So you've probably heard it said that one area the Cubs would like to shore up is the starting pitching talent at the upper levels. The Cubs have made several moves to revamp the starting rotation that will likely see three new faces in Paul Maholm, Travis Wood, and Chris Volstad. There is experienced depth behind them as well in Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, and Andy Sonnanstine. A potential Matt Garza trade, though looking less likely to happen before Opening Day, would certainly give the depth an even bigger boost.
The Cubs are not completely devoid of starting pitching prospects at the AA and AAA levels, however it isn't exactly brimming with front line starter types. There is some interesting talent to keep an eye on, though, and I'll list them here along with age and the level at which they're expected to play in 2012.
I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of these names found their way to the rotation by 2013 and 2014, perhaps even sooner if one of these pitchers has a major breakthrough.
1. Trey McNutt, RHP, 22, (AA)
McNutt was a guy the Cubs refused to part with in any early compensation talk and rightfully so. At worst, he's probably a late inning reliever with his ability to hit the upper 90s with his fastball. At best, he has two plus-plus pitches and can slide in somewhere in the front of the Cubs future rotation. His secondary pitch is something of a hybrid between a curveball and a slider in that it has both big break and high velocity. If he can command it, it gives him a second knockout pitch to go with his fastball. If he can get just add an average changeup along with regaining some of the command he had in 2010, McNutt can still reach his ceiling as a #2 starter. One thing he has in his favor is good athleticism, which leads to good body control and being able to repeat your delivery. That gives the Cubs hope that he can pitch with the type of command required to be a quality starter.
2. Dae Un Rhee, RHP, 23 (AA)
It's curious that the Cubs left Rhee unprotected despite being a starting pitcher who has mid-rotation ability. It's likely that they took that risk because of Rhee's injury history and the fact that he has yet to pitch above high class A ball. Rhee was a promising prospect before Tommy John surgery and it took him a while to regain the stuff and command that had the Cubs hopeful he could develop into a top SP prospect. Late last season he began to show glimpses of his old self. He can hit 95 mph on a good day but most often works in the 91-93 mph range with his fastball. Rhee's best pitch, however, is his changeup which makes his fastball play up even more. His curveball also shows the potential to be a plus pitch. Encouraging numbers from Rhee last year include a 3.58 FIP and an 8.25 K/9 ratio. He was also able to get his walks down to an acceptable 3 per 9 IP. Three solid to plus pitches make Rhee a potential #3 starter if he proves durable and improves his command.
3. Dallas Beeler, RHP, 22 (AA)
The Cubs made a strategy of drafting good players late and paying them over slot bonuses in 2011, but Beeler was a forerunner to that in 2010. Having had TJ surgery while at Oral Roberts University, Beeler pitched just 12 games and 24 innings as a draft eligible sophomore and was expected to head back for his junior year to improve his stock and draft position. The Cubs stole him in the 41st round and convinced him to go pro. He's a big kid at 6'5" and while his fastball is solid (90-93 mph), control is his biggest asset. He walked just 1.23 hitters per 9 IP between A ball and AA. He had more success overall in A ball, posting a 1.66 ERA and had a 7.27 K/9 ratio. He also kept the ball in the park with a miniscule 0.21 HRs/9 IP. How far Beeler will go depends on the development of his secondary pitches and, of course, his health and stamina. Right now I see him as a 4th starter, but there is still wiggle room for him to improve on that.
4. Chris Rusin, LHP, 25 (AAA)
Rusin is the most ready of all the arms on this list. He's a finesse pitcher who works with good control and a good change-up, though his fastball is fringy at 87-90 mph. At his advanced age, it's likely he is topped out from a physical standpoint. Any further improvement will come from experience and learning the leagues and how to approach more advanced hitters. At one point I liked him as a 5th starter for the Cubs in 2012, but the Cubs have 3 starters on the 40 man roster with MLB experience ahead of him on the depth chart (Coleman, Sonnanstine, Wells) should one of the top 5 get hurt or pitch ineffectively. He also has the advantage of being the most advanced LH starter at the upper levels, so Rusin could leapfrog some of the rostered depth and get the call with a big season at Iowa.
5. Nick Struck, RHP, 22 (AAA)
Struck has better stuff than Rusin and is younger, so you can make a good argument at putting him ahead of Rusin on this list. As far as long term potential goes, I would certainly rank him higher. Like Beeler, I see Struck as a 4th starter type with his low 90s fastball. Struck has 4 pitches, however, and has a more advanced arsenal overall. Moving through 3 levels last season, Struck is an aggressive pitcher who attacks the strike zone, something that should endear him to the new Cubs front office. He put up sub 3.00 FIPs between high A ball and AA last season and, although he didn't get good results at AAA, his 3.60 FIP suggests he pitched better than his 2-4, 5.49 season suggests. One concern is a falling strikeout rate from 8.46 to 6.69 to 5.49 as he moved up each level. He'll likely get another shot at AAA this season, though the Cubs increased depth may force him to start the season in AA, where he excelled in just 6 starts. He's young and there's no need to rush him as the Cubs did last year.
Robert Whitenack, 23, RHP, AA?: Whitenack would have cracked the top five easily had he stayed healthy. Unfortunately TJ surgery cut into what was looking like a breakthrough season. Whitenack sits in the low 90s with his fastball but can reach the mid 90s and showed excellent command and control last season.. Long time Cubs fans may remember Burt Hooten, well, Whitenack has his own version of a knuckle-curve and it is a legit out pitch. A healthy season where Whitenack regains velocity and command is on the table for 2012. That would put him back on the prospect map for 2013. Best case scenario is that he finishes the year healthy where it ended last year, at AA.
Eric Jokisch, 22, LHP, AA: Some think Jokisch may have had the best results of any SP this year. Stuffwise he is perhaps a younger version of Chris Rusin, maybe even a tick below. Jokisch profiles as a back of the rotation, finesse type who pitches primarily in the high 80s with his fastball. He has to continue to hit his spots and change speeds to have success against more advanced hitters.
The Cubs offseason moves to add depth to the rotation obviously helps the big league team in the event of injury, but it also buys time for their upper level prospects to develop. With the possible exception of McNutt, these aren't guys who can get thrown in to the big leagues and tread water on stuff alone. Time to work on the art of pitching will increase their chances to succeed and make a bigger impact at the big league level.