Theo Epstein’s state mission is to build this franchise into a perianal playoff contender. To accomplish that goal the pitching staff as a whole is going to have to take massive steps forward. The Cubs lack a bona fide ace, and the past year’s transaction should show that free agency is not going to be the route that nets the Cubs that player. Matt Cain and Cole Hamels were supposed to be the big prizes in free agency this past offseason but both signed long term deals to remain with their clubs. King Felix was a couple of years away from free agency but he is also locked up his peak years with the Mariners. This coming offseason Matt Garza is probably going to be the best pitcher on the market. So that leaves two options for landing those front of the rotation type starters, developing or trading for those players. And ultimately both of those options rely on the same approach of developing pitching talent.
Theo Epstein has spoken at length about developing waves of pitching. The reason for this is for the concept of TINSTAAPP which basically holds that so many things happen to pitchers on their way to the majors that a majority will fall to wayside. The lack of those waves was painfully exposed last season when the Cubs had to go out and acquire pitchers like Justin Germano and Jason Berken because they were better than the internal options. The Cubs options for fifth starters have improved dramatically at the major league level and in the minors. Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley are likely to be joined in Iowa with Nick Struck and Barret Loux. There is also the mysterious Yoanner Negrin who could be an option as well.
The front office has also built a nice wave in the lowest levels of the minors primarily through the past two drafts. This group is headlined by Dillon Maples and Duane Underwood who probably have the highest ceilings of any arms in the Cubs organization. Unfortunately both are extremely raw, young kids with a long way to go before making an impact at the major league level. The group has a lot of depth though with guys like Paul Blackburn, Trey Lang, Anthony Prieto, etc. Watching these kids work through the system together should be fun and be one of many reasons to check out Kane County this year and beyond despite Soler and Baez likely skipping low A ball.
The gap though is the impact arms that could reach the majors by the end of 2014. There will are plenty of options for those fifth starter/middle relievers in Dallas Beeler, Dae-Eun Rhee, Kyle Hendricks, Austin Kirk and more. Guys that profile as either 3s or better, and even just high leverage bullpen arms, are scarce. The Cubs through trade and draft have added a few options though that might form that first wave.
Arodys Vizcaino is the headliner of the bunch. He should be pitching by the end of 2013. Health concerns and his slight frame have many including Keith Law believing that Vizcaino’s future role will be a high leverage reliever. The Cubs front office certainly is going to give Vizcaino the opportunity to try to start given his repertoire and stuff. If his arm can hold up for 200 innings, he has the ability to be a 2 in the majors.
Alberto Cabrera is the other guy that has a real shot at pitching in the majors this season. Cabrera took a huge step forward as a change of grip by Chris Bosio dramatically improved his stuff. Cabrera’s frame and three pitches should allow him to be a quality 3, but he will have to prove it in Iowa this year. Cabrera has never thrown more than 137 innings in a season, and has yet to experience sustained success in the majors. He is likely to be the most intriguing arm in Iowa until Vizcaino is ready to pitch again.
This is where the list gets into the stretch category.
Tony Zych has a lot of upside as a reliever, and the importance of that can be understated at times. Looking around at the best bullpens in baseball right now, and a majority of them are built around young hard throwing guys. Cincinnati, Atlanta and Chicago White Sox all experienced major success with bullpens built around under 30 guys, mostly well under 30. Zych has the fastball/slider combination that most teams look for in a power arm, and should be up at some point this season to show it.
Robert Whitenack was on the fast track in 2011 to be an impact arm, but Tommy John Surgery derailed his campaign. He came back in 2012 and was shaky at best. Another year removed from surgery will hopeful lead to an improvement in command, and get Whitenack back on track. Whitenack should end up in AA at some point this season, and despite scrapping what might have been his best pitch in the knuckle-curve he still has the makings of a big league 3.
Pierce Johnson and Juan Carlos Paniagua are two high upside arms that have thrown a combined 11 pro innings stateside. However their age could allow them to move quickly through the system. Pierce Johnson has injury concerns which allowed him to fall to the Cubs supplemental round pick. Juan Carlos Paniagua has yet to throw a pitch stateside, but both have a ton of upside. Also being more physically mature than the other arms in the low minors could get them in AA by 2014 and that could put them within range of a callup at the end of the timeframe.
So the Cubs first wave of pitching under the Theo regime is made up of two guys coming off injury, two guys who have never thrown an inning of full season ball, a reliever converted into a starter and another reliever. That does not inspire confidence and is a big reason why Epstein said the organization was about 30 percent of the way towards being healthy again. The Cubs will hopefully have the ability to add to this wave through trades again this season, but the real opportunity is the 2013 draft. The Cubs picking at second have the opportunity to land a guy that could become a headliner in that first wave in Stanford senior Mark Appel.
Appel made his second start of the college season yesterday and racked up 9 strikeouts. Appel has the stuff and the frame to be a front of the rotation starter. There are questions with him including his tendency to pitch a little too much in the zone and signability with Boras as his advisor. However, Appel should be able to move quickly through the system and be a viable option at the end of 2014.
Epstein addressed specifically drafting a college pitcher in his recent interview with David Kaplan. He said that it would be nice if a college pitcher emerged but forcing a pick is what makes you regret your choice. Here’s hoping to Appel emerging as the second overall pick and help building that first wave.