Cubs pitching development may be put to test
The Cubs completed the MLB Draft on Tuesday by selecting 20 players.
This year's draft was shorter than usual, but four times the size of the pandemic-shortened, five-round draft of 2020.
The shorter draft turned scouts into salesmen as teams hustled to sign the large pool of undrafted players. One of the Cubs' free-agent additions already is starring in Iowa and could make a big-league appearance soon.
Right-handed pitcher Ben Leeper began the season with Tennessee and was quickly promoted to Iowa. In his first 10 games at Triple A, Leeper hasn't allowed a hit in 12 innings. He's been hitting 98 miles per hour on the radar gun, and between Iowa and Tennessee, has 42 strikeouts in 26 innings pitched.
"He was probably our No. 1 target," said Cubs scouting director Dan Kantrovitz. "We spent a lot of time and put a lot of energy and a lot of people helped in the process of identifying and ultimately the non-drafted free agents.
"Ben was somebody we were considering drafting. Then when it didn't work out that way, he became a top target and effectively like our sixth rounder."
Leeper, a Texas native, had a difficult journey to get this far. He had two Tommy John surgeries on his right elbow, appeared in just two games at Oklahoma State in 2016, then missed the entire '17 season.
After falling out of the NL Central race, the Cubs likely will be listening to offers for their top bullpen arms such as Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera before the July 30 trade deadline.
Besides Leeper, another promising reliever in the Cubs' system is Manuel Rodriguez. He recently was promoted from Tennessee to Iowa but has been on the Cubs' 40-man roster all season, a sign he's in their long-term plans. Rodriguez, 24, spent three seasons in the Mexican League before signing with the Cubs.
Between the Iowa relievers and left-hander Justin Steele transitioning to a starting role, the second half of the season could be a test run for the Cubs' revamped pitching development program. Manager David Ross has credited assistant GM Craig Breslow, a former major-league reliever, for getting the Cubs' pitching lab up and running.
Kantrovitz said the Cubs made personal videos for Leeper and some other 2020 free agents they were trying to sign, showcasing the team's pitch lab, strength and conditioning program, along with other benefits.
Some other arms to watch are left-hander Brailyn Marquez, who has yet to pitch in the minors this year due to a shoulder issue; and 2019 first-round pick Ryan Jensen, who is doing well at Single A South Bend.
Their latest first-round pick, Kansas State lefty Jordan Wicks, might be a candidate to make a quick climb through the minors.
Overall in the 2021 draft, the Cubs took six high school pitchers, five college pitchers, two high school position players and seven college position players.
Kantrovitz said there was no particular strategy involved in taking high school pitchers. He said the Cubs took some chances on Day 3 with guys who are committed to colleges and may not sign.
"I think it was more just a product of who was available at each pick," Kantrovitz said. "Going into (the third day), I wouldn't have told you our strategy was to take more pitchers than hitters. It just ended up developing that way based on who was available on the board."
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