Early in this major league season, the Cubs have had some issues with injuries in the bullpen. Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez are both on the shelf, which has caused overuse of the reliable Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon. It’s led to increased use of players like Brian Schlitter. And it’s brought Gonzalez Germen to the big leagues from Iowa, where he was supposed to serve as insurance against this very type of disaster.
Fortunately, Grimm and Ramirez, both acquired in the Matt Garza trade with the Texas Rangers will return. While both have injuries that require rest in order to recover, neither project to be out for the long term. Their returns will stabilize what has become a volatile bullpen situation in the season’s first three weeks. When they do return, the Cubs will return to a situation where they have a bullpen with a group of power arms that can be used in high leverage situations late in games.
Players like Ramirez and Grimm highlight the way the Cubs, led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, plan to build the majority of their bullpens. Draft or acquire a bunch of young and live arms, let them start in the minor leagues until they prove they likely will not succeed as starters in the majors, and then turn them into relievers. In regards to Grimm and Ramirez, so far so good. But those guys are the tip of the iceberg of good arms in the system. One such arm who was acquired via trade was Corey Black, from the New York Yankees.
After the trade was completed, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was pretty adamant that he didn’t want to give up Black to reacquire Soriano:
“I didn’t want to give up [Single-A pitcher] Corey Black, but I didn’t nix the Soriano deal. I did not want to do Corey Black. We had been negotiating with the Cubs for a long time. They wanted something more a week earlier and ownership, obviously, in our discussions [felt] we needed to do something.
They were like, ‘Hey, we are not going to wait anymore to negotiate, we have to get this done now.”
The Yankees’ loss is the Cubs’ gain in this instance. Fortunately, Hal Steinbrenner didn’t fall all that far away from George Steinbrenner’s tree and forced his GM’s hand.
In Black, the Cubs got a starting pitcher who works in the low to mid 90s with a good slider. He is also working on a change and curve. The biggest problem with Black has been command and control. Last season with AA Tennessee, Black walked 5.14 batters per 9 innings, compared to the 8.61 per 9 he struck out. The unanimous decision from scouts is that Black will probably be a major leaguer, but he will also likely be limited to the bullpen. In that sense, there is a ton of optimism. Because his ceiling is pretty limited to the bullpen long term, Black does not rate highly on prospect listings. He doesn’t crack the top ten on any list, and comes in a 19 on MLB.com’s Cubs Top 30.
The results at AA Tennessee were very much mixed for Corey Black last season. In some starts, he would dazzle with his big fastball and over-match AA hitters with the combination of his slider. In others, he would struggle to find the zone or would catch too much of the zone and get hit. The inconsistency in his performance last season probably goes a long way in explaining why he’s back with the Smokies this spring, instead of working every fifth day in Iowa. Statistically, his 2014 doesn’t look bad. Although his 3.47 ERA may have skewed a bit to the lucky side with his 4.68 FIP. In short, for a guy with his stuff, he didn’t strike out enough hitters and walked way too many. Through 3 starts, his strike outs are up slightly from 22% last year to 22.8% this year, and with his walks coming down, he is working with a much prettier 1.80 ERA and a 2.93 FIP. With the lower walks, he is getting hit less, with a .243 BABIP allowed, down from .269 last year and his WHIP has fallen from 1.38 to 1.00. In every respect to the early season for Black, it’s a good start.
Because of his size, 5’11”, 175 lbs, Black has some effort that goes into pumping his fastball which has reached the upper 90s. With an upper 90s heater, though, and an above average slider, Black can situate himself nicely as a late innings reliever with the ceiling of becoming a closer. Although he is currently repeating AA, he may find himself headed to Iowa later this season. That is especially true if he continues the good start he’s gotten off to. He’s only walked 6, dropping his BB/9 from 5.14 last year to 3.60 in the early going this season. While that number is still a touch high, it is in line with the 3.50 posted by Neil Ramirez in his first big league season in 2014. It’s not great, but it’s palatable for someone with swing and miss stuff. Black has that kind of stuff, and it will show to a much greater extent when he isn’t stretching out to work as a starter.
While it is too early to predict when Corey Black makes his major league debut, he is coming. Since he is still in Tennessee, it may be a tad optimistic to think that he makes a major league debut in 2015. If he does, it would be a surprise if it were anything more than a September call-up. If he continues to keep his walks down to a manageable level and works on getting a few more swings and misses, it is not out of the question that he spends the majority of 2016 in the big league bullpen as a middle reliever, joining the other power arms already residing out there. The biggest point for Black is continuing to avoid the free passes. If he puts his pitches where he wants them, his pure stuff is good enough to get him into Cubs pinstripes, potentially locking down the ends of games at Wrigley Field.