Cubs long-term pitching plans coming into focus
Justin Steele sat down in the Zoom Room, sporting a blue T-shirt with “Adbert Alzolay is nasty” written on it in big, white letters.
In one image, it became the embodiment of what the Cubs are trying to build within their organization: At long last, this system is producing young pitchers that are impacting the game in Chicago.
Since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the Cubs front office prior to the 2012 season, the organization has fallen short in developing arms and have almost exclusively relied upon free agency and trades to form their big league pitching staff.
The day before the 2021 season started, Hoyer summed it up thusly:
“A lot has been made of our struggles to develop pitching in the minor leagues and that is accurate — it is true, we have struggled in that regard,” he said. “It’s sort of undeniable that we have been able to be really effective pitching in the big leagues.”
Hoyer is right about that last part.
From 2015 through 2020, the Cubs made the playoffs in five out of six seasons. During that span, they ranked 3rd in Major League Baseball in team ERA (3.66), behind only the Dodgers and Indians.
So the Cubs have done a good job of identifying and acquiring pitchers. But the most effective avenue to sustained success for an organization is to draft and develop their own pitching and the Cubs are starting to do just that.
Alzolay (amateur free agent, 2012) flashed his immense potential in another solid start Wednesday night against the Dodgers. He struck out 7 and allowed 2 runs in 5 innings against a lineup that won the World Series six months ago.
The night before, Keegan Thompson (3rd round pick, 2017) and Steele (5th round pick, 2014) combined to shut the Dodgers out in 4.2 innings in Game 2 of the doubleheader. Steele picked up his first career win and Thompson navigated his first MLB start with poise.
The Cubs have also received some solid relief work from Dillon Maples (14th round, 2011) this season as he finally seems to have turned a corner in his career. He has a 1.98 ERA and 1.098 WHIP in 10 appearances out of the bullpen in 2021.
These are four pitchers who are under team control for at least six more years and it’s the type of development the Cubs have been waiting for.
“It’s been something that has been a focus here of trying to be better,” David Ross said. “That shows that we’re getting on the right track. The front office, player development and the players themselves have all put in a lot of hard work in some things they want to focus on. It’s nice to see.
“That’s the way good organizations are able to develop homegrown talent, whether it’s position players or pitching. The fact we’ve had such superstars come up from a position player standpoint, it’s nice to see all the work that the player development and the scouts and the front office and the players are putting in for the pitching side and it’s paying off for sure.”
The young Cubs pitchers have certainly heard all the talk as they’ve come up through the system. They know what’s been said about this organization and the lack of homegrown pitchers.
“Yeah, you could definitely look at it as a chip on the shoulder for us,” Steele said. “I’m not gonna say we’ve been bashed, but people have definitely undervalued us. Now we’re finally getting here to Chicago and y’all are finally being able to see what we’ve been working on, what we’ve been doing.”
The pitching development storyline doesn’t instantly fade away because the Cubs have had a few good outings from these young arms.
But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.