Cubs pipeline alchemy why pitching development has lagged – bleed cubbie blue heartburn in early pregnancy when does it start

On occasion, the last few years, a rather innocuous claim has gotten tossed around fairly often. Theo Epstein’s Cubs don’t develop pitching very well. What usually follows is an incredibly vague half-discussion on “what should be happening in the pitching development sector.” Or a notation that Epstein admitted it, himself. Midway through, something is mumbled about Kyle Hendricks “being added in a trade”, and the conversation is over. Epstein is considered guilty of developing pitching poorly. This is a bit of a closer look at the Cubs pitching development.

Pitching takes more time to develop than hitting. This applies both in individual cases, as well as longer-term trends. While Kris Bryant can be drafted second in the entire draft, and be as far as Advanced-A Ball by that September, pitchers need to have their advancement balanced with safety concerns.


The Cubs don’t traditionally use a first-year draftee over 20 innings in their draft year season. As such, while Bryant can “keep rapidly advancing until he finds a level that’s his equal”, a developing pitcher will get lifted from a successful start in the Midwest League in May after five or six innings. Even if he’s been better than the opposition.

The pitcher isn’t as likely to be “hurried along,” either. While Bryant sought the level that could limit his numbers, the hurler is being pushed into developing his third and fourth pitches. Many pitchers enter pro ball with only one or two usable pitches. The hurler is being channeled into “using his weaker offerings,” which makes his nightly outings look worse than they would have been.

His numbers suffer, and we wonder: “Why is he struggling so much this season?” To some extent, many pitchers suffer, not because they are bad at pitching, but they are trying to accomplish tasks they may never get good at. Without the third pitch, they become a reliever, and are considered “less than” by many.

When team leadership changed in late 2011, the Cubs prospect pipeline was largely broken. Players weren’t being properly developed. If a player had a question about what they needed to do to improve through the system, nobody necessarily had an answer for them. For certain, nobody had a computer file of their recent starts to compare and contrast success versus failure.

Nonetheless, the progress has been a bit lurching. A few players have successful seasons. Then a few of those reach a level they can’t master. Because of that, and because Hendricks was added by trade, the new guys are considered poor at developing talent.

When the cynics are asked what the “average/ordinary team the Cubs should be compared to,” something vague is usually tossed off. For instance, Epstein’s tenure in Boston, or the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, or the St. Louis Cardinals. “Be successful at developing pitchers like them.”

Something those who over-simplify the problem generally fail to own up to is this. The 2011 Red Sox, Giants, Dodgers, and Cardinals generally had successful and balanced systems already. At that point in their development, “take the best available talent, regardless his position” was already their calling card. Which is what a quality pipeline ought to do.

The early 2012 Cubs had little usable pitching, and few exciting hitters. Since so much of the talent pool and technology was in tatters, the Cubs needed to use their draft picks to locate pitchers who were “usable” to provide stability for the system.

Most Cubs fans give no heed to the Short-Season affiliates, and understandably so. The fan wants to see good pitchers at the major-league level. When that happens, everything is marvelous. However, when the reliever walks the leadoff man in the ninth inning, a degree of anxiety goes to the executive’s booth at the game.

As much as we’d like players to be “drafted for major league success,” the process of turning a college or high school arm into a useful MLB option is an arduous one. The early-Epstein years required a degree of re-tooling that often goes unreported. Because talking about the Northwest League is considered boring by many.

Among the first stops for many Cubs prospects is the Northwest League. From 2001 to 2014, the Cubs were affiliate with the Boise Hawks. In 2015, the affiliation switched from Boise to Eugene, Oregon. Regardless, the importance of the Northwest League is a bit contrarian, but valid nonetheless.

Despite the presence of Jeimer Candelario, Marco Hernandez, and Dan Vogelbach, Edwards’ Spokane Indians pounded the Hawks that night 15-1 in Boise. Edwards was still a year from being dealt to the Cubs and three years from his first MLB pitch, and the Hawks needed to turn to a reserve catcher to save the bullpen that night.

That Edwards pitched well that night didn’t guarantee that he would have MLB success. However, pitchers who would routinely struggle in the same league would almost certainly end their careers short of the parent club. A team needs plenty of usable arms in the Northwest League, even though many will be unable to help the parent club in the future.

In 2009, the Boise Hawks had an ERA of 4.76, which raked seventh in the Northwest League’s eight teams. Their WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) was 1.46, which ranked sixth. They fanned 531 batters, which ranked seventh, and walked 275, which ranked fourth.

It took three years, but the Cubs were finally able to put together a continuously solid pitching staff in the eight-team Northwest League. The players succeeding in Oregon are now helping to nourish the affiliates in South Bend, Myrtle Beach, Kodak (Tennessee), Des Moines, and, perchance, Chicago.

Developing an effective pitching pipeline isn’t as easy as changing a pair of pants. What types of individuals will be sought is one step. Getting the scouting pool to better identify those types is another. Getting them signed, and assessing a game plan for player improvement are two others. Keeping the players healthy is yet another angle that can greatly misfire.

I don’t assess either Boise or Eugene as an extreme environment, either way. The Cubs hitters, aside from the ones who blow through the Northwest League on the way to a promotion, haven’t put up ridiculous numbers in either spot. Neither facility has particularly extreme measurements. If the batter’s eye were unacceptable, the school (Eugene plays at the University o f Oregon facility) would change the background.

None of this will be enough for most fans. They want immediate upgrades at the big league level. That is accomplished by major trades or free agency additions. However, if they want noticeable systemic improvements, these are the numbers they should be looking for.

After tweaking the player acquisition and improvement systems, the Cubs are now producing better pitching. Slowly, which is how pitching improvements display themselves. If the pitching is considered “largely repaired,” more hitters can be added, starting in June.

This discussion isn’t finished. A Part Two will follow evenually looking more specifically who was drafted, and who might have made more sense in some of those spots. However, realize that a draft selection is made on a specific day, and the information available then is the most important factor on his selection.

Perhaps he’d have selected a hard-throwing pitcher early, if he’d recently won a World Series in Chicago. However, he hadn’t. And looked nowhere near ready to. Which is why the Cubs haven’t drafted four of the top six picks as hitters since before Epstein’s arrival.

The Cubs haven’t drafted pitchers perfectly since arrival. However, as a person who listens to games in the pipeline rather regularly, I’m having a hard time prioritizing starting pitching options. Too many are worth monitoring. That hasn’t always been the case.