Entering the 2019 season, the pitching in the Cubs farm system is much improved compared to where it has been in past years. In an organization that has continually failed to produce impact homegrown pitchers, there is now a massive overload of arms at both Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee that potentially project for the back end of the rotation in Chicago.
One of those is Alex Lange, the first round pick from 2017. This season will be very important for the former SEC standout, as he will need to prove himself in order to remain a part of that group. He could potentially separate himself from the pack with an outstanding campaign.
Lange was drafted out of LSU, where he was the Friday starter — the ace of a college staff — for the better part of three years. He pitched just 9.1 innings for short-season Eugene after signing, a limit necessitated by the extra innings he threw in the College World Series that same year. Still, the player development team had enough confidence in Lange to bump him all the way up to High-A Myrtle Beach to start his first full professional season in 2018.
He spent the entire season there and actually had quite a bit of success, putting up quality stats across the board even though he was far from the most consistent player on the field. Heralded for his plus-plus curveball out of college, that pitch has continued to impress as a pro and is arguably the best secondary offering in the Cubs’ system. Unfortunately, Lange’s fastball has taken a step back, dropping to the low-90’s after registering mid-90’s during his time as a Bayou Bengal.
So what does he need to do in 2019 to take that next step and stay with the lead pack?
First and foremost, Lange must find a way to improve his fastball. Soft and straight just isn’t going to cut it at the big league level no matter how good his curveball is. Adding back a couple more ticks on the heater would put him well on track to becoming a serviceable major league reliever.
But if Lange can continue to improve the bite on his changeup, a pitch that saw huge strides in 2018, he becomes a good option for a rotation spot moving forward. Some of that will come from improving the fastball velocity, which sets up the change that much better. His 20.4 percent strikeout rate is fine, but increasing it a little with a better offspeed offering would really make Lange stand out.
As long as the glut of arms sitting in Iowa don’t all get sent down to Tennessee to take up spots at the Double-A level, Lange should find himself starting the season there. At this point, it is looking as if he might be a guy that continues to climb the ladder one rung at a time, spending all of 2019 with the Smokies before spending his 2020 season in Iowa.
But given his aggressive assignment to High-A for 2018 and their stated desire to be less strict with development plans, the Cubs might be interested in moving a little quicker than expected. The development of that changeup could be key to all of this. If he is not able to maintain it as a major league-quality pitch, he’ll likely advance as a reliever. But if the changeup is consistently good enough to succeed in the rotation, he will actually take a slower path to Chicago.
For the time being, expect to see Lange start the 2019 campaign in Tennessee as a member of the starting rotation. There he will look to stake his claim as one of the better options moving forward in a crowded field of potential back-end starters.