If you look at any Cubs prospect list from the past two months, most of the top 10 is comprised of right-handed starting pitchers. That is the strongest aspect of the system and should begin producing arms for the majors in the next year or two. Not only have the Cubs focused on pitching, specifically college starters, in both the 2016 and ’17 MLB drafts, but they have mined Mexico on the international free agent market.
These efforts are part of an increased focus on pitching that could start producing quality arms over the next couple years. Of the 46 starting pitching slots in the minor league system, 34 are being held down by right-handers. That is an overwhelming number, but the Cubs’ starters are signed through 2020 and they have plenty of time to get these prospects developed.
Before we get into the specifics of our current rankings, here is how we stacked last year’s top ranked right-handed starters:
11. Jake Stinnett
10. Preston Morrison
9. Erling Moreno
8. Bailey Clark
7. Ryan Williams
6. Zach Hedges
5. Jose Albertos
4. Thomas Hatch
3. Trevor Clifton
2. Oscar de la Cruz
1. Dylan Cease
What a difference a year has made. Injuries, sub-par performances, late starts, trades, moves to the bullpen, rising prospects, and a host of other reasons derailed most of the pitchers on this list in 2017. Only Albertos had a good year. Add in Adbert Alzolay’s ascension and all the arms the Cubs took in the past two drafts and it was a difficult task to narrow this list down to only a dozen names.
I have a feeling that if I ranked right-handed starters every month of 2018, a dramatic fluctuation would occur with each new list. Names like Jeremiah Estrada, Erich Uelmen, Keegan Thompson, Kyle Miller, Erling Moreno, Bailey Clark, Zach Hedges, and Erick Leal could make the decision process nearly impossible. There’s not a lot of differentiation between most of them right now, but performance in the coming year should see some of these young pitchers break free from the pack.
Because there are so many righty prospects, we’re going to break this list up into two separate posts
12. Michael Rucker began 2017 as a reliever at South Bend and was dominating. He got promoted to Myrtle Beach and did the same. An injury to Oscar de la Cruz opened the door for Rucker to start and he never looked back. His ability to throw most of his pitches for strikes helps. I don’t know if he will remain in the rotation this year, but he looks to have a future regardless. AA will be a tough test for him.
11. Duncan Robinson was in the South Bend’s bullpen in April and was starting in May. He finished the year at Myrtle Beach, showing an impressive ability to adapt as he put up a 1.80 ERA in four August starts. At 6-6, he has the frame to withstand the innings needed and intellectual intangibles needed to make it to Chicago. AA is going to tell just how good his curve, cutter, change, and fastball are, and I would not be surprised to see him add a fifth pitch this offseason.
10. Javier Assad displayed more improvement last year than any pitcher outside of Alzolay. He began the year a bit wild but was throwing mid-90’s with control by the end. His fastball quit tailing up and in, which allowed him to put hitters away to the tune of 72 strikeouts in 66 innings. He will be at South Bend in 2018 and he needs to continue improving at each step. Outside of Albertos, Cory Abbot, and Alex Lange, he is the pitcher I look forward to the most at South Bend.
9. Cory Abbott has great makeup, but I also was surprised at how big the 2017 second round pick is on the mound. He made three-inning starts for Eugene last year and I was impressed with his work over just 14 innings. He whiffed 18 and his slider looks good. When he is unleashed in 2018, he could be a breakout arm just a year after being drafted.
8. Trevor Clifton lived a tale of two halves last season. First half: All-Star. Second half: Not so much. I thought for sure he was headed to Iowa in June after putting up a 2.84 ERA in 66 first-half innings at Tennessee. If there is one thing I like about this kid, it is that he will out work anyone. Not every path to the majors is a straight line, and he will be back in 2018 after making adjustments. Clifton reminds me of another young arm fans thought was washed up as a prospect after posting a 4+ ERA at AA. Sonny Gray turned out OK.
7. Duane Underwood looked at times last year like the Duane Underwood of 2014-15 who was one most electric pitchers in the organization. The velocity was most certainly there. He was great from the middle of July to the end of August, and his innings per start increased while his walks decreased through the end of the year. In fact, his was walk rate was cut in half from 4.28 BB/9 in May to 2.43 in August. I am really looking forward to seeing him get back at it for AAA Iowa in 2018.
Don’t be surprised to see any of these arms become one of the top six quickly. I really like Assad and I also like Bailey Clark, who did not make the top 12. Then you’ve got a collection of talented young pitchers coming up through extended spring training and rookie ball, which Cubs’ assistant director of player development Alex Suarez says the organization is really excited about.
I will be back next week with the top six and a list of arms to keep an eye on next summer.
If you’re so inclined, here are the rankings of the other positions we’ve covered so far: