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Ian Happ still remembers what it was like to get drafted.
He remembers the feeling of knowing his hard work had led to that moment. He remembers being at home with his family to celebrate hearing his name called. He even remembers his first phone call being from one of the Cubs’ media relations staffers.
What he didn’t realize at the time was, in his words, “how lucky I was to be drafted by this organization.”
“Kind of when you’re going through the process, you watch baseball your whole life, you know teams, you have your favorites or whatever,” Happ said, “but until you’re in it, you really don’t understand how special it is to be drafted by an organization like this, with the history, with this place as your office every day.”
Back in 2015, the Cubs selected Happ with their first-round pick, ninth overall. Happ was the last in what would turn out to be a strong string of Cubs top-10 selections, which turned out All-Stars Javier Báez (No. 9 in 2011), Kris Bryant (No. 2 in 2013), Kyle Schwarber (No. 4 in 2014) and Happ (first-time All-Star this season), while Albert Almora Jr. (No. 6 in 2012) had probably the most important tag-up in franchise history. Just months after Happ was drafted, the Cubs made the playoffs for the first time in what would be a run of five postseason appearances in six years.
Little did he know that by July 31, 2021, he would be the only one from that group left on the North Side, with Schwarber and Almora being non-tendered in December 2020 and Báez and Bryant getting traded at the deadline last year. That all coincided with end of the Cubs’ run of success, and just like that they found themselves picking at No. 7 in Sunday’s MLB Draft.
Expectations are high for top-10 draftees. A majority of the Cubs’ last core was made up of first-round picks. As the last player the Cubs selected in the top 10, Happ did have a bit of advice Sunday morning for the player to be drafted later.
“I’d just say, whoever we get, be pretty grateful that this is where you get to come to work,” Happ said.
As simple as that is, it’s already something that Cade Horton, a right-handed pitcher out of the University of Oklahoma, is feeling since he was taken by the Cubs with the seventh-overall pick Sunday night.
“I had a few talks with my agent and the Cubs were definitely on the radar. I just didn’t know where,” Horton said via a Zoom call with Chicago media members. “My reaction (is) it’s crazy. It doesn’t feel real. I’m just so blessed to be in this position and ready to get to work.”
Horton was something of a surprise pick. The Cubs had been tied to a few of the high school and college bats who were projected to be there when they were on the clock. Plus, Horton — who was ranked No. 24 on MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings — missed the entire 2021 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, started this season as the Sooners’ third baseman, didn’t take the mound again until March 29 and didn’t start a game until April 14. However, two things Cubs vice president of scouting, Dan Kantrovitz, said when he met with reporters last week hinted that this could be the direction he was thinking.
One, Kantrovitz himself said pitchers were starting to get more buzz: “I think it’s been widely publicized that the quote-unquote ‘strength’ of the draft class is there’s a lot of high school hitters that are projected to go high, whether or not that comes to fruition. Time will tell, but I think as it’s unfolded, there’s probably been more pitchers that have percolated to the top of teams’ draft boards.”
And two, Kantrovitz said players recovering from Tommy John surgery weren’t off the table: “We can’t rule out any demographic or player class. There could be a really good player that for one reason or another was unlucky and is recovering or is about to undergo Tommy John surgery or another surgery. I don’t think that can really change the way we evaluate them. … There’s some pretty good players out there each year that end up having Tommy John surgery, so I think if we ended up ruling out that entire class of players, we’d be missing out on some pretty good ones.”
So, if you read into the tea leaves, maybe you could’ve predicted the Horton pick. But then again, it wasn’t until recently that the Cubs themselves really zeroed in on him.
Horton and the Cubs were on each other’s radars back in early 2020, when Kantrovitz and area scout Ty Nichols visited Horton at his home as he was deciding between going to college or entering the Draft. He was a prep star in baseball and football, and he committed to Oklahoma for the opportunity to continue in both.
Horton wouldn’t be convinced to go straight to the pros, but eventually, the stars would realign for both Horton and the Cubs this year.
Though Horton only just completed his sophomore season, because the draft was moved back to start Sunday — within 45 days of Horton’s 21st birthday on Aug. 20 — he became age-eligible. All that needed to happen for Horton was to prove he was recovered from his surgery and could pitch at the level the Cubs were looking for.
That wasn’t immediately the case. Horton began the season as an infielder and designated hitter while Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson eased him into things before he went back to the mound at the end of March. Between three relief appearances and six starts, Horton struggled. His ERA sat at 7.94 after he allowed eight earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings at Texas Tech on May 21.
“If you would’ve asked me two months ago if Cade Horton was going to be a top target on the roadmap, I might’ve been a little skeptical,” Kantrovitz said on a Zoom call with reporters following the conclusion of Day 1.
That became the turning point in Horton’s season.
“I felt like guys were really getting to the fastball and sitting on one pitch, either the breaking ball or the fastball, and once they got it, they were just hammering it, Horton said. “After that start [against the Red Raiders], I was like, ‘I got to do something different.'”
At first, Horton learned a cutter grip from former big leaguer Brett Eibner, who has a relationship with Johnson and happened at the bullpen when Horton was throwing. Horton threw it in the bullpen and said it was all right, but “it really wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do.” Horton was set to throw in the Big 12 championship game against Texas, and while the Sooners were in Arlington, Texas, for the Big 12 tournament, Horton found himself talking to teammate Ben Abram.
“I was like, ‘I’m trying to learn this pitch,’ and he was like, ‘Come play catch with me for like 10 minutes and I’ll help you with it,'” Horton recalled. “And so that’s what we did. He told me to lock out my wrist. He originally was going to teach me a cutter, but it kind of turned into a slider. I threw it in the bullpen. It looked really good.”
So good, in fact, that Horton felt comfortable enough to throw it in the Big 12 championship against the Longhorns. In that game, Horton struck out what was then a career-high nine batters in 5 1/3 innings. He then recorded eight strikeouts in the NCAA Regionals on June 5 against Florida and eight more in the Super Regionals against Virginia Tech on June 12.
What followed were two performances in Omaha, Nebraska, that may have sealed the deal for the Cubs. In Game 2 of bracket play in the College World Series against Notre Dame on June 19, Horton punched out 11 hitters in six innings. A week later, Horton set new career-highs in strikeouts (13), innings (7 1/3) and pitches (107) while nearly leading his team to a winner-takes-all Game 3 against Ole Miss in the College World Series Finals.
“It was awesome,” Horton said. “In Omaha, that crowd is crazy. It’s awesome to be able to be on that stage. You talk about adrenaline. I think I wanted to calm myself down more than anything, just so I could focus on taking it one pitch at a time and just hitting a target and focusing on what I want to do with that certain pitch.”
“[You] witness the trajectory of somebody like that and just how much he improved, how easily he was able to pick up another pitch and all that piecing it all together,” Kantrovitz said. “He’s just an athlete with a high aptitude with, clearly, a pretty great arm.”
For a college pitcher without much of a track record (just 53 2/3 total innings at the college level), Horton knows there’s still work to do.
To go along with a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and can hit 98 mph (per MLB Pipeline), a low-80s curveball and his new wipeout slider, Horton said he wants to focus on developing his changeup. Of course, he also still has to sign a deal (his slot value is $5,708,000, per MLB.com, but the Cubs are expected to sign him to an under-slot deal), and Kantrovitz said it might be “a little unrealistic” to expect any signings to come before 5-7 days.
But Horton said he’s ready to get to work as soon as he can, and knowing how far he’s come in a year, the Cubs are confident that’ll lead to impressive results.
“His performance throughout the year continuously improved, which was consistent with the timeline of somebody coming back from Tommy John surgery,” Kantrovitz said. “I think what we started to see towards the end, his performance in Omaha in the College World Series was indicative of the Cade Horton that we’re going to see in the future.
“I also don’t think we’ve seen the best of him.”
Here are the rest of the Cubs’ draft picks
Round 2 (47th overall): LHP Jackson Ferris, IMG Academy (FL)
Round 3 (86th overall): SS Christopher Paciolla, Temecula Valley HS (CA)
Round 4 (113th overall): RHP Nazier Mulé, Passaic Technical HS (NJ)
Round 5 (143rd overall): RHP Brandon Birdsell, Texas Tech
Round 6 (173rd overall): RHP Will Frisch, Oregon State
Round 7 (203rd overall): RHP Nick Hull, Grand Canyon
Round 8 (233rd overall): RHP Mason McGwire, Capistrano Valley HS (CA)
Round 9 (263rd overall): RHP Connor Noland, Arkansas
Round 10 (293rd overall): RHP Brody McCullough, Wingate
Round 11 (323rd overall): LHP Branden Noriega (no school listed)
Round 12 (353rd overall): RHP Mathew Peters, Ivy Tech Fort Wayne
Round 13 (383rd overall): RHP Luis Rujano, Sunshine State Elite Academy (FL)
Round 14 (413th overall): RHP Shane Marshall, Georgia
Round 15 (443rd overall): C Haydn McGeary, Colorado Mesa
Round 16 (473rd overall): RHP JP Wheat, Next Level Academy (AL)
Round 17 (503rd overall): OF Andy Garriola, Old Dominion
Round 18 (533rd overall): RHP Garrett Brown, Georgia
Round 19 (563rd overall): RHP Brock Blatter, Billings Central Catholic HS (MT)
Round 20 (593rd overall): OF Ke’Shun Collier, Meridian Community College (MS)
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