Jason McLeod: Cubs’ Lack of Impact Starters at Upper Levels Mitigated by Depth

Since you’ve been diligently following Todd Johnson’s organizational breakdowns this winter, you’re already keenly aware that the real future of Cubs pitching exists primarily in the lower levels of the system. Sure, there is some potential up near the top, but most of the names we’ve been used to hearing about — Pierce Johnson, Duane Underwood — have underwhelmed as they’ve struggled with injuries and adjustments.

Jason McLeod, Cubs senior VP of player development and amateur scouting, echoed what you’ve read on our pages when he spoke with 670 The Score’s Bruce Levine recently.

“Organizationally, we really don’t have the impact starters at the upper levels,” McLeod admitted. “I do think with the volume of arms we have taken over the past few years and signed internationally, guys are coming on. We now feel really good, not just with the depth of the organization but having some major league starting impact guys who are at the the A-ball level and progressing toward Double-A now.”

While this is something a lot of us already knew, you have to appreciate the candor here. Then again, that’s what we’ve come to expect from this front office. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have always been transparent when it comes to their plans, and McLeod is no exception. He was very open with me when we spoke at Cubs Convention about the growth and direction of the minor league system.

More than just general statements about the depth and breadth of the organization, McLeod addressed the status of several individual players.

Duane Underwood

“This will be Year 4, and we are hoping the injuries he dealt with are behind him. We think he can step forward this season and put 2016 in the review mirror.”

Dylan Cease

“The reins are off now, being that two years ago he had (elbow ligament replacement). We have conservatively brought him back. We are really encouraged by the way he finished the season at Eugene. His stuff was electric at times. We loved his arm strength at the end, and the way he was spinning the breaking ball. We have a plan to send him to South Bend and get him to pitch his first full season at the professional level. There will not be any limitations on him.”

Eddie Butler

“Big arm. Really got his career off to a good start in the Rockies organization. I don’t want to say he’s stalled out, but the performance the last two years hasn’t been what you expect for a guy with his type of arm and his type of stuff.

“For us, it was certainly a guy we felt fit a lot of what we needed, which was upper-level starters that can come up and start in the major leagues. Obviously, we feel really confident in our pitching infrastructure — with (pitching coach) Chris Bosio, the guys in the big leagues and our pitching coordinators in the minor leagues — that this was somebody we could get as a buy-low that still has that big stuff that he had coming out of the draft.”

Shohei Otani (yeah, I know, still a pipe dream)

“He deserves the great attention as far as what we have seen of him. What he has done on the mound and at the plate is a lot to be excited about. When you look at him on the hill or at bat, you see a true baseball player. This guy is so fluid and natural in the way he throws and hits. To put up the numbers he has is like Nintendo. He is something we have not seen come around that often.”

Otani is something of an archetypal golden goose when it comes to filling a vacancy in the Cubs’ rotation moving forward, and not just because he’s become a mythical figure over the last year or so. Absent a cache of impact arms hitting Chicago in the immediate future, a plug-and-play option promotes all the more desire. But despite his hype, Otani — like any pitcher — is far from a sure bet.

When it comes to stocking up on pitchers, the Cubs are going to look to gamble a little more moving forward. Because of the depth McLeod spoke of, not to mention an enviable wealth of position players, the team’s draft strategy (I feel really good about this piece after reading the one in the next link) is going to be shifting to assume some additional risk. While top-end bats have gotten the most publicity over the last few years, the Cubs have actually gone very heavy on pitchers in the Epstein era.

Those pitchers have generally been safe bets, guys who were build more for comfort than speed. Based on what Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ director of amateur scouting, shared with The Athletic’s Rian Watt [subscription required], the team has instructed scouts to be a little more aggressive and to “think a bit outside the box” moving forward. That doesn’t mean playing fast and loose, more that the Cubs realize they need to make some changes in search of those arms capable of fast-tracking through the system.

Keep in mind that this is all in addition to the moves they’ve been making to acquire guys like Butler, Alec Mills, and Brett Anderson, not to mention the potential pursuit of future big-ticket free agent starters. It’s an organic process, one that will continue to shift based on team needs and the resources available to meet them.

This is fun stuff, folks, the idea that the front office isn’t just reacting to things that have already happened. No, the Cubs aren’t content with the present and are proactively addressing needs that haven’t yet become manifest. And if they can start doing with pitchers what they’ve done with position players over the last few seasons? Yes, please.

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