To this point in Thedon McCloyer (portmanteaus are fun) regime, position players have defined the success of the system. But with most of their elite prospects having matriculated to Chicago, the Cubs’ minor-league profile is starting to shift.
Last year saw a number of pitchers shoot up through the system, improving their standings on prospect lists and their status as possible arms for the future. Adbert Alzolay didn’t come out of nowhere, but he wasn’t on anybody’s radar after a mediocre 2016. Now, he is a potential rotation piece just one step away from Chicago. Michael Rucker and Duncan Robinson moved from the bullpen to starting roles and both threw extremely well at two levels in 2017.
Before Tommy John surgery ended his year in August, Justin Steele was also having a breakout year. Top prospect Jose Albertos was amazing at times in Eugene, especially when he started throwing his changeup. It really was a great year for Cubs pitching prospects.
I’m not quite sure exactly how the starting pitching is going to be distributed in 2018. With the sheer number of pitchers taken in the past two drafts, the Cubs now have a flood of arms making their way up through the system. Combined with international free agency, it’s going to be a difficult task to assign everyone to the proper levels.
Logic holds that Albertos and first-round pick Alex Lange would be at South Bend, but they could wind up at Myrtle Beach to begin in the year. They’re not the only talented pitchers at the lower levels, though, and I get dizzy when I start thinking about who could be in South Bend’s rotation to begin 2018.
Not knowing exactly where everyone’s going to be makes it a little challenging to predict who could break out but I will give it a shot.
Even though I mentioned him above as a breakout pitcher from last year, I think Robinson is going to leap forward even further in 2017. I say this for a couple reasons, the first of which is that he is naturally intelligent and he understands the game and the need to adapt. He threw a cutter for the first time last year and will continue to improve his game. That sort of bleeds into the second though, which is that he can still grow as a pitcher and he may even add another pitch to his repertoire this offseason.
At Myrtle Beach
Like Steele in 2017, Bryan Hudson is going to flourish as a Pelican this coming season. He finally seems comfortable with his re-worked delivery and his physical development, which is saying something for a guy who is trying to pack a little more muscle on his 6-foot-8 frame. Last year, he started getting groundballs with his fastball as well as his plus curveball. He is ready to take off.
At South Bend
I love to watch Bailey Clark pitch, as he has electric stuff. With his college degree now out of the way, I think he’s ready to buckle down and focus all on baseball this offseason, something he could not do last winter. As a result, he should be stronger to start 2018 and his fastball should creep back up into the 95-97 mph range. If he can command his fastball to begin next year, he is going to be a stud.
I just have the sense that Alex Lange is not going to be in the minor leagues very long. While he is far from perfect, he does have the most experience and durability of almost any pitcher the Cubs have in the minors. If all goes well his delivery is smoothed out to create more efficiency and less effort, he and his plus curveball could advance three levels next summer. That’s not an expectation, but it might just be reality. He really is that good.
In just 10 weeks at Eugene, Javier Assad showed a lot of improvement from mid-July to early September. His fastball lost it vestigial tail — it would often run up and to the right — as he gained about 3-4 ticks on it throughout the season. Assad made 13 starts and had three games of nine strikeouts and another one of seven. Remember, these are only five-inning starts. I am really looking forward to see how his work over the winter translates to the mound in 2018.
Keegan Thompson, a youngster out of Auburn, played USA Baseball with Trevor Clifton and Tyler Alamo. After missing a year following TJS, he came back in 2017 and said that he learned how to be a better pitcher because he couldn’t throw as hard. I think he could be a very solid arm in a short amount of time, particularly if that velocity does happen to creep back at all.
An unheralded third round pick, Cory Abbott is my pick to be a stunner next year in full season A-ball. When I first saw him, I was surprised at his physical demeanor on the mound. He seems much more imposing than his 6-2, 210-pound frame would lead you to believe, and he’s a bulldog out there. Expect the Noah Syndergaard wannabe armed with a wicked slider to move quickly.
Coming off a missed year in 2016, Jesus Camargo was a piggyback starter who I loved watching throw for the Emeralds in 2017. I don’t know if he’s the second coming, but he put up a 2.39 ERA in 60.1 IP in Eugene and should have the opportunity to pitch as a full-time starter for South Bend in 2018. Camargo’s changeup is a thing of beauty and it should baffle Midwest League hitters.
Others to watch at Eugene
There will be a plethora of young Latin arms at Eugene to start the 2018 season. Jesus Tejada, Didier Vargas, Danis Correa, Emilio Ferrebus, Brailyn Marquez, and Faustino Carrera are just a few names who could earn a starting spot in the Emeralds’ rotation. Marquez, a 6-5 lefty with a mid-90’s fastball that he hasn’t yet tamed, is the most intriguing to me.
We’ve already seen what they can do with young hitters, but how great would it be for the Cubs to really start churning out some major league pitchers from their system? Be still my heart.