Among life’s few certainties are death, taxes, and the Chicago Cubs failing to turn draft picks into major league pitchers. It has been well documented over the years that Theo Epstein and the player development arm of the front office have struggled when it comes to getting their arms through the minors and up to Chicago.
In fact, since Epstein took over baseball operations in 2012, only four of his draft picks have even debuted for the Cubs: Rob Zastryzny, Pierce Johnson, Duane Underwood Jr, and James Norwood. Not exactly an ideal situation for an organization that has plenty of starting pitchers in a battle with Father Time. But after philosophical shifts in drafting and developing pitchers, the system is flooded with arms that should eventually reach Wrigley.
Todd Johnson did a great job of laying out the healthy depth of righty starters in the upper minors, including several guys that profile as back-end rotation pieces. But there are several other pitchers in the lower half of the Cubs’ minor league system that have even higher upside.
Brailyn Marquez has the biggest name, not to mention the biggest body, and possibly the brightest future of anyone in the entire farm system. The 6-foot-4 lefty just turned 20 in January but already rides the fastball up into the high 90’s. But he isn’t just a one trick pony, as he sports a decent slurve and actually improved on his changeup in 2018.
Marquez has already shown solid control by posting a 7.1 percent walk rate in his 47.2 innings for short-season Eugene last year. With improved command and two decent offerings to piggyback off an elite fastball, he could very well find himself competing for an Opening Day start in a couple years.
Yovanny Cruz is another high-upside youngster, though he is a much different type of pitcher from Marquez. The 19-year-old Cruz sits in the low 90’s as a sinker-slider guy who rolls his fair share of groundballs. The sinker can also miss some bats, as shown by his 27.2 percent strikeout rate in Mesa last summer. He is extremely advanced for a teenager and could advance fairly quickly for an international signing if he can add a strong changeup to his repertoire.
Speaking of international signings, Richard Gallardo was the crown jewel for the Cubs in last season’s signing period. He was the top-ranked pitcher and came in No. 7 overall on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 international prospects. At just 17 years old, Gallardo already tops out at 93 on the gun and has a good feel for his curveball and changeup. The youngest player in this group of high-upside arms, the Cubs will probably take their time advancing him up through the system.
Jeremiah Estrada was receiving a ton of hype after the Cubs took him in the sixth round of the 2017 draft, eventually signing him away from UCLA. Injuries slowed down his first couple seasons of professional ball, but Estrada is repeatedly able to touch 96 mph at just 20 years old and has plenty of time to develop. He has yet to produce much as far as results in game action go, but a healthy 2019 will put him right back on the map as the high-upside arm he is.
Riley Thompson is a prime example of the changes the Cubs have made when it comes to evaluating pitchers. After spending years basing picks on makeup and not stuff, the Cubs took Thompson and his high-90’s fastball in the 11th round last year. He did not exactly put up eye-popping stats at Louisville and he underwent Tommy John surgery in college, but that riding heater and sweeping curveball with plus potential were enough to allay any concerns.
The Cubs have a set rotation in Chicago and they’ve got several pitchers waiting in the wings at Iowa to fill in at the back end if need be. But when it comes time to replace some of the guys at the front of the line, Marquez and some of the others lower in the system are the names to keep an eye on.