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Cubs wrap up first day of draft by taking intriguing college arm

11 months agoAndy Martinez

Typically, the College World Series is prime time for scouts.

It’s the best of the best, competing against one another in a central location in Omaha, Neb. So, if a scout or front office member has to leave, it usually has to be a good reason.

Call Cubs’ first-round pick Matt Shaw a solid reason.

Cubs VP of scouting Dan Kantrovitz left Omaha and headed to Arizona where the MLB Draft Combine was being held for an interview with Shaw. The Cubs had an idea that he could be available when they would be on the clock, so Kantrovitz wanted to get to know him a bit more.

“The thing that really stood out about Matt to us during these interviews was really going back to sort of how driven he is, how focused he is,” Kantrovitz said. “The one thing that just was a constant theme was how diligent he is. How diligent of a worker he is.

“You combine that work ethic with somebody that’s already got [a] pretty impressive performance résumé under his belt, it ends up being something that’s pretty appealing to us.”

The Cubs wrapped up the first night of the draft by taking right-handed pitcher Jaxon Wiggins out of Arkansas with the 68th pick. The Cubs forfeited their second-round pick in signing Dansby Swanson but were awarded a compensatory pick after the second round and competitive balance rounds for catcher Willson Contreras.

Wiggins was an interesting pick. He was Arkansas’ Sunday starter in 2022 (essentially, their no. 3 starter), but struggled in that role, posting a 6.55 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 66 innings. In the fall, he seemed prime to earn a spot in the Razorback rotation before he had to undergo Tommy John surgery that ended his year. The Cubs saw him in the 2022 College World Series when they were watching 2022 first-round pick Cade Horton pitch for Oklahoma.

“We were really impressed with how he looked prior to that [injury] in the fall,” Kantrovitz said. “Something that we saw that really stood out to our scouts was the development of his curveball. Talking with [Cubs vice president, pitching Craig Breslow] and our guys in pitching development, we think there might be something untapped to explore there, potentially.”

Like Wiggins, Horton was returning from Tommy John surgery. Horton has quickly risen through the Cubs’ ranks, needing just 4 starts with Myrtle Beach before being promoted to High-A South Bend where he has a 3.89 ERA and a 36.3 strikeout percentage in 39.1 innings. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the Tommy John surgery wasn’t a massive deterrent for the Cubs in drafting Wiggins.

It could be for Wiggins deciding to sign.

A junior, Wiggins could elect to return to Arkansas and try and boost his stock and see if he can be drafted in the first round, where many draft experts thought he could have landed if he were healthy this season.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that there’s still a signing process that needs to be completed with him,” Kantrovitz said. “That’s still a process that we’re gonna have to go through. It’s tough to handicap sort of what the odds are.”

The athleticism, coupled with his pitch mix — a fastball that was in the mid to upper 90s, a strong slider and that curveball that Kantrovitz alluded to, make him an intriguing pick if they can reach an agreement with him. The Cubs might be getting a first-round talent in the late stages of the second round in that case, similar to last year when they decided to take Horton, sign him to an under-slot number and then drafted lefty pitcher Jackson Ferris in the second round to an over-slot number.

“Jaxon, actually, in his case, some of the stuff he was doing in Arkansas was just literally off the charts when it came to strength and conditioning, and just sort of what kind of a deluxe athlete he is,” Kantrovitz said. “If we’re fortunate enough to sort of get him into the fold, he’s somebody that we would probably, really just take our time with, obviously, and make sure first and foremost that, health is sort of the driving factor in development, initially.”

The upside is like what they see in Shaw and what drove the Cubs to make him the centerpiece of their draft class.

“I think the first thing that stands out is something the scouts were raving about for the last few years, which is a dynamic bat,” Kantrovitz said of Shaw. “I think it really took center stage probably last summer in the Cape [Cod League], when he displayed, just the decision making that he’s capable of, the ability to make consistent contact and then the ability to hit for damage.

“Typically, when you exhibit those three characteristics, it’s a pretty good recipe for success in the future.”

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