Bryce too high? Blame Cubs’ failure to develop pitching for bloated payroll

TV revenues, luxury taxes, ballpark renovations, bad player contracts – each has played at least an indirect role over the past two seasons in some of the budget decisions that have put them in the well publicized payroll bind they face this winter.

But one of the biggest reasons is also the most overlooked: A scouting and player development system that has yet to produce a trickle of big-league pitching, much less a pipeline.

With many of their young core hitters now into their higher priced arbitration years, the increasing cost of stocking the pitching staff without help from the system has meant $115.75 million tied up in contract obligations to 10 pitchers for 2019 alone – before another $12 million in projected arbitration-level salaries are included.

“Obviously now our position players are getting more expensive,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But there were days [in recent years] when you looked out on the field, and you had minimum salary, minimum salary. We had such payroll efficiency offensively.

“But we’ve always had somewhat of a payroll inefficiency pitching wise because we’ve had to go outside and add veterans.”

In fact, the Cubs’ system has yielded a total of just 59 big-league innings of homegrown pitching for the team – including just four starts – in seven drafts and international amateur signing periods under the current regime.

They’re expected to open a fifth consecutive season without a homegrown pitcher on the roster.

“We’ve had really good pitching staffs. It’s not as if our major league pitching has struggled,” Hoyer said of staffs that contributed to four consecutive postseason runs, including the 2016 World Series championship.

“But it has been inefficient,” he said, “from a financial standpoint and a trade standpoint because we haven’t had the [Kris] Bryant, [Javy] Baez, [Albert] Almora, [Ian] Happ, versions of the pitchers.”

A small part of that was created by an organizational philosophy of drafting big bats in the first round – including those four hitters with single-digit, first-round picks.

But nobody in the Cubs’ organization expected that seven seasons into the process that the system would produce so little pitching that not one postseason pitch would be thrown by a homegrown pitcher in the 37 postseason games they’ve played.

Especially after making it an emphasis in top-half draft volume after their first two drafts.

“Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching, and I think we will have more as we go forward,” said Epstein, whose staff made 16 of its top 18 picks pitchers in 2016 and its top five (and 10 of the top 13) in 2017.

“But we also built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way,” he said, “knowing that in our mind the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that’s already good or about to become good and more known commodities.”

It has largely worked.

But it has become increasingly expensive.

“That’s part of it,” Epstein said.

The stress it has created on the competitive window was underscored by swings and misses last winter on free agents Tyler Chatwood (three years, $38 million) and Yu Darvish (six/$126 million).

When they got Darvish for what was considered a market discount late in the free agent season, they certainly didn’t expect they’d be doubling down on $20 million starters less than a year later.

But when Darvish’s first season with the club fizzled out in fifth-inning meltdowns and an escalating issue with his elbow, in came Cole Hamels, who pitched well enough after a July trade to compel the Cubs to exercise his $20 million option as insurance against Darvish in 2019.

And, in all likelihood, gone was any chance to go big this this winter, much less to go after the likes of Bryce Harper.

 

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