By Todd Johnson
This week’s mailbag has just one question and it’s a doozy.
Shawn Cline: Is South Bend going to be stacked at pitcher next year?
By the time the 2018 minor league season begins, I could answer this question four or five different ways. There are a myriad of combinations of pitchers who could start at South Bend in 2018. Just off the top of my head, I counted 13 possible arms who could take the bump every sixth day. Not all of the 13 are going to start the year at South Bend. Some could find their way to Myrtle Beach to begin 2018.
So, Shawn, the simple answer to your question is yes.
The complicated answer would be that I have no idea which six will make the opening day roster.
The Cubs have targeted pitching in the last two drafts and the last two international free-agent signing periods, especially in the Mexican market. The dividends of those investments will begin to come to fruition at South Bend. In 2017, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker were the first wave of arms to breakout and both will be at AA Tennessee next year along with 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch.
As for South Bend, here are 13 pitchers who could wind up in the rotation.
Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, Brendon Little, Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Keegan Thompson, Enrique de los Rios, Matt Swarmer, and Carson Sands.
The starting rotation for South Bend will be determined in spring training. Some of the arms could skip South Bend and wind up in Myrtle Beach to begin the year. Alex Lange and Jesus Camargo would be the two most likely selections based on their age and experience.
While having Albertos skip South Bend would be interesting, he is going to be just 19 years old next year and there’s no rush to move him up the system. He needs to refine his curve and basically get his work in. He needs to throw close to 100 innings after missing most of 2016. Whether he does that at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, I don’t care. But either way, it will be riveting.
The same is true for Javier Assad, who could be one arm at South Bend to really break out. I really like Assad a lot. Out of all the pitchers I watched at Eugene last summer, he improved the most in his arsenal and command. Now 20, he struck out 72 in 66 IP. He has a nice live mid 90s fastball and a good curve. If he commands his fastball down in the zone, he misses a lot of bats. He struck out 9 batters three times in short season ball where pitch limits are just 70-75 pitches. That is extremely impressive.
Top 2017 draft pick Brendon Little should be in South Bend most of the year as he works on his command and control.
While Albertos, Assad, and Camargo pitched well in full extended starts last year at Eugene, the one player who I am going to be fascinated with this year is the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. I was impressed with him last year as it pertained to his physical presence on the mound along with his actual talent and demeanor. He made five starts for Eugene, never throwing more than 3 innings and he exceeded 50 pitches only once.
While Little and Alex Lange got all the headlines from the draft, Abbott is an under the radar type who grew by leaps and bounds the last two years thanks in part to an uptick in his velocity and a slider that he modeled after Noah Syndergaard, his idol.
Fangraphs said the following about Abbott’s potential just last week:
Abbott has terrific glove-side control of his average slider and fastball, and can loop a 12-6 curveball into the zone for strikes. He’s not a great athlete but repeats his delivery well and could have plus command and control at peak. If he does — and he could move quickly — he’ll be a No. 4/5 starter.
Another possible breakout pitcher who did not get much time in Eugene in 2017 is Erich Uelmen. Uelmen was the Cubs fourth round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After his selection, he got in 17.2 innings of work with a 2.04 ERA and 23 Ks. He was just used in relief. Next year, his role could change.
Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also liked him. Longenhagen said:
The club’s 2017 fourth-rounder out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Uelmen’s college stats are remarkable. He allowed just three home runs in 212 career innings at Cal Poly and struck out a batter per inning as a junior there, just as he did the prior summer on Cape Cod. He was up to 95 on the Cape but pitched more in the low 90s as a junior. His delivery is odd but effective. Uelmen is basically a side-armer, but has a shorter, quicker arm stroke than most of his low-slotted peers. It creates deception/extension which, along with his fastball’s significant arm-side movement, makes the fastball effective despite middling velocity. He also has an average slider, which he locates consistently to his glove side, and feel for creating movement on his changeup but not for locating it. There’s a chance Uelmen ends up with a starter’s repertoire and command. Ultimately, the very thing that has many skeptical about his chances of remaining a starter — his delivery — is precisely (because of its deception) what might allow him to be one.
Keegan Thompson out of Auburn is a third pitcher who I think will do extremely well at South Bend. He missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and came back last year and was the Cubs third round pick. He pitched well in his debut in Eugene (mostly in relief) and he should come back stronger from the surgery than he did in 2017.
One of my own personal favorites from this list is Bailey Clark. Drafted out of Duke in 2016, Clark debuted that summer for Eugene but returned to school to finish his degree that fall. Due to finishing his degree and some nagging injuries and an inability to weight train, Clark came to camp late in the the spring. He pitched well in Eugene, especially in August where he had a 1.69 ERA in 3 starts. This offseason, Clark is injury free, improving his strength and his velocity should be back in the mid 90s when spring training rolls around. As a result, he could be either at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, depending on his camp.
So, here are my six to start the year for South Bend: Albertos, Assad, Little, Abbott, Thompson, and Clark or Uelmen. It’s still extremely hard to call this some 3 1/2 months away. However, I think Lange will go up and start at Myrtle Beach and Camargo and his plus changeup will be there, too.
I didn’t even get to the relievers in this post but here are three names to watch for out of the pen: Ricky Tyler Thomas, Jake Steffens, and Ben Hecht.
I am pretty geeked to see all of these guys throw next year. It should be very interesting to see who goes to what affiliate to begin the year and what their roles will be.
Next week’s mailbag will be just one question again. I will be comparing and contrasting the system now to 2011, just before Theo took over. That has brought back some ghosts.