s strong and athletic. When he’s throwing the ball downhill, he misses a lot of bats in the strike zone, which is something that I always look for.”
The Cubs surprised again with their third-round selection, deviating from the pitching-heavy selections by taking outfielder Jacob Hannemann from Brigham Young University. Hanneman, a 22-year-old freshman who also played football, spent the past two years away from the game while on a Mormon mission.
“(He) became a guy for us somewhat later in the spring (who was) one of those guys that we just had to have,” McLeod said, “with his athleticism, strength and what we feel his upside can be, even though he’s already 22 with only one year under his belt in the college ranks.”
The Cubs knew they’d end up with one of the big three -– Bryant, Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray –- with their first-round pick, so the past 10 days were spent lining up the board for the next few rounds. In rounds four through six, the Cubs selected a trio of college pitchers: Tyler Skulina, Trey Masek and Scott Frazier, respectively.
McLeod was pleasantly surprised to see those pitchers last so long, especially Masek, who excelled while pitching at Texas Tech and facing top-notch competition. McLeod added that he’d seen Frazier throw up to 97 mph but thought he might have dropped to the sixth round because he struggled in a pitcher’s park at Pepperdine.
The Cubs have quickly rebuilt the offensive core of their farm system. They seem to be executing a sound strategy to do the same with the pitching. Whether it pays off in the form of wins at the big league level has yet to be seen. But after performances like the one on display at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon, that strand of hope for the future is the only thing Cubs fans can truly grasp.