Since Theo Epstein has run the Cubs’ baseball operation, the strategy has been to target high upside hitting prospects in the draft. As year four winds down, that strategy seems to be paying off. Kris Bryant leads the National League in fWAR. Addison Russell (1.5) and Kyle Schwarber (1.4) are also near the top of the leader board among NL rookies. And there is no shortage of hitting in the minor league system as things currently stand.
The area that is consistently talked about as being a weakness is the pitching. In some respects, that is a fair criticism. In spite of all of the strong young hitting that has come through the system, the Cubs have not graduated a top flight pitcher, yet. Kyle Hendricks has shown a lot of promise early in his major league career, but he is a back end starter. And, as things stand today, there is no pitcher on the cusp of breaking into the middle or top of the Cubs’ rotation.
Contrary to the common perception of the system, though, the Cubs are actually fairly well stocked with young pitchers with a lot of talent. While Carl Edwards, Jr. (C.J. Edwards) has been the bell-cow of the Cubs’ pitching prospects since being acquired in the Matt Garza trade, he may soon be overshadowed by pitchers who can make an impact in the starting rotation down the road. Although top draft picks have been spent on young hitters and the Jeff Samardzija trade was also one that netted a talented hitter, the strategy to add pitchers in bulk appears to be on the verge of paying some significant dividends at a time where they will be needed.
In 2012, after the selection of Albert Almora, the Cubs spent the two compensatory selections gained from the free agent departures of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena on Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn. The second round pick was Duane Underwood. Underwood, in the eyes of some, is the top pitching prospect in the system. After some early issues with command, his 2014 and 2015 seasons have been revelations. Pierce Johnson, when healthy, has also been quite good. Currently, Johnson has a 1.70 ERA and 3.50 FIP in 12 starts with AA Tennessee. Blackburn is also pitching well with Advanced A Myrtle Beach, with a 2.99 ERA and 2.96 FIP in 16 starts.
Because Johnson is eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter, there is some remote possibility that he is added to the 40 man roster for the stretch run in September and brought up. Johnson could break into the rotation as soon as next summer if he stays healthy. Underwood may find his way into the rotation in 2017 if his development continues to trend upward…and he may be the best of the three.
Behind the 2012 trio of arms are more recent draft selections who have as much or more upside than any pitchers in the organization. The trio of 2014 bonus babies, Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Dylan Cease is a very talented group who were all paid significantly over their 4th through 6th round slot values. Although all three are only in their first full professional season, all three have the potential to break into a the rotation down the road. While these are clearly the most talented pitchers of the 2014 draft, Ryan Williams is the most accomplished. The 10th round pick, who signed for a mere $1000 bonus, is already in AA. After dominating the Midwest League early in the season, Williams has taken his advanced approach to pitching to AA, where he has a 2.60 ERA and 2.65 FIP in 69.1 innings. While he doesn’t get many strikeouts, he also doesn’t walk many (only 13 in AA and 15 for the season in 123 innings). It is possible that Williams cracks the major leagues as soon as 2016. While he doesn’t profile to be a middle or upper rotation pitcher, he could fill the bottom of the rotation or the bullpen with his heavy sinking fastball.
Other interesting names in the system include 2015 3rd round pick Bryan Hudson. The Illinois prep product features one of the nastier curves to come out of 2015. He is a bit further away, as he is only 18 years old, but his 6’8″, 220 pound frame leave room for a lot of projection. Rob Zastryzny has shown some flashes, but injuries and inconsistencies have slowed his development. He is only 23, so is by no means a lost cause. And he shows the ability that made him a second round pick just two years ago enough to give hope that he can one day be an option in the rotation, or at the very least, as a reliable bullpen arm. Jake Stinnett is another interesting pitching prospect. Although he’s had some struggles, both with command and injury in his first full season at South Bend, he has found some consistency as of late. In some ways, this season has been a disappointment for Stinnett. His college pedigree could have allowed him a quick advance out of South Bend, as it did for Ryan Williams and Jeremy Null. He has still shown flashes of what made him a 2nd round pick a year ago, though. A strong finish to 2015 could help propel him into a strong 2016.
In the short-term, the system does not appear to be likely to produce a pitcher who is going to take over at or near the top of the Cubs’ rotation. The good news is that it doesn’t need to. With Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta entrenched in their roles for the next few years and the possibility that another top tier pitcher is added this winter, there is ample time for these talented arms to develop and emerge when they’re ready to contribute. When the time comes, though, the Cubs have a number of options who can develop into very good major league starting pitchers.