Debating the Upside of Cubs’ Pitching Prospects vs. Hitting Prospects

After three years of declining performances and minimal minor-league reinforcements, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer embarked on an entire organizational shakeup. October 17, 2019, became a milestone day for the franchise. Craig Breslow (pitching) and Justin Stone (hitting) were tasked with leading their respective departments in a new modernized player development infrastructure.

With no minor league season in 2020, it’s nearly impossible to judge which group inspires more confidence as minor league baseball resumes. That’s not going to stop us from trying, so we’re presenting you with a Greg vs. Greg prospect debate.

Hitters vs. pitchers. Stone vs. Breslow. Who are you riding with?

Greg Zumach (pitchers): It seems borderline impossible to justify that the Chicago Cubs, the organization whose minor league pitching development claim to fame is the 36.1 homegrown innings from Duane Underwood Jr., deserve the confidence in their minor league pitching infrastructure. But I’ll attempt to do just that. And no, it’s not the vaunted pitch lab that fuels my belief in the pitchers. After a year away from competitive baseball games, the Cubs are about to unleash a cavalcade of pitchers who spent an entire year building out repertoires.

Greg Huss (hitters): The front office of the 2010’s, led by Epstein and Hoyer, was known for its ability to draft and develop an incredible group of hitters that made their way to Chicago year after year. But it is a new era and as crazy as it may seem, the Cubs have only had one homegrown hitting prospect debut in Chicago since 2017: Nico Hoerner. Maybe it’s a classic example of a gambler’s fallacy, but I am drawn to the group of hitting prospects Hoyer has on his hands both in the upper and lower levels and am intrigued by their ability to make an impact in Chicago. 

Zumach: It’s a fairly common sentiment that starting pitchers need three solid pitches to succeed in professional baseball. Relievers need two. The Cubs’ pitching development infrastructure set about getting their starting pitchers up to five offerings: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider or cutter, during the shutdown.

Cubs fans saw that plan come to fruition when Adbert Alzolay transformed from a guy hoping to stick in the majors to the pitcher who should have started a possible Game 3 in last year’s playoffs. Brailyn Márquez, Ryan Jensen, Chris Clarke, and Riley Thompson are a few of the upper-level arms about to begin the season with five pitches. Relievers are showing up in spring camp armed with three or more pitches.

We see every year what can happen when a guy adds a pitch to their arsenal, but I’m excited to see what happens when dozens of arms have added multiple new pitches.

Huss: You said you weren’t going to lean in heavy on the pitch lab, and yet that sounds pretty pitch lab-ish to me. I look at the hitters in the Cubs system and see a bunch of guys that are separated into two different groups: one led by Brennen Davis, Miguel Amaya, Chase Strumpf, and Chris Morel that are closer to Chicago and the other comprised of young studs Ed Howard, Cristian Hernandez, and the quartet of Yu Darvish trade prospects. That arrangement could lead to sustained success at the major league level. Can your beloved pitchers say the same for themselves?

Zumach: Hey, you won’t hear me knock these hitters. I’ve gone on record saying “Brennen Davis is the truth,” I love what I’ve seen from Ed Howard, and the shortstops in general in the system are exciting. However, how many of those top-hitting prospects played competitive baseball in the last year? Davis, Amaya, Morel? With such a long layoff, I’m inclined to trust the pitching in the system as a whole a bit more. I could easily see 2021 showcase pitching for most of the season, especially when the sheer volume of impact pitchers is greater than the hitting group.

Don’t get me wrong, an organization needs many arms because injury risk is always a concern with pitchers, but I could envision a scenario where a larger group of pitchers prove themselves this season while only a handful of truly exceptional hitters stand out. Let’s hear it fellow Greg, the names you’ve thrown out are great, but who else in this system is ready to take those next steps from a hitting perspective?

Huss: Do you remember after the 2018 MLB Draft came and went and the front office was heralded for a brand new approach to the draft process? They spent half of their selections from the first two rounds on raw, high school bats, Davis and Cole Roederer. We are already starting to see the fruits of that approach, with Davis proving that he might just be the best prospect this system has seen since Eloy Jiménez. That methodical madness is now repeating itself, with a heavy focus on teenagers that might just have the tools to break out any day now.

Yes, there is a considerable amount of unknown with guys like catchers Ronnier Quintero and Ethan Hearn, shortstops Kevin Made and Luis Verdugo, and outfielder Yohendrick Pinango, but each and every one of these cats is just oozing with potential. And in the prospect world, that potential of turning a relative unknown into a surefire superstar is what it’s all about, right?

Zumach: Darn right, I remember! I was a big fan of that strategy in 2018and I still am. Heck, you didn’t even mention Jordan Nwogu (drafted 3rd round 2020) in all of this. He’ll need a lot of work but has all the physical tools you can dream on. After Davis’s swing changes, I’ll definitely give Stone and the Cubs the benefit of the doubt on any hitting changes till proven otherwise. Oh no, I’m so all about prospect potential that I’ve started to make your argument for you.

Bringing it back, I think you nailed a point that really tells us a lot about the Cubs’ future: do they prioritize the 2022-2023 wave or that deeper group of talent that starts out in Arizona or Low-A Myrtle Beach? We don’t need to relitigate the Darvish trade, but I was shocked the Cubs weren’t able to bring in any prospects that fit with the Davis, Amaya, Strumpf, Morel crowd. They went deep, way deep.

Hey, I’m all about dreaming on potential, but we need to acknowledge the higher bust rate. We aren’t that far removed from the time Aramis Ademan and Jonathan Sierra were supposed to backfill Gleyber Torres and Jiménez in the minors.

Zumach: I’m a big believer in the Cubs system and I feel confident that we’ll see progress in both pitching and hitting. Still, outside of a few select players, I’d recommend utilizing the “progress isn’t linear” line about the hitters this season. Give me the pitching, where, for the first time since 0 BTE (before Theo Epstein), you can point to several dynamic arms at each level.

And with the sheer volume of pitchers making progress in the system, it’s plausible that upper-level arms like Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson get major league opportunities and lower-level break-out pitchers like Max Bain, DJ Herz, or Richard Gallardo take massive leaps forward. Plus, we haven’t even talked about Kohl Franklin, and he’s an arm to dream on this season.

Even MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis is annoyed by hearing about the pitch lab. It’s time to see tangible results. Don’t let me down, Breslow.

Huss: Fine, I’ll admit it: I believe a large portion of the Cubs’ success with homegrown bats over the last decade has been due to the incredible talents they have drafted, not the development process. Keep that in mind as I tell you that I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the work Stone and his development staff have put in with these current hitting prospects. Their ability to break down the science behind a swing, analyze it, and then communicate necessary information to the players on an individualized basis is remarkable.

That combination of biomechanics and human interaction will be tremendously valuable to the comical amount of young stars ready to hit the ground running in the lowest levels of this system. And hey, it won’t hurt with the guys named Davis and Amaya either!

So, Dear Reader, what prospects are you riding with: pitchers or hitters?

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