Of all the various position groups in our organizational breakdown series, right-handed starting pitching features the most depth. That means we could realistically turn this into a three-part post, but this year’s series is more about looking at guys who could help the Cubs in the next two seasons. That does not mean we’re looking exclusively at prospects from the upper levels of the minors, just those who could potentially make it to Chicago by the end of 2021.
When 2020 ends, the Cubs are likely to have only two set starting rotation pieces in Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish. Jon Lester and José Quintana‘s contracts will be expiring after this season and it’s hard to see the Cubs pursuing multiple big-ticket pitchers to replace them. Lefty Brailyn Marquez is clearly the Cubs’ top pitching prospect and he could be ready late this year or early next year, but there is no shortage of righties who can come up and help soon as well.
At the risk of jinxing it, the wave of pitching may finally be here.
Who’s up first?
Adbert Alzolay has the best chance of sticking with the major league roster in some fashion to start 2020, but he just does not have the workload history to put up to 160-180 innings. In fact, he hasn’t thrown over 120 innings since 2016. As a result, Alzolay could end up working primarily in relief as a piggyback starter or long man.
While no one’s running around screaming from the rooftops that Alec Mills or Colin Rea should be the fifth starter this year, both may see a little time. Mills has no options left and might be fine in the bullpen, but Rea still has two options and could be stashed at Iowa as a fill-in starter.
Tyson Miller was added to the 40-man roster in November despite a slow start at Triple-A that hurt his overall numbers on the season. He did flash the ability to dominate Double-A hitters in the first half of 2019 and looked to be getting the hang of things at the end of the year. Miller has good command with a frame that’s ready to eat up some innings. He is more of back-of-the-rotation starter.
Who else could help in 2020?
Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson are two 2017 draft picks that advanced through the system pretty quickly and should get looks with the big league club in spring training. Both are likely to be at Iowa to start the season and will be monitored closely in the hopes that they’ll be ready before long.
While Thompson was injured for most of 2019, Abbott was the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher of the Year and was filthy in the second half at Double-A with a 2.53 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 74.2 IP over July and August. I would love to see Abbott in Chicago very soon.
If not for Tommy John surgery, Duncan Robinson would’ve been in the mix too. It will be interesting to see how he comes back this year and exactly what the Cubs let him do either in relief, as a piggyback starter, or as a part of the rotation.
Most likely to succeed…later
Unfortunately, the guy most likely to succeed as a right-handed starting pitcher will be just 18 years next year. Richard Gallardo was the Cubs’ top pitching prospect signed via international free agency in 2018 and debuted last summer in Mesa before flashing his mid-90’s fastball for a couple starts in Eugene. We’ll get a better idea of his trajectory once he gets to full-season ball, but he’s probably not going to be anywhere near the majors for at least for three seasons
Kohl Franklin was only 19 years old last summer when he flashed a plus changeup that dazzled many throughout baseball, then he began to develop a plus curveball over the course of the season. A favorite of Cubs Insider‘s Greg Huss, Franklin sat mostly 91-93 last year while sometimes pumping it up a couple ticks higher. At 6-foot-6, he has a lot of room to add some muscle and boost his velocity a little more, but his offspeed stuff is excellent as is.
Kohl Franklin and his curveball. pic.twitter.com/iTNAAt1kha
— Eldrad (@thats_so_cub) July 24, 2019
The wave of pitch lab guys
The Cubs have changed their draft strategy the past two summers, taking some guys who have big arms but are not fully formed prospects. It began In 2018 and we saw the fruits of that draft last summer mostly at South Bend where Riley Thompson and Cam Sanders flashed mid-90s heat to go along with developing curves.
When last summer’s draft came along, the Cubs went out and took pitchers with four of their first five picks. Ryan Jensen, Michael McAvene, Chris Clarke, Josh Burgmann, and Hunter Bigge are a new set of arms we haven’t really seen stretched out yet. Bigge, McAvene, and Jensen came close to triple digits at Eugene and will likely begin 2020 in Myrtle Beach, while Clarke and Burgmann will join Franklin in South Bend. Yovanny Cruz is another of those 20-year-old kids that are taking over the system and he should bring his mid-90’s heat to A-ball as well.
Hunter Bigge with a gas delivery. pic.twitter.com/JUzeoooxaj
— Eldrad (@thats_so_cub) August 12, 2019
This is going to be the most exciting year for pitching in the minors in a long time, which may not seem like much given how poorly the Cubs have developed arms. The effects of the pitch lab and better application of tech are spreading at every level and the impact has been immediate and powerful.
It’s going to be hard to decide who to watch each night on MiLB.tv because every level is going to be loaded with arms and there’s going to be some stiff competition to land in a rotation.
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