A Slowly Rising Wave – Assessing the Cubs’ Last Three Draft Classes for Pitching

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Prospect love comes in many forms. For the better part of the Theo Epstein regime that love and hope has come in the guise of hitters for Cubs fans. Fans have been dreaming of the day when Javy Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler would be banging the ball around the old ballpark. Well, that day will happen in 2015. pierce 15

You know what else will happen when that happens? Pitchers will then begin flooding the top of the prospect lists – Duane Underwood, Jake Stinnett, CJ Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Paul Blackburn, to name a few, have seen the top 20 in the last year with Underwood, Edwards, and Johnson in some lists’ top ten.

The past three years have seen Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod attack the draft with waves of pitchers beginning in the second round. Those pitchers have slowly made their way through rookie ball, Boise, Kane County, and only a few made it to Daytona and Tennessee last year. This year, those draftees will begin reaching Iowa. While Pierce Johnson leads the way, there are others who will begin to reach the upper part of the Cubs minor league system at Tennessee and Iowa in 2015. Today’s post will examine the draft classes of the last three years. There have been some wonderful arms selected, some who haven’t figured it out just yet, some who may breakout this year, and a few misses.

Baseball America's 2015 ranking of Cubs Prospects by category
Baseball America’s 2015 ranking of Cubs Prospects by category. Look at the pitchers by pitches.

When you begin to look at the type of pitchers the Cubs have selected the last three years, you get a variety of arms. There is no prototype build or pitching style the Cubs look for. However, the majority of pitchers they selected seem to have 3 common traits:

  1. Coachibility/Makeup – They are able to take direction from coaches. Believe it or not, these are not prima donnas, these kids are known for being driven athletes who take direction because they have a desire to improve and win.
  2. Athletic – At 6’4” and 235 pounds, Ryan Williams doesn’t appear athletic but his delivery is – he doesn’t have a lot of angst in trying to throw a baseball 93 mph. It comes easy to him. In selecting these “athletic pitchers”, the Cubs select someone who can repeat that delivery time after time without much strain to the body thereby reducing the amount of torque on the shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, hip, knee, and any other joint and tendon you can name. This lowers the risk for injury saving both the pitcher and the organization.
  3. USA Baseball – there seems to be a theme here. The Cubs are going out and getting both hitters and pitchers who played for USA Baseball. That experience of playing all over the world is something special for a player as it shows pride, drive, and an experience and maturity that places them above their peers.

2012 Draftees

Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood were two high school arms taken in the compensation and second rounds respectively. Last year, the two were part of a dominant rotation at Kane County and both were flat out filthy in the playoffs as the Cougars went undefeated in the post season on their way to a Midwest League Championship. Underwood grew by leaps and bounds the last year and a half as he learned to take better care of his body. He routinely throws in the mid 90s with ease. Blackburn has flashed, at times, the ability to dominate games, especially in the postseason at both Boise and Geneva. Both will reunite at Myrtle Beach this year. Somewhat of a pitcher’s league, both should continue to develop and make great strides to middle to top of the rotation type starters with Underwood having the higher ceiling at this point.CONWAY 87

Another 2012 draftee who showed massive growth last year was reliever Stephen Perakslis at Daytona. In sixteen second half appearances he has a 2.25 ERA and was topping out at 95-97 with his fastball. Add in often injured Josh Conway who finally debuted at Boise last year after missing a year and a half and the class is starting to look good. In thirteen three inning starts, Conway was near dominant with his 1.96 ERA and a .187 batting average against. He also averaged 6 Ks per nine innings. This year, Conway should be at South Bend where he should be bumped up to a five inning limit.

Jasvir Rakkar is another 2012 arm that will be infiltrating Myrtle Beach. Rakkar finally got it going last year and was a key cog as a reliever at Kane County in August and in the playoffs. After starting the year at Daytona, then going back to Boise then back to Daytona, the yo-yo pitching career finally settled in at Geneva where he was almost unhittable in his last twenty innings. In fact, he only gave up two. Hopefully, he can build on that success this year at Myrtle Beach.

2013 Draftees

Ahh….The Kris Bryant draft class – it might be impossible to top Bryant’s impact on the organization. However, much like Underwood and Blackburn broke out last year, the 2013 class hopes to do the same in 2015. Led by second round pick Rob Zastryzny, the lefty would love to throw away his 7+ ERA from April and May at Daytona and focus in on his .3.32 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star break when looking back at 2014. Zastryzny will head to Tennessee this year and will focus on keeping the ball down in the zone. If he can do that, the 6’3” southpaw could be an asset going forward as the upper system of the Cubs does not have a lefty starter after Erick Jokisch.

While Zastryzny was the star of the 2013 pitching class for the Cubs, there are some names that could shine for the Cubs system in 2015. Tyler Ihrig is probably the most under the radar success story of 2014. He doesn’t have flashy stuff – he gets by with a low 90s fastball that he can command and he builds of that pitch with good command on his breaking pitches. After a poor start at Daytona, he went back to Boise where he was 4-2 in 8 starts, but it was at Kane County where he figured it all out. In four starts in August, he was 3-1 with a 2.30 ERA during the playoff stretch. It is something he can build on for 2015. However, I don’t if he will be a starter in 2015 at Myrtle Beach. He might be a better fit in the pen in the long run because of his 6’0” 190 pound frame. Clifton 64

The second most well known name from the class is Trevor Clifton. The 12th round pick skipped going to Kentucky to sign with the Cubs. The Cubs have taken his windup and rebuilt it into a work of efficiency. He throws in the mid 90s and has an excellent curve ball. The problem is he also has a terrible curve ball. When he gets it over, he is dominant. When he does not, all hell breaks loose. I am hoping that this year, his command takes a leap forward. He should be used to the new windup and mechanics this year and as a result, we will see more consistency in the curveball. Throw in a changeup and he could be something special at South Bend this year.

Tyler Skulina had an up and down year, too. Tendonitis, which was hidden from most fans, was revealed in mid-summer. Despite the location being his left knee, Skulina was able to have a good first half at Kane County. However, he was only throwing 88-91. In college, he was hitting mid 90s with his fastball regularly. In July, Skulina went to Daytona and the knee became too much. He made three starts and was shut down for the year. He should start 2015 at Myrtle Beach. The Cubs will know if the knee is healthy when the first curveball flies as that was the pitch he was having trouble with because of the knee. When I saw him twice, he was horribly tipping it through various arm angles to compensate for the knee. He never knew where it was going

Injured pitchers Brad Renner and Trey Masek hope to make it through more than a month this year. Both pitchers had promising relief careers already derailed by injuries. Other relief pitchers from the class will be at Daytona including Michael Wagner and Zak Hermans. Others will be at South Bend including Sam Wilson and David Garner. None of the four was dominant, but neither were they terrible. One, Scott Frazier, has the golf equivalent of the yips. The 6’7” righty out of Pepperdine is hopefully being mentally rebuilt this off season. He still holds promise, but whether he can actually pitch again is up in the air.

2014 Draftees

I get goose bumps thinking about the pitchers from this draft class. Most made their debut at Arizona Rookie League or at Boise last summer. The pitching starts with converted 3B Jake Stinnett out of Maryland. The second round pick has less than two years pitching experience but Baseball America already labels Stinnett’s slider the best in the organization. Because of inning concerns, he was slightly used in 2014, although he did pitch for Boise in the playoffs throwing 5 innings, he struck out 8, and allowed only 2 hits without a run. Myrtle Beach looks like the optimum place for him, but I think he is going to South Bend first and follow the Pierce Johnson model of advancement to Myrtle Beach by July. Who knows, he could sniff Tennessee in August if all goes well. The concern for him is this – last year was only his second year of pitching and he threw 100 innings as a starter after being a reliever in 2013. I think the Cubs will be cautious with him in 2015 and hopefully get him up to 120 innings which is not too big of an increase.

Future Stars6

The high school pitching culled in this draft is ridiculous. Righty Dylan Cease, lefty Justin Steele, righty Austyn Willis (6’6”), and lefty Carson Sands were top high school arms who profile to be mid rotation to top of the rotation starters. And then add in the college pitchers that saw some action at Boise last year and I get downright giddy. Luckily for me, they will almost all be at South Bend.

My favorites from this draft class include the 6’7” Jeremy Null from Western Carolina, 6’4” 235 pound righty Ryan Williams, a reliever at East Carolina who should have a decent shot at starting this year, and Jordan Minch, a 6’6” lefty from Purdue who could revamp any bullpen. Others who saw limited action from last year’s class because of innings include Arizona righty James Farris, St. Louis’ James Norwood (who tops out in the upper 90s), Virginia Tech’s Brad Markey, righty Tanner Griggs (Angelina JC), righty Jordan Brink (Fresno State), lefty reliever Tommy Thorpe (Oregon), righty Michael Knighton (Central Alabama), and righty Zach Hedges (Azusa Pacific).

The key to these pitchers this year will be about development. Working with Cubs pitching coordinator Derek Johnson (formerly of Vanderbilt) saw Underwood and Clifton rebuild their motions, workouts, and mental approaches to the game. With a plethora of prospects, Johnson will have his hands full going between Eugene, South Bend, and likely Myrtle Beach to see some of these prospects pitch. I think Norwood, who struggled at times last year, could develop some consistency under Johnson’s guidance. Already, Norwood can throw 97 easily; he just can’t command it consistently. That is what Johnson does as pitching coordinator – he takes what someone does well and improves upon it. If Norwood can hit his spots, he will shoot up the charts in a hurry with his 97 mph heater.

Here is how the class of 2014 might be placed this year

South BendStarters: Clifton, Stinnett, Norwood, and Farris. I don’t expect Stinnett to stay long at South Bend. This could be a deadly rotation with Josh Conway. Clifton and Conway, along with Eric Leal, formed the better half of the Boise rotation that made the playoffs. Add in Stinnett, Norwood, and Farris and the rotation there could be very good with some high velocity arms.

South Bend Relievers: Griggs, Thorpe, Markey, Minch, Brink, Hedges, Null (to start the year), and Williams (to start the year). To me, what the Cubs have done with this collection is build a unique variety of arms from the heavy fastball and sinker of Null to the hard throwing Williams and Minch. Add in Thorpe as a lefty and Brink and Hedges, and you have a variety of pitchers that can face a variety of situations.

Is Ryan Williams one of the prospects to see in 2015?
Is Ryan Williams one of the prospects to see in 2015?

EugeneStarters: Sands, Steele, and Willis – There is no rush on these three. They could, possibly, make it to South Bend in August depending on performance. However, I would like them all to get in their thirteen to fourteen starts in short season A just to build up those arms and innings.

EugeneRelievers: Knighton – still young at 19, Knighton was solid as reliever in rookie ball last year. He had a 3.38 ERA but only had 8 appearances. Eugene will increase that.

Dylan Cease, who is coming off Tommy John, may not see organized ball much this year. His Tommy John surgery was in the middle of July 2014. So, he should be throwing by mid July and he might see action in the Arizona Rookie League this year or instructs in September at worst.

If all goes well this year, the Theo and Jason McLeod drafted pitchers from last year should begin to skyrocket up the prospect charts. Like Duane Underwood did in 2014, I expect Trevor Clifton, Paul Blackburn, Jake Stinnett, and the high school arms from the 2014 draft to do so in 2015. When it comes to the college arms taken in 2014, I am not quite sure. They performed in limited action in 2014. It will be easier to see what they can do in a full season worth of work.

James Farris is one I think could surprise evaluators this year. He doesn’t have high end stuff, but he hits his spots. In the Midwest League, that could be deadly. It will be interesting to see what Tyler Ihrig can do as a reliever this year at Daytona. I guess you could say that about every pitcher that is promoted from last year.

When it comes down to it, this will be the fourth full year of the Theo Epstein regime. Along with Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, and a revamped scouting and development system, they have rebuilt the Cubs system from the ground up. The thing most people don’t understand is that hitters develop quicker than pitchers. For pitchers, their development takes a little longer. At the lower levels, most starters top out at 100 innings. At Double A that figure gets bumped to 130-150 and Triple A hopefully finds a pitcher throwing 150-170 innings. Looking at Pierce Johnson and CJ Edwards, the Cubs top two pitching prospects, they have yet to top 120 innings in any one year.

Future Stars7

When you ask a pitcher to throw 180-200 innings a year, it takes time to build up that strength. The Cubs are doing that. They have a nice collection of pitchers who are developing, some faster than others. At Class A Kane County in 2014, it resulted in a Midwest League Championship. Those arms, a mixture of draftees and international signings, are slowly creating a wave of pitching heading toward Chicago. It will still be a two years (2017) before that wave of pitchers currently at Myrtle Beach hits the shores of Chicago. Johnson could trickle in late this year and maybe Zastryzny and Perakslis next year, but in 2017, there will be several arms, ready, on the shores of Lake Michigan that came courtesy of the draft.

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