In my opinion, Theo Epstein did very well in his first draft with the Chicago Cubs. He took the best player available with the team’s first selection, then, as many expected, loaded up on pitching. If you take a closer look at most of the picks, you will notice a common theme among them. Aside form the talent, Theo chose players with high character and high understanding of the game. Guys who have that advanced feel for the game as well as high upsides. The team should be able to sign most of these players, and with the organization in full rebuilding mode, bring them along slowly to fully develop their games. Here are some of the best picks from their draft. All 40 selections can be seen here.
Round 1, pick 6
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Albert Almora, CF, Mater HS (FL)
Word is the Cubs would’ve taken Almora if they had the number-one overall pick, that is how much they coveted him. For good reason, too, as the 6’-2”, 180-pound right-hander is one of the most polished and mature high school players you will ever see. Playing in Florida has its advantages when it comes to baseball. The warm weather allows for year-long baseball, some of the best competition is in the state and a lot of the big-name summer events and showcases take place there. Almora capitalized on all of those advantages.
He has been a member of Team USA Baseball since he was 13 years old, a record six times in total. He capped off his remarkable run with the team by being named MVP at the 2011 COPABE Pan Am Championships held in Cartagena, Colombia, last fall. He helped lead the team to a 9-0 record by hitting .421 (16-for-38) and lead the team with 11 runs, five doubles, 11 RBI and nine stolen bases. He has also participated in countless Perfect Game Baseball events and was named a first-team underclassmen, both as a sophomore and junior.
He hit .603 this season, with five triples, six home runs, 34 RBI, 27 stolen bases and a 1.831 OPS over 25 games. Although he doesn’t necessarily stand out in one particular area, he has across-the-board talent and is a true five-tool player. The speed isn’t off the charts, but he has the instincts and is aggressive enough on the base paths to be a 20-30 base stealer at the next level. His speed allows him to cover a lot of ground in the outfield, and mixed with his strong arm and instincts, will be able to stick at center field. His swing is compact and he squares up well, showing the ability to be a high-average hitter. The power isn’t great right now, mostly a gap hitter to all fields. His frame, however, suggests he could fill out as he gets older. And if he does, watch out.
Round 1A, pick 43 (Carlos Pena compensation)
Pierce Johnson, RHP, Missouri State
Johnson is a player I followed closely over the college season. He had a strong finish to his sophomore season in 2011, and many hoped he would have continued success this year. He was 6-5 with a 4.76 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and 72 K/34 BB over 75.2 innings in 2011, but finished with a 2.36 ERA and 55 strikeouts over his final 53.1 innings. The 6”-3”, 180-pound right-hander was one of the best pitchers in college this season, and got better after a mild forearm strain caused him to miss a couple of starts. Over 14 games, he posted a 2.53 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 119 K/28 BB over 99.2 innings. Over his four starts after the injury, he had a 1.36 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 34 K/5 BB over 33 innings, showing no ill effects, and once again, closing the season strong.
He features a fastball that sits in the 92-94 mph range with good movement and can maintain velocity late in games. His out pitch is a hard curve that is plus at times. His change-up is still developing but looks to be a solid pitch at the next level. Johnson has great mound presence and attacks hitters while keeping the ball in the zone. He is not going to be an ace of a staff, but looks like a two or three starter with high strikeout totals and low walks. He also keeps the ball down in the zone, making him a groundball pitcher, something that is key to having success at Wrigley Field.
Round 1A, pick 56 (Aramis Ramirez compensation)
Paul Blackburn, RHP, Heritage HS (CA)
Blackburn was listed number 50 among high school prospects by ESPN coming into the season. After going 10-3 with a 0.93 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 100 K/18 BB over 83 innings, his stock rose even higher. The 6’-2”, 180-pound right-hander is a lot like Johnson with his pitching repertoire. His fastball sits comfortably in the 91-93 mph range, and both his curveball and change-up are above average right now. The difference between the two is that Blackburn still has a lot more room to grow and has more upside due to him being almost three years younger. He has great command now, and with his smooth delivery and ability to stay within the strike zone at such an early age, his command will only get better. Over his high school career, he went 24-8 with a 1.07 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 241 K/48 BB over 201.2 innings. This is an intelligent baseball player who could have three plus pitches in a couple of years and be a front-line starter for the Cubs, something they have been lacking in their organization for some time now.
Round 2, pick 67
Duane Underwood, RHP, Pope HS (GA)
Underwood, a 6’-2”, 180-pound right-hander came into this season with first-round aspirations. He was rated number 33 among all draft eligible players by Jim Callis at Baseball America, and the number 26 high school prospect by ESPN. After an up and down (mostly down) senior season, he had fallen out of the top 100 by Baseball America. His fastball, which had been touching 96-97 mph over the winter, was sitting in the 87-92 mph range for most of the spring. His curveball was soft and wasn’t biting like it once did. He then finished the season strong, regularly touching 96-97 mph again over his last couple of starts. He is a risk-reward pick here, but if he lives up to the potential, the Cubs got a steal here. Underwood is a high-character kid with a good make up both on and off the field, so hopes are high he can maintain his consistency with proper development.
Round 3, pick 101
Ryan McNeil, RHP, Nipomo HS (CA)
McNeil is a 6’-3, 215-pound power pitcher who is only going to get bigger, and his fastball already touches 94 mph. He had a 1.41 ERA with 94 K/21 BB over 57.1 innings this season, and over his high school career, had 269 strikeouts over 217.2 innings. He has an above-average slider right now and his change-up is still developing, common for a high school pitcher. He needs to work on his command as he also allowed 99 walks over his career. The Cubs continued to pursue starting pitching, and McNeil is another aggressive pitcher with a lot of upside.
Round 4, pick 134
Josh Conway, RHP, Coastal Carolina
Conway was a two-way player for Coastal Carolina before deciding on sticking to the mound full time this season. Over nine starts, he went 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 50 K/18 BB over 54.2 innings. He then suffered an elbow injury which required Tommy John surgery, thus ending his season. This is a smart move by the Cubs as Conway was thought to be a potential second-round pick before the injury. They can now be patient with him, and let him rehab and develop as they rebuild. Before the injury, he was hitting the mid-90s with his fastball and his slider was his wipe-out pitch, with sharp, two-plane break. A lot of pitchers these days come back stronger after having Tommy John surgery so his upside is sky high.
Round 8, pick 254
Michael Heesch, RHP, South Carolina Beaufort
Heesch was born in Crystal Lake, IL, and grew up a Cubs fan. The 6’-5” right-hander is a supreme control pitcher who had a 9K/BB ratio this season. Through 18 starts, he went 9-3 with a 2.21 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 118 K/13 BB over 122.1 innings. His fastball sits in the low-90s and his slider is above average. His change-up is still developing, and while he could end up in the bullpen, his 122.1 innings was tops among NAIA players this season, showing the stamina that could keep him in the rotation if he continues to develop his secondary stuff. There isn’t a whole lot of upside with Heesch, but he is a big body who could eat up innings as a starter, or be a bull out of the bullpen down the road.
Round 12, pick 374
Justin Amlung, RHP, Louisville
Amlung was one of the top pitchers in college this season and made the Golden Spikes watch list for the top amateur collegiate player in the country. Over 16 starts, he went 9-4 with a 2.31 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 105 K/26 BB over 109 innings. He starred at the 2011 Cape Cod Baseball League, going 3-1 with a 1.76 ERA, while allowing just 22 hits over 41 innings. The 6’-1”, 180-pound right-hander isn’t overpowering but throws all of his pitches for strikes and mixes them well to keep hitters off balance. Could be a nice back-of-the-rotation starter, or a situational righty out of the bullpen, depending on his progress.
Round 25, pick 764
Rhett Wiseman, OF, Buckingham Browne & Nicholls HS (MA)
Now, before I tell you how great of a player and person Wiseman is, let me just say that there is very little chance he will ever wear a Cubs uniform, unless of course they draft him again in the first round in 2015. The reason the Cubs were even able to select him this low was mostly because of the words, “Committed to Vanderbilt” next to his name. Those words may scare off teams more than seeing the words, “Represented by Scott Boras.” Just ask the Toronto Blue Jays, who were the only team to not sign their first round draft pick, Tyler Beede, last year. Wiseman is a 6’-2”, 200-pound left-hander with elite speed and developing plus power. He is a true center field prospect and has sky high potential. But he is off to Vanderbilt, sorry.