Hunting unicorns: Time is now for Cubs’ young arms originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
When Cubs rookie Keegan Thompson got done with a scoreless major league starting debut at Wrigley Field against the Dodgers on Tuesday night, he called it “unbelievable” and said “I didn’t think it would happen.”
“It’s always just been a dream to throw here.”
If Thompson thought it was a dream, imagine the fantasy the Cubs’ front office is living living these days with some of its young pitchers actually experiencing a few doses of major-league success.
Talk of the next crop of pitchers coming in the farm system has been the stuff of rainbows and unicorns since the first draft class of the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer-Jason McLeod regime in 2012.
“I think it’s been something that has been a focus here, trying to be better,” said second-year manager David Ross, whose pitcher of record in Thompson’s start was another homegrown rookie, Justin Steele, who earned his first career win — and whose starter the next day was yet another homegrown pitcher, Adbert Alzolay.
“That shows that we’re getting on the right track,” Ross said. “And I think the front office, player development and the pitchers themselves have all put in a lot of hard work and it’s something that they want to focus on. It’s nice to see.”
It already looks like one of the primary focuses of a 2021 season that Hoyer, the newly promoted team president, has called a season of “transition.”
Barely a month into the season, the Cubs released with veteran reliever Brandon Workman and let Pedro Strop elect free agency rather than find a big-league roster spot for him.
“I think it has a lot to do with some of the young guys we have coming and that we believe in and see what we’ve got, for sure,” Ross said of those departures.
As the Cubs imagine their next championship window, it’s hard to overstate the importance of homegrown pitching becoming part of the equation that was conspicuously missing from the last one — and arguably became that group’s Kryptonite in an age of luxury-tax payroll pressures.
Nearly a decade of what might be the worst performance in the game for drafting/signing and developing homegrown pitchers forced the Cubs chase big spending with more spending to stay competitive — culminating with a $138 million pitching staff that cost more than the Rays and Orioles entire rosters combined during a 2019 season in which the Cubs missed the playoffs.
But Alzolay turned in another five strong innings in a sixth 2021 start Wednesday that gives him more in a season than any Cubs homegrown starter developed under Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod. And as promising as Thompson looked, Steele has the kind of power stuff from the left side, with two breaking balls, that makes him look like a starting candidate as well.
“Cubs fans should be really excited about these three arms that we’ve got with us right now,” said Jake Arrieta, the 2015 Cy Young winner who was a huge part of the Cubs entirely store-bought, championship pitching staff in the middle of the last decade. “Those are great arms that are going to be good for this organization for a long time.”
It’s been a long time since the Cubs have been able to say that about even one homegrown pitcher.
The dubious facts are well documented, and the young pitchers who have passed through the organization since then have become increasingly aware of the hard-to-fathom deficit.
“You could definitely look at it as a chip on the shoulder for us,” said Steele, who fought back from Tommy John surgery to debut last month with an upper-90s fastball and sharp slider-curveball mix.
“I’m not going to say we’ve been bashed, but people have definitely undervalued us.”
The system certainly has been bashed on this point for years. And for good reason.
Not one homegrown pitcher has thrown so much as a playoff pitch for a team that has played 10 rounds of postseason baseball the last six years.
But is that about to change? Could this group finally include a few of those Cubs unicorns the front office and core of the fan base have fantasized about for years?
The three who made the most noise this week seem to think so. And none of them are even the top-ranked prospect in the system, left-hander Brailyn Marquez, who flashed upper-90s velocity and a hard slider in a brief debut last September. Triple-A starter Cory Abbott and 2020 draft pick Burl Carraway, a lefty reliever, also might not be far behind for chances to prove something.
“Now we’re finally getting here to Chicago and people are finally able to see what we’ve been working on, what we’ve been doing,” Steele said, “and spotlights [on] Adbert and Keegan coming in, doing what they have, it’s just shining the light on the pitching farm system that needed to be shined.”
Added Alzolay: “And there are more coming for sure.”