Looking at Cubs SP prospects at the lower levels

Looking at Cubs SP prospects at the lower levels
Dillon Maples

A while back we talked about the Cubs upper level pitching prospects.  The theme there was that  there were a lot of arms but few projected as more than back end starters, or maybe mid-rotation guys at best.  The lower levels aren't a whole lot different, but there are some very intriguing pitchers with good stuff -- though they all have some work to do, as you might expect.  It's going to be 3-4 years before we see these guys at Wrigley, so a lot can change from now until then.  They could take a great leap forward or perhaps fall off prospect lists altogether.  Here are a half dozen arms I'll be keeping an eye on this year along with their age and the level at which they're expected to play...

1. Dillon Maples, 19, RHP, low class A (Peoria)

Maples was projected as a first rounder by the Cubs and many others but slipped to the 14th round because of what was thought to be an almost unbreakable commitment to play both baseball and football at the University of North Carolina.  Well, the Cubs broke it, but it took them $2.5M to do it.  Time will tell if it's money worth spent but what scouts see right now is a pitcher with the potential to have two well-above average pitches: a fastball that can touch 96 mph and a sharp breaking curveball.  There are some questions about his mechanics and his delivery, but Maples is a good athlete and the Cubs think he can smooth that out quickly.  He projects as a #2 starter in the big leagues and is considered by many to be the Cubs top pitching prospect after Trey McNutt.  The Cubs will likely start Maples in full-season ball and he has the repertoire and makeup to handle that jump.

2. Ben Wells, 19, RHP, low class A (Peoria)

I'm higher on Wells than a lot of other prospect writers. He's a  big, strong kid at 6'3", 220 lbs. and is actually younger than the just drafted Maples.   Wells really has just one plus pitch right now, but it's a dominant two seamer that produced a 63% GB rate last season.  There's nothing dazzling about a good, heavy sinking fastball but it can be extremely effective. It's a pitch he was able to throw over and over again and, when it was right, hitters couldn't do much with it even though they knew it was coming.  Wells' slider also shows plus potential, although it's not consistent enough yet.  He also needs to develop a change-up or a splitter to make him more effective against lefty hitters.  His control is already very good and if he can develop a change of pace and improve his slider, his most likely outcome is that he becomes a classic sinker/slider type innings eater that can fit nicely in the #3 spot.  The fact that he's still so young and has a lot of room to improve, however, makes me hesitate before limiting him to any ceiling right now.

3. Zach Cates, 22, RHP, high class A (Daytona)

The arm that came to the Cubs along with Anthony Rizzo, Cates is a converted catcher who is still a bit raw despite being quite a bit older than the pitchers ahead of him on his list.  He held his own last year at low class A Fort Wayne but didn't exactly dominate.  He has the stuff to do so, however.  Cates can throw 92-94 mph with the potential to throw a bit harder if he can smooth out his delivery.  He also shows a pretty good change-up.  The key for him is to improve his curveball.  If he can do that, he'll remain a starter with the potential to be a mid-rotation guy.  If not, he may end up as a reliever.  He's new to pitching and doesn't have as much time on his side as the first two prospects on this list.

4. Jose Rosario, 21, RHP, low class A (Peoria)

Rosario is my favorite sleeper SP prospect at the lower levels.  He's not that big at 6'1, 170 lbs., but he has good arm action and generates great velocity, peaking at about 97 mph while sitting at 93-94 mph.  He greatly improved his control last year putting up a respectable 2.54 BB rate.  He also had an excellent FIP of 2.78 last year and good results overall at 6-3, 3.53 ERA.  If he develops a curveball as his second pitch, he could improve on his 7.1 strikeout rate and start to move quickly -- perhaps jumping to Daytona by midseason and AA to start 2013.

5. Austin Kirk, 21, LHP, high class A (Daytona)

Kirk is the lone lefty on this list and his raw stuff is a cut below the others.  He works with a high 80s fastball that tops out at about 92 mph, a curveball, and a change.  He has good control and is able to hit his spots well and when he was on, especially in the first half, he completely dominated hitters -- even throwing a no-hitter at one point.  It seemed hitters caught up with Kirk by the end of the year and he really struggled in the second half.  There's a lot of mixed opinion, some see him as a middle reliever while others, such as Fangraphs, see him as a potential #3 starter.

6. Yao-Lin Wang, 20, RHP, low class A (Peoria)

Another pitcher who draws a lot of mixed reviews.  The scouts who like him talk about a mid 90s fastball and a plus curveball, two pitches which helped him rack up a 10.34 strikeout rate at short-season Boise.  He also showed good control with just a 2.69 walk rate.  The scouts that don't like him aren't enamored with his body-type (6'0, 180 lbs) who clocks a few ticks lower than that with with no movement.  That would profile as a back of the rotation guy at best.  One scout mentioned that while while Wang is closer to a low 90s fastball (peaks at 93-94 mph), he has improved his change-up quite a bit since signing,  and that has helped him put up some of those good numbers in Boise.   That would give him three solid pitches and make him more viable as a long term starter.  Whatever the case, we'll find out a lot more about Wang in 2012 as he starts his first year of full-season baseball.


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    Hey John love your blog. I wanted to head out and chit chat with you last night at the Fat Duck but I live in the complete opposite direction up in the north side. Hopefully there will be more get-togethers in the near future. Always love the opportunity to discuss all things Cubs.

    While the list looks to be a promising group with lots of upside, I am more excited about this year's MLB draft. The Cubs are selecting relatively high with the #6 overall pick. Now, correct me if I'm wrong but the last high slotted prospect being a pitcher that the Cubs selected was Mark Prior with the #2 overall pick back in 2001? That turned out very well until he was derailed by injury. My question to you is if there is a Mark Prior type of pitcher in the draft for the Cubs? I don't really follow the college or high school kids very much but if there is a guy that can resemble something like Prior that would be amazing. I am all for a pitching heavy draft and hopefully McLeod and Theo can come up with a gem with their picks as I am most certain they will. I truly have faith in their talent evaluations and their track record shows it.

  • In reply to Marc Butiong:

    Thanks Marc. No worries. Wasn't a great weather weekend and it was a last minute idea. We'll definitely do it again but give much more advanced notice and we'll wait until it gets warmer and easier to travel.

    I agree about the draft. There are 2-4 good arms who may be worthy of that #6 pick. Appel and Giolito are near locks and the other two are Gausman and mayyyybe McCullers (if someone thinks he'll be a starter). I don't think there's any pitcher that is the same kind of prospect as Prior was. He was rare in that he was so advanced, had great stuff, great command and big-time production and the college level. I think the SP with the best chance to move into that kind of elite status is Giolito, but he's a high school arm and isn't nearly as advanced with his command and control as Prior was. Appel is an advanced college product who has a good chance to be the #1 overall pick, but if he were in the same draft with Prior there's no doubt he would get picked after him.

  • I'm looking forward to seeing some of these guys pitch for Peoria this season... Especially Maples.

  • In reply to Alex:

    Me too, although I'm curious to see all 4 of these guys who could potentially be in the Peoria rotation

  • Great piece as always John, couple of questions.
    Will Dae-Eun Rhee be starting out in AA next season? Also how do you feel about Brett Wallach the arm we got in the Lilly deal? Think he's a bust at this point?

  • In reply to furiousjeff:

    I think Rhee starts in AA. His strong finish last year probably ensures that. He's a guy to watch. Good repertoire including above average velocity. If he gets his command down as he did late last season, he could break out.

    I wouldn't call Wallach a bust but I'm thinking his ceiling is pretty low at this middle relief.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yeah I really like what he has to offer.. Plus Plus change up, touches gun at 94-95. People say he has really good mechanics, not just a "thrower." Seems like he's rebounded from the TJ surgery, and helped Daytona win the FSL. I'd hate to lose this guy in a compensation with Boston.

  • John,

    I know that the development of pitchers can be a crap shoot, but it seems that the Cubs have had a much harder time developing their own starting pitchers than other teams. I may be wrong, but it seems that the last quality (the term "quality" eliminates Wells from consideration) starting pitchers the Cubs were able to develop were Zambrano, Prior and Wood. And, at the time, the Cubs looked at Z more as a reliever. They intended to make Juan Cruz the starter, while Z was stuck in the pen.

    Could the Cubs' issues be a problem with the Cubs minor league philosophies or is it more problems with the guys that they have drafted? With the changes in philosophy that Theo has brought with him, are the Cubs more likely/less likely to start developing their own quality arms?

  • In reply to supercapo:

    I think the problem was a little bit of both. McPhail had the intention of drafting lots of arms but most were more of the thrower variety with little command and little feel for pitching. You might be able to get away with that if you have a top notch development system...but the Cubs did not.

  • What are you thoughts on Ryan Searle? He's pitching in Australian Baseball League and seems to be doing okay.

  • In reply to furiousjeff:

    I think he's a solid arm with a chance to be a back end of the rotation starter, but more likely a middle reliever

  • I like your list, John. I'll be keeping an eye on overslot signee Michael Jensen as well. I also haven't given up on Hayden Simpson yet.

    Also excited about Rosario. Less so about Kirk and Wang so I agree with them being ranked lower. Their ceilings don't exactly inspire.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Thanks Quedub! Jensen's a good name to keep an eye on. Had a few guys I thought about...Aaron Kurcz, Tayler Scott, although he's kind of raw and it may take awhile with him. Kirk and Wang get a lot of mixed reviews, but I think the plus side is enough to make them worth mentioning. I agree, though, the first 4 pitchers are more interesting right now/

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Kurcz has a live arm but profiles as a reliever. I would put his chances as greater than 4, 5 & 6 on your list of making the big leagues but the fact that it won't be as a starter takes him out of this discussion.

    Keep the content coming. Love it. Gets us through the doldrums of the off season.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Thanks! Agree that Kurcz is almost certainly going to be a reliever, but as long as the Cubs keep using him as a swingman, I figured I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. The truth seems to be, though, that he's a much better prospect as a reliever than as a starter.

  • I love Ben Wells, I know you are more favorable to him than a lot of other people are, but I like him as well. Something about him tells me he is going to be a good one, Ithink you are ahead of the curve on this one. FYI John, sorry for not showing up on Saturday at the little pow wow, but I had a horrible tooth infection , I was in severe pain until Sunday, but I'm better now. Mark me down for sure the next time we get together.

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    I hope so. Just something about having that one pitch you can go to over and over again makes me think that if he gets that good slider to be more consistent and makes his change better, he'll be a horse in the rotation. A couple of ifs, but he's so young so and inexperienced that is seems if he works hard at it, I think eventually he'll get a feel for those two pitches.

    No worries...I'm sure there will be a next time sometime during the season.

  • Would love to see two out of this bunch make the bigs as starters, preferrably as our #2 and #3 of the future. There's a lot of time for things to change for the better or worse though.

    On another note, I was in Walgreens this morning and saw the 2012 Cubs calendar. Whomever put this together should be fired. The cover features Zambrano, Soriano and Marmol. There was a decent chance that none of them would make the opening day roster. At least they kept Ramirez off! It did get me thinking who I would put on the cover. I guess Castro, Dempster and Garza.

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    It's a tough choice to put anybody on the calendar these days! Next year it will be much easier...Castro, Rizzo, Jackson...

  • Ha! I had the same thought a while back - hope nobody got a team calendar for Christmas. Most team calendars are worthless, IMO, except for possibly NHL and NBA versions, because they are in mid-season. With the timing involved in putting those things together and printing them, it's in the heart of hot stove season. No way an MLB calendar is going to reflect the actual team.

    I think I might be the only one left that still likes Randy Wells. I think he was on the verge of doing something pretty good last season, when he went down with an injury. It took him a while to recover, but he seemed to pitch well toward the end of the season. Even when he struggled, it seemed to be that he would give up a few runs early, then hold the opposition down long enough to eat innings and possibly allow the Cubs to get back into the game. I think he still has some value on this team - not that he's going to ever be a #1 or #2 starter, I just think he isn't as bad as everyone seems to think. I tend to like pitchers who can keep hitters off-balance with a change-up.

  • In reply to TheSinisterUrge:

    I think there are a few people who would join you on that. I don't dislike Wells, but I do think we've seen the best of him. He's a big guy who can eat innings and keep you in the game as a back end of the rotation guy. That could be useful, but I don't think it's irreplaceable if you want to go younger.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John...for pitching, here's how I view it. If my starter doesn't have his best off speed stuff on a certain day, can he still get people to strike out with his fastball??? I'm all about the all starts with power fastball. With the bases loaded, two outs and the Cubs up a 4-3 in a critcal spot in the 5th inning of a ball game...these are the spots for example where I don't like Randy Wells. He's too hittable. I need a guy on the mound like Matt Garza. Say it's 4-3 bases loaded two outs in the 5th inning of two games where Wells and Garza are pitching, respectively. They both don't have their breaking stuff that day...I'm more confident Garza can strike out or get a jammed pop up that Wells.

  • In reply to apalifer:

    No doubt, apalifer. There's no substitute for a good, old-fashioned heater -- especially if you can command it. It's why I like the first 2-3 players on this list over the last couple. There are pitchers who have done pretty well with average fastballs with good command with good breaking stuff, but a good fastball is certainly an advantage.

  • John,

    Any thoughts on the rumor that Sean Marshall is hoping to re-sign with the Cubs when he becomes a free agent this fall? I remember reading it somewhere, but I can't find the article now. It sounds like a good set-up to me, getting a #3 starter with up-side in exchange for letting Cincinnati "borrow" Marshall for a year while the Cubs are non-contenders? If this is the case, is there any chance that Theo and Co. approached him with the option?

  • In reply to gocubsgo25:

    I mentioned it in a News and Notes piece a while back. He said that to Gail Fischer, a local reporter. I think it's hard to put too much stock into that. If she asks him, "Would you consider returning to the Cubs next year as a FA?", then there really is only one answer he can really give.

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