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updated: 6/17/2017 7:45 PM

Already making it big: Cubs' last 4 first-round picks look back

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  • The Chicago Cubs drafted Kris Bryant with the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft. Bryant is one of the last five first round picks by the Cubs to already be making an impact on the main roster.

    The Chicago Cubs drafted Kris Bryant with the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft. Bryant is one of the last five first round picks by the Cubs to already be making an impact on the main roster.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • The Chicago Cubs drafted Albert Almora Jr. with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft. Almora Jr. is one of the last five first round picks by the Cubs to already be making an impact on the main roster.

    The Chicago Cubs drafted Albert Almora Jr. with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft. Almora Jr. is one of the last five first round picks by the Cubs to already be making an impact on the main roster.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • The Chicago Cubs drafted Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft. Schwarber is one of the last five first round picks by the Cubs to already be making an impact on the main roster.

    The Chicago Cubs drafted Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft. Schwarber is one of the last five first round picks by the Cubs to already be making an impact on the main roster.
    Associated Press

  • The Chicago Cubs drafted Ian Happ with the ninth overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft. Happ, the most recent first-rounder to make the main roster, is one of the last five draftees from the first round to make it to the big leagues.

    The Chicago Cubs drafted Ian Happ with the ninth overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft. Happ, the most recent first-rounder to make the main roster, is one of the last five draftees from the first round to make it to the big leagues.
    Associated Press

 
 

One came in at the beginning of the Chicago Cubs' rebuilding project and wound up standing in the middle of a champagne frenzy to celebrate its culmination.

Then there was the coveted college hitter with the beautiful right-handed swing.

Another player built a bond with a special scout and went on to postseason glory.

Yet another knew the Cubs were on to something big when they drafted him.

They all were first-round draft picks, and each made it to the majors with the Cubs. The team's last five first-rounders, from 2011-15, are on the big-league roster.

Javier Baez was drafted by the previous regime in 2011. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod took over in the fall of 2011 with the OK from ownership to rebuild the organization from the lowest levels of the minor leagues on up.

The primary route was the amateur draft. With the 2017 draft having just concluded, I wondered what the days and weeks leading to draft day were like for the current Cubs big-leaguers: Were they nervous? Did they play the mock-draft game? Who from the organization called to say, "Welcome to the Cubs?"

It's not just about the players, though, as scouting-and-player-development chief McLeod reminded me.

"More than anything, who I'm most happy to talk to is the scout that did the work because these guys fight so hard for their players," McLeod said recently. "They're gone from their families. They're putting all the miles on the road, all the things you guys (in the media) know about. So when they get the player that they were really fighting for and who they want, the phone call with the scout is really the most gratifying."

Here's a glimpse of what it was like for the first four No. 1 picks of the Epstein organization.

The ground-floor guy:

Albert Almora Jr. was the first player the current Cubs baseball-operations crew took, using the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft.

That season, the Cubs were on the way to a record of 61-101 at the big-league level.

"I had the stamp that I was Theo's first guy, but I really didn't think about it that way," Almora said, referring to team president Epstein. "There was always questions of: 'Do you feel pressure?' I'm like: 'No, there's no pressure.' I had to go out and be me. That was it."

A high-school standout, Almora had the option of playing for the University of Miami.

"I knew I was going to play baseball no matter what, either pro ball or at the university," he said. "I thought it was a win-win for me."

Almora was a big winner as he played in the Game 7 victory in last year's World Series.

"That was a special moment because I remember speaking to Theo and Jed (GM Hoyer) and Jason before I got drafted saying I want to be part of the team that gets to the World Series, to break all that history. To be a part of it was pretty special.

"I was an 18-year-old kid getting an opportunity to play for a major-league team. I was obviously super excited. I'm not going to lie. The history of Chicago, it put a bigger smile on my face."

No question about it:

As the 2013 draft approached, the big question was about pitching. Mark Appel of Stanford and Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma were the hot names, and the Cubs could have one of them depending on what the Houston Astros did at No. 1.

When the Astros took Appel, the Cubs bypassed Gray for a hitter: Kris Bryant of the University of San Diego. Gray went to the Rockies at No. 3.

Really, it was not a surprise. Even at that time in the rebuilding process, the Cubs had signaled their intent to draft hitters high.

"Obviously, it's an honor to go with the first pick," Bryant said. "It would be pretty cool. I was looking at the first three, and I was like, 'The Cubs would be THE best team for me. I would love it. Spring training in Arizona.' I looked at all the (minor-league) affiliates and was like, 'Man, this is a place I could see myself becoming really good at.

"Going into the draft, I didn't know the Cubs were going to pick me. Honestly, I thought it was going to be the Rockies because you heard about the Cubs needing pitching, and I was following along. I was like, 'Man, it's not going to be them.' But it was them. I grew up watching Cubs games on WGN, and with family in the Chicago area it was a dream come true.

"It's worked out way better than I could have ever imagined."

Remembering Stan:

Kyle Schwarber wasn't nervous at all on Draft Day 2014.

"I played golf that day and just tried to keep my mind off it," he said. "I was able to end up getting picked by the Cubs. It was an exciting time."

Schwarber, a catcher out of Indiana University, was the fourth overall pick.

"It was a mix of everything," he said of his feelings then. "You were eager but I had a little bit of bitterness because we just got knocked out of the tournament. But it was an exciting time. I didn't really look at the draft board. I got the information, and I knew that it could be a possibility to go to the Cubs, or it could be lower. I just went in with an open mind."

Schwarber knew the Cubs were interested. He was scouted by the legendary Stan Zielinski, a Winfield resident who died last January.

"Theo called me, and I talked to him," Schwarber said of when the Cubs took him. "I talked to Stan Zielinski, who was a big part of that. Those were calls you're not going to forget.

"Stan was just a great guy. He would call me every other week just to see how I was doing, and when I got drafted. He was old-school. He loved his job.

"He knew what kind of player they were. He did his job on that, but he also wanted to get to know the player as a person. He was a straight shooter, and that's what I really loved about Stan. I feel like a lot of people, definitely in the scouting world, could take a lot of what he did."

Despite his struggles at the plate this season, things have gone well for Schwarber. He hit a home run that landed on top of the right-field videoboard at Wrigley Field to help the Cubs knock the Cardinals out of the 2015 division series. He came back from serious knee surgery and willed his way onto the team for the World Series last year.

"That was the team I wanted to go to," he said. "I'm not saying that just because I'm here. I remember I had the meeting with Theo and Jason McLeod. We had the same beliefs, and talking with Stan, we would have our conversations, and he believed in me. It was like the only organization I really wanted to go to. When I was called at fourth, it was all excitement."

The latest to make it:

When the Cubs took Ian Happ with the ninth overall pick out of the University of Cincinnati in 2015, they were on their way.

The big-league club called up Bryant in April and was on its way to a 97-win season, "a year ahead of schedule," as the narrative went.

Happ felt he was joining them right on time.

"I was done playing college ball because we didn't make it to the conference tournament," he said. "So I had a lot of time to keep working and do a couple of pre-draft workouts. I was focused on a few teams that I had an opportunity to go to that were looking for a college hitter.

"It was definitely an exciting time. It's everything you've worked for, the start of your professional career. It was definitely a fun time."

Happ made his big-league debut last month and got off to a hot start. He hit a grand slam in the recent New York series.

It's probably not too far from what he envisioned when the Cubs selected him in 2015.

"Oh, yeah, I was really excited," he said. "It was the middle of '15 when everything was starting to turn, KB dominating and everybody was clicking. The division at that time was really good, but they were playing good baseball. Just to get into an organization that was on the rise, that was doing well, that had a lot of young guys, was great."

• Twitter: @BruceMiles2112

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