With the new additions of Adam Warren and John Lackey and the re-signing of Trevor Cahill, the Cubs’ starting rotation looks set and is deeper than in previous years. But despite being ranked in the top three last year in terms of FIP-based WAR, starting pitching was viewed as an area of weakness for the organization this offseason. Given the price to acquire starters on the open market ($90 million for Mike Leake), many are hoping the Cubs can find some help in the minors. Todd and I will cover pitching in three parts, going through starters in the upper-minors, lower-minors, and likely relief pitchers.
Duane Underwood Jr. – Drafted in the 2nd round in 2012 out of high school in Georgia, Underwood’s development through the minors has been slow and steady. He started out 2015 at Myrtle Beach, but suffered from inflammation in his right elbow and was limited to just 78.1 innings this season. Despite his limited time with the Pelicans, Underwood impressed the Cubs and evaluators alike.
Although his numbers aren’t the most impressive, particularly the 5.89 K/9, he was pitching to contact and becoming more efficient with his pitch counts. His arsenal consists of a plus fastball that, when he’s healthy, sits in the mid-90’s and has arm-side life down in the zone. His best secondary is a sweeping curveball that flashes plus but is right now very inconsistent. He finishes it off with a changeup that lacks movement but has good deception in comparison to his fastball. Overall, it’s a starter profile if he can command the fastball better and improve the consistency of his curve. He has the body to eat innings as a starter, now it’s just a matter of staying healthy. Underwood should start the year with the Smokies, with a glimpse of Chicago possible for him late in the season if he stays healthy and performs in Iowa.
Pierce Johnson – Similar to Underwood, Johnson has been limited recently by injuries (this season due to back issues). However, thanks to his time with the Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League, he ended up with 119.2 innings to his name.
Johnson’s fastball sits in the 91-93mph range with downhill plane and some arm-side life. Right now his command makes the pitch average, but if he can improve the consistency of his delivery, it could become a plus pitch. Johnson has recently added a cutter that rests in the high 80’s with good horizontal movement; think a faster slider. He also has an average power curveball in the 82-85 range and a fringy changeup. If he’s able to clean up his command on the fastball, Johnson is a back-of-the-rotation starter with upside that can contribute as early as the middle of next season.
Ryan Williams – While scouting Jeff Hoffman in 2014 at East Carolina (before he ended up having Tommy John Surgery), the Cubs were also able to see a lot of Ryan Williams, prompting them to select him in the 10th round of the 2014 draft as a senior signing. After being drafted, he performed sublimely at Boise, which caused the Cubs to start him out in South Bend this year. After a strong April and May, Williams hopped over Myrtle Beach all the way to the Smokies, where he performed admirably. All told, he pitched 141.2 innings and had a glistening 2.76 ERA in Tennessee. He ended the year as the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
The former ECU Pirate has a large and thick base (and looks like a lumberjack with his beard) with the perfect body to eat innings. He has a fastball that sits in the low 90’s that he throws for strikes early in counts to get ahead of hitters. When ahead, he has a slider and power curveball to induce weak contact or strike batters out. The one big knock on Williams is his lack of an out pitch, but if he continues throwing strikes and getting batters out in the upper minors, he could reach Wrigley late next year.
Brad Markey– The former Hokie had an impressive season in 84 innings between South Bend and Myrtle Beach. Pitching out of relief in low-A, Markey was converted to a starter for the Pelicans and thrived. When I talked to him earlier in the year, he said the key for him was keeping his pitches, primarily the fastball, down in the zone since he doesn’t have the same downhill plane as others due to his size (5’10”).
Markey’s repertoire includes a fastball in the 89-92mph band, a curveball around 77-82 that is an average pitch when it’s kept low in the zone, and a change. If he continues to get batters out in the upper minors, who could become a valuable cost-controlled bullpen piece/swingman.
Question Marks: Tyler Skulina, Paul Blackburn, Jen-Ho Tseng, Daury Torrez, Johnathan Martinez, Rob Zastryzny, and Felix Pena.
To date, only Drew Rucinski and Frank Batista are slated to start at AAA Iowa. It is likely Pierce Johnson and Ryan Williams will be joining them, along with Felix Pena. Now 25 years old, Pena had an excellent first half (3.13 ERA) at AA Tennessee before dropping off in the second half (4.45 ERA).
Trying to pick the starters that fill out the rotation at Tennessee this spring could be fun or it could be a nightmare. In the lower minors, six starters are used to build arm strength. In the upper minors, most AA and AAA rotations are set at 5 starters. There are seven or eight who could start for the Smokies in 2016. Some prospects have earned their way to the next level, some have not.
Where they will be placed is anybody’s guess at this point, but I tend to lean towards Skulina, Martinez, Blackburn, and Tseng starting at Tennessee along with Duane Underwood for now. AA is the biggest jump in talent in the minors and while Underwood has vaunted stuff, the same cannot be said for Blackburn, Martinez, and Skulina, although all get by with good command of the stuff they have. Tseng, on the other hand, has a plus curve and a “fall off the table” changeup that baffles hitters. These four pitchers will have the biggest challenge of their careers between the talent they’re facing and that which is going to be looking over their shoulders to take their place.
Zastryzny’s status is up in the air for 2016. He was injured most of 2015, but his stats, even when healthy, are not worthy of the move to AAA. Torrez could be a reliever, but as a starter he’s been average (2015 – 3.75 ERA) to above average (2014 – 2.74 ERA) most of the past two years, mainly getting by as a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/slider). Torrez will need 3 pitches to survive in AA and Zastryzny will need an ERA under 4 before he should get a whiff of AAA. It may sound odd, but Zastryzny needs to have a breakout pitching season at AA similar to what Willson Contreras had last year as a hitter.
With the starting pitching depth the Cubs have, it should be interesting to see the various players develop and acclimate to new levels this summer. I think there could be some surprises on who is able to change and who gets a shot.
For more on the next waves of pitchers in the system, check out our post on the prospects in the lower levels of the organization.