Could it be true?
Throughout the first ten seasons of the Epstein/Hoyer management of the Cubs, the franchise failed to develop any wholly home-grown pitching talent. In their wake were numerous changes in how pitchers were scouted, selected, and developed. Now, the Cubs are not only bringing their own talent to the majors, but it has been successful. Here are some of the contributors to the major league squad.
Adbert Alzoay – The 26-year old Alzolay has been a top pitching prospect for several years. However, some minor injuries have held him back. But mostly, the biggest impediment to the majors was the Cubs’ grass-is-always-greener approach. Instead of trusting their own development, the Cubs consistently poured time and resources into reclamation projects. Practically all of those projects never paid off.
Although the Cubs still had to yank the Venezuelan’s chain a little bit by sending him to the alternative training site, Alzolay is arguably their best pitcher. Alzolay leads the starting staff with a 4.30 ERA, a 0.864 WHIP, and with 45 strikeouts. Additionally, his 7 walks give Alzolay first among the starters. That’s a third less than well know control specialist Kyle Hendricks.
Dillon Maples – One of the few players left from the Jim Hendry era, the 29-year old has always been one of the Cubs’ biggest enigmas. Blessed with a blistering mid-to-upper 90’s fastball and a plus-plus curve, Maples seemed destined for greatness. But during his development, there were rumors of differences between Maples and the coaching staff, as well as injuries. Although Maples possessed great “stuff”, consistency never seemed to come. While Maples has posted a 1.72 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 15.2 innings, management seems to have lost confidence. Maples now finds himself at the end of the bench.
Tommy Nance – For those of you that like underdog stories, the 30-year old Nance is just the person you are looking for. An undrafted free agent out of Santa Clara University, Nance toiled in the independent leagues before the Cubs signed him in 2016. Originally considered just a “roster-filler”, Nance hung on while losing time to injury and the pandemic. When the Cubs needed a fresh arm for their overworked bullpen, the front office called on the 6’6″, 235-pound right-hander with an upper 90’s fastball. To Nance’s credit, he has not waivered even with the Cubs placing him in tight spots.
Justin Steele – When the dust had settled after the 2014 MLB draft, the Cubs looked like they had the beginnings of a potent pitching staff. Selected in the fifth round between fellow high school pitcher Carson Sands and Dylan Cease, Steele remains the only one to see time with the Cubs. Called up last season by the Cubs, the 25-year old did not see any action.
Beginning the 2021 season at the alternative training site, Steele was another pitcher brought up to spell a tired bullpen. In 13.1 innings, Steele has been everything promised. With a mid-90’s four seam fastball with both a hard-biting slider and a curve, Steele has fanned 21 while posting a 2.03 ERA and 1.050 WHIP. However, Steele’s biggest concern, injuries, has landed him on the IL at this time.
Keegan Thompson – As unlikely a contributor as both Nance and Steele, so much is the same with the 26-year old Thompson. Selected in the third round on the Cubs’ pitching-heavy 2017 draft, Thompson is the second pitching to make it to the majors behind first round pick Alex Lange. The feeling was that out of all the Cubs’ picks that year, Thompson had the best command.
That trait served Thompson well in the lower minors. But an unexpected bump to Advanced-A in 2018 exposed Thompson’s lack of velocity. Nevertheless, Thompson was promoted to Double-A in 2019. But in his first start that year, Thompson injured his arm. While he came back to pick up a few innings by season’s end, things were still not right. Perhaps the best thing for Thompson was the lost 2020 minor league season. With a greater chance to recover, Thompson showed improved velocity this spring.
Now with his fastball sitting in the mid 90’s, Thompson has a great compliment to his hard-biting slider and curve. The results are there, as Thompson has become the Cubs’ go-to middle reliever.
On the heels of those successes, the Cubs may be more inclined to trust more of their own prospects. Here are some of the pitchers fans can possibly see next.
Cory Abbott – Selected one round ahead of Thompson in 2017, the 25-year old Abbott is having mixed success in Triple-A. A durable performer, Abbott is considered a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater. Abbot features two fastballs, a cut, and a four-seam, that he can throw for strikes. He also has a slider and change. In Iowa, Abbott is getting a lot of swings and misses. Unfortunately, he is also getting hit hard at times. Finding his comfort zone will be the key to Abbott going forward.
Ryan Jensen – The 2019 first round selection for the Cubs, the 23-year old Jensen seemed a bit affected by the lack of a 202 season. Having a rough time in his first few outings this season, Jensen appears to now have settled in. Essentially a two-pitch pitcher, Jensen is now starting to find his rhythm. In his last outing, Jensen allowed only one hit in five scoreless innings.
Brailyn Marquez – The Cubs’ 2021 number one prospect, the 22-year old Marquez has yet to see action this season due to COVID-19 concerns. When he sees the field, Marquez most likely will debut in Double-A. Just how the long layoff affected the lefty with the blazing triple-digit fastball remains to be seen.
Dakota Mekkes – A recent demotion for the towering 26-year old Mekkes can be seen more as a move to get him more consistent innings. Populating Triple-A with a lot of “AAAA” pitchers, Mekkes was getting lost in the shuffle by the Cubs. Mekkes has spent time improving his change-up, which is making his fastball and slider more effective. With his deceptive delivery, Mekkes has the consistency to make him a strong middle relief candidate.
Cam Sanders – The son of former major-leaguer Scott Sanders, the 24-year old has been one of the pleasant surprises of the early season. Another success from the Cubs’ pitching lab, Sanders has improved his velocity. Sanders fastball now sits comfortably in the mid-90’s. Going along with the command of his change and breaking ball, Sanders is keeping hitters off-balance. With 26 strikeouts in 18 innings, Sanders has more than a quarter of his total for 2019.
Born and raised on Chicago's Northwest side, Tom is entering his tenth year covering the Cubs minor league system, writing for prestigious sites such as Chicago Cubs Online, Locked On Cubs, and Cubs Den. Over that period, Tom has published interviews with top prospects such as Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, Willson Contreras, Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, Ian Happ, Eloy Jimenez, Cole Roederer, and Gleyber Torres.
Known as "Tom U" across the internet, Tom also has a close working relationship with the front offices of all four of the Cubs' full season minor league teams. A frequent guest of the South Bend Cubs on WSBT radio, Tom has also written monthly articles for the South Bend Cubs' stadium program.