Duane Underwood. Jr. has always had good stuff and his reputation grew quickly after his selection in the 2012 draft. In 2014 at Kane County, he was electric throwing easy 95 mph fastballs most nights and prospect hounds thought the Cubs might have found their next ace. But for the next couple years, Underwood struggled with arm injuries that limited his availability and tarnished that reputation.
By 2017, Underwood was finally healthy enough to pitch 138 innings for Double-A Tennessee. While the results were not exactly what everyone hoped for, he was good enough in spring training the following season to head to Triple-A Iowa.
He put up a 3.00 ERA in April and backed it up with a 3.38 ERA in May, then he got that shot at the majors. On June 25, Underwood made his MLB debut with a spot start against the Dodgers. He gave up one earned run in four innings of work and never sniffed Chicago again as he struggled following his return to Iowa.
At the end of last season, he moved from the rotation to the bullpen in what appeared to be an attempt to get him back the majors. Underwood got in seven innings of work out of the ‘pen, striking out eight but allowing six runs. His fastball velocity was good, his curve looked great, and his changeup showed flashes of being a real plus pitch that would help him keep left-handed hitters at bay.
That stuff looked like it played better in relief, though, and he was all set to return to the pen to start the 2019 season. But when spring training begin this year, the Iowa rotation was dealing with injuries. As a result, Underwood was pressed back into a starter’s role and trotted out to the mound every fifth day.
And then, the bullpen plan, first floated by Theo Epstein and Jaron Madison, started to come together again. The transition took place quietly, which is perhaps a little surprising if only because of the organization’s failure to develop any homegrown starters. But Underwood has confidence that a bullpen role gives him a chance to succeed at the next level.
“Honestly, it’s more of a mentality thing than anything,” Underwood told Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register. “I think the aggressiveness of coming in a game late with obviously a scenario where you have to throw up a zero, those situations, they kind of amp you up. They get your aggressiveness rolling and I think that’s what’s helped me and my delivery, and my pitching in general, is just the aggressive intent going forward.”
It’s only been a little over three weeks, but Underwood is off to a good start in his latest go-round as a reliever. He’s thrown 7.1 innings and has struck out eight with four walks with a fastball that sits at 97-98 most nights. He’s able to come in and just empty the tank, which is fun to watch.
Here’s the thing about Underwood: He’s just 24 years old, which is still pretty young by pitching standards. No one is anointing him as the next closer or setup man for the Cubs, but this transition to the ‘pen is going to be something to watch the next month or so. It’s hard to find arms with his kind of talent and he could yet have an impact for a team that could always use a little bullpen help.