Since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the front office, the Cubs have had a draft strategy of taking the best hitter possible in the first round. That strategy is what makes the hitting prospects the toast of the town, bringing Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber to the organization. But beyond the first round, there have been a plethora of arms selected, building a system with some less heralded, but very interesting pitching talent. Much of that talent is very young, being selected out of high school. Because of that, many of those arms are largely unknown and just last season started to make their way into full season baseball.
2014 saw the Kane County Cougars dominate the Midwest League, setting the regular season pace for wins and ultimately winning the Midwest League Championship. That dominance was fueled by an outstanding pitching staff, constantly shutting down opposing line ups and giving an offense highlighted by constant change room to breathe. Before last season, 2012 second round draft pick Duane Underwood was a model of inconsistency. That changed in a big way, as he was one of the leaders of the dominant Cougars staff that is now working in High A Myrtle Beach.
The pitching prospects in the Cubs organization that fans know best are C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Underwood’s teammate, Jen-Ho Tseng. Tseng emerged last season, as he dominated low A with very mature command and control, which makes up for less than great stuff. With Edwards and Johnson both getting close to knocking on Wrigley’s door either late in this season or at some point in 2016, and with Tseng still being a variable, Underwood represents the peak of the second wave of Cubs pitching prospects. He will only turn 21 in the middle of this season and is still likely 2-3 years away from the majors. That timeline could accelerate, though, if he continues to show more consistency in his control and command.
As a prospect, Underwood saw a huge leap after his very good 2014. He ranks as the #8 Cubs prospect on MLB.com and #10 on Baseball America. His improved consistency in 2014 was marked by an improvement in control and command. If he knows where his pitches are going, he has good stuff, throwing a low to mid 90s fastball, with a good curve ball and a developing change up. The consensus among the scouting services is that if Underwood can continue to his development, he projects as a mid rotation starter, with a chance at moving into the top half of a rotation.
Underwood’s growth is very clear when looking at the numbers. In 22 games, and 21 starts, at Kane County, Underwood set a new pace in K/9 at 7.51 and dropped his walks from 4.47 BB/9 with Boise in 2013 to 3.22 BB/9 last season. His 1.20 WHIP represented the best of his career,combined with stranding 80% of his base runners, brought his ERA to a very healthy 2.50. He did still have his issues with wildness, hitting 8 batters and throwing 9 wild pitches, but both represent major improvements over his 2013 campaign, where he hit 6 batters and threw 8 wild ones in just over half of the innings he threw last season. Underwood has carried his success over to his first start in Myrtle Beach, allowing 1 unearned run in 5 innings as the opening day starter for the Pelicans…which is to say, he’s off to a good start.
Like Tseng, there are some remaining questions about Underwood which can hold back his prospect status. His stuff is good enough that his numbers may have been inflated last season by throwing closer to the strike zone to over-matched hitters. If that is the case, his numbers should reflect such as he progresses, even this season in high A. Advanced hitters will pounce on hittable strikes, even if the stuff is comparatively good. For that reason, it is imperative for Duane Underwood to continue to develop his secondary offerings. His curve is very good, and when can put it where he wants it, it can elicit the swings and misses that stuff of his caliber should bring. If he continues to work on his change up, he will have a 3 pitch mix that will help him rise through the system.
2015 is, in some respects, a defining season for Duane Underwood. He is just now beginning to reach some more advanced levels of the minor leagues, in high A Myrtle Beach. As the hitters become more advanced, he will have to show that his 2014 season was more than overpowering inferior hitters. He did make the critical first step last year, though. He threw more strikes. In his time in Arizona and Boise, Underwood struggled at times to find the zone. That changed quite a bit last year. Now brings the task of refining those strikes, putting them in places to bring swings and misses or inducing more weak contact. For a pitcher with the stuff Underwood has, he did not have the strike out numbers that would be hoped for at a low level of the minors.
At 20, Underwood is far from a finished product, as expected. But he does represent what is becoming a new normal in the Cubs minor league system. He is an intriguing and very young arm. He throws hard, he has good stuff, and if he figures it all out, he could turn into a very productive major league player. In that regard, he is the embodiment of the Epstein/ Hoyer method of drafting pitchers. They take a massive quantity of them, allowing them greater room for error or pitchers who just don’t make it. Not all will make it, but if they continue to develop pitchers who take steps forward like Underwood’s 2014 season, the Cubs will feature a robust farm of solid pitching…which will align nicely with a system full of high upside hitting prospects.