If you were to examine the draft history of Theo Epstein over the last 10 years, you’d probably notice a major pattern. With the Chicago Cubs since 2012 and the Boston Red Sox before that, Epstein leans heavily on taking position players with his first-round pick. In fact, only once since 2007 has an Epstein-led team taken a pitcher with a non-supplemental first-round pick, and that was right-hander Matt Barnes in 2011.
The strategy has shown some serious success. Every one of the Cubs’ first-round draft choices since Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod took over the front office has made it to the big-league roster – and several played a major role in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series victory. The downside, however, is that they’ve been left with little in the way of serious pitching prospects.
Where are the future top-of-the-rotation starters? How will the Cubs keep their rotation viable if they don’t have anyone coming up from the minor leagues?
They just might have one.
In the sixth round of the 2014 MLB draft, Chicago took a chance on a young fireballer named Dylan Cease. It was well-known at the time that the right-handed starter would be having Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow just a month later, but the risk was worthwhile to grab an 18-year-old with a rumored 100 mph fastball and a curveball with great potential.
Fast forward to June 2015, and Cease was finally on the mound with the Cubs organization. He pitched 24 innings in Rookie League, then went to Low-A Eugene of the Northwest League in 2016 and pitched 44.2 innings. Now 21 and with the South Bend Cubs, Cease is really coming into his own. Through seven starts and 32.1 innings in Single-A, he has a 2.23 ERA with 13.9 K/9 and 4.7 BB/9.
But one of the bigger concerns for Cease in the long term is his command that’s sometimes spotty. His fastball is still elite when he can control it, somewhere between 93-97 mph and hitting 98 on occasion. His curveball is excellent, too, and he has a changeup that he’s been developing this season. While it’s not on par with the other two pitches in his arsenal, it really doesn’t need to be.
“Honestly, I just want it to look like a fastball,” Cease said in an exclusive interview with FanRag Sports. “I don’t really want it to cut, but if it looks like a fastball and I keep it down, I’m really OK with it.”
Cease’s changeup ranges from 78-82 mph, coming in around the same range as his curveball but well under his fastball. As for the development, it’s really getting there. Facing the Peoria Chiefs, the St. Louis Cardinals Single-A affiliate in the Midwest League, on May 12, Cease seemed to have no problem handling his changeup even when his primary and secondary pitches were often out of control. In one at-bat against outfielder Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals’ 2016 first-round draft pick, Cease got the batter in an 0-2 hole by dotting two consecutive changeups on the outside corner.
His manager, Jimmy Gonzalez, likes what he sees, too.
“I like that pitch,” said Gonzalez. “He’s shown that all year, pretty good, pretty consistent. He doesn’t throw it as much as his curveball, but he’s thrown it a lot and I think he has pretty decent command of it. I think he’s confident in that pitch, and he threw it well (against Peoria) and it’s something that he’s going to continue doing and getting better at.”
Cease came out firing in the first inning, often hitting 96 and 97 mph on his fastball but missing frequently. Several of his first few batters went to full counts, and he tossed over 30 pitches in the frame. But he came back out for the second inning, controlling his pitches a little better and throwing around 93-94 mph instead. The velocity change may not have been intentional, but the adjustment helped him settle things down a bit.
“I was still getting after it,” Cease said of his velocity shift in the second inning. “Honestly, I felt like I was throwing pretty firm the whole game.”
Cease ramped it back up in the third and fourth innings, throwing around 95 and losing his command again. He was only able to get through 3.2 innings, allowing six hits and two walks while striking out seven. Despite not having his best stuff, he battled through it.
“I mean, fortunately he throws extremely hard, so he’s able to get away with it on a night when he doesn’t have his best stuff,” said Gonzalez. “It’s something that, give him credit where he’s done this before but he bounces back. Obviously, his pitch count was high, but he bounced back and did a great job for (nearly) four innings.”
If he can stay healthy and continue to pitch well, the young starter could be on his way to High-A at midseason. But before he can start thinking about getting promoted to a new level, Cease knows there are certain things the Cubs front office is seeking.
“I know what they want to see from me,” he said. “Fastball command and throwing my secondary pitches for strikes. Which I didn’t really do a great job of (against Peoria), but for the most part that’s what they really want me to do.”
Cease is a grounded kid who comes off as intelligent while understanding the physical and mental parts of the game. If he does rein in the command issues, there’s no doubt he could be at High-A this year, Double-A next year and then all bets are off after that. With three of the Cubs’ original five starting pitchers on the major-league roster heading toward free agency, they’re going to need an influx of starters before the 2018 season.
Don’t expect one of them to be Cease, at least not right away. While he hasn’t had as much experience dealing with highly touted pitching prospects, it’s not within Epstein’s reputation to call up a young pitcher and throw him into the fire. That said, with the quality of his stuff and a quickly developing changeup, don’t be surprised to see Cease in a Cubs uniform near the end of the 2018 season.
The Cubs might end up making a trade, either at midseason or in the offseason, to acquire more starting pitching. They have plenty of great positional prospects to choose from, making them a perfect trade partner for a team like the Tampa Bay Rays – who have Chris Archer, for example. Not developing an ace from within their own farm system has worked just fine for the Cubs so far, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to work out for them in the future.
But if there is a future ace currently in the Cubs farm system, it’s Cease.