TDG’S Triple Play: Chicago Cubs!
The Triple Play is back for a fifth season! This regular feature is broken down by senior writer Phil Barrington and he is joined by a rotating panel of some of the best Dynasty Baseball writers in the business. If you’re new to the Triple Play, this series breaks down an arm, a bat, and a prospect within each organization for your reading pleasure!
Justin Steele, Age: 27, Position: SP
Analysis by: Ryan Felix Fernandes
As a lifelong Cubs fan (insert joke here) I would love to be writing about Dylan Cease and how the only thing more glorious than that ‘stache he rocks is maybe the most unhittable pitch in the majors now which is his slider. Alas I won’t whine and cry about that right now. I save my tears for only the days he pitches.
When you look at the Cubs pitching staff as a whole you would be hard pressed to find anyone that you might want to roster on your fantasy team. The Cubs are 24th in team ERA with 4.33, opponents bat .250 against them which lands them 22nd, they give up the sixth most hits, sixth most free passes, seventh most runs, and give up the second most home runs in MLB. Not exactly what you’d expect to see for the most expensive ticket to see a game in the last three years. But about what you’d expect from a franchise in their infancy of rebuilding a broken minor league system.
Even during one of their most successful runs in franchise history the Cubs organization were unable to develop home grown pitchers which in all probability would have extended that window of championship contention. After Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were both hired in 2011 the Cubs’ First round selections of pitchers were: Pierce Johnson (2012), Paul Blackburn (2012), Brendon Little (2017), Alex Lange (2017), and Ryan Jensen (2019).
Only Little has pitched for the Cubs in the majors and has pitched 0.2 innings pitched with an ERA of 40.50 to show on the back of his baseball card. Johnson was put on waivers after the 2017 season and is currently in the Padres bullpen after bouncing around the league and Japan, Blackburn, who was an All-Star this season with Oakland after a nice first half (part of a trade package in 2016 for Mike Montgomery). Lange is in Detroit’s bullpen (part of a package traded for Nicholas Castellanos) and Ryan Jensen is not even a top-25 prospect in their organization while scuffling in the Cubs Double-A team.
Not much value from your first round investments (even though the Cubs were able to parlay Blackburn and Lange in packages to get productive players). They didn’t fare much better outside of the first round as well, with only the aforementioned Dylan Cease (drafted in the 6th round in 2014) having any success (I mean ANY) in the major leagues. In no way am I saying the Epstein era was not a success. This was just their Achilles heel and Epstein along with Hoyer both said this was their biggest blemish during that time.
The Smartest Man in Baseball Enters (Sorry Phil Barrington this isn’t about you)
Epstein to his credit realized their ineptitude in pitcher development and what many considered outdated ways to evaluate players went back to his Red Sox ties and hired Craig Breslow who was part of the 2007 champion Red Sox team. Breslow actually never pitched an inning during the postseason because he was bumped off the playoff roster to make room for Jon Lester, but still got a ring. Breslow is a Yale graduate who was recognized during his playing days as the smartest man in baseball and don’t think Epstein didn’t take notice of that when he was the Red Sox GM. Breslow was the last major hire by Epstein as Director of Strategic Initiatives as well as support the organization’s pitching infrastructure in Player Development and the major leagues. The organizational philosophy was changed right at that moment and after Epstein left in 2020. Breslow moved up the ladder each year to his current position of AGM/Vice President and President of Pitching Development. He said simply that his philosophy is catering to each pitcher individually instead of a cookie cutter type system while also focusing on each pitcher’s strengths first and foremost. This is where one of their recent success type stories comes into play.
Justin “Blue” Steele (The Zoolander of MLB)
Justin Steele started the season as a weapon for the Cubs bullpen and earned a rotation spot halfway through the season. After a couple rough starts after adjusting to being a starter he has posted very impressive numbers, especially in the last couple months. Steele credits former Cub John Lester for a new approach to hitters. Lester told good friend David Ross that Steele will find a lot more success if he pounded the inside strike zone to right handers. Since then Steele has a 1.47 ERA. In his last six starts he has had three starts with at least nine strikeouts and a 0.86 ERA. Unfortunately, for Steele the Cubs especially the bullpen has let him down during this time with still showing an under .500 record for that time, but has 3.70 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a 2.2 WAR.
Blue Steele doesn’t have a huge repertoire of pitches which really makes him the Zoolander of pitching with two pitches (looks), but know that unlike the movie these two pitches (looks) don’t look anything alike to a hitter. This season he has almost entirely relied on his four seam fastball and wipeout slider (that is maybe only one tier below Cease’s). This is where the new pitching philosophy for the organization comes into play. In some organizations Steele might not have been given an opportunity to pitch in the majors for this reason. But, because Breslow goes with focusing on making the pitcher’s strengths even stronger. Steele has been able to develop this slider for the past two seasons which has resulted in a negative eight run value and a 9.5 wSL value this season which is near an elite (Blue Steele) clip. Even with only these two pitches his (Ferrari look) four seamer is still in the 94th percentile when it comes to barrel rate so he still keeps hitters off balance with when he throws either pitch. In the off-season Steele is planning on working on his developing pitches which consist of a changeup, sinker, and curve, but right now, the Cubs organization don’t want to over-complicate anything for the rest of the season.
What to worry about is Steele is currently on the IL with back issues and has surpassed his career high in innings pitched which was barely 100 innings. Not a good sign that his body is breaking down a little at that threshold, but he is still only 27 so he should be able to withstand another total innings pitched uptick next season. The Cubs will likely keep his starts and innings limited for the rest of the season. Steele can be a point getter for your fantasy team if the Cubs start to invest and develop players around him for run support. He is still risky when it comes to longevity because of his limited pitching repertoire and more tape for opposing hitters to study but, if he is able to develop at least one more above average pitch a la his magnum to go with his elite “Blue Steele” slider and very good “Ferrari” four seamer he is someone you should look to draft for next year. Sorry I didn’t see Zoolander 2 so I don’t know how this story will end.
Seiya Suzuki, Age: 27, Position: OF
Analysis by: Phil Barrington
Sweet Home, Chicago
When you get to write about your favorite team, especially with a fellow fan (that’s Ryan), even though that fellow fan sometimes is cold-blooded (said in Rick James’ voice), you get excited. I did not foresee the Cubs signing Suzuki, figuring the Padres, Mariners, Yankees, Angels, some other, better, team would ink the Japanese slugger. But sign him they did, on March 18th, for five years and $85 million, buying up his prime years at a (relatively) reasonable cost of a star.
On a Mission from God
Suzuki entered the major leagues after dominating in Japan; as such, there was a lot of hype surrounding his arrival. He was the first player taken in many FYPD (I did so in two Dynasty leagues). Suzuki could not have started the season out any hotter, with an April line of .279/.405/.529, four homers and 27 Runs +RBI.
Blues Brothers 2000
Then May 1st happened, and he was much less effective, slashing only .211/.278/.338 with one homer. On May 26th he jammed his left ring finger on a slide, and was out until Independence Day (that’s 38 calendar days). Maybe the Cubs were being extra-cautious, knowing they wouldn’t compete, and let him get fully healed. Since he returned, over the past two months, Suzuki has a .271/.324/.407 slash line, with six homers, five steals, and 42 Runs + RBI; those aren’t bad numbers, good for a 105 wRC+, but its barely better than league average. The Cubs are going to need a lot more than that if Suzuki is going to be the cornerstone they are paying him to be.
We’re putting the band back together
The Cubs cut Jason Heyward recently, basically closing the door on the promise that the 2016 World Series Champs (I still can’t believe, after being a fan my whole life, that they actually won the freakin’ World Series) had. The team does not have a superstar, and stars are even harder to see on this middling team. Putting a band together with some good players is not going to be easy, but it will be made a lot easier if they can count on Suzuki as one of those stars.
Suzuki’s final line in his last season in Japan was .317/.433/.640 with 38 home runs and 88 RBIs in 132 games, leading the league in homers and On Base Percentage. This season, in 94 games, he has ten homers, eight steals, and is slashing .260/.332/.417 with only 83 Runs + RBI. The Cubs hit him all over the lineup, from the two spot most recently, to third or fourth, but never lower than sixth. The Cubs need him to use those on base skills in the top third of the order to be successful.
I put down 1060 West Addison
I saw Suzuki as a 20/20 guy coming into the season, with at least a .275 average and .350 OBP, and I think he can still do that in a healthy season. His baseball savant page Percentiles ranking shows a lot of pink, and where it is red is a positive sign for higher OBP and steals. His spray chart shows a hitter that uses the whole field.
We will see how he finishes down the stretch, but the off-season may provide a solid buy low opportunity for those in Dynasty leagues. He has the upside to be a top-10 outfielder, and with full health he should get there next season. I am holding in the leagues I have him, and will send out some feelers once we finish the season.
Jackson Ferris, Age: 18, Position: LHP, Level: High School
Analysis by: Ken Balderston
“Bueller….. Bueller….. Bueller……”
The Cubs went incredibly pitching heavy in this year’s first-year player draft, selecting 12 pitchers in their first 13 picks, including Ferris in the second round, #47 overall out of IMG Academy. There was some draft value here, as Prospect Pipeline had Ferris ranked as the 19th best prospect available pre-draft, and Prospects Live ranked him 27th. Part of the reason Jackson fell deep into the second round, could have been tied to his signing demands, but the Cubs did convince him to put pen to paper and sign for $3.01 million, nearly double the pick’s slot value.
“They all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude!”
At 6’4” and 195 lbs and only 18 years old, Ferris still has plenty of projection left to his body. While not every prospect grows into their projection, Jackson has the build to continue to grow and potentially add some strength. He throws from a high ¾’s arm angle helped by somebody bend through delivery, and some nice extension at release. His mechanics are complicated, but repeatable, especially with the fastball, but could become more consistent in the release point of his secondary offerings.
Ferris’ best pitch is his fastball, which touches 97 mph, but sits consistently at 94-95 even deeper into games. He’s consistent with its location and can hit the black on either side of the plate with good late movement. His curveball is a 12-6 breaker that he throws mid to upper 70s, which can sometimes be loopy and inconsistent, but does show the potential to be an above-average major league pitch. His changeup is thrown in the mid-80s with good fade, but as is so common with prep pitchers, needs some consistency and better presentation to play off the fastball, but is farther advanced than most prep changes. In fact, Baseball America ranked Ferris’ changeup the 4th best among prep pitchers available in the past year’s FYPD, so there is potential. All three pitches project to be above average to plus, flashing how good they can be at times, and it’s realistic to think they’ll all get there.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
The Cubs decided not to send Ferris out against pro competition after the draft, at least not somewhere I could find any pro stats for him. In high school, Ferris put up video game numbers with a 1.03 ERA, 189 strikeouts, and a 0.69 WHIP in 103 innings. While I’d never suggest getting wrapped up in high school stats, it’s better that Ferris faced more advanced competition at IMG Academy than some smaller high schools out there. Overall Ferris has the ceiling of a #2 or #3 starter. I don’t see a ton for him to fix here and feel he could move fairly quickly through the system. A lot of attention will be focused on the bats selected in this past year’s FYPD, but Jackson Ferris will be one of the great values likely outside the top 30 fantasy picks.