Help From Below: Evaluating Chicago Cubs Pitching Prospects

The Chicago Cubs have a problem; however, it isn’t obvious at first glance.

Loaded with young positional talent, the team appears poised to keep this core group together for years to come. This is a fantastic outlook for a squad that won a World Series championship last fall with most of their key position players in their twenties.

However, all this positional talent may not be enough to sustain success into the future since hitting is only half the battle in baseball. If the Cubs can’t maintain a solid starting pitching staff, all the offensive firepower in the world won’t matter.

The makeup of the Cubs starting rotation could look profoundly different after this season.

The Cubs have Jon Lester signed through 2021, but, at 33 years old, Father Time isn’t doing him any favors. Both John Lackey and Jake Arrieta become free agents this winter and the former’s age (38) and the expected price tag for signing the latter could prevent both veterans from returning to the Chicago Cubs. The only sure thing moving forward is Kyle Hendricks who won’t hit free agency until 2021.

The challenge for Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is obvious: he must figure out how to construct a starting rotation that is good enough to help this team compete for World Series titles for years to come.

The method Epstein will eventually use to improve the starting rotation remains a mystery. Will he enter the precarious trade market and risk handing over talented prospects to acquire pitching? Will he try to make another splash in free agency to obtain starting pitching? These are the two more publicized approaches to adding quality pitching, but there is another option.

In previous articles on this site, I posited that the Cubs farm system lacks substantive pitching talent thus further obstructing their ability to improve the starting rotation in the future. However, a more thorough analysis of the farm system deemed this theory lazy, as there are several intriguing prospects who could become difference makers at the MLB level.

Here are some of the guys that may eventually become the future building blocks of the rotation.

2017 MLB Draft: The Reinforcements

Sensing a perpetual discrepancy between the positional and pitching talent in the farm system, Epstein took a proactive approach to the problem and loaded up on pitching talent in the 2017 MLB draft.

Overall, 25 out of the 41 players the Cubs drafted were pitchers.

Brendan Little (LHP) Round 1 Pick 27; State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota

The Cubs have finally added a top-end lefty arm to their minor league system. Last season, Little had seven starts with at least ten strikeouts, and he complements his high strikeout numbers with a low walk rate. Last season, he fanned 133 batters in 85.1 innings of work. Prior to the draft, MLB.com rated him as the 36th-best draft prospect due to his exceptional fastball velocity, solid 12–6 curve, and a changeup that has shown flashes of being a plus pitch despite being a work in progress.

Alex Lange (RHP) Round 1 Pick 30; Louisiana State University

Another high volume strikeout pitcher, Lange finished last season with a 2.92 ERA and a 9–5 record. His freshman season in 2015 was his high-water mark as he posted a 1.97 ERA and a 12–0 record. MLB.com rated him as the 23rd-best draft prospect.

Cory Abbott (RHP) Round 2 Pick 67; Loyola Marymount

Abbott earned first team All-American honors in 2017 after posting a dominating 1.74 ERA to go along with 11 wins in 15 tries during his junior season. Added velocity on his fastball and a new pitch, the slider, has transformed his game to a high enough level to warrant a second round pick.

Keegan Thompson (RHP) Round 3 Pick 105; Auburn University

Thompson normally operates at lower velocities than the other guys on this list, and his best pitch is a 12–6 curveball. He is in the old range on the draft age spectrum (22 years old) and has a more mature approach and polished pitch repertoire compared to many of his younger counterparts.

The Other 21:

Erich Uelmen (RHP) Round 4 Pick 135; Cal Poly; 2.93 ERA; 9.2 K/9 in final season with Cal Poly

Jeremiah Estrada (RHP) Round 6 Pick 196; Palm Desert High School; 1.13 ERA with 101 strikeouts in 68.1 innings of work.

Ricky Tyler Thomas (LHP) Round 7 Pick 225; California State University at Fresno

Brian Glowicki (RHP) Round 10 Pick 315; University of Minnesota; 16 saves and a 2.20 ERA in final year in college

Rollie Lacy (RHP) Round 11 Pick 345; Creighton University; 2.80 ERA in three seasons at Creighton

Hunter Ruth (RHP) Round 32 Pick 975; Buchholz High School; recently underwent Tommy John surgery, but was previously the №52 prospect on Baseball America’s draft list

Ben Hecht (RHP) Round 12 Pick 375; Wichita State University; 5.04 ERA in 30.1 innings last season

Peyton Remy (RHP) Round 17 Pick 525; Central Arizona College; 4.25 ERA in 13 appearances last season

Casey Ryan (RHP) Round 18 Pick 555; University of Hawaii; 4.91 ERA in 7.1 innings pitched last season

Brendan King (RHP) Round 20 Pick 615; Holy Cross; 2.92 ERA across three collegiate seasons

Sean Barry (RHP) Round 21 Pick 645; University of San Diego; 21 appearances with a 4.43 ERA last season

Brady Miller (RHP) Round 23 Pick 705; Western Oregon University; 3.14 ERA in 80.1 innings last season

Braxton Light (RHP) Round 24 Pick 735; Wallace State Community College

Mitch Stophel (RHP) Round 25 Pick 765; King University; 7.15 ERA in 13 appearances last season

Bryce Bonnin (RHP) Round 26 Pick 795; Barbers Hill High School

Darius Vines (RHP) Round 27 Pick 825; St. Bonaventure High School; 1.24 ERA as a senior

Jake Steffens (RHP) Round 29 Pick 885; Santa Clara; career 4.81 ERA

Andrew Karp (RHP) Round 34 Pick 1035; Florida State University; 6.91 ERA as a redshirt freshman

Alex Cornwell (LHP) Round 37 Pick 1125; Maranatha High School

Russell Smith (LHP) Round 38 Pick 1155; Midlothian High School

Jeffrey Passantino (RHP) Round 40 Pick 1215; Lipscomb University; 3.09 ERA in 15 appearances

Notes on Draft:

  • Keeping with his past history, Epstein opted for collegiate pitchers over high school pitchers. The first five pitchers he selected all played in college.
  • The Cubs added lefty pitcher Brendan Little to a farm system starving for left-handed pitching. The Cubs five-best incumbent pitching prospects are all right-handed pitchers according to MLB.com.
  • The first five players the Cubs drafted were pitchers including Little and Lange whom the Cubs took in the first round. Last season, the Cubs also went heavy on pitching early in the draft, but prior to that they hadn’t taken a pitcher in the first round since 2010 when they selected Hayden Simpson with the 16th overall pick.
  • Trust Theo: he has been a wizard with his draft picks during his tenure with the Chicago Cubs. It isn’t a stretch at all to believe that one or more of the pitchers in this crop of draft picks will pan out into solid pieces for the Cubs rotation in the future. Knowing Theo’s wizardry, these pitchers could develop into something more.

The Incumbents

In a post- MLB draft addition, Bleacher Report writer Joel Reuter slotted the Cubs farm system as the 15-best in MLB. Anchoring that ranking is top-end position prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ (included on here even though he plays at the MLB level). However, from a depth perspective, pitching prospects now reign in the Cubs farm system, taking seven of the 10 slots when Reuter ranked the top 10 prospects within each farm system.

It’s not just Lange, Little, and other recent draft prospects that have buoyed the overall quality of the Cubs crop of pitchers down on the farm. Five of the seven pitchers Reuter mentioned have spent at least one year in the Cubs farm system.

Maybe Epstein doesn’t have to conduct a blockbuster trade or lure a pricey free agent at the end of the season to maintain the quality of the Cubs starting rotation (if he’s trying to win in the short term, a pre-trade deadline trade is probably still in order.

The Cubs minor league pitching is better than you probably think.

Abbreviation Glossary

ETA=Estimated Time of Arrival as Predicted by MLB.com.

Stat charts snipped from FanGraphs.com.

I consulted MLB.com and FanGraphs for stats.

Dylan Cease (RHP) Single A South Bend Cubs

ETA: 2019; 21.5 years old; 6–2, 190 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs third-best prospect; 65th-best prospect in all the minor leagues; Cubs picked him in the sixth round of the 2013 MLB Draft

A devastating fastball-curve combination makes Cease the Cubs top-rated pitching prospect in the minor league system. He’s been limited this season with South Bend due to a sprained ankle he suffered in late May, but returned to action on June 11. His three-pitch arsenal and the fact that his fastball touches 97 mph suggests that his future could be as a high-leverage reliever; however, for now, the Cubs have used him almost exclusively in a starting role during his three-year minor league career.

Oscar De La Cruz (RHP) Single A Myrtle Beach Pelicans

ETA: 2019; 22 years old; 6–4, 200 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs fifth-best prospect; Cubs signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 at age 17

A physical hulk of a specimen, De La Cruz’s pitching profile matches his colossal frame. He boasts a mid-90s fastball with good movement and uses his large hands and big body to cover up the ball during his pitching delivery to create additional deception. MLB.com projects him as at least a solid third option in a MLB rotation one day.

Trevor Clifton (RHP) Double A Tennessee Smokies

ETA: 2018; 22 years old; 6–1, 170 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs seventh-best prospect; the Cubs drafted him in 2013 in the 12th round at age 18.

Another young, hard throwing right-handed pitcher, Clifton has improved his numbers every year since he entered the Cubs minor league system in 2013. After posting a brilliant 2.72 ERA in 23 starts with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans last season, the Cubs named him as their Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He doesn’t draw nearly as much attention as Cease or many of the Cubs position prospects, but he has steadily risen through the Cubs minor league ranks and could be a name to look out for in the near future.

Jose Albertos (RHP) Arizona League

ETA: 2019; 18 years old; 6–1, 185 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs eighth-best prospect; the Cubs signed him out of the Mexican Professional League in 2015.

Albertos pitched four scoreless innings last season in the Arizona League, but forearm soreness derailed his opportunity to extend his 0.00 ERA to more than one start. Scouts rave about his 98 mph fastball and his advanced “feel for his pitches” despite his young age.

Thomas Hatch (RHP) Myrtle Beach Pelicans

ETA: 2019; 22 years old; 6–1, 190 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs 11th-best prospect; the Cubs drafted him in 2016 in the third round

An over 50 percent groundball rate due to outstanding sinking action on his fastball has contributed to his solid start to his first minor league season in the Cubs farm system. He pitched 130 innings during his last season with Oklahoma State in 2016, and the Cubs have been careful with him since they drafted him last season.

Jose Paulino (LHP) South Bend Cubs

ETA: 2019; 22 years old; 6–2, 165 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs 14th-best prospect; Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2011

After leading the short-season Northwest League in ERA (0.51) last season, Paulino has taken a step back this season in low Single A ball. He lacks the dominant pitch repertoire of many of his farm system counterparts, but his command of both sides of the plate has allowed him to survive (and sometimes thrive) at the lower minor league levels.

Duane Underwood (RHP) Tennessee Smokies

ETA: 2018; 22 years old; 6–2; 210 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs 15th-best prospect; Cubs drafted him in 2012 in the second round

Underwood projects more as a middle reliever than a starter moving forward given his inability to sustain velocity through the entirety of his starts. He’s had injury issues and inconsistencies, but the 98 mph fastball and electric curve combination he flashed in high school and at times in the minor leagues has kept the Cubs committed to his development.

Jose Rosario (RHP) Iowa Cubs

ETA: 2017; 26 years old; 6–1, 170 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs 19th-best prospect; signed in 2007 from the Dominican Republic

A high-effort delivery unleashes a fastball in the high 90s, but control issues have done him no favors during his 10-year minor league career. He projects as a setup man in the bullpen, and the Cubs actually added him to the 40-man roster last season in November.

Rob Zastryzny (LHP) Iowa Cubs and Chicago Cubs

25 years old, 6–3; 205 pounds

MLB.com ranked him as the Cubs 22nd-best prospect; the Chicago Cubs signed him in 2013 in the second round

Zastryzny had an opportunity to flaunt his stuff at the MLB level last season due to the Cubs shortage of left-handed pitchers. He performed well, pitching to a 1.13 ERA across eight appearances in relief duty at the end of the season. He lacks a dominating pitch, but his extensive arsenal and deceptive delivery made him hard to hit at least for those eight games with the Cubs last season.

Other Names to Watch

Felix Pena (RHP) Iowa Cubs and he has pitched in 18 games with the Chicago Cubs between 2016 and 2017

Alec Mills (RHP) Iowa Cubs; Previously Kansas City Royals minor league affiliates and three games at the MLB level

Pierce Johnson (RHP) Iowa Cubs; Pitched one game with the Chicago Cubs in 2017

Bryan Hudson (LHP) South Bend Cubs

Ryan Williams (RHP) Iowa Cubs

Bailey Clark (RHP) Eugene Emeralds

Preston Morrison (RHP) Tennessee Smokies

Jake Stinnett (RHP) Currently Injured; Played for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans previously

Notes:

  • The Cubs are lacking in the left-handed pitching department. Only one of the eight top-rated pitching prospects throws from the left side. If the Cubs are looking for additional help in this area, they may have to explore other avenues to acquire what they covet.
  • Although Cease captures most of the headlines among Cubs pitching prospects, De La Cruz has seen his stock rise because of his steady improvement. Both currently reside in Single-A ball, but possess the pitching tools to project as eventual MLB starters.
  • Most of the Cubs top pitching talent is in their early stages of development, and project to arrive at the MLB level (assuming improvement) at about the same time (2018–2019). This gives the Cubs the luxury of being able to have some of these players flame out and still be fine because of the depth they’ve now accumulated.
  • The Cubs need viable starters to seriously compete for a World Series title, and they aren’t likely to find help via the farm system in this area until 2019. This season, they must either tread water with the pitchers they have or try to make a trade prior to the late-July deadline. Until 2019, trades and free agency will remain the Cubs best options for improving the starting rotation.

The Cubs farm system has received a lot of criticism for always being position player heavy. However, the current crop of pitchers project as solid enough to eventually bolster a starting rotation that will need a serious makeover in the coming years.

Paul Steeno spent 11 years pretending he was good at running. After hanging up the track spikes and officially becoming an elite hobby jogger, he decided to do something that he was actually good at: like writing about the Cubs. He is also a perpetually frustrated Chicago Bulls fan. This one time he got super lucky and ran 3:52 in the 1500 meter run.