In the wake of the Jeff Samardjiza and Jason Hammel trade, and maybe the upcoming trades of James Russell, Wesley Wright, and/or Carlos Villanueva, I thought it would a good time to evaluate the Cubs top pitching prospects. While most prospect lists of the Cubs are filled with hitters, the Cubs do have several pitchers who occasionally make the list. At the end of last year, CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson invaded the Cubs top ten list. Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, Arodys Vizcaino, and Kyle Hendricks also saw their names in the 11-20 range. The Cubs do have pitching. They have lots of arms, and a lot of those arms are good and filled with potential. What they do lack is a “certifiable” top of the rotation prospect and left handed power arms. It would be hard to sit here and rank them from 1-20 because there are some many unknowns about their development such as injuries, command, a third pitch, and the ability to adapt at each level.
I have broken the prospects down into seven categories, starters 1-5, Relievers, and I Don’t Know. Some pitchers easily slide between numbers, while others are clear cut for their category. There are many who, either by performance, or experience, have not made it clear what they are yet. They could be a reliever, or they could be a starter.
Number Ones – A Top of the Rotation Guy
Ideally, the Top of the Rotation guys throws 95+, has some wicked off-speed stuff, a high strikeout to walk ratio, a high K/9 ratio, and a bulldog mentality. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many of those guys in the Cubs organization. In fact, Greg Maddux was not one of those guys. You can have a number one starter who has other attributes that make them a number one starter.
1. Jen-Ho Tseng does not have the best fastball in the organization. It has been seen anywhere from 88 to 94 this year. When I saw him, he was between 89-91 in his first action after a small injury. But at 19 years old and playing at Low A Kane County, he has shown two plus pitches, a changeup and a curveball. Both of his off speed offerings act as if they fall of a table and get some ugly swings. As the season has gone on, he is learning to master them – the changeup has come easier for him. The hardest part of Tseng’s season has been getting out of the first inning. With a 2.74 ERA in 62.1 innings, Tseng has 61 strikeouts. His most alarming stat is that he has only walked 8 all year. 8 … that’s it.
2. Duane Underwood is also 19 years old and is finally coming into his own. It would not surprise me to see him break the top ten prospect lists at the end of the year. Like Tseng, Underwood has a sparkling ERA at 2.59.Underwood also has struggled at getting out of the first inning. He has a 2/1 K/BB ratio but with only 48 Ks. Underwood regularly sits around 93 with fastball, sometimes touching 95. He has been working on his off speed pitches this year. He has some trouble with throwing them for strikes. But his arm speed has been outstanding. At his age, he has a lot of promise. I don’t think the Cubs are in a rush to develop him. Rather, they are taking their time with his off speed stuff. If he can develop his slider and change, he could be the guy mentioned in the definition of a number one starter.
3. Carson Sands has thrown a whopping two innings of professional baseball. He has struck out four of the six men he has faced and he likely won’t see more than one or two innings a game this year. Next year will be where we see what Sands can do. However, just based on his profile, reports, and some video I have seen, he can project to a number one if he continues to fill out. I really love what stands out on tape – an easy delivery of a 92-93 mph fastball with good secondary pitches. It is quite presumptuous of me to say he is a number one/top of the rotation starter. I get that argument that the data on him as a professional is non-existent, but I also get how smooth this kid can be. At 6’3” and 195 pounds, he does have some room to fill out, Here is a good video on him from the 2013 Under Armour Classic at Wrigley Field. You can easily see the delivery and command as well as the quality and movement on his pitches.
Twos – Maybe Threes
A number two starter for me is just a notch below a number one starter. Ideally, mid 90s, great command, a high strikeout total, innings eater, low 3 ERA, and a WHIP near 1. The Cubs have several players like that in the organization. They also have several players who could be like that. Experience and time will tell.
1. At 6’7” and 195 pounds Jefferson Mejia is a promising prospect for the AZL Cubs. Part of last summer’s international spend-a-thon, Mejia is all projection. He skipped playing the Dominican League this summer to develop in Arizona. He has not disappointed. He could even be a one depending on how he continues to fill out. His body has plenty of room to project. His fastball regularly clocks in at 93 with a plus change and developing curveball. He has worked 14 innings in rookie ball to the tune of a 1.42 ERA. He turns 20 in two weeks and I would not be surprised to see him develop slowly. If there is one thing the current regime has done is to not rush pitchers in development.
2. Trevor Clifton has some filthy stuff. He has a mid 90s fastball and quality breaking pitches. Currently, he is at short season Class A Boise. The problem is he does not have his command down yet. At Boise this year, he has either been studly or horrid. When he is on, he dominates. When he can’t get his breaking stuff over, like last night, he struggles. At 19 (notice a trend here), he is young enough to straighten those things out. Last night he battled and kept his team in the game despite not having control.
3. Pierce Johnson has shown flashes of greatness in his two years in the Cubs organization. At times, he comes across as an ace. Other times, I wonder if he will ever stay off the DL. He has had two long stints on the DL in his tenure. When he has not been on the DL, Pierce shows his low to mid 90s fastball and quality breaking pitches can be devastating weapons in his arsenal. He did well last year at Kane County and Daytona with a 2.74 ERA in 21 starts at the two levels. This year, he has made only 10 starts with a 3.48 ERA. He has either been hot or cold. The best part of his injury troubles is that they are not arm issues but rather leg issues. What I like best about Pierce is his head. The ability to throw four pitches for strikes allows him to out think his opponent as long as he can command those pitches for strikes. Walks have been his problem this year. Once he gets that down, I can see him being a two or a three for the Cubs for many years to come.
Threes – Maybe Twos
A Number three starter, in my book, is all about potential. They might have a good fastball, a good curve, but they lack a quality third or fourth pitch. All of the following pitchers could be twos down the road, but they still need that extra something to push them over the edge from a three.
1. Corey Black could be a two. Flashing a mid 90s fastball, he definitely has the arm. The problem for Black is not unlike many of the names already listed above – he has trouble with command and that is why he is still in the minor leagues. When he first came to the Cubs in the Alfonso Soriano trade, the big thing you heard about Black was that he could he throw 100 mph. As a reliever, he could do that, but not as a starter. I have watched several of his starts this year at Tennessee on MiLB TV. He does have great stuff, swing and miss stuff. Along with Johnson, he was one of the few pitchers in the Cubs stable who can tally double digit strikeouts on any given night. His problem is he has been leaving balls up and over the plate.
2. Josh Conway is a 2012 draftee out of Coastal Carolina who missed all of last year due to an injury. He is being kept on a short leash and strict pitch counts this year at Boise and he is having great results. In 5 starts, he has a dazzling 1.84 ERA with a .228 batting average against. At 23, he might be overpowering for the league, but once next year comes, I would not be surprised to see him move quickly through Class A and into AA. In fact, I would not be surprised to see him skip a level next year if he can show he is healthy this year.
3. I got to see Daury Torrez pitch the other day for Kane County and I really liked what I saw from the 6’3” righty. His long, lean frame showed a repeatable delivery with a solid 93 mph heater and an outstanding 84 mph slider with good action and command. However, he needs to develop that third pitch fully. At Class A Kane County, he can get away with not having that third pitch work all the time. When he gets to Tennessee, he is going to need it. Currently, he can miss bats, but he gets a lot of groundouts and weak fly balls to the opposite field. Very solid and very projectable and his body can still add a few more pounds which could add a couple of ticks on his fastball.
4. Dillon Maples is one of my favorite players in the Cubs system. But, he has not had the best time of it. Flashing a low to mid 90s fastball, he has struggled in the past at Kane County, gone back to Boise and dominated, returned to Kane County only to have a broken rib in spring training. He has had two outings at Arizona this summer as he works his way back to Geneva by having spring training in the middle of summer. Results have been good so far.
5. Jake Stinnett is a low mileage arm from the University of Maryland who some Cub fans got to see his filthy slider on display in the College World Series in June against Virginia, and it was filthy. Combined with a mid 90s fastball, Stinnett has all the makings of a number two starter but so much is not known as he has only been pitching for just a few years. Because of this, the Cubs are going to use him in relief this year (if at all). He is currently out in Arizona but has yet to make it into a game. He threw a 110 innings this year at Maryland, and I doubt if the Cubs have him throw more than 20 innings more on that young arm. I could see him easily sliding up to a 2 with his arsenal.
Fours and Fives
Fours and fives tend to be crafty pitchers and rely on command and control to get by in the major leagues. They might have one plus pitch that they can throw for strikes, but more than likely, it is not going to be their fastball. Some fours are ones and twos in training who just need experience. As for the Cubs, they are loaded with fours and fives. Recent promotees Kyle Hendricks and Dallas Beeler are two along with current Iowa starter Chris Rusin. Iowa’s Eric Jokisch could be a five but he is also developing a cutter that has allowed him to miss 18 bats in his last two starts. Having four pitches he can throw for strikes is a deadly arsenal. Paul Blackburn was destined to be a two or a three at the beginning of the year, but a down turn in velocity has some wondering if he has what takes to make it as a two or three. Don’t get me wrong, it is not like Blackburn has had a bad year, because the opposite is true. He has shown good command, pitched to contact, and compiled a 2.94 ERA in 82 innings, and striking out 61 while only walking 22. He just has not thrown as hard as the 94-95 of last year. That is an area of concern but not a red flag for his future.
The Cubs system this year has developed a lot of solid relievers.
1. Armando Rivero will be up in Wrigley by either the trade deadline or early August. He has been dominant at both Tennessee and Iowa. At 26, the Cuban is ready to step in and be filthy alongside Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon.
2. Arodys Vizcaino was dominant at Daytona and Tennessee this year but has struggled at Iowa. Returning from a two year injury layoff, the righty acquired in the Paul Maholm trade has shown flashes of his power arm throwing in the upper 90s most of the year, but he also has been handled with kid gloves as the Cubs are only letting him pitch every three days for one inning. Next year, I think they take the limits off and he should/could be in Chicago to start the year in the bullpen. He is only 23.
3. Jose Arias, lefties Hunter Cervenka and Andrew McKirahan, and righty James Pugliese all are having outstanding years as relievers. Throw in Justin Amlung (who has been pressed into a starter role in Daytona) and the Cubs have a lot of solid bullpen arms moving through the lower part of the system.
4. Recent draftees Justin Steele, James Norwood, Ryan Williams, and Tommy Thorpe all made their debuts in relief at Arizona and Boise in the past two week but is unclear whether they will remain in relief roles in the future, particularly, Steele and Norwood.
I Don’t Knows
Time will tell with “I Don’t Knows.” This category is for pitchers who futures are a little cloudy. Are they relievers? Are they starters? IS there an injury concern?
1. CJ Edwards was flat out filthy last year. He got as high as 5 in some Cub prospect rankings. At 6’2” and 165 pounds, some wondered whether his thin frame would be able to handle to the workload of a starter. Despite that frame, he struck out 155 in 116 innings in 2013: an unfathomable stat! This year at Tennessee, shoulder concerns put him on the shelf after 4 starts. Structurally, there was nothing wrong with the shoulder. Since May, Edwards has been in Arizona strengthening his shoulder and bulking up to almost 180 pounds. His twitter account announced that he will take the mound next Wednesday the 23rd to begin his comeback. I hope he can make it as a starter. If he can, he moves up to a 1 or a 2 on this list rather than an “I Don’t Know.” He would easily pass Tseng as the top pitching prospect in the organization.
2. Rob Zastryzny is a lefty who got off to a terrible start at Daytona this year. Since the end of May, he has been outstanding. In June he had a 1.90 ERA in 4 starts and a 3.86 in July, despite one bad start where he gave up three runs in four innings. Zastryzny is on this list because I don’t know what he is going to be. He throws in the lows 90s. When he keeps the ball down, he is very successful as June attests to, and when he doesn’t keep it down, he gets rocked as the 8+ ERA in April shows. He could be a reliever, he could be a starter. I think it depends on how his stuff plays at higher levels. He needs to add a couple ticks to the fastball. His breaking stuff is average, but as a lefty, he has an advantage to keeping his breaking stuff over the plate. He just needs to keep them down in the zone.
3. I like Tyler Skulina. I will say that now as there are some scouts and bloggers who don’t. He pitches to contact this year as he has been struggling with tendonitis in his left knee and his velocity has dipped 4-6 mph. He is currently throwing 88-91 most days. He has struggled this year with his breaking ball. He struggled with the arm speed used to deliver it and the release point. The key for me, and for Skulina, is to get that knee healthy. If he can, the velocity we saw at Kent State when he threw 95 regularly should return, and with being able to land on his left properly, he should be able to get a better command and release of his breaking ball. I think ultimately, in the long run, Skulina will work as a starter in the minors to refine his pitches and command. However, as a reliever, he could add a couple of ticks to that fastball if he can get the knee healthy. Imagine a 6’6” guy throwing downhill at 95-97. That would be some good stuff right there.
4. Other question marks are some guys putting up great numbers in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues. It will be interesting to see what they can do when they get stateside. They include: Oscar de la Cruz, Santiago Rodriguez (who struck out 14 yesterday in 7 innings), Pedro Silverio, Yapson Gomez, Carlos Rodriguez, and the young 17 year old Erling Moreno. It is hard to gauge pitching stats in these leagues as hitters range in age from 16 to 22.
5. Recent draftees James Farris, Zach Hedges, Brad Markey, Tanner Griggs, Jordan Brink, Austyn Willis are out in Arizona getting their careers started. I don’t know what the future holds for them as yet. Willis, after he shook off some butterflies in his first game action, has looked solid as have Markey, Griggs, Hedges and Brink.
The future is not dark for Cubs pitching. It is actually quite bright. The problem is that it is going to take time to fully develop. The lower levels of the organization are filled with high quality arms that could project to ones and twos. Those don’t happen overnight. As a result, the Cubs will have to go the free agent route to get top of the line starters the next two off seasons.
I think the days of signing and flipping free agent pitchers is over. The Cubs have hit the point where they are now acquiring long term assets in pitching. This winter, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields are available and will cost a lot of money along with international signee Kenta Maeda. Next year, David Price will be hitting the market – and for him, it might be the perfect time to become a Cub. The rest of these prospects listed above will get there, it will just take time.