The Major League Baseball landscape is quite disparate in matters of the farm system. You’ve got the top-tier clubs. The ones that year after year are churning out arms that seemingly huck 100 miles per hour and position players that contribute at key times. Think St. Louis or Los Angeles (Dodgers, of course). They’re bottomless. Then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum, where some teams just can’t seem to get it right. They’re locked in a sort of purgatory as a result (Colorado, the White Sox). The Chicago Cubs land somewhere in between.
But even that isn’t black and white. The majority of teams build up every few years as they make a run at contention. Their farm evolves up to the Major League roster for the said run (Houston) or they end up using it as a trade tool to supplement the current roster within a given window (San Diego). The Cubs, however, have had more of a complex journey to the point at which they currently find themselves.
Reflecting on the Old Narrative
The 2016 Chicago Cubs won the World Series. That roster was, of course, led by the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Báez, among others. In large part, the lineup was constructed of guys they either drafted (Bryant, Báez, Kyle Schwarber) or traded for to complete their development before they were — at that point — regular Major League players (Rizzo, Addison Russell). With rookies Willson Contreras and Ian Happ on the way in addition to those other names, there was an ability to maximize potential on the positional side. It’s why you heard talk of dynasties and such at that point in time.
Of course, hindsight. That did not happen, and the Cubs officially tore it down in July of 2021. As 2023 approaches, in which “.500-ish” is kind of the most likely outcome, they’re starting to return to a similar point at which they were in, say, 2014.
Pete Crow-Armstrong, Brennen Davis, and Matt Mervis highlight a very exciting positional group. There was a pretty established narrative about the Cubs and their developmental system, though, even before the overhaul. And it focused heavily on their pitching.
That is to say that the Chicago Cubs could not develop pitching. Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel carried out the majority of starts in 2016. The only of the five that the Cubs could take even modest credit for was Hendricks, who was acquired in 2012 for Ryan Dempster. And there is due credit for the tweaks made with Arrieta as he morphed into a two-year stint as one of the game’s most dominating starters.
Even so, that’s a lot of outside talent. The situation in the bullpen was not dissimilar. Pedro Strop, Aroldis Chapman, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Justin Grimm all came from outside the organization.
So the narrative was there. Especially within any long-term contention context. As the Cubs now prepare to turn their corner of the rebuild toward contention, it’s a narrative that has very much shifted.
Transitioning to the New Narrative
Of the Top 10 prospects in the Chicago Cubs‘ system (according to MLB Pipeline), exactly half are pitchers. Cade Horton (no. 4) heads up that group, followed by Hayden Wesneski (no. 5), Jordan Wicks (no. 6), Ben Brown (no. 8), and Jackson Ferris (no. 9). Of those five, three — Horton, Wicks, and Ferris — were drafted by the organization. Wesneski and Brown were each acquired at last year’s trade deadline.
Each of those arms figures to make an appearance at Wrigley in the relatively near future. Wesneski could become a fixture in the rotation as soon as this year. Wicks, too. Farther down the list, Caleb Kilian (no. 18), Jeremiah Estrada (no. 24), and Ryan Jensen (no. 29) could also touch the bigs in 2023.
Kilian was on track to potentially join the rotation last year, but a nagging knee injury cost him late in the year. Estrada was recently optioned to Iowa but should be a big bullpen piece throughout the year. The same could be said for Jensen.
So far, that’s eight arms in the Top 30. When you take into account Daniel Palencia (no. 14), DJ Herz (no. 17), Porter Hodge (no. 21), Kohl Franklin (no. 26), Nazier Mule (no. 27), Riley Thompson (no. 28), and Drew Gray (no. 30), you’ve got exactly half of the Chicago Cubs‘ Top 30 prospects coming from off the mound.
Better still, 11 of those names were drafted by the organization. Only Wesneski, Brown, Kilian, and Palencia were not. It speaks not only to the evolution of their organizational philosophy but their success in identifying arms both in the draft/signings and in trades. And it doesn’t even take into account some lingering arms with big upside, like 102 MPH lefty Luke Little or 2022 minor league pitcher of the year Luis Devers.
As if that wasn’t enough good news, those are the names with more of an eye on the future. It doesn’t even say anything about the locks for the Major League roster in 2023.
We’ve already noted Wesneski as a potential (and likely) starter in 2023. The rotation will also feature Justin Steele at the front end of the group. Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson will feature heavily in relief roles. Javier Assad, fresh off pumping upper-90s for Mexico in the WBC, could swing to either. Michael Rucker, while not quite the upside play of some of his pitching compatriots, should maintain a regular role, as well.
Converted outfielder Brandon Hughes was a revelation out of the ‘pen last year. He could be in the closer mix at points throughout the year. Cam Sanders, Brendon Little, and Manuel Rodríguez will likely mix in throughout the year, too. Each was drafted or signed by the Cubs. Are you noticing a trend yet? That’s another nine names, by the way.
The Cubs aren’t just identifying a high volume of pitchers to add to the organization. They’re developing them. Full stop. Whether it’s a position change, like with Hughes, or examining the skill set and playing off of one pitch, they’re catering the development to the individual. Steele’s curve. Wesneski’s slider. Estrada’s moving four-seam.
If you’ve got one pitch, the Cubs are going to hone in on and maximize that pitch, while determining at least one other way in which to supplement it (wilder still is the fact that all of this neglects to mention the reclamation types who have had their careers revived by pitching for the Cubs the last few years; that’s a separate piece all to itself).
Even better? They’re adding velocity. The Cubs threw eight pitches of 98 MPH or more in 2022. Eight. As a team. The second-fewest was Arizona, at 77. Just for fun, the New York Yankees led baseball with 1,860. So you’ve got an uptick in velo and some really delicious breaking stuff scattered throughout an extremely high volume of arms entering 2023. We’re not just witnessing a shift, but an entire flipping of the perception of an organization.
To the Future, to the Horizon
It’s been clear since Theo Epstein departed that the Cubs were aiming to become an organization akin to Los Angeles or Tampa Bay or Cleveland. They want to continually rely on their system, especially in matters of pitching. While the tangible outcomes have not yet been reached, it’s very clear that they’re on the path which they intended to be. With the resources that their market affords, the fruits of their labor could very much manifest in being one of the most consistently dangerous teams in baseball.
The Chicago Cubs may very well be a .500 team in 2023. Their offense isn’t terrific (pending the odd bounceback or upside play). Their defense up the middle is elite, but the corners are suspect. This pitching, though. It’ll be the story of the 2023 Cubs.
They’ve got velocity, movement, and depth. Given the youth of some of it, it won’t be without growing pains. But as the rebuild takes shape, it’s very clear what they’re hoping to accomplish on the mound. And given the shortcomings of this organization over the last decade — 2016 included — we’re witnessing a new frontier of Chicago Cubs baseball.