Chicago Cubs Organizational Breakdown, Pt 9 – Right-Handed Starters Look to Set Themselves Apart in 2021

The Cubs have more right-handed pitching prospects than they know what to do with, a product of selecting nearly 90 total pitchers between the 2016, 2017, and 2019 drafts. While that is largely to blame for the dearth of hitting prospects at the upper levels, it also explains the glut of arms competing for spots throughout the system and why righty starters are at No. 2 in our prospect position rankings.

Last Year’s Right-Handed Starter Breakdown

It looks like the Cubs are going to have at least four righties in the starting rotation this spring with Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Adbert Alzolay, and Alec Mills. With a group of starters that could go seven or eight deep and an offseason strategy that emphasizes payroll savings, there’s still more room for some prospects to prove themselves.

“We’re going to have a lot of opportunity for young guys to step up and show that they can handle the major league level and they’re ready,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said earlier in January.

MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cubs prospect list currently boasts 11 right-handed starters, several of whom will have legitimate shots to help the organization at some point in 2021. Any one of a group that includes Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller, Duncan Robinson, and Keegan Thompson could break camp as part of the rotation and all of them are good bets to be up at one point or another.

Abbott, the Cubs’ 2019 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, spent part of last summer in South Bend before heading to Mesa to participate in fall instructs. He is probably the most advanced of the prospects in terms of talent and the ability to both command and tunnel his pitches.

Miller shot up quickly the past couple of years once he began putting things together at Myrtle Beach. He struggled a bit at Iowa in the fall of 2019, but was part of the alternate site and even made it to Chicago last summer for a couple of appearances. Both Thompson and Robinson were at the alternate site after missing most of 2019 and both will likely be at Triple-A Iowa, along with Abbott and Miller, to start 2021.


Riley Thompson, Cam Sanders, and Kohl Franklin were all taken in the 2018 draft and all showed a lot of promise in their first full season in the system the following year. Franklin will be 21 this year and might be the arm Cubs fans have been dreaming of for years with his plus change and developing curve while throwing in the mid-90s. Thompson, meanwhile, has upper-90s heat and a devastating breaker combined with an intensity to dominate the competition.

Sanders grew immensely in 2019 by refining his changeup and developing a 12-6 curve that saw him dominate in the second half of the season with a 2.36 ERA in 10 starts along with a minuscule .161 batting average against.

The Cubs took several big arms at the top of the 2019 draft that have yet to really be tested. Ryan Jensen, Michael McAvene, Chris Clarke, and Josh Burgmann would have all started at some level of A-ball had there been a season in 2020, but now it’s anybody’s guess where they could start in 2021. All four can reach the mid- to upper-90s with some sort of devastating offspeed stuff. Jensen has a nice curve, McAvene throws a hard-snapping slurve, Clarke, a slider, and Burgmann a killer changeup and curve.

The real challenge for all of them will stretching back out falling a year off, prior to which they’d all toiled under strict pitch-count limits. Assistant GM and VP of pitching Craig Breslow believes the time off could actually be a blessing in disguise for some young prospects, so perhaps that will be the case for some of the members of this quartet.


A little further down the list we find the promising trio of Richard Gallardo, Yovanny Cruz, and Jeremiah Estrada. Gallardo, the Cubs’ top IFA signee in 2018, got in some work in 2019 at Mesa and Eugene and is still only 19 years old. Cruz and Estrada are 21 and 22, respectively, and both flashed great talent in small stretches when they were healthy. I am holding out for all to return to form at low-A.

Koen Moreno was taken in the fifth round of the 2020 Draft and should be in Mesa next summer as he begins his professional career. He is going to be an interesting follow as he is very athletic and he has a nice frame that is nowhere near done filling out. 

Undrafted free agents Max Bain and Joe Nahas have yet to really show what they can do. While Nahas was electric at times at Eugene, Bain has not thrown in a game that mattered as a Cub yet. In keeping with Breslow’s prediction, Bain has taken huge strides by working with Driveline and other groups to improve his physical fitness and get the most out of his 6-foot-5 frame.

Manuel Espinoza pitched at Mesa in 2019 after missing all of 2018 after a contract snafu in Mexico, posting a 2.49 ERA with 37 strikeouts and just nine walks over 47 innings in the Arizona Rookie League. He will be 20 next summer and should be in low-A to start the season. 

One final electric arm to consider is Sam Thoresen, who the Cubs signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota. If the Cubs can harness his upper-90s heat, look out.

Even though this is the deepest position in the Cubs system in terms of the sheer number of prospects, it is also the most unproven and lacks a truly dominant arm that could slot in at the top of the rotation somewhere down the line. That could all change depending upon how the Cubs’ new development infrastructure and more tailored individual plans work out in 2021. This is only the first full year for that, though, so we might still be a ways out from seeing the fruits of those efforts.

 Hopefully, the Cubs will find two or three guys mentioned above that can take their game to another level. In case you’re looking to place a friendly wager, my money’s on Franklin.

Check out our other organizational breakdowns

Third base
Second base
First base
Right-handed relievers
Left-handed relievers

Left-handed starting pitchers

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