Jason McLeod, the Cubs Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting, joined Bruce Levine and Jordan Bernfield at the top of the final half hour of Saturday’s Inside the Clubhouse (670 The Score).
Jason McLeod talked about Pierce Johnson, David Garner, Carl Edwards Jr., Duane Underwood Jr. and many of the young pitchers down on the farm, plus the importance of versatility and self-scouting.
The Cubs Minor League Player of the Year, Willson Contreras, has created quite the buzz and McLeod did not hold back praise for one of the top catching prospects in the game.
On the Cubs players participating in the Arizona Fall League and the pitchers in the system
“Like you mentioned Pierce Johnson is probably one of our bigger names in the upper levels right now. Unfortunately for Pierce he’s had to battle some injuries the past couple of years that are non-arm related. He’s had hamstring and lower back issues that have kept him out and not allowed him to pitch full innings the last two years, which is unfortunate because when he’s been on the mound at Double-A he’s numbers have been very good. He’s a low-90s guy with a really good breaking ball. His changeup has developed really well over the last couple of years. We sent him out to the Fall League to get some extra innings in under his belt. And things are going well. Big thing for him right now is to go into 2016 ready to pitch a full year. Like I said, nothing has been arm related. That’s the good thing. We just need him to make all of his starts next year.”
“You mentioned David Garner getting some innings out there. He’s a reliever that we drafted a couple of years ago. We really like how the ball comes out of his hand. He’s a mid-90s guy with another hard slider that can miss bats. Corey Black is a kid that’s out there that we got in the [Alfonso] Soriano trade. He’s another guy that has big stuff coming out, more of a reliever. He’s been starting early in his minor league career. We moved him to the bullpen this year. We really like how he attacks hitters. The numbers weren’t great this year with Tennessee but he’s a guy that’s a high energy guy. Like I said he can get a lot of swings and misses, especially from left-handed hitters, which is what we like when you have a righty that can miss the barrels from left-handed bats.”
“Throughout the organization the position players and the hitters, rightfully so, have gotten a lot of the attention obviously with what Kris [Bryant] and Kyle [Schwarber] and some of the guys have done, but we really like the depth and the volume that we have. We are really excited about the lower level pitching, some of the guys that will be in South Bend and Myrtle Beach next year. We are hoping now that we’ve been at this for three or four drafts under our belts that with the volume of arms that we have taken that you are going to start seeing some of those guys breakthrough here in the next year or two.”
On Theo Epstein’s comments during his end of season press conference about the young starting pitching on the farm and who are the guys the Cubs are looking to take the next step in order for them to be in the big league in the next year or two
“In the upper levels, next year we really hope and expect good things from Duane Underwood. At the upper levels he’s probably got the biggest upside right now from our starting pitchers. He’s a guy that pitched at Myrtle Beach last year. Another kid with a big arm …”
Bruce Levine: “How’s Underwood’s health, Jason?”
“Good, good. He actually threw in this … there was an Advanced Instructional League that was run out in Arizona this year. He went out there to get some extra innings under his belt because he did miss some time in the summer. He’s healthy. Knock on wood, things have gone very well for him over the last month, month and a half and he’s a starter that sits at 94-96. The thing with him is his consistency with his off-speed stuff. He’ll flash with a plus-changeup. He’ll flash with a plus-breaking ball. He throws strikes but now has he gets, probably what will be a Double-A setting next year, we really want to see that next step taken from him. He’s a guy to be really excited about. Like I mentioned that group that will likely be at South Bend. You might be staring at Dylan Cease, Carson Sands, Justin Steele. We have a kid named Oscar De La Cruz, who is just a real big physical guy that was in the Northwest League and another hard-thrower, strike-thrower. And then the group that was in Myrtle Beach that I think collectively they pitched very well there this past year. Jen-Ho Tseng, who was our Minor League Pitcher of the Year last year, not a huge power guy but kind of almost like a Kyle Hendricks of sorts, maybe with a little more fastball velocity, a young man that really pitch and pitch to a scouting report and get his off-speed stuff over for strikes. Collectively, I think with the volume of guys that we have I like the chances to have a few guys breakthrough for us.”
On the Cubs having really good young players that play multiple positions and how does the front office evaluate them considering they are developing at the Major League level
“I think it’s always a conversation when you are evaluating players and their strengths and weaknesses and what they can just do. We talk about baseball athleticism and we’re pretty fortunate that we have baseball athletes in the organization. Whether it’s a guy like Kris Bryant, who you can move all over the field, and guys like Javy [Javier Baez] when you watch him run around in the outfield, he looks so natural at multiple positions. You guys have seen him up here play third, short, second. Down in the minor leagues he’ll go shag fly balls during BP and he just looks like his natural position is out in the outfield when he’s out there. Those things are great for us, obviously to have the versatility. A guy who really struggled this year, people of kind of forgotten about because of the bad year that he had, is [Arismendy] Alcantara. That player that is such a good athlete that you can play at different positions is such a boom for the organization to have those types of guys. We are fortunate here that we do have multiple players like that and it is a conversation that we have as we project out and we start talking about the Major League roster and how Joe [Maddon], especially how Joe likes to use his roster, so those are conversations that are always taking place.”
On Carl Edwards Jr. and does he think he’ll be able to take a step forward next year and how happy was he to see Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant have success in the majors after they were called up
“First of all with C.J. [Carl Edwards Jr.] it was a really good learning year for him just because we took him out of the starting role. Coming out of Spring Training we tried to devise a structured bullpen role for him to get used to being a reliever because we felt his stuff, especially with that fastball that he has and he’s really developed that breaking ball over the last couple of years. We felt like he could be a guy that could come up here earlier and help us out of the pen if we needed it. For him it was a great development year in learning how to be a reliever. Learning how to get ready to get up, sit back down, get back up again and go through that. For him to get up here towards the end of the year and get a taste of it, go pitch in St. Louis, I think he made his Major League debut there. It was a really good learning experience for him. And then to be around in the playoffs even though he was not on the roster to see what it’s going to be like hopefully when he is in that situation for us going forward. Good development year for him and really all the young guys. Coming up and performing the way they did and the environment they were in for a team that was pushing for the playoffs. The atmosphere was electric around the ballpark to being around [Anthony] Rizzo and some of the guys that have been through it before with the Rosses and the Lesters, couldn’t have been a better year for those guys and the fact they played such an important part of it as well helping a team win. I think when Schwarbs [Kyle Schwarber] and Kris go home this off-season and Rizzo and all of those guys, they are going to look back on it and certainly learn from it. They should be happy with what they did, but not content. It will be a good learning experience for them and I expect them to even challenge themselves more coming into 2016 and expect more out of themselves.”
The Cubs would like to hang on to the young players but realize they might have to trade some of the depth in order to add pitching this winter. On how well he thinks the Cubs know their own players and have done with self-scouting
“You really have to trust your process and your evaluations. If you have drafted them or signed them as International free agents you are going to have a lot of history and background. The most important thing, you have to know your own players. You have to feel good about projecting out what they can be or what they will be and knowing their make-up, knowing what makes them tick. Any discussion or decision that may be made when you are talking about moving a player from your own organization you have to feel good about how you have that player evaluated. Of course whenever that time comes or if it comes or not, you spend many years with these guys. You evaluate them as amateurs, get to know them as amateurs and you bring them into a system. You go through their development plans with them. It’s tough when you start talking about potentially moving guys but that’s when we all realize why we are here at the end of the day and that’s to supply the Major League team with the best talent that we possibly can to win at the Major League level. You know that’s part of the deal.”
On Willson Contreras, the Cubs Minor League Player of the Year
“He had a tremendous year. He won the batting title there in the Southern League, having a very good Fall League. The thing about Willson [Contreras] he is a, just a physical beast. He’s very strong, very athletic. He was signed as an infielder so it’s been a transition to catching now but he’s been doing it now for three years. He still has to polish up back there and learn the nuances of the game. One of the great things was he played there with Kyle [Schwarber] this year. I think it was great for Willson to be around Kyle to see how Kyle goes about his daily business. Willson picked up a lot from him and then when Schwarbs was promoted out of there, Willson kind of became the man. He’s a strong, like I said, strong and physical and he makes contact. He’s a guy that we couldn’t be happier than the year that he had. He’s a very passionate player. He cares a lot and he just continues to develop, so very excited. I am heading out to the Fall League myself in a couple of days, can’t wait to spend a week out there with him. He deserved to be our Player of the Year, just a tremendous season that he had and we’re looking forward to him going into next year.”