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Cubs upper level pitching prospects

Cubs upper level pitching prospects

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.

Honorable Mention:

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.

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  • This is a big season to see how a lot of our prospects progress. I guess that sounds like something that you would say every year, but after cleaning out the top end of the system for Garza, it became apparent that no one was really going to be coming up suddenly.

    If McNutt can stay healthy through the entire season, then he likely puts himself in a good position to be in the majors for 2013. I'm fascinated with how Theo & Co. will handle the pitching rosters and injuries after his mention of that being a market inefficiency when he was hired.

    TJ surgery doesn't worry me anymore. It has become so routine that it's only an issue of when, not if, a guy returns. Whitenack was putting up some special numbers before his injury, and I do believe he will be in the majors.

    Overall, my top 5 from your list would be

    McNutt
    Struck
    Whitenack
    Rhee
    Jokisch

  • In reply to Cameron Macpherson:

    TJ surgery has become easier and easier to come back from, but it does delay the process a bit. Command and breaking pitches usually lag behind velocity. Considering Whitenack relies more on the latter two make me think that 2012 might be something of a lost year for him. We know it set Rhee back 2 years.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I have a feeling that Rhee might end up being forced into the bullpen. It's hard to find ML quality starters, even with how the game has evolved to only ask 6 maybe 7 innings from them

  • In reply to Cameron Macpherson:

    I think what makes Rhee a legit starter candidate is the advanced change-up, to go with two solid MLB pitches. I think now that he's going to be sufficiently removed from surgery and is physically maturing, I suspect he'll be able to go deeper into games. What I don't see is a pitch that has plus plus potential other than the change and I think it limits his upside to mid-rotation, but I think he can be a starter.

    I'm interested to see how all these guys pitch. All have some room to improve. The top 3 on my list plus maybe Struck are the most interesting to me as far as SP prospects to watch for 2012. Struck is a bit more interesting to me than Rusin, though Rusin's polish and left-handedness ultimately made me decide to give him the edge by the slimmest of margins. All things being equal, the Cubs are more likely to call Rusin up in the event of an emergency than anyone else on this list.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I think Rhee is my favorite of the bunch. He really came around the last month or two of last year.

  • In reply to Norm:

    I've been intrigued by Rhee for a long time, since the Cubs challenged him by putting him at full season ball at the age of 19. He's always been advanced because of the change-up and it took him awhile to get back, but I agree he started to pitch well last season in some big ballgames.

  • I do like the depth we have with our pitching. We do lack in high end prospects, but have a number of guys that could develop in the 3-5 starter range. If we sign Garza long-term, we could our 2 - 5 starters locked up. Next years projected FA class for SP is really, really deep (and with high end talent to boot), so if a few of these guys take steps forward, combined with what we have at the major league level, Theo will have a nice group to build from. He should have flexibility to add a SP or two next offseason.

  • In reply to bwenger:

    I think that's a good point and there's something to be said for being able to develop your own 3-5 starters rather than overpaying for them on the open market. I guess if you're going to pay big, you may as well go for the Cole Hamels type guys rather than the innings eaters. The hope is that McNutt becomes a guy you can pair with Garza (if he stays) as go-to guys at the front end, but both are more #2 types than #1s.

    Speaking of Garza, I'm really interested to see how he does with a much improved defense behind him. Who knows? Maybe he becomes a #1 guy after all...and I don't really like to pigeon-hole guys to specific spots in the rotation.

  • I still think trading Garza for top pitching prospects and using the
    #1 pick in the draft for a college pitcher will greatly help our pitching situtation in the long term.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I don't think anyone necessarily disagrees with you, it's just the likelihood of Garza being traded for multiple top prospects seems a little diminished right now. I'm sure if the Cubs get offered a top package of prospects, they'll do it, but obviously that hasn't happened and I'm not at all sure that a team will step up and pay the price. That's been a concern I've had from the get-go on these Garza rumors. There's a very good chance he's still here on opening day.

    And you have to remember there's a very good chance he'll be better than any SP the Cubs would potentially acquire, at least over the next 5 years. That's the case with the Cubs trade to get Garza in the first place. Archer was almost as highly regarded as Turner and there seems little chance right now that he'll become the pitcher Garza is presently. In the end prospects are just maybes and we shouldn't be hoping for a trade just for the sake of making one. You hope any prospect the Cubs might get will one day be as good as Garza. A trade is no guarantee to improve the Cubs pitching now or even down the road.

  • John, do you get the sense there will be a concerted effort to extend Garza, in the event he isn't traded before ST? I think the return @ the deadline would be insufficient for a team like the Cubs with the necessary financial means to extend him.

  • In reply to Carl9730:

    I think that's a very real possibility if the Cubs aren't getting the sense that a team is willing to give up top prospects. It would give the Cubs an anchor on that staff for the next several years. Epstein has always liked Garza a lot and has tried to acquire him while with Boston. The only change from then is that the team he has isn't as ready to win now, but that could change in 2-3 years. I think they have to strongly consider it if they don't get the offer they want by the trade deadline.

  • John,

    If Whitenack comes back and in a year or two develops into the type of pitcher he was showing last year before his injury, how would you profile him?
    My biggest concern about the pitching depth in the minors for the Cubs would have to be the lack of potential 1s and 2s. McNutt and Maples could both figure to be front line guys, but there seems to be a huge drop off after that. Please tell me that there are a few other arms in the system that profile/could profile at the top of the rotation. That being said, I am really excited to see how the minors leaguers develop now, with the change in organizational philosophy. I can't help but think that the new approach with more focus on fundamentals will/can/should go a long way towards helping the Cubs prospect become more solid players.

  • In reply to supercapo:

    Whitenack began the year as a 5th starter type prospect and perceptions change slowly. He did make a significant leap forward and I think you'd have to consider him a mid-rotation starter if he's able to regain his velocity, breaking ball, and command. Like any young prospect, there's also the chance he continues to improve, so I don't really like to set limits, but I see his most likely out come as a #3-4 starter if he's healthy -- but it doesn't mean he can't be more that that.

  • This is off topic, but one of my biggest frustration as a Cubs fan, going back for years has been how poorly they have focused on the fundamentals. Defense and base running have never been priorities for this team. It frustrates me to no end, to watch year in and year out the number of players we have had in the past that haven't been able to think, and play defense or run the bases at the same time. Yet teams like the Angels and Rays have built winning traditions with a focus on strong heads up play. As a team, the Cubs rarely, if ever put pressure on opposing defenses by taking the extra base when it is available, but we are constantly burned by teams doing just that to us. Why did we not learn from this mistake sooner?
    If Dale and company bring nothing more to the on-field product than a dedication to heads-up, fundamentally sound, aggressive play. Then I would expect to see huge improvement in this team from last year.

  • In reply to supercapo:

    Great thoughts, supercapo. The problem with these recent Cubs is that they don't do the little things, they don't makes those small gains in the margins that eventually add up to big things. And lately, they haven't been talented enough to overcome that.

    I think the Cubs will address that this year. There will be better defense, better baserunning, more efficient pitching, and just more smart play in general. Whereas we are accustomed to seeing the Cubs under perform based on name value, we may see them over perform this year with what is pretty much a no-name lineup.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks, John.

  • I am also getting the vibe that teams like the Tigers are not willing to give what the Cubs want . I think the best thing that could happens is that the Nationals overpay for Fielder and Yu Darvish decides to wait until he is a real free agent next year and spurns the Rangers. If that occurs the Rangers will begin to panic to make a move and get in the Garza derby, that way the Tigers will get antsy and up the ante for Garza.

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    I think right now it's going to take a change in circumstance somewhere, but that may not happen until midseason and there may be other SPs available by then.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    is there anything new on the Darvish status??? It's been close to a month right?

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    i just checked, they have 48 hours to come up with a deal....disputing contract length..he wants 5 they want at least 6..I hope it doesn't get done and Texas gets back in the Garza talks...They may get the Detroit to up their ante

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    It looks like it's going down to the wire. I think Texas winds up signing him, but we'll see.

  • Change of topic

    If Stewart pans out as our 3rd baseman of the future, who has
    the most ability to our 2nd baseman of the future (Lake?)

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Lake might have the most natural ability, but Torreyes may have the best bat and the best baseball instincts.

  • I know this post is about pitching, but I'm curious as to why most if not all the top prospect list for the Cubs omits Steve Clevenger. Any idea? He's got a nice arm, can catch the ball and hits for a good average.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Most people think of him as a backup catcher because of his lack of power. He's a solid defender, but certainly not a game-changer so his upside is limited. Good LH hitter plus solid defense probably ensures that he stays in the game for a long time in a part time role.

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    George Offman just tweeted that it would take Garza plus another player to pry Castellanos from the Tigers..LOL I think someone spiked his ovaltine this AM...

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    Actually, I think George is right. The Cubs will have to add another player and probably a young guy, to get both Turner and Castellanos.

  • Great article John,

    Last year McNutt was hampered with injuries, both handling blisters and a rib injury. I think he'll definitely improved his AA numbers this year and still hold that top of the rotation ability.

    quick video of him http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7h_KLk8yDtk at AZL fall lge.

    Dae-Eun Rhee is still only 21 years old and I think he still has that potential to be a good mid-rotation guy(hopefully better).

  • In reply to furiousjeff:

    Thanks furiousjeff, appreciate that. Thanks for the video link as well. I think it's a tell tale year for a few of these guys. I'm looking forward to seeing the AA pitchers almost as much as I'm looking forward to seeing how the major league staff does.

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    John, what level of prospect. or player going with Garza are we talking about?

  • In reply to Luigi Ziccarelli:

    Well, I want to be clear in that I don't think there's anything going on, at least not anything I know about. But I imagine any deal involving Garza is going to bring back at least 2 roster player/prospects, so the Cubs will have to include one of their own to balance things out. What kind of player that will be will depend on the players the Cubs get back.

    I've always thought that any deal the Cubs might make will be patterned after the Greinke deal, so they'll get a good prospect plus another prospect in the lower half of the top 100 in baseball. In the Greinke case, that second player was Jake Odorizzi (then a Class A RHP), and the player the Royals sent back was Yuniesky Betancourt, a below average SS or reserve quality player. In the Cubs case, I'm thinking it might be a quality young bullpen arm going back.

  • fb_avatar

    That's the whole thing about Theo and Co John, when we think nothing is going on or the situation has laxed..something breaks!!! Theo's comments about Garza seem very obvious that he's "the kind of top of the rotation guy you wanna build around" or that "he's battle tested in the AL East" he's doing a sale job and it's gonna happen..I'd prefer it comes to pass before the season starts just because I worry about unforseen injuries..I Texas fails to sign Darvish, all bets are off and i'd wager that all teams involved will ether shit or get off the pot..

  • Now that Cubicon '12 is over, we can get on with the arbitration process. John, how about doing an overview of Jed's and Theo's arbitration tendencies and past performance?

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Interesting. I'll have to research something like that and maybe have something later in the day tomorrow.

  • I've been all over the map on the Garza issue but I'm warming to the idea of keeping him. I don't think the mkt is going to bear the type of price we were hoping/expecting. Although Jepstein are clearly trying to overhaul the roster, it's not like we should be going out of our way to trade away the little 1st division talent that we have. A lot depends on the time horizon for rebuilding the everyday lineup but I think that project might not take as long as originally thought. I feel like they've made some significant progress without flexing ANY of their significant financial muscle. At the end of the day, guys like Garza- love his competitiveness BTW- are people to build around.

  • In reply to Carl9730:

    I'm okay with keeping him too if we don't get a great offer. He's young enough to build around. He won't be cheap after this year, but he'll still be a guy who can anchor your staff.

  • I've said before that I want to keep Garza.

    Cub strategy... dump salary (almost totally done), extend Garza and go after the top free agent starting pitchers aggressively next year.

    You can get good real fast doing this.
    If some of these prosects work out, great! You can NEVER have too much pitching.

  • In reply to eaton53:

    I agree with you, eaton. And I think that's exactly why Theo and Jed are asking so much for Garza. It is in the Cubs best interest to sign him long term and have him as their #2 for the next 5 years unless of course they can get a ridiculous haul for him now.

    The Cubs would need one of McNutt, Rhee, Whitenack, Beeler or Cates to show themselves to be a #3 type and if they don't Maples and Ben Wells won't be too far behind. Plus, the Cubs will likely take an arm with the 6th overall pick in this year's draft and that player could possibly be ready by 2014 depending on who they select. It is reasonable with the number of prospects listed above that one of them will emerge as a viable #3. The options for a #5 starter are many. Volstad is already there. Samardzija, Randy Wells, Nick Struck along with any of the previously mentioned prospects who don't rate as a #3 should provide good competition for the fifth spot.

    That leaves the all important ace of the staff spot left to be filled. Theo & Jed would have two seasons to acquire a top of the rotation guy either via free agency or trade. Easier said than done, but far from impossible.

  • One correction, John, Eric Jokisch was not the Chicago Cubs 2011 minor league pitcher of the year. That was Jeff Beliveau.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Thanks Quedub, that's right. My mistake. I saw him listed somewhere as the Cubs SP of the year, but now that I think about it, it may have been posted on a blog somewhere and not officially from the Cubs themselves. Got some wires crossed there so I'll edit that. Thanks again.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    You're welcome, John. I'm an avid reader.

  • John
    In times past, it seemed that our young pitchers arrived at the Major League level with good fast balls but no secondary pitches. As a result, they got hammered after the first 2 or 3 batters. Examples include Jeff Samardzjia, James Russell, and even Kyle Farnsworth. Your excellent summary of our upper level pitching prospects indicates that they all have one or two secondary pitches. Have the Cubs minor league instructors started emphasizing this more? Maybe the stats of McNutt and others were down last year because they were working on their secondary pitches.

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    I think there's been more of an emphasis on getting pitchers that have a better sense of what to do on the mound under Wilken, with perhaps Samardzija being a big exception -- though he did take a big stride toward that last year. Dillon Maples is a good example of a pitcher who already has a good secondary pitch from the get-go.

    Still, that's not always possible and sometimes you have to take a good, projectable arm and hope that he can learn those secondary pitches. Ben Wells is a good example of that right now.

    I think there's been more of an emphasis on that, particularly when it comes to drafting players, but I think the instruction should get better. As mediocre a job that Mark Riggins did with the pitching staff last year, he did a good job of getting Matt Garza to better utilize his secondary pitches. Now that he's a minor league instructor, maybe he can help a bit on the development side.

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