Cubs System Position-by-Position, Pt 7: Lots of Righty Starter Depth at Upper Levels

Fourteen. That’s how many right-handed starting pitchers the Cubs have in MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 prospects. Seven years ago, the Cubs had hardly any starting pitching prospects worth writing about, now there are more than a dozen As a result of that depth, our breakdown of righty starters is going to be split into two posts. This edition will look at the top two levels while next week’s will look at Myrtle Beach on down.

When spring training begins next month, there’s gonna be a lot of competition to nail down 10-12 starting spots, depending if Iowa and Tennessee go with five- or six-man rotations. But even those initial configurations will change as several pitchers have a chance to get the call to Chicago before long.

1. Adbert Alzolay
He missed about 40 percent of the 2018 season due to a lat strain and his Instagram and Twitter accounts have detailed his rehab ever since. If Alzolay is healthy to begin 2019, he is at the top of the line to head to Chicago. I’ve always thought he should come up in the summer as a bullpen arm/spot starter and he could stretch out his arm over that extra month in September. Right now, his arm is ready to pitch in the majors, but it’s not ready for the 162-game season.

2. Alec Mills
He actually flashed a little bit last summer in a bullpen role with the Cubs, even making a couple spots starts. Alzolay has him beat in terms of pure talent, but Mills’ experience last summer might add to his confidence this year.

3. Trevor Clifton
Other than the inability to get to the 7th inning on a regular basis, he’s ready. He improved as the year went on at AAA Iowa in the second half and I was surprised to see him left off the 40-man roster. Armed with a plus curve and a close to plus changeup, Clifton has really stepped up his game in the past year.

4. Duncan Robinson
At 6-foot-6, he is built to withstand the rigors of a major league season. He also has the makeup to handle the additional mental stress and has moved quickly the last two summers since being drafted in 2016. How Robinson adjusts to the challenges of AAA will determine everything.

The problem with analyzing the depth at these levels is that there are still several names left on the table who will probably be at AAA to start the year. Thomas Hatch is an option, as is Jen-Ho Tseng. Duane Underwood could end up in the Iowa bullpen along with Michael Rucker, who actually might be better suited to the ‘pen considering his strike percentage is near 70.

There is also a lot of depth when it comes to right-handed starters at AA Tennessee, too. In fact, Keegan Thompson and Matt Swarmer should be competing for a spot at Iowa. And don’t forget Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, and Tyson Miller should be in the Smokies rotation for their AA debuts to start the year.

Having all these arms congregating at two levels is going to clog up the system and it’s going to be quite competitive when it comes to earning promotions. Erich Uelmen will probably stay in Myrtle Beach to start 2019 because there’s just no room for him in Tennessee unless it is in the ‘pen.

The Cubs are going to have a lot of big decisions to make, and that’s even before Oscar de la Cruz comes off his suspension. It would not be surprising to see some of these pitchers included in offseason trades or at least transitioned to relief roles where they can more readily help the big league club.

If you were looking for a sleeper or two from this group, put your money on Swarmer and Miller to keep surprising everyone this year. Swarmer’s curve and changeup are just devastating pitches now that he can throw 94 with his fastball. The variation in speeds is something AA hitters struggled with for two months last year. The key for Miller is that he is finally filling out his 6-foot-3 frame and is actually gaining some zip while continuing to go deep into games like before. He could be very impressive this year.

I will be back next week with a look at righties in the class-A and rookie leagues, after which we’ll all have to sit back and see how things break down when rosters are announced the first week of April.

Other position breakdowns
Catchers 
1st Base
2nd Base
3rd Base
Shortstop
Outfield

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Todd Johnson

During the day, Todd teaches US and World History in a small town in northern Illinois. As a Cubs fan, his first baseball memories are of Ernie, Billy, and Fergie. Baseball cards, Strat-O-Matic, and fantasy baseball eventually followed. You can always find him on Twitter: @cubscentral08

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2 Comments

  1. It sure would be fun to see a couple of guys “emerge” and contribute at the big league level this season. You hate to hang it all on one guy, but Alzolay is the prime candidate. I like both Swarmer and Miller, although they seem to be a season away. Some of these guys like Tseng seem to just be Milb roster filler.

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